When you ask Fay Weldon why she chose to be a writer, she responds simply with 'I didn't choose the path, the path chose me'. However in recent times she has very purposely chosen her own path – and its strewn with controversy. One of Britain's most popular and outspoken writers, her latest work 'The Bulgari Connection' is being touted as the first example of paid product placement in a novel.
Chic Italian jewellers Bulgari agreed to pay her an undisclosed sum for mentioning the name 12 times in her book. Weldon, however, put several literary noses out of joint when she included the name three times more than contracted to, and even included it in the title. So does this hark back to Renaissance patronage or calculated cash-in?
Weldon explains: "The intention was that once written, the novel would be limited to 750 beautifully bound copies commissioned and published by Bulgari. The idea was it was to give it away free, as part of a place setting, at a gala dinner to celebrate the opening of Bulgari's Sloane Street store. I'm commissioned to write many things but this was unusual, and I could see the charm of it so I said yes without much ado." What Weldon did not expect was the backlash from publishers, press and other writers who claimed she'd discarded her integrity as a writer.
"The row began even before publication and my name was mud, in serious quarters. I took it as a compliment that even the book unread could generate so much interest. 'The Bulgari Connection' is not technically a product placement novel, any more than Truman Capote's 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'. I see it as a sponsored novel rather than a completed novel into which product names have been blithely dropped in return for a fee."
The novel concerns a dowdy divorcee called Grace Salt whose entrepreneur husband Barley has left her for a gorgeous, youthful television presenter called Doris Dubois. Having tried to kill Doris, Grace has just been released from prison and takes up with a talented young artist named Walter. The action circulates around top London hotels, socialite parties and that jewelery-maker.
Ignoring catcalls of sell-out, Weldon's writing here equals anything she has ever done. It is descriptive yet laconic, fluid yet still tight; the novel is a thoroughly entertaining tale of bitchiness and decadence. Observations on class and wealth are made pointedly but with abundant black humour. Often hailed as a feminist icon – she is famous for her 'A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle' quote – it is something she is not comfortable with. At 69 she is still a literary force to be reckoned with and a consistently excellent writer.
So after the publicity melee of 'The Bulgari Connection', does Fay Weldon plan to take it easy? "Not at all, I've been working on an autobiography which is finished and delivered but only takes me to the age of 32 after 120,000 words! It is a tale of the decades as much as of myself." From neatly gift-wrapped novel to autobiographical tomes, Weldon is head and shoulders above vacuous first novelists and throwaway chick-fic.