By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From April 29, 2013
An excerpt from my series of Ether for Authors columns on publishing at Publishing Perspectives, appearing Mondays.
So the email arrives:
I wanted to share the third video in our new video series Have Your (Cup)Cake & Read it Too! This month, BookExpo America (BEA) and Huffington Post Books are proud to unveil our new video featuring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby, as well as our very own book-inspired The Great Gatsby cupcakes. When you check out the video you will also see a very special guest—Hollis Wilder, author of Savory Bites: Meals You Can Make in Your Cupcake Pan.
Well, gosh. This one takes some sensitive wording, a calm approach, and some honesty. If you’d like to watch the tape (seven minutes, 14 seconds) it’s here. And if you enjoy it, I won’t hold that against you.
This particular promotional direction has more than one major issue. First, there’s the obvious. Cupcakes. I mean cupcakes. This is a promotion in which a fine young person describes putting a daisy on a cupcake as part of its design. To represent Daisy Buchanan.
Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, typically sells 500,000 copies each year, but in 2013 it has already shipped 280,000 copies, according to the publisher. Ebook sales have been skyrocketing, too: in 2012, about 80,000 e-book copies of “Gatsby” were sold. So far this year, sales have surpassed 125,000.
So we have the new film treatment and its associated new book cover.
Personally, I don’t see why we need that Hollywood cover when the original Hemingway-hated artwork is as classic as Fitzgerald’s book.
But this, too, I’m sure is “marketing genius.”
And you’d think all this new Gatsby-alia for a an 88-year-old landmark in literature would be all the excitement we could eat.
But no. We have cupcakes about it.
And then the video gives us Hollis Wilder, whose mission and book are meant to persuade us, it seems—I’m quoting her from the video—”to make meals in the cupcake tin, meals that we already make on a regular basis with our children, our families, that we’ve been making for generations.”
In a cupcake tin. Dinner. In a cupcake tin.
Inspecting a Gatsby-esque cupcake, Wilder tells us that whiskey icing “is a little big-girl for me.” Nevertheless, in the service of duty, of course, she eats the cupcake and pronounces it “not a tragedy.”
Her ego unimpaired, she reminds us, more than once, that she has won the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars three times.
Which success compels her, apparently, to bake Barbie into a cake.
She shows it to us, saying, “I should be able to have a cake that looks like me to honor that [Cupcake Wars] crown.”
And all of this happens before she mentions Guantanamo. I’m not kidding. It’s quite a video. The promotion is housed on the BookBliss.com page.
You have til 5/9 to read THE GREAT GATSBY. Or as I’m calling it until I read it, THE HOLDING-MY-JUDGMENT GATSBY. #cOlbertsBookClub
— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) April 28, 2013
When I asked Huffington Post senior books editor Andrew Losowsky about this partnership, he couldn’t have been more gracious. I mean, there are fish in barrels here, and he’s really a mensch to get back to me, on his weekend, no less. Here’s his full and intelligent response:
We run all kinds of book-related stories on our page, serious and frivolous. These videos definitely lean towards the frivolous for sure, but that said, they do convey the idea that there is no single “correct” way to react to a work of literature. If someone expresses their creativity through baking, then we think that is as valid a method of artistic response as a painting or a song. It’s an exercise in lateral thinking that could provide unexpected literary insight, along the lines of DeBono’s Random Entry tool. It’s also not our invention, as there are Edible Book Festivals held across the country and around the world each year, in which bakers compete to reflect the essence of a book in their creations. The videos are a work in progress, but not a major feature of our general coverage, nor of our ongoing partnership with BEA, which will include panel discussions and author interviews at this year’s event.
It’s important to note, of course, that the Huffington Post and BEA have every right to promote, singly and together, in any way they want to. And Losowsky is right, “There is no single ‘correct’ way to react to a work of literature.” While I may question whether cupcakes and doll desserts do anything for literature—I can’t imagine why the government wouldn’t want to support this, Mr. Patterson, can you?—mine is only one person’s opinion.
*tweets the entirety of The Great Gatsby 140 characters at a time over the course of six days* — Ristolable (@ristolable) April 29, 2013
I’ll tell you where I think this all gets a bit more serious, though. And then I’ll leave the country quickly. I’m reminded of a line from John Updike’s The Centaur. It has stuck with me for decades. Reverand March asks, “Why do all the ladies of my parish bake cupcakes once a month and sell them to each other?” And when I was searching to verify that reference, I came across—isn’t Google grand?—the reason for my real discomfort here. In Why We Don’t Need “Women’s” Ministry at ChurchLeaders.com, Sarah Bessey rather courageously writes:
You know what I would have liked instead of decorating tips or a new recipe? I would have liked to pray together. I would have liked the women of the church to share their stories or wisdom with one another, no more celebrity speakers, please just hand the microphone to that lady over there that brought the apples. I would love to wrestle with some questions that don’t have a one-paragraph answer in your study guide. I would like to do a Bible study that does not have pink or flowers on the cover.
Now, yes, Bessey is working in a different field from publishing. I think the faith is lucky to have her.
But for those of us who find spiritual presence in the world of real literature—and for those of us who want to see women fully integrated into the genuine centers of our modern life, not left to pretty-up the frilly perimeters—there is resonance here. At least, for me. Perhaps you get this, too.
The world can give me cute cupcake designs and decorating tips, scrapbooking parties, casserole recipes, and other ways to pass the time. But truly, with my respect and love, may I be honest? If I wanted to learn how to decorate cupcakes, I would take a class in it. If I wanted to be educated on strategies for decorating my home inexpensively from Winners, I would just, you know, go to Winners. Or Pinterest.
If I wanted to talk about great, powerfully enduring books…?
the great gatsby trailers make it look like gatsby is the main character and not nick hmm — lauren (@wllflwrs) April 29, 2013
To each her own, sure, absolutely. There are, surely, women who must love baking cupcakes about books.
And did anyone wake up one morning and say, “Hey, let’s do a promotional partnership that sort of assigns women to making cupcakes about great literature?” Of course not, certainly not. I know that. You know that. The intentions are good. Look at how carefully Lowsowsky parses his comments.
Im actually pretty upset that in the future, MRS AKERS is going to let her classes watch the Great Gatsby instead of reading it like we did — Shelby Waltrip (@ShelbyLynn_24) April 29, 2013
This is simply the kind of thing we need to rethink in publishing. I’m always going on about the “cute” factor. Can you really tell me that this seven minutes of relentless cuteness is doing a thing to promote reading, writing, and the serious roles of good literature and our important trade in the world?
We need to do the best we can for books. We also need to do the best we can for women, and for men.
And we all must keep an eye out for unintentional missteps. Even the funny ones might need serious review.
Join us for the rest of this column at Publishing Perspectives.