The Skye Literary Salon – which is a lovely sounding thing – runs a contest called The Baker Prize 2011. Now, I’m not one of those who enters every competition going but as soon as I heard about this one, I was thrilled. Because the Baker Prize is sponsored by the Isle of Skye Baking Company – and kindred spirits will surely understand that instantly brought to mind Anne Shirley and Rollings Reliable Baking Powder.
In Anne Of The Island, part of the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery, the teenaged Anne writes her first ‘serious’ story, the hilariously bad Averil’s Atonement, agonising and delighting over every tragic nuance. She is crushed when it is rejected by several literary magazines and vows never to write again. Then she unexpectedly receives a letter announcing her story has won first prize in a contest run by the Rollings Reliable Baking Powder Company of Montreal – a contest she never entered. Turns out that her best friend Diana has ‘kindly’ entered it for her, in secret.
‘Why Anne, you don’t seem a bit pleased!’ she exclaimed. Anne instantly manufactured a smile and put it on.
‘Of course I couldn’t be anything but pleased over your unselfish wish to give me pleasure,’ she said slowly. ‘But you know – I’m so amazed – I can’t realise it – and I don’t understand. There wasn’t a word in my story about – about’ – Anne choked a little over the word – baking powder.’
‘Oh, I put that in,’ said Diana, reassured. ‘It was as easy as wink … You know the scene where Averil makes the cake? Well, I just stated that she used the Rollings Reliable in it and that was why it turned out so well; and then, in the last paragraph, where Perceval clasps Averil in his arms and says, “Sweetheart, the beautiful coming years will bring us the fulfilment of our home of dreams,” I added, “in which we will never use any baking powder except Rollings Reliable.”‘
Poor Anne! She is mortified at the commercialisation of her beloved story and takes no joy in her prize of $25. Thankfully the Isle of Skye Baking Company did not similarly insist on entries referring to their wonderful artisan breads, oatcakes and 12 flavours of shortbread!
Still, some writers have agreed to insert brands into their work for money – Faye Weldon, for instance, took money from a jewellery company to feature them in a novel, while some authors auction off a cameo appearance in their books for charity. Anne is eventually soothed when Gilbert Blythe points out that people will understand that being “not overburdened with worldly weath, [you] had taken this way of earning an honest penny … One would rather write masterpieces of literature, no doubt, but meanwhile board and tuition fees have to be paid.” How true, Gilbert, how true … and that is why competitions and grants and promotion have to be a part of writing life and why I’ve written advertising supplement copy and features I didn’t have much interest in.
But the case of LM Montgomery herself is a useful corollary. The first couple of Anne books are delightful: an adorable main character, amusing scenes of life in a small Canadian community in the early 20th Century, an irresistible romance with the boy next door and wonderful depictions of landscape and the effect it can have on a sensitive, imaginative nature. But people kept demanding more: novel after barrel-scraping novel followed, some filling in unneeded gaps, others chronicling Anne’s numerous children, along with short stories which shoehorned the character into repetitive situations. Montgomery’s diaries, recently published, reveal that churning out work to order exacerbated her chronic depression.
Later on in Anne Of The Island, by the way, a more experienced Anne realises that most of what she’s written before is silly – but she digs out one simple sketch, reworks it and sends it to a magazine. They accept it, pay $10 and ask to see more of her work. She’s more thrilled than she ever was with the $25 from Rollings Reliable, because she feels like she truly earned it for something worthwhile.
You have to write for money, you have to promote yourself; but you also have to draw the line somewhere, whether it’s inserting unexpected references to delicious baked goods, available at surprisingly reasonable prices, or killing off a popular series. I’m working out where my line is.