A photographer searching for an image to capture the true strangeness of early 21st-century life could do worse than to visit Heathrow’s Terminal 5 this week where, amid the throng of August holidaymakers, a philosopher is at work. Occasionally, he will interview passengers. As he taps away at a laptop computer, his words will appear on a giant plasma screen behind him.
This piece of literary performance art is the brainchild of a PR firm, Mischief of London. Commissioned by the British Airports Authority to come with a campaign that will brighten up Heathrow’s somewhat shabby image, Mischief was looking for something rather more cutting edge than a promotional brochure.
Instead, it hit on the idea of appointing a high-profile author as Terminal 5’s writer-in-residence for a week. Several people were approached but it was the philosopher Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, who, in the words of a Heathrow spokeswoman, “bit our arms off to be involved in the project”.
The arrangement is playful and bizarre. De Botton will be writing about the people who are looking at him as he writes: his subjects are his audience, and vice versa. A month after the work is completed – that is 12,000 words with photographic illustrations – 10,000 free copies will be handed out to passengers at the airport.
The process will, say Mischief of London, inspire “branded conversations through the experience of seeing a top literary figure at the airport – and potentially being a character in the book.” The campaign’s “overarching ambition is to make a passenger’s time at Heathrow the best memory of the trip.”
Publicists are professionally obliged to look on the bright side but, even by those high standards of self-delusion, this is going a bit – “Highlight of my holiday? That would have to be watching Alain de Botton writing at a desk at Terminal 5.” On the other hand, the stunt has already earned the airport valuable column inches around the world, and de Botton, the people’s philosopher, has turned out to be a perfect choice, offering a consumer-friendly combination of empathy and braininess.
He, too, is delighted by the arrangement. Not only did he get paid by Mischief of London, but he sees his deal as a triumph for the cause of literature. It was encouraging that a large organisation was taking an interest in a book, he told the New York Times. “On behalf of my fellow beleaguered writers, it’s nice that writers seem to matter.”
Enough of this nonsense. The publicists may indeed get their “branded conversations” but beleaguered writers, among whom the millionaire philosopher can surely not be including himself, gain nothing from these marketing games.
The world is obsessed with immediacy, as if there is a connection between how quickly a blog, news report, twitter or online video appears and how worthwhile it is. In these times, it is more important than ever that a few serious-minded people are there to remind us that true wisdom comes from thought, quiet and solitude.
Something sad is happening, a small defeat for seriousness, when a man who has made his reputation with a book on Proust, who has pronounced interestingly on the afflictions of modern society, joins the clamour of instant comment rather than stepping back from it.
For the past decade, professional writers have complained, with some justification, about the celebrification of their business, with Jordan and Naomi Campbell putting their names to novels, and publishers competing to sign up the latest heart-warming memoir from a comedian.
Authors who are paid to act out the part of authors are part of the same process, with their public image becoming more important to the brand they are promoting – themselves – than anything that they write. They may also be engaged in an act of creative self-sabotage. “As soon as one is aware of being ‘somebody’, to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his over-animation,” John Updike once wrote. “One can either see or be seen.”
So companies who pay authors not just for their words but for their caring, intelligent image that they convey to the world are doing the very opposite of what Alain de Botton is claiming. Far from respecting literature, they are proving that the writing of books is now just another branch of the celebrity business, useful for pushing a brand.
It matters when authors who have claims to seriousness take the money and play the game. The more that writing becomes a matter of publicity, a performance, the less interested book publishers – and perhaps the public – will be in the unglamorous stuff being written slowly, painfully and away from the public eye. That, of course, is the work which will last.