I like to listen to moody, noirish mysery novels while driving around in the Southern California sunshine. It's a sweet-and-sour thing. Never gets stale for me.
Which is why I was intrigued recently when I stumbled upon BMW Audio Books. The company has commissioned original fiction by some unexpected authors, and to judge by a first listen, they've done it right.
This weekend I downloaded and listened to James Flint's Outer Limits-ish Master of the Storm this weekend while winding up the Pacific Coast Highway. The production was impeccable, far better quality than most of the books I've purchased on Audible.com, the story performed (rather than merely read) by Forbes Masson, a Shakespeare-trained Scotsman with an intoxicating, single-malt voice. Flint's work has a distinctive style, and like the other authors BMW has engaged, he has enough edge-dwelling credibility that there's precious little chance anyone will mistake him for a shill... even though the story does take place in a car--a BMW.
The presence of the car in the Storm has a nudge-nudge, wink-wink quality to it, and little to do with the story itself. But any expectation that the story would be advertorial in nature is quickly dispelled as the protagonist gets behind the wheel after one champagne too many and plows into an innocent bystander. Not a particularly safe plot point for a car company, but a turn that had the effect of instantly earning my trust and attention.
When you're a successful luxury brand, your job is to keep your profile up and not lose your cool--all the while acting like you have nothing to prove to anyone.
That's not an easy prescription to follow. Just ask Jaguar, which, under Ford, ran a series of banal suburbanite ads that left one wondering whether the product were a car or a washer-dryer set. Sales of the Tauruses--er, Jags--predictably suck.
Publishing slightly off-color, risk-taking fiction is a brilliantly safe way of owning the edge, I think. Unless you start slandering mullahs, literary fiction isn't likely to upset anyone, even pretty out-there fiction. And it's an art form in serious need of patronage.
I think one of the ways in which the arts have helped to marginalize themselves is by subscribing to a basically socialized view of artistic production as lying properly outside of the commercial arena (sure there is money in the arts, but only speculative money; I'd argue that there's no robust arts economy as such). Corporate-sponsored literature is something that could give serious literary fiction a real boost, and actually improve the quality and range of what's available, as a paying commission frees the artist to work, whereas speculative work is always done behind a door with a wolf on the other side of it.
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