When Alain de Botton became the writer-in-residence at Heathrow airport this week, he claimed to be producing “a new kind of literature” to engage with the modern world. BAA, which owns Heathrow, has paid the novelist and philosopher £30,000 ($50,000, €34,800) for his seven-day residency at Terminal Five and to write a 20,000-word book. The “literary flow chart” of life among the baggage handlers and sniffer dogs will be published next month.
This is not the first time a company has appointed a literary figure and sought publicity for its cultural largesse. In 2003, Australian novelist Kathy Lette spent three months as writer-in- residence at the £1,200-a-night Savoy hotel in London. Marks and Spencer, Tottenham Hotspur football club, London Zoo and Toni & Guy hairdressers have all taken in authors to produce great works – or just great publicity.
There’s nothing wrong with patronage, of course – its history is as long as the history of art itself. Titian got his big break in 1511, paid to paint three frescoes in Padua. Michelangelo actually lived with Lorenzo de’ Medici, his benefactor.
In literature, arguably the earliest writer in residence was Britain’s poet laureate: in 1668, Charles II appointed John Dryden to spin his verse for the Restoration years. In The Bulgari Connection in 2001, Fay Weldon became the first known novelist to accept payment to mention a company – the Italian jeweller features more than a dozen times.
The question is whether such direct commercial-cultural alliances can produce good and honest literature. What would Little Dorrit be like if the Marshalsea debtors’ prison had sponsored Dickens to spend a week there, rather than write from his father’s experience?
Would William Blake have stuck by his “dark Satanic Mills” if Albion Flour had paid for his visit? Would any corporation back a modern-day Upton Sinclair, whose 1906 novel The Jungle exposed corruption in the American meatpacking industry?
Contemporary literature circles “endlessly around private emotional life”, according to Mr de Botton. Culture and commerce must align because writers no longer have real life adventures, he says. Some might suggest that is what the imagination is for.
A week-long sojourn would be a good basis for a piece of magazine journalism or a radio documentary. Instead, Mr de Botton’s residency will produce not a novel but a “novelistic” series of snapshots, he says.
To really get inside airport life, maybe he should have got a proper job there – though his fee is twice the annual salary of a baggage handler.
Heathrow most often attracts publicity for security threats, poor financial results, or catastrophic baggage handling. Mr de Botton should be able to make good use of this material – provided, of course, that BAA does not lose his manuscript in transit.
The writer is the FT’s books editor
Get alerts on Opinion when a new story is published