One-Minute Book Reviews

November 30, 2007

Do We Need Awards for Brand-Name Blight in Fiction?

Designer labels fester in fiction despite the critics’ complaints

By Janice Harayda

Do we need awards for brand-name blight in fiction?

Critics have complained for years about novelists who tell you about their characters’ designer labels as a substitute for character development. But the problem keeps spreading. In many novels you read about more than the labels on characters’ clothes and shoes. You learn the brand names on their cars, appliances, baby gear and more.

The most egregious example I’ve reviewed was Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (Vintage, 1991), a novel about a young Wall Street serial killer, who “describes his designer lifestyle in excruciating detail,” as Nora Rawlinson wrote aptly in Library Journal. But Ellis at least seemed to be trying to develop a theme — that our culture views products and people as equally disposable and that consumerism fosters violence.

Many novels, though less grotesque than American Psycho, have no such core. Their authors use designer labels as a shortcut to meaning. Brand-name abuse is a sin that I consider in giving out the annual Delete Key Awards on this site. But books can go wrong in so many ways that the prizes don’t focus on label blight. Should I give separate awards for Brand-Name Blight in Fiction (maybe in the summer after I’ve had a few months to recover from naming the winners of the Delete Key Awards on the Ides of March)? Can you suggest candidates?

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. While mentioning brand names, fads, events, etc. in novels written about the past can, I think, help establish the novel’s time and place, doing that in novels set in the present seems likely to date them very quickly. Saying that “Bob read Janice’s latest on his Kindle” might sound cool now, ten years from now the word “kindle” might make people think Bob was starting a fire with your books (not optimal). I suspect many authors use those brand names to show that they’re in the know about the latest whatever, but also as a lazy shorthand method of characterization. Let’s face it, if Bob drives a Buick and Bill drives a Porshe, which one is most likely to be the cool power player at the office?


    Comment by knightofswords — November 30, 2007 @ 4:44 pm | Reply

  2. “Kindle” is a good example of a brand that could carbon-date fiction. I can’t think of any novels from the 1980s that are still in print and have a lot of characters working on their KayPros. Maybe it’s because they’ve all died, smothered by their former coolness?

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — November 30, 2007 @ 7:29 pm | Reply

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