Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
For half a century, Playboy magazine has defined its targeted audience in a page devoted to fashion and style, the contents of which answer the rhetorical question, “What sort of man reads Playboy?” According to this page, the Playboy reader is urbane, stylish, wealthy, single, and literate. He’s handsome, loves women, drives a convertible sports car, attends college (unless he’s already graduated), smokes cigars, drinks brandy, and has a thing for sweaters. Advertisers took note of this description, running full-page, full-color ads that pitched just such products to the bunny-loving sophisticate.
Until Penthouse debuted, focusing its appeal on the blue-collar worker, Esquire was one of Playboy’s biggest competitors. It focused mostly on fashion and literature, publishing fiction by such literary luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Terry Southern. It also included some cheesecake art, including pinup art by George Petty (the “Petty Girls”) and Alberto Vargas (the “Vargas Girls”). Like Playboy and Penthouse, Esquire was chauvinistic and sexist, but popular among teenage and young adult males.
Women liked these magazines, too, for a different reason. Those who succeeded in appearing in their nude “pictorials” or as centerfolds were often exposed to opportunities in modeling or even acting, and quite a few celebrities owe their careers to appearances in such magazines, Playboy in particular. Being the subject of a pictorial or a centerfold was equivalent to having society stamp its seal of approval upon a young woman’s beauty and sexuality, making her, even more than a Miss America winner, a glamour girl.
Knowing the significance of artifacts of popular culture allows writers to characterize their characters simply by alluding to these objects, using them as props in a manner similar to that of product placement, which is the deliberate inclusion, in a conspicuous location, of a product in a filmed movie or television scene, in exchange for remuneration from its maker. For example, a character on a television situation comedy, or sitcom, might open his or her refrigerator door, thereby providing viewers a glimpse of the interior, well stocked with Pepsi, Coca-Cola, or some other soft drink.
Here’s an example of how an allusion to Playboy could be used to characterize a woman of fading youth and beauty:
The magazine cover showed Susan Willis naked, in all her glory--well, not quite all her glory; the set decorator had placed a caladium in a strategic location--lying languorously upon her desk, surrounded by the accoutrements of her vocation: a typewriter, a Dictaphone, a Rolodex, manila folders, and a calendar with a circled date. The photograph’s caption read, “Don’t forget to show her your appreciation on Secretary’s Day!” The implication, of course, was that the boss was having an affair with his personal secretary. Corny, Susan had thought, even twenty years ago, when her image had adorned the cover of the world’s most popular men’s magazine, thereby authenticating her beauty and confirming her sexuality, or “glamour,” as the industry had called that attribute in those days. Susan had tried hard, over the intervening years, to maintain that figure and that face, and, thanks to dieting, exercise, and a bit of nip and tuck, had mostly succeeded. She was a handsome woman at thirty eight. She’d never again be the glamorous girl she’d been then, though, except in the blown-up, framed photograph of that long-ago cover.Magazines and other products have spent thousands, even millions, of dollars in marketing research to identify and analyze their customers and consumers in general. By analyzing their advertisements, a writer has a good idea of “what sort of man reads Playboy,” what sort of woman reads Good Housekeeping or Ms.; drinks Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Southern Comfort, or Jack Daniels; drives a Volvo, Toyota, or Rolls Royce; enrolls his or her children in a private school; and so on. By alluding to these products in a story, of the horror genre or otherwise, writers have a shorthand means of characterizing their characters. Of course, there should be additional characterization, through the characters’ dialogue and actions, but a reference to Playboy, Rolls Royce, Saab, or Chef Boyardee is a quick way to establish the basic tastes, values, and even, at times, mindset of characters.
Dean Koontz does so in his novels, although his allusions are to products and cultural artifacts that his typical reader is unlikely to be acquainted with. Stephen King, who once described his own style as “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries,” alludes to icons that are more in the domain of popular culture, letting his readers know that the author is one of their own (even if, as a multimillionaire he is not anymore). In the first three chapters of Desperation alone, King makes these references to popular culture:
- Sam Browne
- Daisy canned ham
- Bonny Raitt
- Smokey Bear
- Marlboro Man
- Grateful Dead
- Smiley-face keychain
Many others occur throughout the remainder of the 690-page novel.
While it is true that an author can overuse such allusions (and King probably tends to do so, not only in Desperation, but also in most of his other books and, indeed, short stories), a judicious use of such references, whether to high culture, low culture, or something between the two, is a handy, dandy way of inviting a particular type of reader into one’s fictional world and, at the same time, characterizing the dramatic personae who live and breathe and have their being in this imaginary world.