04. 04. 2013. 13:50

Copywriting and literature

While in some parts of the world writers often appear in the media, and even lend their faces to ads, Hungarian writers rarely seem to descend from the ivory tower. So a poet advertising a dish soap still causes consternation for many.

“Day by day I have to face the fact that the most efficient way to express my feelings is by writing. Yet whether I use a pen or a computer keyboard to jot down my ideas, my work surely taxes my hands”, poet Orsolya Karafiáth (see picture) writes in an ad for dish soap. Karafiáth not only lends her face to the ad but has done the copywriting herself.

Though we never learn what exactly writing has to do with washing up, Karafiáth is definitely a welcome sight among the inane faces that tend to show up in Hungarian ads, since most writers have kept clear of advertisements and public appearances so far.

As early as in the 1930s there was an ongoing debate among Hungarian writers whether a writer should be allowed to copywrite ads or whether they should stick to pure art by all means. In 1931, there was even a public discussion organized by a major writers of the time, Zsigmond Móricz, centred around the question whether writers should contribute to ads as painters had been doing for some time. This was at the time of the economic crisis, which lent an urgency to the matter since this was a way for artists to participate in restarting a stagnating industry.

“I myself hate advertisements. I was brought up to think that a decent Hungarian man does not need advertisements”, Móricz said in his opening speech, emphasizing that he as an artist despised advertisements. Yet he added that he did not like to see his books gathering dust in storehouses for not being advertised. He concluded that there are some kinds of advertisements that writers should not be ashamed of. János Kodolányi said that if a writer endorses a product because he is certain of its fine quality, then he is allowed to copywrite an ad, but otherwise this activity amounts to prostitution.

There are many renowned writers in the world who started their career as advertising copywriters, including Salman Rushdie, Joseph Heller and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Among major writers in Hungary, Frigyes Karinthy had a predilection for writing ads. He was proud of some of them, and wanted to include them in his collected works. He even argued that writers should sign their ads, just like painters sign their posters painted on commission. Seeing that these posters are much better than those not painted by artists, Karinthy claimed, this must also be the case with ads.

Orsolya Karafiáth agrees. She considers it completely natural for a writer to copywrite ads, since creativity extends to all areas of life. “Of course I would not lend my name to just anything, but for me, it is surely not off-limits to feature in a dish soap ad. Of course I got a lot of negative criticism for it”, Karafiáth says. She adds that some time ago she was condemned for featuring in the fashion pages of a women’s magazine, which has since then become quite normal for writers. Before the elitism of the 20th century, writers habitually assumed public roles, adds Karafiáth, who feels that the disapproval of his public appearances even taints some reviews on her writing.

“I had a good laugh when I saw Orsika in that ad. I think it’s all a comedy because we all know that she has never washed up any dishes in her life”, writer Krisztián Grecsó says. Grecsó agrees with Karafiáth that public roles were quite normal even for major writers in the 30s. “Gyula Krúdy had a column for dream interpretation in a tabloid magazine, whereas today even journalism is considered off-limits, let alone ads. Yet writers are also eager for attention”, says Grecsó who worked as  editor on staff of a women’s magazine for two years, which would be unimaginable for many writers.

“This situation is very interesting – it seems every other art has been able to pick up the rhythm except for us. We are looking down from that proverbial ivory tower, not comprehending why nobody is listening to us”, Grecsó says. “While in the West it is absolutely natural that writers participate in the promotion of their books, in Hungary writers still do not appear publicly – the older generation seems to consider this unfitting.” In Grecsó's opinion this elitist seclusion of Hungarian writers is the heritage of Miklós Mészöly, who was a major writer, but who was uncompromising in excluding the outside world, which had a great influence on the major writers of the mid-generation.

“There are more and more writers who understand that we should take steps towards our readers”, says Grecsó, who is touring the country with his literary-musical performance promoting his novel Room for you Beside Me.

The young generation of writers seems more at ease in public media. Poet Dániel Varró, for example, seems to find balance between literature and public appearances. Though he is first and foremost a poet, he also reports on the development of his young son week by week in a women’s magazine. A major poet of the mid-generation, Endre Kukorelly, in his turn, hoped to influence politics and the status of culture by sitting in Parliament as MP for the green liberal party Lehet Más a Politika (Politics Can Be Different) for two years, although he renounced his mandate in 2012.

Many writers fear that it would be hard to balance the two worlds. “When I returned to Life and Literature [a literary weekly] after Women’s Magazine, many people told me that I had come back from the brink”, says Grecsó.

(This is the translation of an article posted on the Hungarian news portal index.hu)

Györgyi Kalas

Tags: Dániel Varró, Miklós Mészöly, Zsigmond Móricz, Krisztián Grecsó, Frigyes Karinthy, Orsolya Karafiáth, Endre Kukorelly