Colonel Sanders/Catherine Kovach’s TENDER WINGS OF DESIRE and Why We Love Reading and Writing in the First Place
The news stories seemed too good to be true: Colonel Sanders had written a romance novel(la), just in time for Mother’s Day. Tender Wings of Desire was offered as a free download on Amazon. A lot of the discussion has centered around the obvious: the book is obviously part of a KFC® marketing campaign. KFC® wants to make money, so they came up with the idea to get attention and spread goodwill by hiring a writer to produce a novel that they could make go viral.
While I have my compunctions about marketing and corporations and the like, I immediately thought this was a great campaign and a very fun and honest way for KFC® to build excitement around their brand. Ad industry people have written about Tender Wings of Desire from their perspective, and I am writing about it from the Great Writers Steal perspective: what can we learn from the book?
Quite a lot, actually!
I absolutely love that Wieden + Kennedy Portland used an honest-to-goodness book as a freebie giveaway. A book! Literature! Not some branded Frisbee or stress ball that will be thrown away the next day! The ad agency is treating a book as though it’s an everyday object that people need. (Which it is.) As reading rates decline, anything that we can do to get people to smile and chuckle about a book is a blessing. We need to get our books into the hands of readers any way we can.
Best of all, the book is good! It’s fun! What else do you want? Yes, it is a romance novel; the genre carries an unfair stigma in some places. The identity of the real author is no secret. Catherine Kovach seems to have been on the scene for the past several years, and points out the unfair attitude some have toward romance authors:
I am legitimately shocked at the people who think that KFC is mocking "real" romance authors. Like who do they think ended up writing it?
— 👻xXSpookyCatXx💀 (@RockTheCATsbah) May 5, 2017
Yes, every writer has different goals, and that’s fine. But don’t we all want to produce work we love and to have an audience for that work? Romance writers (and those who trade in any genre) make their readers happy. Lots of romance writers outsell fancy-pants literary writers who win all the awards. Ms. Kovach has succeeded on all counts and is building her audience.
Let’s look at the most important thing: the book itself. Ms. Kovach followed the conventions of the romance novel without satirizing them. What do we have?
- A free-spirited, beautiful young woman resisting social conventions
- A “more beautiful” sister who loves the social conventions
- An arranged marriage with a handsome royal
- A fancy ball where the women wear pretty dresses
- A midnight horse ride to escape
- A new life of the protagonist’s own choosing, when…
- A handsome stranger takes the protagonist’s breath away.
I got a real Austen vibe from the plot and the prose is solid and fun. Every reader enjoys (or should enjoy) a change of pace every so often. I’m not in the prime demographic for romance novels, but what does it matter? I contain multitudes. So do you. Tender Wings of Desire is a part of a balanced reading diet.
Perhaps it’s just my own perception, but a “balanced diet” seems far more “acceptable” when we’re talking about other kinds of media. Joyce Carol Oates enjoys the fancy-pantsiest possible literature out there. She also loves and has written extensively about boxing, a sport where two musclebound people try to punch each other unconscious. (The sweet science, of course, has its own poetic beauty.) If you look at some of your “literary” friends on social media, they’ll talk about the latest Pulitzer winner and then tweet about The Bachelor. I’d love it if the much of the barrier between “literary” and “entertaining” would fall away. Ms. Kovach fulfills her responsibilities as a writer: she made promises to the reader and kept them. Two promises apply to all books: the writer must give the reader a reason to pick up the book and must entertain him or her.
Now let’s get specific about Ms. Kovach’s prose. Narratively, the book is solid. The handsome Harlan appears virtually halfway through the book. Had Ms. Kovach been making a goof, she would have brought Colonel Sanders in earlier, seeing as how his presence is the “joke.” (She also avoids gratuitous references to delicious KFC® Original Recipe® chicken or their scrumptious gravy®. Or that butter substance® you can put on their flaky biscuits®. I’m hungry now.) Ms. Kovach plays it straight, knowing that a good, entertaining novella will do more good for the reader (and her boss) than a throwaway read.
Here’s that critical moment. Are you ready to see the instant in which Madeline’s life changed forever?
Ms. Kovach does the smart and expected thing; Chapter Five ends on a cliffhanger. The reader doesn’t see the romantic lead, but Madeline does. We get the reaction-Madeline is speechless-and are tempted to turn the page. (Well, to swipe the location or whatever.)
Ms. Kovach also plays with the reader’s current knowledge and expectations in a smart way. She doesn’t need to describe everything about Colonel Sanders’ accent. We’ve all heard it. We’ve all heard Norm Macdonald and others do the accent. Instead, she remains committed to the honest nature of the book and simply writes, “a soft version of an American accent.” The reader’s mind does the rest. No overkill.
No, I don’t expect that Tender Wings of Desire will start a trend in which companies give writers money to produce branded books that are written with a surprising amount of dignity. (And a surprising lack of obvious mentions of KFC®‘s several delicious $5 Fill Up® options.) But here’s hoping that other ad agencies and corporate bigwigs will take note that you can get attention and make money by making literature a small part of your branding.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to resist going to my local KFC® restaurant (where the employees are all exceedingly polite, by the way) to get a 3pc. Chicken Big Box Meal® so my day will end with a HEA, just like Tender Wings of Desire. (“HEA” is romance writer jargon for “Happily Ever After.”)