‘Write what you know,’ or so goes perhaps the most hackneyed piece of creative writing advice ever devised. As Salman Rushdie observed, it only really works if what you know happens to be interesting. If it isn’t, better to make something up. Melbourne-based writer Ennis Ćehić knows advertising. As his bio tells us, he has been working in the industry as a copywriter, brand strategist and creative director since 2007. The vast bulk of the 50 short stories that make up his debut collection Sadvertising are set within the advertising industry or are related to it in some way.
Whether one finds advertising an inherently interesting subject or not is obviously subjective. Speaking for myself, I do not. However, it is a mark of Ćehić’s talent that he held my interest anyway. The stories in this collection have a surreal and sometimes uneasy quality. Without wanting to spoil any of my favourites, I will say (hopefully with sufficient ambiguity) that they involve such matters as a Chief Creative Officer being transported into a parallel universe, logos coming to life, immortality and an investigation into whether iPhones have emotions.
It is a testament to the originality of the writing that it is hard to find literary progenitors, though you could venture some possible influences: the shorter pieces recall Lydia Davis, the way in which Ćehić draws out surrealism from the epicentre of the mundane might owe something to Don DeLillo, the ironic auto-fiction is a bit Paul Auster. Where the collection works best, though, is with three pieces which break the collection up into thirds: Meta Ennis Parts I, II, and III. These are not quite like anything I have ever read. In the first of them, Ćehić’s literary avatar cautions a young artist that a career in advertising might blunt her creative ambition. ‘I won’t preach and lecture Ina on the reasons why she shouldn’t pursue advertising,’ he reassures us. ‘I love advertising, that’s obvious – but I also know what happens to the artist in advertising’.
Here, in a meta-ironic moment, Ćehić identifies the reservation that I had about some of the stories in the collection; namely, it is obvious that he loves advertising. That is, of course, not a problem in itself, but it does at times blunt the collection’s satirical ambition. Apart from the risk of being boring, another risk for writers in writing what they know is the risk that they lack the critical distance necessary to tackle it properly. To be clear, I don’t think that Ćehić falls foul of this but his evident enthusiasm for advertising makes the book’s critique of corporatism at times a little hard to swallow and perhaps more ambivalent than Ćehić intended.
In saying that, I don’t mean in any way to detract from the collection’s many other virtues. Some of these short stories rank among the most inventive I have come across and the meta-fictive way that Ćehić subverts the reader’s expectation of narrative voice is genuinely exciting to read. His prose is also excellent, polished and restrained (another way in which the book reminded me of Lydia Davis). He is an exciting voice and one hopes that, unlike many of the frustrated artists who appear in this book, advertising does not chip away at his artistic drive in the future.
Sadvertising by Ennis Ćehić
Pages: 304 pp
Publication date: 1 March 2022