Cultural critics generally place themselves at a distance from material culture. They may critique the world, but they don’t seem to inhabit it.

But why shouldn’t those of us who parse culture also celebrate it — acknowledge that we make choices all the time about the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the furniture we put in our homes? Why shouldn’t we, in other words, make recommendations regarding products and services that we think are unique, useful, or otherwise commendable?

“We’re IN society, aren’t we, and that’s our horizon?” as Henry James put it. In a consumer society, we want reliable recommendations regarding products that can improve our lives. At the same time, we tend to be suspect of product endorsements. We are aware that advertisers will use whatever means they can to sell — from testimonials by famous people to ingenious product placements to the incorporation of skepticism itself into their messages (i.e. couturiers who stitch “waist of money” into their garments). But if someone like myself, who has experience deconstructing culture, sets out to explain the value of a product, shouldn’t that carry weight? I realize, of course, that this could be seen as a more sophisticated advertising ploy, but that’s the mise en abyme of salesmanship and a risk you have to take.
More… “This Product Will Change Your Life”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.


In the North New Jersey town where I grew up there were two supermarkets: Food Fair and Acme. We went to them for the necessities of life, as well as the luxuries: Sara Lee cake, Pepperidge Farm cookies, and the exciting new alternative to American cheese, Jarlsberg. No one thought about these supermarkets much, though I remember feeling confident they’d be able to stock an air raid shelter (it was the tail end of that era); their supply of canned goods was impressive.

As I approached high school, Food Fair, in the manner of old generals, faded away, while Acme continued to limp along (as it still does), its dignity, like its produce, somewhat bruised. Then, in the early 1970s, with the advent of disco, Watergate, and platform shoes, a new supermarket made an appearance in town. It sprung up, suddenly, on the lot where a realtor and a bank… More…