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Significantly richer than you

There’s been much talk of how social media changes the writer-reader dynamic, challenges traditional modes of publishing, promotes a new kind of intertextuality, and creates possibilities for fresh forms of story-telling. All well and good, but only one question really matters to writers. How do we make money out of it?

Significant Objects has the answer, or at least part of it. The premise is simple enough. The curators acquired 100 near-worthless objects from a junk shop. 100 writers were then assigned an object each and asked to write a story about it. Invested with new significance by this fiction, the theory was that the object should gain not only subjective, but objective, value. How to test the theory? Via eBay.

Each item went up for sale with its accompanying story and a disclaimer explaining the nature of the project. (Writers were asked not to make up misleading stuff about their object once belonging to Elvis Presley, for example.) Narrative approaches ranged from obscure imagined provenances to comical poems and claims of totemic power. And the stories seemed to make something interesting happen. From an initial outlay of $128.74, the auction brought in a combined total of $3,612.51, with the takings from each object going to the individual authors. Most spectacularly, one Russian figurine, with a story by Doug Dorst, went from an original price of $3 to a selling price of $193.50.

Significant Objects is the brainchild of journalist Rob Walker, whose Consumed column appears in the New York Times Magazine, and Josh Glenn, whose book Taking Things Seriously looks at how we invest ordinary objects with extraordinary significance. Both readily admit that the dynamics of the project are a lot more complex than just story + object = enhanced value. As well as the individual author’s story, there are other factors like the reputation and connections of the author and what personal ‘backstory’ they bring to the project.

Then there is the overarching meta-narrative of the project itself. When people hear about Significant Objects, they are usually intrigued. There’s a talking point factor that makes people want to be part of it, as buyers or sellers. When someone sees the purchased item on your mantlepiece, it’s nice to be able to tell the whole story of Significant Objects to explain how it got there.

None of which entirely explains how a bunch of objects can multiply 28 times in value simply through a few intangible narrative additions. But then that’s the principle that keeps the entire branding and advertising industry going, so maybe it’s no great surprise.

Either way, as one of the authors who took part, I can confirm I won’t be retiring on the proceeds. From an original price of $2, my object (a porcelain clown named Kenny) sold for $11.61. And after a somewhat embarrassing chain of events, the purchaser turned out to be my wife.

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