Sunday Salon: It Gets them Reading, Right?

A while back, I was browsing in Barnes and Noble, and I wandered into the YA section. The table I saw was filled with Twilight book and movie promotional stuff. I’m not even sure there was a book on that table—I was too bewildered by all the glistening vampire chests and werewolf abs. I hurried past to find some books.

As it happens, the next table was not exactly a Twilight table, but you’d have to read the titles to know it. Almost every book had that now standard black cover with a single image, usually a flower, on it. I rolled my eyes at the uniformity of the designs but stuck around to look at the titles anyway. Three titles in particular caught my eye: Wuthering Heights, Romeo and Juliet, and Pride and Prejudice.

All three books are part of HarperTeen’s Classics series, which attempts to make classic texts accessible to young modern readers. The books retain the original texts but have some gimmicky additions, such as quizzes and Facebook pages for the characters. Silly, but harmless stuff. (I’ll confess to getting some chortles out of the retelling of Pride and Prejudice via Facebook that was making the rounds a while back. These gimmicks look like more of the same.) But I wonder if this kind of packaging is helpful? Is it appropriate to market these books in this way to this audience?

For Wuthering Heights, I kind of get it. It seems that the book is mentioned in the Twilight series; HarperTeen even goes so far as to proclaim that it’s Bella and Edward’s favorite book. And although I’ve never read Twilight, I’ve gathered that the romance is all about the angst, so a classic angsty romance would be a reasonable match. Teens who find Bella and Edward compelling may just get into Catherine and Heathcliff. Same deal with Romeo and Juliet.

(We’ll leave to the side the fact that these stories are not about healthy relationships. If anything, the fact that all three are about melodramatic, over-the-top obsessions tells us that Meyer didn’t invent this trope and that she probably isn’t the cause of modern teens’ unhealthy romantic ideas. Those stories have been around a long time.)

My actual WTF moment came with the Pride and Prejudice cover. And the WTFs are many. Let’s just start with the fact that Pride and Prejudice is an altogether different kind of love story from the others. It’s a comedy of manners, not an epic tale of forbidden love. Yes, there’s passion and angst, but it’s all buried under the surface. Of course, there are people who will love all of these books. I don’t doubt that, but I’d chalk that up to the reader’s eclectic tastes, rather than to the similarity of the books. If you want to market P&P to teen readers, perhaps it would be better to match it with something in a lighter vein. Meg Cabot, perhaps? (And what do you know? That’s been done.)

But the cover art is just the beginning. There’s also the cover line: “The love that started it all.” Pray tell, what all did this love start? The craze for romantic fiction? Ummm, no … as the HarperTeen collection itself reveals. Austen mania? Why would an Austen newbie care? Hot men in wet shirts? Well, that was the 1995 miniseries. I’m mystified. Yes, I’m overthinking a cliché, but I’m wondering if anyone thought at all before slapping this line on the cover. Perhaps the editor behind it knew that including P&P was a stretch and couldn’t figure out what to say.

And the back-cover blurb is almost as bad:

With all the forces of the world conspiring to keep Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet apart, how will fate manage to bring them together? It certainly won’t be easy if they’re fighting it every step of the way. But theirs is a love that was meant to be, despite all the odds against them.

There’s nothing factually wrong with it, I suppose, but the tone is all wrong for this book. It’s just not that kind of story. It’s not about fate and all the forces of the world. Just … no.

But does it matter if this misguided marketing gets a curious teen to pick up this book? Maybe not. As long as that reader ends up appreciating it for what it is, rather than being discouraged and annoyed for what it’s not. But I remember hating Wuthering Heights on first read because I thought it was a more traditional romance, rather than a tale of romantic obsession. It was only once I came to it knowing what it was that I could appreciate it. I’d hate to think of young readers giving up on Austen (and telling their friends it’s no good) just because of a wrong first impression.

In other news: I’ve continued culling my books and now have my TBR pile almost confined to a single bookcase. I will probably continue to post lots of my remaining books to Bookmooch and Paperbackswap as I read them. And inspired by Heather’s great idea, I’d like to give Shelf Love readers on Bookmooch first crack at the books I post there, so I’ll make them available just to friends for the first week. Here’s my profile, if you’d like to be my friend on Bookmooch. I post about half my books at Paperbackswap, which has a first-come, first-served system that doesn’t allow you to reserve books for groups, but PBS-ers can add me as a buddy there too if you like.

Notes from a Reading Life

Books Read

  • The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud (audio). A sort of YA Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but with djinn instead of faeries.
  • The Devil’s Horse by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles (Morland Dynasty #16). Not as good as the previous two books, but still enjoyable.
  • The Spare Room by Helen Garner. Review to come.

Currently Reading

  • When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Just getting started on this one.
  • The Golem’s Eye by Jonathan Stroud (audio). The sequel to The Amulet of Samarkand. I love how the world is getting more complex.
  • Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. The ring is going south.

On Deck

  • Once Upon a Time in England by Helen Walsh. I’ve been wanting to read this since seeing Annabel’s review, and the copy she was nice enough to share with me is now on the top of my TBR pile.

New Acquisitions

  • Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. A semi-autobiographical novel set in post-Colonial Rhodesia.
  • Some Prefer Nettles by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. A 1929 Japanese classic. 

On the Someday List

  • Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne. A novel about a mixed family during the Sri Lankan Civil War. Reviewed at Gaskella.
  • The Bell by Iris Murdoch. Murdoch is someone whose work I’ve been meaning to read, but I haven’t known where to start. Bloomsbury Bell’s post convinced me that this might be the one to try.
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29 Responses to Sunday Salon: It Gets them Reading, Right?

  1. I find the Twilight-inspired cover for Wuthering Heights (HarperCollins have done the same here in the UK, complete with the “Edward and Bella’s favourite book” tagline) amusing and if it inspired teens to read another tale of obsessive-love with some words with more than three syllables in it then more’s the better. I think it is a good marketing ploy but to extend it out to any literature that may apply is … lazy. Those works stand on their own merit; they do not need the Twilight franchise to “save” them. It is all about extra sales and what appears to be a manipulation of the Twilight fan, which I am not so comfortable with. Also, it’s denigrating to Elizabeth and Darcy and I am not at all okay with that (oh my, my second Austen rant of the week!)

    The blanket of black covers and flower and apple imagery found in the YA section is becoming quite overwhelming; everyone is jumping on the bandwagon and it is just too much. Somebody on Simon Savidge’s blog last week commented about the Twilight saga’s inspiration for apple-inspired covers and I found that infuriating also – yes, the black covers and flowers or apples are particularly influenced by the craze just now but Twilight does not have a monopoly on the red apple image and all that it signifies; it’s an image as old as Man … and Eve. Sigh, the world did not begin with Edward and Bella.

    • Teresa says:

      Claire: Besides the misreading of Austen’s tone on the back cover of P&P, I think it’s the manipulation of the Twilight fans that I’m most uncomfortable with. It just seems to be about making the sale, not about guiding them to the right books for them. But I’m cynical about marketing in general.

  2. gaskella says:

    Thanks for the links Teresa.

    I’m finding the expanse of black in the YA sections overwhelming these days – so much jumping on the bandwagon – the hardest thing is to work out which of them are worth reading. Yet if it keeps teens reading and inspires some of them on to the classics, I don’t really mind so much, (even if tarring P&P with the same angsty brush is going a tad far). If I was 14 again, I’d devour the lot I’m sure…

    • Teresa says:

      Annabel: Yes, looking at all the black books in the YA section is overwhelming. I’m sure some of them are excellent, but separating the wheat from the chaff is such hard work. (I always had the same feeling about the pink chick lit books you used to be unable to get away from.)

  3. Jenny says:

    What I want to know is, where were the copies of Sense & Sensibility with Marianne and Col. Brandon on the cover in wizard’s robes and wands when the Harry Potter craze was at its height?… It gets them reading, right?… right?…

  4. Deb says:

    I work in a junior high school library and I’ve posted elsewhere about the small spike in circulation we’ve had for Wuthering Heights since the Twilight books became popular. Not sure what most of the readers who are oohing-and-aaahing over Bella and Edward make of Cathy and Heathcliff however.

    I’ve also noticed the preponderance of apple-themed covers since Twilight. At our book fair last fall, I counted no less than seven YA books, all with apples of various sorts on the covers.

    • Teresa says:

      Deb: I’d be really curious to know what the readers who are picking up Wuthering Heights think of it once they start reading it. If they’re enjoying it, that is a good thing.

  5. Heather says:

    Ooh, now you’ve got me excited about reading The Bell too. The only Murdoch I’ve read so far is The Sea, The Sea, which I enjoyed; last week I found a hardcover copy of The Bell on the sidewalk and picked it up. It’s slightly beat up but it’s very pleasing to look at — it’s the 1960 Reader’s Union edition, with this cover: … I think/hope it will be pleasing to read, as well! :)

    • Teresa says:

      Ooh, Heather, I do love that cover! I was tempted to join Bloomsbury Bell’s giveaway of The Bell, because the edition she’s giving away has a gorgeous cover too, but I’m trying not to aquire books I can get from the library.

  6. Jenny says:

    I cannot take all this Twilight merchandising. IT IS EVERYWHERE. I have rerouted my normal meandering stroll through the bookshop so I don’t see the Twilight section, but at the library I can’t get to YA or nonfiction without walking past the creepy cardboard Edward and Jacob staring me down. (Of course there’s no cardboard Bella – she’s a nonentity and nobody would want her.)

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny: I haven’t read Twilight, but I gather that Bella actually is cardboard in the books. Maybe that’s why there’s no cardboard version in the bookstores?

  7. Oh, I am so with you on the WTF-ness of these books…but I do see the side that they get kids to read books they would otherwise find too intimidating.

    The 3 titles were chosen b/c they are Bella’s favorite books, and each figures prominently in one of the Twilight books. So that’s why P & P is “the love that started it all”—it’s the book that Bella hauls around with her during the first book, as she falls in love with Edward. It’s a loose tie, certainly, and you’re right that none of these books presents a healthy, balanced relationship, but that seems to be the whole idea….which is also a problem. But that’s how Stephenie Meyer rolls.

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca: THANK YOU for illuminating me on the P&P connection. That does make sense. But (and I say this not having read Twilight), one wonders why Meyer didn’t give Bella the good sense of Elizabeth Bennett, since she bothered to give her a book about Elizabeth Bennett.

  8. cbjames says:

    “The love that started it all.” lol.

    I’m told that vampires are on their way out. The next big thing will be Zombies. Probably not love stories. I hope.

    • Teresa says:

      CB: Oh, dear. A zombie love story–you know it’s coming. It’s inevitable. It’ll start with slowly, but then they’ll be everywhere, coming, coming, so horrifyingly persistent. It’s “Night of the Living Zombie Romance.” Now if I can just find a quiet farmhouse to hole up in until it’s over.

  9. Hey, sometimes you just have trick them- like tricking kids into eating veggies. It’s good for ’em.

    Zombie romance is coming- I’ve heard of a film coming down the pipe about a zombie in love. (Plus, there was Fido. Which just makes me feel ill.)

    • Teresa says:

      Clare: Well, I guess if the trick works… I just wonder if it does. I never liked lima beans no matter how much ketcup my mother let me put on them to hide the nasty taste and texture :-)

  10. softdrink says:

    Borders has the Twilight and Twilight-inspired covers RIGHT THERE as you walk in the door. It’s enough to make me run screaming in the other direction….to B&N, where they have yet to escape from the YA section.

    • Teresa says:

      softdrink: I haven’t been in Borders for ages, but hearing that is not going to get me there. My B&N has the Twilight table in the back, easy to avoid.

  11. Danielle says:

    I was just reading about The Bell, too, and have added it to my list! And I read Nervous Conditions last year and really liked it–lots to think about in that book!

    • Teresa says:

      Danielle: I’m so glad to hear a good report on Nervous Conditions. I added it to my list when I was looking for more diverse authors to read, and this was on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list and sounded interesting.

  12. rebeccareid says:

    I saw the books at Costco and I was a bit confused as to why they had those covers. So inappropriate, I thought. But the Twilight thing explains it. Ugh. I too wonder if Twilight readers enjoy those books — a bit of a different style from Stephenie Meyer.

  13. Steph says:

    Yikes! I am with you on finding that back-cover blurb on P&P particularly egregious. I guess it’s nice if Twilight-mania winds up inciting readers to try out some quality literature, but I think you’re right that implying that P&P is at all like Twilight in terms of its scope or tone is very misleading.

    • Teresa says:

      Steph: Yes, isn’t that blurb awful? I can’t decide whether it annoys me more to think that the person writing thought it was accurate or that the person just needed to ramp of the language to make a sale. Either way, it’s icky.

  14. litlove says:

    The problem is, the YA fiction table looks like its covered by acres of the same book. Apparently, under there, you’ve got modern novels and classics, and doomed love and teen romance and comedies of manners. But you’d never know. In some ways I suppose it is honest – this is worship of the bandwagon at its most blatant. But I can’t say as I feel it’s the best way to sell a book – surely some variation might be imaginable?

    • Teresa says:

      litlove: So true. And I wonder about the readers that don’t like the dark themes. What are they finding? Is anything being pushed in their direction?

  15. Gren says:

    YA has turned into the romance section. Same uniform theme in every novel. Even adult Romance novelists crossing over to flock to the new den of mass-published uniformity. I am done with this genre.

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