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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.