Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What would Bronte say?

I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between marketing and literature since I read this article over the weekend. Wuthering Heights is now being packaged with a similar cover to Twilight with a sticker on the front that says something along the lines of "recommended by Stephanie Meyer." I must admit that the first impulse I had was outrage. How could publishing houses be so careless as to align Bronte and Meyer? Wuthering Heights is a classic as well as a favorite book of mine. No matter how much we might gobble up Twilight, they are not the same. It's an insult to Miss. Bronte, I exclaimed, and to literature itself!

Hmmm. Then I kept reading the article. Apparently sales have nearly doubled in the UK on Wuthering Heights since the new cover has been marketed. Which means more children are buying the book. Which means, I must assume, more children are reading the book. The steam stopped coming out of my ears and I was left with this question: is there such a thing as going too far when it comes to getting children to read?

Now, I must admit I am ignoring the whole issue of the publishing world being a business and that making money, clearly, is a big part of that business. If you'll indulge me let's set aside this reality momentarily and focus on that question. Is there such a thing as going too far when it comes to getting children to read? Should we ignore the Twilight's of the world and insist that children stick with Bronte (windswept moor cover and all) or should we admit the very real reality that we live in a marketable world. The tools that are available to us now are very different than when I was growing up and coming to literature. It is, in fact, a different literary world. The crossover genre is huge, the visual real of entertainment is overwhelming and the constant dialogue of social media has cut all our attention spans in half. I suppose then we can't blame marketing for going to extremes when it comes to these dusty classics.

But something still doesn't sit right and it's the nagging feeling, deep down in my core, that Bronte would simply roll over in her grave if she discovered this. Here is the rub: it's not authentic. It isn't true that Wuthering Heights and Twilight are the same story. True, we are wide readers and perhaps their audience might be the same but the gesture becomes manipulative in its deception and I must retain that there is no room for deception when it comes to literature. Sure, the entire world is now a big advertisement. I am lied to everyday on the subway, in Soho on those giant billboards, when I look out my window, when I buy my coffee, but in my opinion that is all the more reason to hold out, to insist that literature remain sacred. If we won't do it, who will?

So in answer to my question, yes, I do think there is such a thing as going too far when it comes to getting children to read. Actually, I'd like to re-phrase my question: are there tactics we should not use when it comes to getting children to read? Wholeheartedly, yes. I believe in a world in which a child can devour both Twilight and Wuthering Heights and see them as two, separate entities. To deny books their individuality is to deny children the opportunity to be varied readers and to value and enjoy a wide range of literature. So the next time Sense and Sensibility has a cover that looks like The Baby Sitter's Club, perhaps think about purchasing the traditional paperback instead. It may be less flashy, sure, but it is also far more real. And in the world of fiction sometimes a dose of reality is just what the author ordered.

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