Keeping teenagers reading books for fun has long been a challenge for parents and the publishing industry alike – although the young adult market has exploded over recent years with authors like Stephanie Meyer and Suzanne Collins hitting the big time when they successfully made the crossover from the shelves to the big screen. But while the YA market is booming for paranormal, dystopian and coming of age novels, encouraging a new generation of readers to embrace classic novels is an entirely different challenge.
I recently went to an exhibition at the British Library that looked at the history of the gothic theme in literature, and one thing I found really interesting was an example of a 2009 reprint of Wuthering Heights. The cover had been completely redesigned in the style of the hugely popular Twilight books to try and win over the notoriously difficult teenage market by enticing avid Stephanie Meyer fans would relate to the colour and style of the new cover.
It might sound strange, but the two books both have gothic themes in common and there are apparently repeated references to Wuthering Heights throughout the Twilight series. The new cover actually proved remarkably effective. In fact, it was so successful that sales of Wuthering Heights, originally published in 1847, increased fourfold between 2005, when the first Twilight book was published, and 2010.
But it’s not just younger readers that struggle to connect to the classics, and people are coming up with new ways to win over adult readers all the time.
Last year saw the launch of the Austen Project, where popular writers including Joanne Trollope, Val McDermid and Alexander McCall Smith were tasked with taking a classic and reimagining it in recent times. Titles that have been given a modern twist so far include Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey and Emma. Some have been viewed as more successful than others, but all capitalised on the pull of a big bestseller name to pique our interest.
Then there was the ten hour dramatization of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace that took over BBC Radio 4 on New Year’s Day this year, the weirdly popular horror/classic mash-up ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’, and even the addition of erotic scenes to the works of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte as part of a racy Clandestine Classics e-book collection from Total-E-Bound Publishing.
It’s interesting that these books, which have mainly enjoyed a fairly steady level of popularity since their publication, are still inspiring new works and marketing campaigns so long after they first hit the shelves.