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Books with bite: the rise of dark romance for teens

By Caroline Short

As a bookseller I am sick to death of ill-written vampire fiction for teenage girls. Half of our Young Adult department is now black-spined and dedicated to the outrageously beautiful boys and girls who matriculate together, drink one another's blood and live in a heightened state of emotional and sexual arousal. Sexual awareness, death and violence have always been interconnected in literature (and film), but now more than ever they permeate the teenage genre, glamourised to the extreme and marketed to arguably the most malleable audience out there.

My aversion is, of course, a personal reaction, based largely on the quality of the mass-produced, market-saturated genre. This is certainly not to say that dark romance doesn’t have its place on our bookshelves, nor that it isn’t teaching some important life-lessons to an audience displaying what must be acknowledged as previously unseen level of commitment to reading. Like J K Rowling before her, Stephanie Meyer deserves commendation for bringing a disaffected audience back to books.
The popularity of vampire fiction has always been inextricably linked to changes in our social, political and economical situation. Victorian vampire fiction reflected a society in which women were beginning to gain purchase academically, economically and politically, but whose sexuality was stifled: the connection between vampires and sex mirrored that between loose morals and perceived evil. In more recent history, a resurgence of interest in the pale of face and sharp of tooth in the 80s coincided neatly with the AIDS epidemic and the disease’s associated connection to blood and sex, the popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the late 90s with the rise of “girl power” and the emasculation of the dominant male, with his bodily protrusions.
Current vampire fiction is of an entirely different ilk. The modern take offers choice in the matter of how they live their lives and procure their “necessities” (i.e. blood). As with humans, they may choose whether to live a good and virtuous life over one of murderous destruction. They are fatally flawed, but can overcome this through restraint.
The modern teen is growing up in a time of uncertainty and confusion. The worldwide nature of our current economic situation is unlike any encountered before in the breadth of its reach. This recession is an international issue, encapsulating every first world nation across oceans and borders, leaving the population unsure as to what the future might bring…
So, vampire fiction does its usual party trick, of creating a physical entity representative of the wider “big bad”. Only this time, the vampire takes on all the uncertainty, the fear of the unknown, and even the glimmer of hope that the reader is exposed to on a daily basis. Unlike in their previous incarnation, these vampires are not instinct-led killing machines. They come in all colours, across the moral spectrum, choosing whether to kill or compromise. You could be onto a good’un or being seduced by a bad – but you won’t know which you’re backing until it’s too late.
Either way, the moralistic and hopeful tale these dark romances weave provide a desperate generation with much-needed potential silver-lining. They also drive home the theory that, in order to attain the happy-ending, there must always be risk and sacrifice along the way. The nature of the risk and extent of the sacrifice are for you to discern.

If, like me, the idea of yet another tale of love, lust and blood-sucking leaves you cold, do not despair. There are a handful of authors out there writing truly fantastic, non-vampiric fiction for the teenage market. Meg Rosof, Celia Rees, Malorie Blackman, Sally Gardner and Laurie Halse Anderson (to name a few) write wonderful, engaging stories with life lessons at their heart, across genres encompassing sci-fi, crime, modern and historical fiction.

And for confident readers, the classics are crying out to be read – Wuthering Heights is a great choice for teenage girls, perhaps particularly those who lean towards the dark side… Indeed, thanks to Harper Collins you can now buy a copy deliberately designed to buy into the dark romance market – and partially responsible for putting Emily Bronte at the top of the classics bestsellers chart for the first time since records began.
Whatever teens are choosing to read, I suppose the important fact remains that they are choosing to read. There is so much life-knowledge to be gleaned from a love of books – and despite appearances to the contrary, vampires truly are optional! 

Caroline Short is a bookseller, editor, education consultant and entrepreneur, currently blogging at The Second Hand Shopper.

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Jeremy said...

I wandered into a local Borders (now closed down) while waiting for a coach and found, to my horror, that "Supernatural Romance" is actually a genre now - a banner saying so was hanging above a table piled high with Twilight knockoffs. Serves me right for going into a bookshop, I suppose.

The repackaging of Wuthering Heights is impressive and highly amusing, though.

Mint said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mint said...

I could get behind this if I actually knew any one who has read Stephanie Meyer's books and gone on to read anything else. With the one exception of my sister (who read books before Twilight, being raised in a family of bibliophiles, so she really doesn't count) most people I know who have read Twilight do not go on to read something else (let alone something better).

(deleted and re-posted because of some major grammar flaws, sorry)

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