Zombies, Schmombies! Teen Girls Are Vamping It Up!
Why is the young adult book business bursting with bloodsuckers?
This article was published in the March 5, 2008, edition of The New York Observer.
It is probably only a slight exaggeration to say that to be an author of young adult books today is to have written, be writing or contemplating writing a book about vampires. But vampires are over! says conventional wisdom. It's all about zombies and faeries (that's faeries, with that extra "e," signifying their paranormal qualities and that they're not of the Tinkerbell or Tooth varieties) and ghosts and werewolves. Vampires are totally 2005!
But the conventional wisdom is, in this case, wrong. Like the necks they so greedily suck on, vampires have attacked the young adult market in such a way that editors, agents and publishers are throwing up their hands in surrender. Give the people what they want!
"I thought vampires were over at least two years ago, and I was completely wrong," said Trident agent Jenny Bent, who represents Lynsay Sands, author of best-selling mass-market paperbacks with titles like Bite Me If You Can and The Accidental Vampire. "These trends come and go, but vampires aren't going anywhere."
Why they aren't going anywhere is a more complicated question. Certainly it doesn't hurt that the vampires of the mid-aughts are, for the most part, stunningly handsome and remarkably human-seeming. In Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series—the books that most editors and publishers agree kick-started this new phase of vampire lust—the main vampire character, Edward, is a gorgeous 17-year-old boy who also happens to be kind, thoughtful, brilliant, funny, caring … and immortal. And he and his adopted vampire family subsist on the blood of animals, not humans, which allows them to live semi-inconspicuously among the residents of a small town in Washington. Bella, the (non-vampire) high-school girl he loves, is sweet and smart and interesting, but—to be blunt about it—not totally in Edward's league.
"Stephenie has tapped into a new level of yearning in teenage girls," said Megan Tingley, whose eponymous imprint at Little, Brown publishes Ms. Meyer's books. "This vampire is sexy, but he's an old-fashioned gentleman. He doesn't want to kill her. That's a new twist on the whole vampire stereotype.
"I think that teenagers are attracted to the forbidden," Ms. Tingley continued. "The dark side. That's always happened—they like the bad boy, the mysterious guy. That's something that's existed for a long time and will continue to exist."
So perhaps the vampire stories as told by Ms. Meyer and others are little more than classic romance tales, complete with a stock male character who may seem perfect, but is in fact inaccessible. And conveniently for young adult readers' parents, Edward and Bella can't have sex, because, in the midst of passion, it is implied, he would not be able to resist biting her neck. (You see, he's trained himself not to bite humans—but it takes a lot of self-control. So basically, if they were to have sex, she would have to become a vampire. Which she kind of offers to do—after knowing him for, like, a month!)
Which raises another possibility: that these books are, in some way, escapist fantasies for a generation of teenage girls raised on the competing 21st Century American values of Christian-right abstinence and midriff-baring, Lolita-esque Britney Spears (who of course tried to have it both ways, telling the world she was a virgin when in fact she was boning Justin Timberlake in the tour bus). In that case, why wouldn't a 19th-century kind of man—who has to keep his girlfriend chaste—seem appealing?
Or maybe these teenage vampires are simply the latest manifestation of that erstwhile, endlessly attractive male figure: he who is brooding, aloof and just a little bit dangerous. (In Heathers Christian Slater's character J.D. had more than a little of the vampire about him. Perhaps that was why I built a shrine to him in my sixth grade bedroom.)
Audrey Quinn and Katie Bludworth are two Michigan 18-year-olds who run a Twilight fan site called Bella Penombra, and they have quite definite opinions about the appeal of Ms. Meyer's books. "Part of the appeal is the vampires are always so tortured," Ms. Quinn, a freshman at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., told me. "They seem to have everything. In Stephenie Meyer's books, they're wealthy and beautiful, but at the same time, each and every one of her characters is always tortured. The dichotomy between that is interesting—these beings that are perfect are actually flawed."
Not paradoxically, it could also be argued that, in their nostalgia for a past that puts agency in the hands of bloodsucking males, Ms. Meyer's books are fundamentally antifeminist. Best-selling young adult author Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries) has written on her blog: "I didn't take my husband's last NAME when we got married. Do you honestly think I'd like a story about a girl considering changing SPECIES for a guy? No offense to any of you, but as a feminist, I just can't go there."
And Columbia University comparative literature professor Jenny Davidson, 36, who is the author of a forthcoming paranormal YA book, The Explosionist, argued that vampire books going back to Dracula, Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, often represent anxiety about modernity. "The Stoker novel really is a book about technology and modernity," she told me. "It really is a book about telegraphs and letter-writing and wax cylinders that you might record madmen speaking onto. And that intersects with the idea that the vampire isn't modern, the vampire is from the deep past. … The vampire seems to be a place for that intersection—very modern, but very much from the romantic past."
Of course, vampires' popularity is not limited to the young adult market. Perhaps the biggest deal of last year was a vampire trilogy for adults by Justin Cronin that sold for a reported $3.75 million to Ballantine. And Anne Rice's books, which started, and defined, the contemporary vampire trope—Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in Interview With a Vampire announced to the world that vampires, though technically dead, were also sexy—are targeted at adults, though certainly countless teenagers read them when they first came out. The difference is that when Ms. Rice's books were topping the best-seller lists, the craze had not yet fully trickled down into the young adult market. Sure, there was Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and, well, The Lost Boys—but neither of them spawned the literary craze that has the nation's teenagers in a chokehold.
Instead, it took a book by a young Mormon mother of three, who says the idea came to her in a dream, to kick-start the latest vampire craze. The 34-year-old Ms. Meyer's Twilight series has been a runaway success for Little, Brown. The first book, Twilight, was published in 2005 and has sold 190,000 copies in hardcover and 722,000 in paperback, according to Nielsen BookScan; a movie, helmed by Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown director Catherine Hardwicke and starring teen actress Kristen Stewart, is scheduled for release in December. Two subsequent books, New Moon and Eclipse, have sold 706,000 and 702,000 copies in hardcover, respectively. The fourth book in Ms. Meyer's Twilight series, Breaking Dawn, doesn't come out until August, but it's already No. 15 on the Amazon best-seller list.
Hers aren't the only vampire books selling. HarperTeen recently reissued L. J. Smith's Vampire Diaries, a quartet of books originally published in the 1990's, in a special two-book edition. Elise Howard, senior vice president and associate publisher of HarperCollins Children's Books, told me that the series has "really been blowing out since that re-publication." Prolific YA author Melissa de la Cruz, 36, is the author of several best-selling books (including the series The Au Pairs and The Ashleys), but she said that the series that's the most popular is her vampire chronicle, Blue Bloods, about young vampires on the Upper East Side. ("When I wrote it, I didn't think it was Gossip Girl with vampires, but then I was like, oh, I guess it is—but I thought it was more like Dynasty," Ms. De La Cruz said.) Blue Bloods, the first book in the series, came out in 2006, and Ms. De La Cruz said she was worried, at first, about the Twilight effect. "I thought the market was a little sated, but the kids say they really love reading about vampires," she said; Blue Bloods sold a combined 66,000 copies in paperback and hardcover, according to BookScan—not quite Twilight numbers, but hardly shabby, either.
Despite some recent attempts at getting away from vampires and anointing the next hot paranormal genre (Publishers Weekly recently declared that 2008 was the "year of the zombie"), publishers are continuing to fuel the vampire craze. Authors who have long written for adult audiences are making the jump, including Nancy A. Collins, whose Vamps (another Gossip Girl-with-vampires conceit) comes out in July. Zombies, werewolves, faeries and ghosts are all showing signs of popularity, but as Ms. Howard said, "I think vampires are always the leading edge in the interest in paranormal fiction." One YA imprint gave its editors what essentially amounted to a mandate to acquire fresh vampire stories; the list of new vampire books coming out in the next few months, in addition to the ones just acquired, is a long one. Vunce Upon a Time, about a vegetarian vampire, comes out this fall; Evernight, a book about a vampire boarding school, will be published in May; and a new book in Ellen Schreiber's Vampire Kisses series comes out in June. Recently sold YA vampire books include Vamped, about a fashionista vampire; a new book in Rachel Caine's Morganville Vampires series; two more books in Heather Brewer's Chronicles of Vladimir series; Svetlana Grimm and the Circle of Red, about a middle-schooler with the power to destroy vampires; another book in Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy series; Kimberly Pauley's Sucks to Be Me: The All-True Confessions of Mina Hamilton, Teen Vampire (maybe); and Mario Acevedo's Jailbait Vampire, a book in a series about a vampire private detective.
That being said: "I don't think you can just slap a vampire on the cover and assume your book will sell a million copies," said Ms. Tingley, the Little, Brown editor of the Twilight series.
But the appeal of many of these new books seems to be that they take real-life (or realish) situations and put vampires in them. (Not so the Vampirates series, which, in a twist, is geared at boys ages 8 to 12 and, as the title suggests, marries vampires and pirates.) The books themselves generally take place in a world that's recognizable to readers—with the caveat, of course, that they are generally populated by stunningly handsome vampires.
"Her vampires don't come across as the stereotypical vampires," said Bella Penombra's Ms. Bludworth. "They don't murder humans and all that sort of thing. The way Stephenie describes them, they're absolutely gorgeous. It's definitely a selling point for the females."