16 January 2009

Uber-Popular Twilight

Stephenie Meyer sold more books in 2008 than any other author (22 million, according to her publisher) and did what no else — not even J.K. Rowling — has done in the 15 years of USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list:

She swept the four top slots in 2008’s best sellers with her Twilight series about a romance between a girl (mortal) and boy (vampire).

From here (quoting USA Today).


Meyer and her Twilight books claim the top four slots on our year-end list, the first author to do so. In 2000, Rowling's Harry Potter books had Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 5. Who Moved My Cheese was No. 4 that year.

• Meyer's books, including the adult novel The Host, accounted for 12.5% of all sales tracked by our list — that's higher than the record 11.3% logged by Rowling in 2000.

• Meyer's books spent 19 weeks at No. 1. That matches Rowling's 19 weeks at No. 1 in 2000. (Breaking Dawn had four weeks, Aug. 7-28. Twilight accounted for the other 15 weeks: July 10; July 24-31; Sept. 4-18; Oct. 23-Dec. 4; and Dec. 24-31.)

But Meyer has a long way to go to match Rowling's success. Sales of Potter books exceed 400 million worldwide. There are 40 million copies of Meyer's books in print, but the number is growing steadily.

From here.

Some of the sudden success comes from having four books in the Twilight Saga, originally marketed to young adult readers, and another for adult science fiction readers, in print at the same time, when the first Twilight movie came out. The movies also triggered an unprecedented number of stories covering it on National Public Radio and in the papers.

Until 2008, the books has a strong and growing cult following among fourteen year old girls, but hadn't gone mainstream or spread to adult readers, even though the books aren't terribly YA. This year, many people who learned of the series for the first time, read one, and followed up by buying more of the page turners.

The series has been the object of contempt by many in the blogosphere, many for some combination of the books allegedly vapid romance, weak writing, and its politics (conservatives think it glorifies going to the edge of having sex which is dangerous; liberals think it is anti-feminist).

I'm not among them. Page turning popular writing of any kind is much harder than it looks. And, the novels have far more layers than are typical for the romance genre, including a layer of Mormon theological and cultural influences and allegory (far more than most popular Mormon authors and mangaka), a layer of English literature plot models (Pride and Prejudice, Romeo & Juliet, Wuthering Heights, and A Midsummer's Night Dream), a basic romance layer, literary echos about why physical abusive relationships last, and even an ecology and biochemistry of love science fiction layer.

The last layer, for example, puts together the Meyer crafts for vampires in their predator-prey relationship with humans (aside from "vegetarians"), her notion that they have powerful beauty and pheremone draws for their prey, the notion that small or something physical and probably biochemical make particular individuals attracted to each other in a love at first sight way for evolutionary and probably genetic reasons that is a backstory for the principal romance and all but one of the werewolf romances, and her contrasting images of her werewolves as feverish while her vampires are cold and almost crystaline. It is a departure from other vampire myths, but the "breakout novels" for both vampires (Bram Stoker's Dracula) and werewolves, were partially zeitgeist assimiliations of new scientific knowledge.

For example:

[F]olklore associated vampirism with the infectious diseases syphilis (caused by the Treponema pallidum bacteria) and tuberculosis (caused by the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria) . . . Back in the 18th century, symptoms of tuberculosis, such as red, swollen eyes, pale skin, light sensitivity, and coughing up blood, were mistaken as features of vampires.

Also on the vampire disease hot list is:

[A] disease called porphyria . . . caused by an enzyme deficiency in the cellular metabolic pathway. One of the symptoms is skin rash that is brought on by exposure to light. In severe cases, the patient has to avoid sunlight altogether. Symptoms may include purple tinted urine, and purple fingernails and teeth! It’s one of the most bizarre diseases I’ve ever heard of. The patient’s photosensitivity links this disease to vampire lore.

(Equal time for werewolf lore here.)

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