Marketing at Penguin Classics: a postscript

I just opened up the Penguin Classics website, and the first thing I saw was this:

Discover Dante Alighieri’s original Inferno – the inspiration for Dan Brown’s new novel – in this modern and acclaimed Penguin translation.

Read more about Dan Brown and the descent into Hell here.

(I have deleted the links in the cut & paste job above.)

Penguin Classics is among the great institutions, and, as I wrote in my previous blog post, I have effectively grown up with their books. But can they please employ PR and marketing people who actually care about classical literature? I go to Penguin Classics to get away from Dan Brown & co!

Sorry to keep banging on about the marketing at Penguin Classics, but someone has to! Right now, I must admit that Oxford World Classics is looking more attractive by the minute.

16 responses to this post.

  1. I guess it’s all about marketing. Penguin assumes most people out there will read Dante if they associate it with Brown. I think they’re underestimating the classic reader myself.


    • Hello Sharon,

      I agree, it’s clearly marketing, but I would question how well the marketing people understand the nature of what they are trying to promote. They are obviously hoping to tap into the vast worldwide readership of Dan Brown novels: even if they get a minuscule proportion of that readership, it would be a huge boost. However, it doesn’t seem very likely that they’ll get even this minuscule proportion. Dan Brown novels are popular because they are easy, undemanding reads, and because the plots are thrilling and fast-moving. But those looking for these qualities are, to put it mildly, unlikely to take to Dante. The marketing people seem to me to be chasing after a new readership that they won’t get; and in the meantime, they risk alienating and marginalising their core readership.

      I read Robin Kirkpatrick’s translation of Dante’s Inferno last year, and it was wonderful. It’s books like this that Penguin Classics should be proud of. As well as the translation, it comes with the original Italian text; a long (over 100pages) and enlightening introductory essay; and with copious notes. It’s a wonderful piece of artistry and of scholarship. And yet, I don’t see Penguin Classics promoting this book on this basis. What they should be most proud of, they seem embarrassed by. Instead, they embark on a wild goose chase to try to hook in a readership they’ll never get.

      I would really like to see some evidence that this sort of marketing strategy works. I bet it doesn’t. Dan Brown no more leads to Dante than boy band music leads to Beethoven’s late quartets. All that happens with this sort of marketing is that considerations of literary quality and of literary scholarship become marginalised; and that which should not be trivialised does get trivialised. I do wish Penguin Classics showed a bit more pride in the riches they have to offer.

      Cheers, Himadri


      • Posted by severalfourmany on April 11, 2013 at 9:59 pm

        As a teenager I came to Dante from Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno (funny, I was just writing about that a couple days ago: so I know it has happened at least once. I’m sure I would have come around eventually even without the popular science fiction connection. But as a teenager in the rural Midwest I wasn’t exposed to those kind of books much at the time. It was exciting to get this strange introduction to something that I would return to again and again.

      • I must admitthat i never really “got” science fiction. Many of my friends keep telling me that i am missing out: this may be so, butwhenever i start reading them, a strange weariness descends upon me. My loss, I’m sure – but one can’t like everything! I don’t denythat there may well be much fine writing within the genre: it’s justthat i never gotit!

        I did enjoyd your post on Dante, by the way. I have only read Kirkpatick’s translation of the Inferno: I must get on to the others.

      • I just reread Dante’s Divine Comedy last year. Personally, I’m a sucker for beautifully printed editions. The one I couldn’t resist was published by Chartwell and was Longfellow’s translation with woodcut illustrations by the 19th century artist, Gustave Durer.

        I believe Dorothy Sayers has also translated it. I’d be interested in reading hers for comparison.

        For the record, I’ve never read Dan Brown and don’t intend to.

      • Well – life isn’t long enough to read everything one wants, so why should I read stuff that I am not really interested in? I often browse through bookshops, sampling the prose style of various types of book. Dan Brown comes under “easy reading” – insofar as he uses a limited vocabulary, and his sentences are simple. However, I found it hard work: there was absolutely nothing in the prose to hold my attention, and, as a consequence, I found my attention wandering within a few sentences. Paradoxically, I found Dan Brown hard to read!

      • PS Dorothy L Sayers’ translations are still available in penguin classics. (She died while working on the “Paradiso”, an dit is completed by Barbara reynolds.) Penguin Classics have since published two other translations of Dante – by Mark Musa, and by Robin Kirkpatrick, but the Sayers versions have remained in print.

  2. Bang on, my friend, bang on! I love your indignation, you’re just articulating what we’re all feeling 🙂


  3. Well that should really help Dante pick up some new fans (banging head on desk repeatedly…).


  4. Thank you all for being so indulgent! I promise that my next post will actually be about a book I have read! 🙂


  5. Speaking of boy bands, Himadri, do you know if Dante did any remixes of his “original Inferno“? That’s such weird phrasing in addition to being such weird marketing. By the way, I’m sure Dan Brown would have been more inspired by the Trammps’ mid-1970s “Disco Inferno” single than any medieval poetry by Dante. That seems way more likely to be up Brown’s original inspiration alley, you know? 😀


    • I was a teenager growing up in Britain in the 70s, and while I remember “Disco Inferno” well, I was never really into Disco that much: I was more of a glam-rocker! 🙂 But i must admit, I do like the idea of Dan Brown being influenced by Dante!


  6. Posted by Brian Joseph on April 15, 2013 at 9:59 am

    I share your frustration about all this. In a strange and twisted way it is amusing to read the blurb that you referenced.

    I do have to wonder however if a few folks who have read Dan Brown might have been inspired to explore fine arts and literature a bit. One reason that I began reading Shakespeare was that it he was referenced so often in the old science fiction books that I read when I was very young.


    • Despite my not getting science fiction (I have commented before on my blind spot in this respect) I am certainly happy to accept that the genre contains much of literary value. SeveralFourMany above comments on how science fiction had led him to Dante. I do not doubt the literary quality of teh best science fiction.

      But readers wanting no more than a fast-moving and exciting story (and I’d be very surprised if Dan Brown offers more than that) will, I can’t help feeling, be rather disappointed in Inferno!


  7. Posted by alan on April 20, 2013 at 11:06 am

    I also read Niven and Pournelle’s ‘Inferno’ as a teenager.
    If my memory serves me correctlyt the protagonist; a writer, goes to hell after drunkenly falling to his death after sitting on a window ledge at a party while acting out a literary reference that none of his friends seemed to understand… (you can take that as a cautionary tale if you so choose).
    I recall that what followed was a journey through hell accompanied by Benito Mussolini in the role of Virgil.
    Other than that I don’t recall much else other than a sequence of episodes of punishment and their reasons, revealing a lot about the authors’ moral/political opinions.
    Let’s face it, barring a long period of unemployment/imprisonment/convalescence I am never going to read Dante, so cultural echoes are all I’m going to absorb.


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