From the Basement

June 20, 2010

The Power of Twilight, part one

I’m going to come out and say it: I’ve read Twilight. More specifically, I read the first three books in a dizzy, coffee-induced fury two years ago. I have since labeled that frenzy “hours of my life I’ll never get back,” but in truth, I’m very, very glad that I’ve read 3/4 of the series that is defining a generation.

Like it or not, it is defining our generation’s teenage years. 12 years ago, I was on the younger end of the generation that grew up with the original Britney and Backstreet Boys, that cut its teeth on Harry Potter. Now, I’m on the older end of the spectrum – at the ripe old age of 22, I go gaga for Lady GaGa rather than Edward Cullen, but Twilight is a phenomenon reaching beyond the borders of age and into the consciouses of cultural commentators, professors, publishing professionals, and concerned parents. (Yes, they should be concerned.)

I have a feeling that this is the first of many posts on this subject, but I want to address a few things up front. Namely, the discussion of good vs. bad literature, and why I think the series is important regardless of the answer.

So, do I think Twilight is good literature?

To me, this is an irrelevent question that gets bandied about almost exclusively by those who are leaping out of their chair with the exciting revelation that Twilight is badly written. Thus, it is bad literature, and thus, you shouldn’t read it!

That logic doesn’t work for several reasons. First, we lack a definition of “good” versus “bad” literature. Do we mean the quality of writing? One major complaint is that Twilight is badly written. For the sake of argument, let’s take that claim. So – what makes it badly written? Notwithstanding S. Meyer’s affinity for adverbs, critics may point to overwrought emotions, constipated prose, and the poorly constructed story arc. Valid arguments that I actually agree with, by the way.

However, I doubt that anti-Twilight sentiment would be so vehement if those were the soul reasons for disapproval. While I’d like to believe that there are in fact enough former English majors out there to stir up a grammar revolution, chances are good that they’re not leading the brigade. Moreover, as one who has read Twilight, I can assert that Meyer’s writing actually improves with each book. It gets better, I promise! (The writing, not necessarily the story.) But in spite of this fact, critics still claim that Meyer’s bad writing is ruining teenagers’ understanding of literature. (And The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High didn’t? Please.)

As a side note, I’d like to point out that some of the evidence for “bad writing” – e.g. the overwrought emotions – are common traps of the genre – that is to say, other YA and Romance books. Similarly, cardboard characters are a common trap for thriller writers, one that John Grisham falls into all the time (Dan Brown, too). This doesn’t make it okay to fall into a trap; I’m just observing that Meyer takes a heckuva lot more flack than Grisham and Brown, partly because of the genre she’s writing in. That aside, Grisham, Brown, and Meyer get the last laugh – they’ve had some of the highest grossing book sales of the past decade, and none of them seem that bothered about not winning a Pulitzer.

Bad writing is in the eye of the beholder, and “bad writing” (whatever it is) does not mean that a book won’t sell or – more importantly – that a story isn’t compelling. People very much enjoy heaping criticisms of “bad writing” on authors, and yet they almost always fail to offer a definition of good writing. It’s quite annoying. Why are people so ticked off that bad writers are on the bestseller list? Why aren’t they buying books by good authors? And why aren’t the books with good writing selling?

This is, I think, the crux of the matter. Oftentimes, there is a gap between good writing and good stories. I’ll make yet another distinction: there is often a gap between these things for the pickiest of readers. Most of the time, bestsellers come from decent writers who have incredible self-discipline and an inordinately compelling idea (think J.K. Rowling). Notwithstanding Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie, most bestsellers are nowhere near a Pulitzer. They do not foreground language; they emphasize tension and story, simply because most readers (yours truly included) put a compelling premise above quality of writing. If offered a scintillating page of description or a scintillating good vs. evil scene, um, I’ll take the scene (sorry, Ian McEwan).

This preference (compelling scene vs. inclusion in a Norton Anthology) is part of why Grisham, Brown, Rowling, and – yes – Meyer are on the bestseller list. And this is why literary writers are more often found in The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, and Shenandoah, which – while outstanding – are not widely read publications outside of academia. (The New Yorker is the grand exception.)

I recognize that I am making enormous generalizations here, and I do not mean to set up the binary literary/bestseller. They’re not mutually exclusive. Plenty of outstanding “literary” writers enjoy popular readership (the aforementioned Morrison and Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri – love her). There are literary writers who produce beautifully constructed, emotionally compelling stories which are sadly overlooked. And, of course, there are plenty of decent writers whose work does not sell “decently.”

But – I don’t think my main point can be overstated. That is, as long as the writing isn’t painfully bad, people flock to compelling stories. Good is subjective, but few can deny that certain premises – a boy who discovers he’s a wizard, a young lawyer who gets taken in by the Mob – are compelling, even if it’s not your preferred cup of tea. This explains a lot about Twilight‘s popularity. Many critics of the series just don’t seem to understand the concept. When you start bitching about Twilight, everyone’s standards shoot through the roof.

(It is my opinion that all this “bad vs. good writing” debate is covering up our real issues with Twilight, which will be in another post.)

Of course, Twilight is also interesting for other reasons. Because it pushes the boundaries of what we consider “good” storytelling (is it the writing? the structure? the message?). Because it’s chalk full of controversy – allegations of unhealthy relationships, obsessive-compulsive behavior, blood play, teenage sexuality (it’s been called “abstinence porn”). It’s also a story we’ve seen before – Romeo & Juliet, Tristan & Isolde, and especially Wuthering Heights (which Bella is actually reading in chapter two of the first book). Yet it is a bona fide phenomenon – it hit on something that our culture is hungry for, perhaps starving for.

What most interests me about Twilight is not the quality of writing. It is simply this: what is it about this book that so resonates with youth today, and what does that say about our culture? At many points throughout the series, Bella seems almost a proxy for the reader. She is insecure, lonely. She has low self-esteem. Her parents are divorced. She considers herself average, or even below average. So why is she so popular with readers? And why is an emotionally stunted 100+ year old vampire a romantic hero? Lack of choice is a theme that permeates the series (it is almost the anti-Harry Potter in that respect), and it has hit on something deep within our cultural subconscious. Even those who do not identify with or enjoy the series find themselves enveloped in the conversations and debates surrounding Twilight and its similar cultural counterparts, such as the hit television series True Blood (initially based on Charlaine Harris’ pre-Twilight Sookie Stackhouse series).

Why is Twilight such a powerful force in our culture?

That is what I want to think about.

And on the note of literature, good literature – the stuff that I learned in my English courses at college – is often what defines a generation. I’m not saying that Twilight will be anthologized and taught as part of university curriculum, etc. etc. But it’s clearly of cultural importance, and that makes it worth studying.

And last but not least, to the critics who routinely lambast “popular fiction” as not worthy of study, I would add that Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, and Jane Austen wrote the “popular” fiction of their day. Dickens and Dumas were serialized in the newspapers. They had something to say that resonated with people in their time, and even after. And there’s no way they could have predicted that. /tangent

While another post on this subject brews, feel free to respond (I’d love to get your take on the series or anything I’ve said). I will also leave you with two marvelously entertaining links, both of which are rather critical of Twilight. (Please send me links to positive stuff; it’s hard to come by on the internet.)

The first is to a series of posts in which the LJ blogger Cleolinda gives a snarky chapter-by-chapter summary of Breaking Dawn, the last installment in the series: http://cleolinda.livejournal.com/630150.html

The second is a wonderful video blog entitled “Alex Reads Twilight.” It’s a 20something British guy giving short, >5 minute summaries of the chapters as he reads Twilight. He says such wonderful things as “Who the fuck is Lauren?” and “Stephenie Meyer plus science equals wrong.” He also has a remarkable eye for spotting S. Meyer’s dangling subplots. Hope you enjoy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2L253VLwH3w&feature=player_embedded

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8 Comments »

  1. wow this helps because i was contemplating rather i should read the twilight series. Now I think i will. My friends really love it. Hope I will too. 😉

    Comment by savvy4u — June 20, 2010 @ 12:55 am | Reply

    • I wouldn’t say I love it, but it’s certainly got a lot of cultural capitol right now. Hope you enjoy it, if for no other reason than that it’s entertaining. 🙂

      Comment by girldownstairs — June 20, 2010 @ 1:23 am | Reply

  2. I totally agree! I read Twilight a couple years ago (not the last book) and am full of shame to admit it. The series has a certain draw, even though one knows it will not be anything the likes of “Pride and Prejudice”.

    Comment by naliak — June 20, 2010 @ 4:33 am | Reply

    • It does! And no, absolutely not P&P – never at that level. But it’s still got something that’s very compelling. I keep using that word because I’m not quite certain how else to quantify it. Also, I’m cooking up another Twilight entry that will hopefully post in a few days, if you’re interested in continuing the conversation.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      -TGD

      Comment by girldownstairs — June 20, 2010 @ 4:37 am | Reply

  3. Damn it.

    I’ve been avoiding it for too long … I don’t think I can *not* read it.

    Comment by abbieplouff — June 20, 2010 @ 8:46 pm | Reply

    • I don’t know that you’ll enjoy it, but I (obviously) think it’s worth reading (you know my opinions about the book and I will still make that claim *chuckle*). Myself, I still need to read Breaking Dawn… must do that at some point soon…

      Comment by girldownstairs — June 20, 2010 @ 10:22 pm | Reply

  4. It’s difficult for me to say that Twilight was worth the time I spent reading it (although I was trapped in a car for hours, so not much else to do). But I am glad that I read them, for I can now say that I understand where teen girls are coming from. When I was reading the books, I read them ravenously, plowing through Eclipse book in one day. I can’t quite say what got me so hooked, and why the effect didn’t last after I had turned the final page, but there is something that makes the books appealing.

    Comment by sister — June 21, 2010 @ 4:30 am | Reply

    • Why the effect didn’t last after I had turned the final page – an interesting way of putting it! That it hooked you so strongly but then the hold dissipated after you finished. I’d say they’re a drug except there are no after-effects… so what do we call them? 🙂

      Comment by girldownstairs — June 28, 2010 @ 1:55 pm | Reply


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