From the Basement

June 21, 2010

The Power of Twilight, part two

“It’s why we engage with literature, so we can see other people’s craziness.”

– one of my favorite professors, the indomitable LKH

~*~

My last post was about Twilight. If you haven’t read it, I suggest doing so, since this one picks up where it left off. Specifically, this post is the explication of the following line:

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.

… This is that other post.

I previously talked ad nauseum about how compelling stories sell and how critics should not be surprised when a book with “bad” writing (whatever that means) sells, because compelling premise trumps Norton-worthy writing almost every time.

Addendum: for those of you who may not know what a Norton Anthology is, it is this Leviathon of a book containing all the “must-reads” of British and American literature from the past, oh, 1200 years. It is assembled by the folks who are slowly becoming one with their desks up in the ivory towers, a.k.a. academics, and is basically T.S. Eliot’s dream come true (it’s supposed to sort the wheat from the chaff, whatever that means). This book is required for any sort of survey lit class, and did I mention the best part? It is thousands of pages long. Or, as the afore-quoted professor put it, “Our friend – the hernia – waiting to happen.”

So, back to Twilight, which will probably never be included in the Norton (just sayin’). I suggested that part of its popularity is due to its premise, one that has proved to be inordinately compelling for the millennial generation. Fifteen years ago, average teenage girl meets sparkly vampire would not have sold. Why? Because there were YA vampire novels released in the 1990s that did not merit much ado about anything. The Vampire Diaries is a series that has profited tremendously in the Twilight afterglow; the series was initially published in the 90s but didn’t really pick up until after Twilight. And now TVD has its own television show.

I think it’s fair to say that Twilight was the right book at the right time. It has a powerful hold on youth culture and has inspired dozens of spin-offs, but nothing can top the original. It’s become popular that it’s almost as popular to bash Twilight as it is to love it.

One of the most popular anti-Twilight points is about the “bad writing” and how it’s ruining young people’s understanding of literature. Twilight being popular heralds the depravity of popular taste, etc. etc. etc. Whatever.

And now we’re caught up to where I left off – all this talk on how Twilight is bad writing, yada yada yada, so awful how could people like it … all this is just a cover for what critics think is really wrong.

When I picture Twilight, I think of it as an IV that has a direct line into the body that is our culture. Yep, in a hospital. And yep, I get the possible pun with blood. The books are saying something that desperately wants to be voiced. It’s like medicine. But is it the medicine we want?

Whether Twilight is compelling is not in question. What is in question is whether it should be compelling – and, more frighteningly, what it means to have such a story be so obviously representative of the state of our youth (at least the female half).

Let’s describe that story. A girl with low self-esteem finds her purpose entirely in a guy, a maladjusted 100+ year-old vamp who for some reasons spends his days repeating high school (like Groundhog Day, only voluntarily). Edward is a masochist, and Bella has low self-esteem and suffers from depression. We learn in the first chapter that she has abandonment issues. The starting point of their relationship is that they sit next to each other in biology, and Edward pays virtually no attention to her, yet she becomes unnaturally, inordinately attached to him. And sure enough, within a few hundred pages, she’s willing to give up her soul for him (that is, she wants to be a vampire, too). She doesn’t care about her soul; she cares about having him.

And let’s talk about Edward. This guy has issues. He’s emotionally stunted (who wouldn’t be, repeating high school?) and he plays with fire by developing a relationship with Bella. Think about it: he tells her she shouldn’t be near him, he tells her he’s dangerous, but obviously his desire for her outweighs his concern for her safety, because notwithstanding his suicidal sting in New Moon, he does not stay away from her. He has some self-control, but he’s thirsty for her blood. The word lush is used in the fourth book to describe this. And let’s not skip over the point that he hates himself, and that she is his purpose and reason (which is why he’s suicidal in New Moon when he thinks that she’s dead – Romeo & Juliet allusion!).

So, in sum, Bella is attracted to an hot, filthy rich vampire who loves her but really, really wants to kill her. They are both depressed, they don’t like themselves, and their identities get wrapped up in the relationship. And this has the makings of true love … how, exactly?

To say it’s an unhealthy relationship is an understatement. To say it is disturbing is certainly fair.

(I may insert more thoughts in here at some point, but the coffee buzz is wearing off and I want to wrap up.)

When it comes down to it, I think we’re scared of Twilight. Not of the Team Edward vs. Team Jacob mania – teenage hormones are nothing new. Rather, we’re scared of what it means if Edward/Bella, rather than Darcy/Elizabeth, is the idealized relationship for a teenage girl. We’re scared of what it means if our sisters and daughters are identifying with a character who retreats so deeply into her own depths she doesn’t have the strength to bring herself out. With a girl who would give up her soul for an immortal lover.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published 113 years ago (1897). In that book, vampires heralded the end of individuality, and as such, they were to be fought. They were dark creatures, villains, the natural of humans. Now, they are romantic heroes.

Edward is afraid of his own darkness. Bella, the reader proxy, is not. What does this say about our culture, especially youth culture? Bella does not fear human death, nor does she fear the consequences that come with immortality (immortality is rarely a good thing in literature – think what it meant in Harry Potter or, going back a few centuries, Marlowe’s Faustus). Vampires, once a threat, are now simply misunderstood. And, interestingly enough, it is not the sparkliness of vampires or even the immortality that attracts Bella, but rather the fact that she wants to be a vamp because (wait for it) … her boyfriend is a vamp. She is eager to be absorbed into his world, a world in which she only fits because she has him. Her identity becomes meshed with his. (There are so many gender issues in these books; check out bitchmagazine.com for some rockin’ articles.)

To close, I think that part of Twilight’s power stems from fear. Fear of its significance in the lives of our youth. Fear of what that means. Fear for our culture. And fear because none of us saw it coming.

I’ll probably be back to expound, edit, etc. In the meantime, I welcome comments, respectful arguments, links, etc. What’s your take on the Twilight phenomenon? The Girl Downstairs wants to know.

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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

June 4, 2010

It’s Wedding Season! (break out the Xanax)

I have four – count them, four – friends getting married in the next 15 days. I can only attend one of the weddings, which breaks my heart, but as a result of this nuptial frenzy, weddings are on the mind. I was discussing them today with a good friend and once again was faced with the fact that I am quite possibly the only woman in the world who does not like weddings.

Don’t get me wrong – I am thrilled for my friends who are getting married. All four of them are with good men, and I don’t say that flippantly. And marriage itself, the institution at its heart, is something to be celebrated. But for reasons unknown to me, I find wedding ceremonies to be voyeuristic and rather awkward. I don’t know why. I feel like I’m – snooping? – into someone else’s intimate moment. I know that guests are meant to be witnesses to one of the most beautiful moments in someone else’s life, but still …

Strange though this predilection is, I’ve come a long way, baby, over the last two years. I used to be anti-marriage as well as anti-wedding, but a good man (and a savior with a great sense of humor) helped (is helping?) cure me of that … phase. I’d still rather elope than face a crowd of 200 loved ones in an embarrassingly tight white dress, but my boyfriend is stubborn. I figure that if I have to go through relationship Purgatory, it may as well be walking down an aisle.

This propensity may be why I enjoy movies such as Wedding Crashers. Don’t click that back button – stay with me. Notwithstanding Bride Friend #1’s amazing commentary for this movie, I truly enjoy the way the film pokes fun at weddings. The premise of the film is that two guys go to weddings to get laid by women who are supposedly floating on a sexual high (clearly, they never met me). Sleazy though that premise may be, the film does an excellent job of showing how predictable, commercialized, and non-personal weddings can be. They integrate themselves into the wedding experience, making toasts and dancing with flower girls.

In short, they show how overdone and predictable weddings can be in our culture. How focused on the tradition, on the ceremony, rather than on the couple. And this may be my issue at its core: is it necessary to have a bridal party? To have 200 guests? To have a champagne toast, a DJ, an ungodly enormous cake, ridiculous floral arrangements – is all of that necessary? Weddings, and the marriages that lie beneath them, have been turned into commercial affairs when, really, all they need to be are simple vows between a man and a woman, with the witness of an officiate and perhaps a few friends.

This is not meant to insult anyone, and it’s certainly not meant to upset my friends who are getting married over the next few weeks. I’m simply questioning the necessity of the ceremony, of the pomp and circumstance. Not of marriage, not of love, and certainly not of a couple’s genuine desire to share their day with their loved ones (however many hundreds there may be). After all, why should any two weddings be identical? Shouldn’t they be as unique as the people who are getting married?

I’ll end my thoughts here, because this is starting to venture off into rambling, but I just want to say: I think that weddings are awkward and at times over-commercialized, but love is supercalifragalisticexpialidocious (or however Mary Poppins said it) and marriage is something our culture has forgotten how to value. And beneath everything, buried under all that pomp that I can’t seem to ignore, marriage is what weddings are about. And I need to remember that. I think we all do.

June 3, 2010

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

I finished up my graduation thank you cards tonight. There’s a certain pleasure in finishing a handwritten note to someone, in addressing an enveloped and sealing it – even the taste of licking the envelope is distinctive. It’s something I don’t taste very often, mostly because I don’t send cards or letters through the mail very often … usually, I hardly send any at all.

Were it not for years of being trained to write thank you cards (and for a boyfriend who is an old romantic in that he writes me letters when we’re apart), I would not be doing my part to keep the US Postal Service in business. And it’s a shame, really. Letter writing, thank you cards – these are lost arts that are not often practiced, especially by members of my generation. We grew up with computers in our schools; I had my first email account (hotmail!) in fifth grade. Everything’s electronic: we call, we Skype, we text, we email – when do we take the time to sit down with a pen in our hands, a piece of paper (or even – gasp! – stationary!) in front of us, and actually write?

There is power in the thoughts written down by hand. There’s a certain mindless quality to typing, and there can certainly be a mindless quality to writing, but more often than not, a pen forces me to really think – to question, to reflect, to be honest. And there’s such joy in receiving a written letter! I most recently received a handwritten card from a friend on the eve of my graduation, and it was such a beautiful letter. When someone takes the time to buy a card, sit down, and write their thoughts out …

Perhaps I think it means so much because nowadays it’s practiced so little. My everyday approach to email (even blogging) is probably what 19th century ladies thought of leaving calling cards, of writing letters.

But times change, and the old goes through a stage where it becomes unfashionable, but then something happens. It comes back and revisits the present, curiously shinier than it was before, intriguing in its antiquity, waiting to be embraced by the current generation. Just look at bell-bottoms.

I’m waiting for that to happen with letter writing. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, given the ever increasing pace of our culture. After all, who wants to wait two or three days to receive news when an email can be there in ten seconds?

And yet –

There’s something about handwritten notes that forces us to slow down, in a good way. Maybe that’s the angle that will recall our generation back to this lost art.

Or maybe I’m just being an idealistic English nerd who desperately wants to write an contemporary story told in epistles. Who knows.

May 22, 2010

On the latest Miss USA scandal

In college, I triple majored in English, Politics, and Women’s Studies. I mostly don’t blog about politics or feminist issues; I’ve mellowed over the years and opted to make faith and life transition the focus of this blog rather than using it as a platform to discuss issues.

But, even though I’m a little late to the party on this one, I couldn’t help but put my two cents in.

Over the last ten days or so, scandal has erupted in the Miss USA world (again) as two racy sets of photos were released about Rima Fakih, the latest winner. One set features Fakih competing in a stripper pole contest at an event held by a Michigan radio station; the judges were strippers, the audience was female, and there was no nudity. The second set – if I’ve done my research correctly – was released by the pageant itself and featured Fakih in lingerie, at times topless.

And so the media finds itself once again between a rock and a hard place, alternately celebrating and stigmatizing the actions of hypersexualized beauty queens, while the public reacts in outrage that “such a woman” (not quoting anyone directly there) would be uplifted as a role model and as a representative of the United States. Both sides seem to ignore their complicity in creating a culture where this behavior thrives.

Quite simply, women in beauty pageants are in – do we honestly need to be reminded? – beauty pageants. In that industry, good looks are currency and good presentation is a deal-breaker. I have a cousin who was a child beauty queen (was Little Miss [state], as a matter of fact), and my uncle pulled her from the pageant circuit when he saw how deeply it was affecting her even at ten years old. That’s anecdotal, and it’s not meant as exclusive evidence but rather to help prove a point: most of the women in Miss America and Miss USA pageants did not enter on a dare but rather were brought up on the pageant circuit, being bred for these very contests.

They are raised in a hypersexualized atmosphere that values them for their body – that gets them public acclimation, money, and awards if they win. But when these women take charge of their bodies, whether it’s on a stripping pole or in a sensual photography session, we vilify them. (Though whether they’re taking charge or are delving further into their prescribed roles is a matter of debate).

In short, the media feigns outrage when they’re well aware that they fuel the atmosphere these women thrive in.

Quotes from the film Miss Congeniality come to mind when I try to put myself in the contestants’ and contest organizers’ shoes. “This is not a beauty pageant; this is a scholarship program!” And I do not doubt that many of the women in the pageant are remarkably intelligent, accomplished, and driven. There’s no way they’d get where they are if they weren’t.

It just so happens that the vehicle they’ve chosen (or perhaps, their parents chose) to propel their success is one that, first and foremost, values them for their bodies, for their beauty, for their ability to physically appeal to a mass audience.

For me, the issue is not that Fakih posed or stripped. She’s an accomplished woman who – more to the point – is an adult woman who is perfectly capable of making her own decisions (the level of how much they are culturally informed by the beauty industry is another discussion). The issue that sparks my indignation is our reaction as a culture, the blatant hypocrisy, the stinking self-righteousness as we set these women up to take a “fall.”

I’ll close with a quote from Donald Trump. When asked about the racy stripping and lingerie photos, he said “It would be foolish to consider anyone other than Rima to represent the USA.  The photos taken from our website are no more provocative than those on the Miss USA website.”

Exactly.

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