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

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