From the Basement

November 7, 2010

“Random Acts of Culture”

I love the internet and how it enables people from far and wide to witness “flash” mobs and random acts of culture. I want to join in and be a part of one! Where do I sign up?

Current youtube obsession: the Random Act of Culture performed by the Opera Company of Philadelphia less than two weeks ago. They flash mobbed Macy’s with a beautiful rendition of Handel’s “Messiah.”

And my favorite dance flash mob…

Note: I am far more equipped to do the Sound of Music dance than the opera singing. Just sayin’.

What I love about these is that they bring joy to people. It’s random, unexpected – you don’t expect an opera company or random dancers when you’re shopping or traveling – and that’s what’s so fun about it. Maybe it’s naive and Pollyanna-optimistic, but to me, these events are reminders that there is good in the world, good coming straight to you from random strangers who gathered in a spot to bring light and joy into your life. Random act of culture, sure. But it’s a random act of kindness, too – even to those of us watching from the comfort of our own homes.

October 6, 2010

An Exhortation to Love (inspired by Glee & Joan Osborne)

I’ve been listening to the song “One of Us,” released by Joan Osborne in 1995, most recently covered by the cast of Glee, all day long.

Something in this song is provoking my spirit. I can sing this song in total worship, in the full knowledge that Jesus was one of us, convicted by the hard questions the song addresses (“If God had a face, what would it look like and would you want to see?”). Joan Osborne, the writer and singer, was obviously influenced by her Catholic upbringing, even though she has since left it and now professes Buddhist influences. And tonight, the cast of Glee, characters openly Christian, Jewish, agnostic, and atheist alike, closed the episode asking the titular question – “What if God was one of us?” – even as the show’s creator, Ryan Murphy, said, “My point of view is that God is everybody’s collective goodness.” (Fabulous recap of the episode and Murphy’s quote  here – http://www.eonline.com/uberblog/watch_with_kristin/b204027_glee-dux_praise_cheesus_ryan_murphy.html)

As I wrote yesterday, the book I’m reading right now is Angela Thomas’s Do You Know Who I Am? – a question that every woman (everyone) addresses to God. As I was journaling and praying today, the immediate response was God saying, “Do you know who I AM?” (a response Thomas also chronicles in the book, incidentally – good to know God’s consistent in this! *chuckle).

A lot of lessons are coalescing right now – my reading in Piper’s Future Grace, which rests on the foundation that unbelief is the root of all sin and that the ability to walk in “future grace” comes from having faith in God’s promises, in knowing His character and trusting Him. This last weekend at Think, we were challenged to love God with all our hearts, all our souls, and especially all our minds – not to let the means of loving supercede the Greatest Commandment, which is to love God, but to examine and study and learn of the character and nature of God, that we may not boast in our own abilities but in the great grace and love and awesome glory of His son, Jesus Christ.

This song – “One of Us” – it could be a prayer for this generation. It makes me think – we are so close. While religion will (most) always be used by those in power for destructive purposes (the Crusades, discrimination, slavery, etc.), the heart of the people… the heart I see in my peers, in this generation… is a desperate cry for love and acceptance. As depraved as we are – as depraved as any generation has been, for there is nothing new under the sun – there is a very public desperation for acceptance.

The call for acceptance and tolerance – cries at an all-time media high this week because of the tragic suicides of teenagers due to bullying, largely over their sexuality – are piercing. Church, do you hear these cries? Our culture is not desperate for your anti-sin propaganda; they are desperate for a transformative, powerful love – the kind of love that will wrap a gay teenage boy up in its arms and offer him a life he never dreamed of. Not only unconditional acceptance, but unconditional love. Grace unceasing. Peace that surpasses understanding. Purpose. And the promise of life hereafter with the One who holds you in His arms every day.

Glee creator Ryan Murphy said that tolerance is at the heart of the show – an attitude which, while commendable, is startling in its tepid insufficiency. It is not enough to tolerate, and I think that regardless of religious creed (or lack thereof), we all know it.

“Tolerance” was not something Jesus Christ practiced. He didn’t “tolerate” prostitutes and tax collectors. And He didn’t just accept them in the crowd as He taught. He ate with them. He loved on them. To the thief who hung on the cross beside Him, Jesus said, “You will be with me in paradise.” And this was a thief whose only “work” was to acknowledge Christ as the Son of God.

That’s love. That’s grace. Don’t give me your cock and bull good works propaganda. I don’t want it. Any work not founded in faith and any work not done in love is dead, and I don’t give a damn how good your motivations are. What message is there but the Cross, where people did nothing and Christ did everything? Tullian Tchividjian gave a fabulous message last Friday on how the church somehow feels a need to caution its congregants about grace, as if it’s this wild thing that could be let loose to great destruction if we let it – Lord forgive us that we would temper and dilute the power of Your grace! (Now I want to go find my notes on his talk, which was entitled “Giving Thought to Gospel Math: Why Jesus + Nothing = Everything.”)

In John 13:35, Jesus says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Yes, discussions about doctrine and theology and transgression and the necessity of faith in action are critical to the maturing of believers… but people do not come to Christianity because of its rules. And might I add, they do not come to Christianity. They come to Jesus Christ, the giver of all good gifts, our savior, whose love for us is beyond human description.

People come because they know they are not enough.

They come because they know there is something greater.

They come because they realize that that something greater is the love of Jesus Christ, the son of God, our Redeemer.

Church, people do not need to hear the rules or how much of a sin [______ – homosexuality, adultery, take your pick] is – have the last few millennia shown you that that approach does not work? This is not a game where people come because of us. They come… they only ever come… because of Jesus Christ, who offers an unconditional love which makes words like “tolerance” seem pale and cheap.

The verse bears repeating… “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

As humans, we fail in loving each other. I fail so much, every day. But in God and His son Jesus Christ, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can love… and the beautiful thing is that His love is so glorious that even a hint reflected in this life makes me want to go running into His arms.

What if God was one of us? … what if God was reflected in us, strangers on a bus trying to make our way home…

September 15, 2010

Taylor Swift & Metal Music: Love Story?

I’m not a huge fan of Taylor Swift. While I can appreciate the reasons for her popularity (and her attempt at maintaining a “wholesome” image, whatever that means), her lyrics often border on the [fill in your adjective of choice].

Given my proclivity for fairy tales, several friends sent the hit song “Love Story” my way. They didn’t know that my ears were already bleeding – I ran a day camp for elementary school kids last summer, and listening to 6-year-old girls sing about Romeo & Juliet and The Scarlet Letter infuriated both the English major and the overprotective teacher in me. There is a generation of girls who are in for a big surprise when they hit high school English class, and I hope to God they don’t want to be Juliet.

In a fairy tale turn, however, my fiancé rescued the song for me. He’s a not-so-closet metalhead, and he sent me a fabulous cover performed by Amongst the Ruin.

Maybe it’s just me, but the juxtaposition of Twu Luv lyrics with metal music casts a deliciously dark and ironic light on the song. Finally, the allusions to depressing literature make sense!

This version is definitely love… twu luv.

August 10, 2010

Free Indeed: Writing & Reading Outside of Academia

Today, it struck me how different my summer would have been had I been accepted to grad school, particularly in terms of reading. In the eager anticipation of entering a doctoral program, I had prepared a list of “must read” books – notable 19th century novels, notable theorists. A small sampling:

Nathaniel Hawthorne – Blithedale Romance

George Eliot – Middlemarch, Mill on the Floss

Matthew Arnold – Culture and Anarchy

Catherine Gallagher – Nobody’s Story

Judith Butler – Gender Trouble

Since grad school didn’t work out, I’ve been reading very different sorts of books – the sort that doesn’t secure cultural capitol in academia. Genre fiction, memoir, Christian living. Desiring God and Women Food and God were two of the best reads this summer, and I just finished Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (I didn’t realize Janzen was an English professor until I started reading). I’ve been traipsing around Egypt with Amelia Peabody and indulging in the romantic comedies of Jennifer Crusie, whose titles (Welcome to Temptation, Faking It) are apt to send the literati into seizures. The disappointment of the summer was James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series – I made it through four books before tiring of the formula.

The closest I’ve come to grad school reading material is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, and maybe The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. And I’m almost done reading the short stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer-prize winning collection Interpreter of Maladies, but I don’t know if that counts since I would read her stuff even if she hadn’t won the Pulitzer. She and Atwood are quite possibly the only literary writers I enjoy – reading Toni Morrison is like pulling teeth and I’ve never been able to get past the first chapter of a Salman Rushdie novel, sorry.

All this has me wondering: exactly why did I want to go to grad school? I’m terrific at forcing myself to read books I don’t want to, mainly because it feeds my English Major Ego – I could force down Native Son again if my professors told me to. It’s about being able to say you’ve read this novel or that novel or this theory or that theory…

The question arises: what’s the point? I might pick up one of the aforementioned novels, because I really am interested in reading more 19th century work, but they’re obviously not my priority or I would have read them already.

Here’s the thing: if you give me the option between writing a novel and studying a novel, I’d rather write a novel. My English major was an external result of a deep love and appreciation for the power of a good story. I think literature is of critical importance in a society, mainly because good stories are absolutely critical to the nourishment of the human spirit.

My reading this summer has been the sort that nourishes that spirit, or at least mine. It’s encouraging, revelatory, instructive, hopeful. In its own way, it teaches. (It also teaches you how contemporary novels are structured, because I’m sorry, but Middlemarch and Pamela are utterly useless when it comes to learning how to write a novel.)

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a close friend. We were talking about how God had leveled our plans and expectations. My friend had thought she wanted to pursue teaching or higher education in public policy, when what she really loves is being on the ground, working with the people, loving the people. For me, I’d thought I wanted a doctorate in literature so I could teach about other people’s stories, when what I really love is writing my own stories. God took away the chaff and gave us the wheat, the small, concentrated portion that had been driving us the whole time.

God’s taken us both to a place where our real passion is evidenced. She’s working on the ground with people, and I’m writing a novel. Unemployed and living at home, but writing! I can read whatever I want to, and no one is going to judge me. I can write whatever I want to, and who cares if people judge me? My goal is to write a good story, imperfectly told, that is emotionally honest and accessible.

That’s what I want. I don’t need to be the next Jhumpa Lahiri; I’m content to learn from her. I don’t need a Pulitzer or a Booker or to be “literary” or to please my professors or even to please my friends… I need to tell the best story I can, one that is honest and emotional, that demonstrates the value of the human spirit. A friend recently texted me these words of encouragement: “You have something to share with the world that no one else does. God has words for you to communicate – not even necessarily sacred writing – but stories.”

And who knows? Maybe someday I will want to read Middlemarch and Pamela, and maybe I’ll want to pursue a doctorate… just not right now. Not while I’m writing, gloriously writing. For the first time in years, I feel free.

August 9, 2010

On Inspiration

Filed under: Writing — jeannablue @ 1:56 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Today, I tripped down memory lane, writing wise. I spent a few hours downtown this afternoon at two of my old haunts. Two years ago, when I worked downtown, I’d walk to the Acoustic every day for lunch – sat at the same table, eating the same thing, writing non-stop for an hour straight. It was marvelous. I’d trained myself to do that; that hour was my writing time. I was able to write there today – I did a few exercises from The Art of War for Writers, which is great inspiration. Then I went to a coffee joint I’ve been frequenting for over ten years. It’s moved locations once and changed owners several times (it’s currently a raw food place/coffeehouse), but the coffee’s still decent. Its current location is in a former auto repair shop, so it’s got high, open beam ceilings, wood floors, and a counter that extends for more than twenty feet. I parked myself on a couch, watched the cars go by outside, listened to the writing music from two years ago, and relaxed.

Lately, I’ve been remembering how important it is to soothe the soul. Sometimes artists get so wrapped up in approaching our art like a job that we forget the value of inspiration, of sitting back and just nourishing our creativity. For me, that means not reading to learn craft. It means reading Jennifer Crusie or Elizabeth Peters, not Jhumpa Lahiri and Margaret Atwood (I still learn from Crusie and Peters – I just enjoy their stories more than literary prose). It means watching Little Women and Lie to Me (for some reason, that show really gets my juices flowing). It means trying not to get too addicted to youtube watching my favorite performances from So You Think You Can Dance and American Idol – there’s something about watching vibrant young performers pursuing their passion and all-out going for it every single week.

It means remembering that life is to be enjoyed, and even if art is our calling, it’s not our burden. Trust our Creator, trust the talent we’ve been given, buckle down and do the hard work, and freaking enjoy it. Life is short. It’s so short. Let’s not get lost in needing inspiration – but let’s not shove it, either.

August 6, 2010

In Celebration of Robert

For the first time ever, I’ve been watching So You Think You Can Dance (and I think I’m in love – I enjoy it so much more than Dancing With the Stars). Tonight’s episode was a nailbiter: 4 got whittled to 3 as viewer votes alone determined who would go on to dance in next week’s finale.

I feared that my favorite of the top 4, Robert, would be going home. Adechike, for all the criticism, had never been in the bottom three, and the judges seem to be in a weekly contest of “I Love Lauren and Kent More!” The Lauren Love, I get – girl is wicked talented, and judge Adam Shankman summed it up with three words: “I’d hire you.” But Kent? Talent, check. Cornfed charm, check. But A) he cannot control his face and B) up until last night, there was no indication that he could connect with an emotionally mature routine.

Robert, on the other hand, has gone in and out of the bottom three all season. Even with his “brilliant” performances, wonderful growth, and remarkable maturity (he’s only a year older than the innocent Kent), he hasn’t been a voter favorite.

But tonight turned out to be a wonderful surprise. Adechike went home, the picture of gratitude and humility, and so Robert, Lauren, and Kent will be dancing in the finale. My money is on Lauren to win it, but I’m thrilled that I’ll get to see Robert dance one last time.

So, in celebration of Robert, I give you my favorite Robert Dance. The routine below was danced on the second “Top 6” night, and it’s one of my top 5 dances of the season. It’s subtle and mature, and the more I watch it, the more I cry. (The video quality isn’t ideal, but it’s the only vid of the performance I could find that would embed.)

Enjoy. And Robert – best of luck next week.

P.S. A link to one of his other exceptionally moving routines – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xnguqsMQmg4&feature=related

July 20, 2010

The Rapunzel-less Rapunzel: On Disney’s Latest Marketing Strategy

I love fairy tales. Disney, Grimms, Sexton, Carter – you name it, I love it. This last year, I completed an 80-page honors project that comprised critical and creative responses to marriage and motherhood in Snow White and Rapunzel.

So imagine my delight when I learned that Disney would be tackling the Grimms’s Rapunzel. Now, changes were inevitable. Rapunzel features baby kidnapping, premarital sex, and teenage pregnancy. But anything Barbie can do, Disney can do better, and I eagerly awaited the release of the trailer.

I knew that the story would be mostly unrecognizable, but I thought, you know, that Rapunzel was sort of supposed to be the main character.

Is she?

Well, the movie is called Tangled. And it seems that the character who is tangled up in conflict is not Rapunzel but Flynn Rider, resident kingdom thief (nothing new in the current world of MG/YA fiction).

As it turns out, Disney has been remarkably open about their decision to alter the film in order to appeal to a wider audience – that is, young boys as well as young girls. They’re taking the fairy tale out of, well, the fairy tale.

The decision was made to change the title (and tweak the plotline) in light of their 2009 release, The Princess and the Frog. Even with the race accusations that flew across cyberspace, the film still grossed $270 million worldwide and was met with widely positive reception here at home (it has an 84% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes). Roger Ebert gave it three stars; in his print review, he wrote, “No 3-D! No glasses! No extra ticket charge! No frantic frenzies of meaningless action! And…  good gravy! A story! Characters! A plot!” (He did note that the story did not live up to usual Disney standards.)

However, Disney did not cite story as the problem with The Princess and the Frog’s “low” gross but rather its gender-specific title, that having “princess” in the title alienated possible audiences (read: boys). And the company’s upset is perhaps understandable given the massive success of Pixar’s Up!, which grossed $700 million and garnered a few nods from the Academy.

But here’s the question: should Disney be trying to, well, be Pixar? Just because they’re corporate siblings doesn’t mean they have to produce identical products or appeal to exactly the same audience. Publishing houses understand this – every major house hosts dozens of imprints, each of which has its own unique list. While they obviously want the lists to be successful, they embrace their ability to appeal to a variety of audiences.

In the case of Disney/Pixar, there is an admittedly significant difference between $270 and $700 million. But so too is there a significant difference between the Disney and Pixar brand names. Can I point out the pink elephant in the room? Disney is known for its fairy tales. In publishing terms, Disney has the backlist to beat all backlists! Part of the reason we go to a Disney movie is, frankly, for more of the same, only different. Audiences love series books and films; we love predictable genre. Exhibit A: Stephen King; Exhibit B: Shrek 4.

In March 2010, the LA Times released a story that chronicled the decision to change Rapunzel to Tangled: “Disney Restyles ‘Rapunzel’ to Appeal to Boys” (written by Dawn C. Chmielewski and Claudia Ellerthe). The article quoted Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, who explained: “We did not want to be put in a box…. Some people might assume it’s a fairy tale for girls when it’s not. We make movies to be appreciated and loved by everybody.”

Fair enough. Only Disney didn’t create a “fairy tale” story for boys and girls – they took a classic, removed the girl parts, and put guy stuff in. At least, that’s how I’m interpreting it.

It’s not a universal story grown organically. It’s a mash-up of marketing strategies designed to make a supposedly “female” story genderless.

Let’s apply publishing wisdom just once more:

On agent blogs, you always hear that good books sell. Industry experts advise against writing for the trends; write for the story rather than for the market. Audiences can spot cheap imitations a mile away – hence why Twilight continues to sell heads and shoulders above the stories that have tried to suckle its success (pun intended).

Kids are consumers, too. And if I learned anything while working with kids last summer, it’s that they are not dumb. They don’t appreciate it when you try to sell ’em the real deal and then hand ‘em a fake.

Which is, frankly, what Tangled is shaping up to be.

Rather than looking at Pixar’s audience as the reason for its success, maybe Disney should look at how Pixar approaches their stories. Instead of retooling stories based on marketing strategies, why not spend more time on the stories themselves, seeking to write the best fairy tale possible, a story filled with compelling characters, a story that finds a fresh way to relay a timeless message. That’s how stories break out. That’s how the story will – unwittingly – find new audiences.

Because the story is good. Because it’s true. Because we watch it and know that we’ve just seen yet another Disney classic.

Prediction: in trying to satisfy everyone, Disney will satisfy no one.

LA Times article here: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/mar/09/business/la-fi-ct-disney9-2010mar09

June 29, 2010

Gilmore Girls & Coffee

Filed under: Uncategorized — jeannablue @ 3:23 am
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In my family, people tend to pair off and have certain shows or movies that are special to a particular relationship. My dad and I had The West Wing, and then we had 24. My sister and I bonded over Charmed. And after I left for college, my mom and sister fell in love with Gilmore Girls. Consequently, we own every season. I’ve never really watched the show, partly because it feels like theirs, but I was bored today so I watched the pilot. I forget how enjoyable the show is – the dialogue sparkles and goes at the speed of light. But by the end of the episode, I realized there was another reason to watch the show – a far more important reason.

For those of you who don’t know me personally, well, let’s just say that I am a coffee lover. I drink it anytime. All the time. I have a half a pot in the morning and a half a pot before bed, and if I’m feeling really inspired, I have one in the middle of the afternoon, even in the summer. All this to say, Lorelei Gilmore is an inspiration.

Note that Lorelei has raised her daughter on coffee. Like Rory, I never stood a chance. If your mother was giving you coffee-flavored ice cream when you were 2 and buying you lattes and mochas when you were 10… well, you’d be writing this blog.

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.

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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