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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