follows what I think has become one of the great traditional plotlines: star-crossed vampire/human truelove. So, move aside, Jack London. In acknowledging my friend Ms. Meyer’s role in developing this new tradition, I feel like the first important thing to say is that Stephenie Meyer is not The Man. While most criticisms of the Twilight series are empirically true, it is nevertheless also true that this series is ubiquitously influential in culture right now, and I don’t think it’s influential in the same way as the War on Terror, or even Sarah Palin. The War and Palin are both The Man in ways that I refuse to believe Ms. Meyer is. I do concede, however, that Stephenie Meyer is a polished and packaged product
of culture, and that she is the same package, in almost every way, as me. I don’t care about age or cynicism, I am the audience for this book. If you want to see my reaction summed up much more quickly than I plan to, I refer you to Paul Bryant’s Georgia
. To introduce you more thoroughly to the audience for whom this book was written, I’ll start with a little summary of the story.
Bella arrives, at the opening of the story, in the small town of Forks, Washington, and she’s not thrilled. She’s like, A little town, oh, it's a quiet village - ev'ry day like the one before. Little town full of little people, waking up to say, bonjour!
She checks in at school, which is awkward because everyone’s staring and whatnot. They’re all, Look there she goes that girl is strange, no question, dazed and distracted, can't you tell? Never part of any crowd, 'cause her head's up on some cloud. No denying she's a funny girl that Bella.
Even her father doesn’t really get her and goes around thinking, Look there she goes that girl is so peculiar. I wonder if she's feeling well. With a dreamy far-off look and her nose stuck in a book, what a puzzle to the rest of us is Bella!
Even when she makes friends, they still just don’t understand that she’s an old soul – too old for dances and shit like that. Everyone still wants to be her friend, though, and they go around whispering, Look there she goes a girl who's strange but special, a most peculiar mad'moiselle. It's a pity and a sin, she doesn't quite fit in, 'cause she really is a funny girl – a beauty but a funny girl. She really is a funny girl – that Bella!
If, after that brief summary, you don’t have a very particular song (and maybe some dance moves that you made up to go with the song at one time or another in your life) stuck in your head, then you are not the designated audience for Twilight
. I’m not even intending to be disrespectful or critical when I say that the resonance people feel with Twilight
is the resonance of Disney. It is the dividing line between those who fall in love with this story, and those who can’t stand looking at the cover art. Interestingly, though, I think most of the people who cringe at the mention of The Twilight Saga
would still go see a new Pixar movie or even Beauty and the Beast
if it was re-released on the big screen. It’s got the candlestick and the teacup, right? Who doesn’t like to see inanimate objects sing and dance? It’s just awesome. Disney, however, is totally The Man. Disney is, like, whatever is above The Man telling The Man what to do. I would call it The Superman, but I don’t want it to get a big head.
Disney is smoother than Twilight
because it knows that you can’t just present the story of a young, beautiful girl falling in love with a potential abuser without including a catchy tune and some dancing flatware. In that way, I guess it’s a mixed blessing that the movie version of Twilight
is so freaking boring and awkward. It gives you time to reflect on whether it’s not a little convenient that our girl thinks it’s so groovy to have a vampire stalk her in her own bedroom. It lets you stop and think that undying for love might not be all it’s cracked up to be. The book version has lots of sparkles, though, and cars flying in every direction, so you don’t have to dwell on the unfortunate implications of the central relationship unless you’re inclined to. But, let’s face it, most of us have contemplated that at one time or another. If you haven’t, now’s your chance. What do you think about a cartoon that encourages little girls to stay in abusive relationships because underneath the gruff exterior of the abuser lies the heart of a prince? What do you think about a book that has women across the country swooning at a cadaverous stalker watching a teenage girl sleep?
I’ll tell you what I think: it totally doesn’t bother me. I mean, if those aren’t the implications that the storytellers were intending (and I don’t necessarily think they are), then oops!
, but that’s the extent of my criticism. On the other hand, I think it’s equally possible that those are the implications that the storytellers intended, and, if so, they are both pretty effective in being persuasive and single-minded in their goals. The messages might be sugar-coated, but they’re still obvious. They’re not sneaky or underhanded. I don’t like it when I feel like an author is trying to sneak around with themes, but if I just disagree, it’s not so bad. I think they’re good stories, too, despite their unfortunate messages, and they are made all the better by their singing and sparkles. Whether we like it or not, stories that idealize stalking and teach girls to try reforming their abusers through patience and fancy dresses are deeply ingrained in (at least) Western culture. It seems possible that these stories are even products of a conflicted nature in humanity. Men want the virgin/whore; women want the beast/god. But, also, none of us really want those people because they’re freaky. We don’t know what we want.
(Arguably, the moral of Beauty and the Beast
is that looks aren’t everything, and the moral of Twilight
is that true love waits. I think those are less interesting messages within the stories, so I’m not going to address them. They are obviously there, though, so disagree as you wish.)
Maybe there is a little Harold Bloom in all of us, mentally applying for the role of literary gatekeeper every time we read a book we don’t like. I have read criticisms of Twilight
that are both hilarious and poignant, and, like I say, this book has a very specific audience. When I hear criticisms, though, they usually just make me really sad. A girl I know is a mother of three young kids and lives out in the middle of nowhere. At the time she read Twilight
she was mostly staying home (again, in the middle of nowhere) and being a mom. She hated the book and had two criticisms. First, she thought that the clothes were really dorky (and, it’s true, the clothes are distracting). Second, every time she looked at Stephenie Meyer’s picture on the back, it bugged her because she thought about how Meyer is “just a mom,” as though a mom shouldn’t have a valuable voice in literature.
I hate that on a lot of levels. I hate the idea of limiting literature to what I agree with, and I hate the idea of taking the voice of moms out of any part of culture. It also seems like a creepy excuse for nonparticipation to say that an entire group of people, to which you belong, shouldn’t be respected in the literary world. I’m not trying to say that Stephenie Meyer represents all moms, but I do think that a lot of criticism I have read of her writing either dismisses her as The Man or as a mom. It reflects the idea that literature should be a table at which only the cool kids sit – or at which the cool kids can’t sit. I don’t know who’s supposed to sit there.
There are a lot of totally valid reasons to dislike any book. I recognize this book’s faults, but I think that one of its greatest strengths is that it was written by a mom. I think it is a fun, hilarious, action-packed story. I think that Stephenie Meyer has story-telling skillz and that you can’t teach that. Henry James might have had a big vocabulary, but he couldn’t tell a story to save his life. Ms. Meyer could benefit from reading the dictionary once or twice, but she already has what you need if you find yourself sitting around a campfire. Possibly, she could use just a dash of self-awareness, but too much self-awareness can ruin any good story – just look at Dave Eggers. Honestly, I would rather be brave enough to write Twilight
than smart enough to criticize it.
It’s funny to say, but this book actually inspired a real crisis of faith in my life. I’ve had some occasions where I’ve had major fallings out with God and then other occasions where I’m a big fan – like ya do. A crisis of faith is not unusual for me. There’s this thing that goes down in mainstream Christianity that is really annoying (I’m sure it happens in other religions, too, but I’m talking totally pop culture Christianity here so that my point makes sense). It’s this thing where people will frame a story as though the hero’s dreams are sure to fail, but then, suddenly, through the power of prayer, God swoops down and fixes everything in a magical money donation. Don’t get me wrong; magical money donations are the bomb. But does that mean that for those whose magical money didn’t come through, God’s showing that he’s angry with them? Does God speak in a reward/punishment system? I don’t think so, but I don’t really know anything about it. I know that in that situation, you’re supposed to say that God has a better plan, but that lacks something to me, also. To be clear, this isn’t a criticism that I’m making of religion in general, or even of Christianity in general, but of this Disneyland Christianity that is everywhere in America. It’s a religion of total convenience where everything has a vague, cliché explanation and, if it doesn’t, we don’t look at it. And the way people tell these stories is like they’re telling the plot of the newest movie about a down-and-out kid’s sports team. The stories are all informed by the plot development of Disney movies.
Like this Disney filter, Edward and Bella’s relationship is very convenient. Edward is immortal and can give immortality. He watches over Bella. His desire for Bella is consuming both physically and emotionally. Bella’s maturity alienates her from other humans. She is physically vulnerable. She is smart and values passion over care for her life. Edward is the Disney god and Bella his disciple. I really don’t mean to be disrespectful when I say I’ve heard God and His people described just this way many times. I don’t know why I hadn’t really thought about this before I read Twilight
, but from thinking about the silly convenience of the Edward/Bella relationship, a lot of real things fall apart for me. Like, if we believe that God is really real (not just abstractly real) and we think that God is with us all the time like Edward is with Bella, why isn’t that creepy? I know I think it’s creepy with Edward, but why not with God? I think it’s because we believe God is there when we’re thinking about Him and not when we’re not. I think Jesus has become a sparkly, romantic immortal with super-strength who thinks you’re so awesome he can’t take his eyes off of you and gives you cars sometimes. This is obviously a problem, but I think any generation will interpret traditional writings through a contemporary cultural lens, so it’s not shocking. It’s just, perhaps, not the lens most of us would prefer.
On the other hand, if we think we’re completely alone when we aren’t with humans, no possibility for anything supernatural or spiritual, that seems limited and conveniently clean, too. I don’t have an answer, and it seems like it’s not really possible to have an answer that’s not annoyingly convenient on some level.
Also, I'm not saying this because I think Stephenie Meyer invented the Disney Jesus, but because I think it helps explain Twilight
's resonance in society. I think Meyer expressed something very simple that both culture and religion have prepared people to receive.
It is probably important to say, again, that I’d be surprised to find out that Stephenie Meyer is part of a vast conspiracy to subdue Western civilization by reducing our worldview to clichés. Plus, I think that when someone’s worldview is a cliché, patronizing them out of it isn’t really the way to go (yeah, you know who you are. No, not you – you in the back. That’s right). Also, what do I know? Maybe, Jesus really is
sparkly and has a warehouse full
of new cars. It is just as legitimate to say that I don’t believe that because I don’t want to as that someone else believes it because they do want to. *sigh*
This may seem backwards, but I started reading Twilight in the mood for something fun and silly and not well written, and so I enjoyed (almost) every minute of the series. In a more anti-Disney mood, I probably I would have wanted to burn them for the weak and whiny heroine and glorification of stalking.
I think of these books like the show Friends
, though. Everything works out well for everyone by the end of the episode, and so despite appalling personal choices and caricatured personalities, the stories are comforting. I don't know whether I think it's worse to be comforted by stories that present unhealthy worldviews, or to expect books to represent literal reality. Both seem suspicious, but the first seems more fun. I appreciate and think it's hilarious that Meyer loves her characters so much that she'll sacrifice anything in the plot to make things turn out well for them. I never feel like she is trying to impress me, but only writing what she wants have happen.
The main criticism I hear of these books is that the love story is completely unrealistic. This is absolutely true, but it is also a series about vegetarian vampire superheroes, so I think it's important to have a little perspective about realism. I hope that we are not so culturally bankrupt as to go to Friends
for dating advice or vampire stories for authentic representations of love. Unfortunately, we actually might be that bankrupt, and I sadly acknowledge my own experience with teen girls and grown women taking these books VERY seriously. I am reluctant, however, to be angry with books I thought were so silly and fun only because of other people being silly in a not fun way.
To conclude, I’m planning to petition Tim Burton to do a song-and-dance version of the Twilight
movie. It will be awesome. For the vampires, we will cast all professional dancers
, and for the normals we’ll cast normals. I mean, we gots a meadow scene, fast cars, and a baseball scene in here! Not to insult the My Dinner With Andre
version, but my version is going to kick ass. We’ll throw in a little irony, music up the melodrama
, and show the haters what a story looks like. You’ll love it.