The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal - The Surprising Strength of Twilight
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The Surprising Strength of Twilight|
For research into my new book, I had to read Twilight. People had told me that Twilight was an abomination unto the Lord, a scabrous pile of poop that a talentless hack had shat out to plague the world.
I didn’t believe it.
I always believe there’s some appeal to a bestselling book, even if that appeal does not necessarily lie in “prose.” Take the Da Vinci Code, for example. Are the characters wooden? Yes. But the thing people don’t get about Dan Brown is that his characters are not the central characters. He spends far more time describing the parquet floors of the Louvre than he does on his protagonist’s motivations. Once you realize that Dan Brown’s priorities are inverted and his locations are actually his lead characters while his lead characters are background, the novel moves quite swiftly.
And Twilight, well, I didn’t want to read it because Bella’s character sounded like she’d annoy me… But I assumed it had some appeal. Why would millions of teenage girls read it otherwise?
And lo, Twilight did one thing better than I’d ever seen it done, something so perfect that before I read Twilight, I didn’t realize nobody had ever captured the moment before:
Stupid, silly New Relationship Energy.
The triumph of Twilight is that there is a hundred-and-thirty-page stretch where all Bella and Edward do is talk. Oh, they talk in different locations – they’re talking in the school! In the car! In the woods! In her bedroom!
And they’re talking only about how much they love each other!
Thing is, Stephenie has that silly first-blush of love completely down, where you’re so amazed that this person’s fallen for you that you keep regurgitating your origin story back at each other, endlessly creating your own mythology of How This Happened. You learn a new fact about someone, then slip back into “I can’t believe this is happening” and “You smell so good” and “I knew I loved you from the moment I saw you.”
She abso-fucking-loutely nails it. Which is going to irritate a lot of people who don’t like that kind of NRE. I mean, if you’re not a silly teenaged girl at heart (and really, I am a cuddler), then this sort of flighty repetition is custom-made to drive you batty.
Yet that does not mean it does not ring true. Having two characters do nothing but talk for a quarter of your novel, with no other people to interrupt or interject, and still maintaining my interest? It’s a feat few can manage.
Bella’s also far spunkier than the world gives her credit for, though – she keeps running off, disobeying and contradicting Edward, coming up with plans. I expected a total doormat… And Bella’s not an active lead, God knows, but she’s not quite an inert object either. (Though I dunno if her character suffers from Motivation Decay in later books.)
The troublesome anti-feminist overtones of Edward have been rehashed in depth elsewhere, as Edward Knows What Is Best For Bella And Bella Agrees… But what I find more troubling is the way all the other characters fade into the woodwork. This is a teenaged girl’s power fantasy where the world is bent to satisfy her, no different than a boy kicking ass as Batman…
And the supporting cast just vanishes. Bella is strangely cruel to those she doesn’t care about, and it’s disturbing me more and more that this is a classic teenaged fantasy. Anyone who isn’t attractive to Bella is flat-out invisible and interchangeable, to the point where they exist only to be dropped from the plot. In other words, I’m so special that I have all of these friends begging for my attention and I don’t even NEED them. I can just discard all human interaction to be with Edward. She seems to find the concept of “regular friends” actively irritating, which is disturbing.
jenphalian thinks that this is merely a weakness in Stephenie Meyer’s writing, that she’s not that good at keeping track of many people – but no, Stephenie handles the vampires just fine. It’s the everyday folks who become literally invisible, the ordinary kids who want to hang with the cool new girl, and the subliminal message is “If they’re not useful to you, they’re to be discarded.” That’s fucking concerning.
But overall, despite the Godawful prose, I can see the potent vampire heart distinctly NOT beating at the core of Twilight. I dunno if I can get through New Moon, not with so many actually good books out there (Holly Black is calling me, and I have two novels to crit)…. But there’s an appeal.
I just wonder how much NRE I can take.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.
This entry has also been posted at http://theferrett.dreamwidth.org/204223.html. You can comment here, or comment there; makes no never-mind by me.
Tags: books, feminism, nerd rage, reviews
I'm starting to expand my "NRE is a trauma response" theory in my head to include that very thing you're talking about. The endless origin story rehash is a coping mechanism, writing and rewriting the story until it fits into your life narrative and it's no longer a massive betrayal of your conception of the world (even if a very good betrayal).
SOMEDAY I WILL BE FAMOUS FOR THIS. Except now I've put it on the internet and someone who likes writing more than I do will steal it and write the book and they will be famous instead.
I think that's an accurate representation.
I agree with you about Dan Brown, he's a hack but he's also a magnificent writer in his own special way. How does Stephenie Meyer compare to Ann Rice? Rice is a terrific writer, who just happens to write about silly vampires, but also has plenty of new relationship energy that you like, especially in "Interview", but also in "Cry"
The problem with Anne Rice is that for every great book she writes she writes five awful books. So, you read "The Mayfair Witches" and get all excited only to pick up the sequel "Lasher" and be like "OMG this is the worst piece of shit ever!"
That is a good point.
Why not have a book thats a total female fantasy? We have Batman, Dirty Harry, etc, its fair.
Well, we have tons of female fantasies. They just don't get respected, is all. Dirty Harry and its ilk are written off critically, but they're at least considered cool. Female fantasies get bad reviews and embarrassment.
My daughter, who is a VORACIOUS reader and particularly loves Tamora Pierce's YA novels, tried. She really tried. And apparently couldn't finish more than about half of the book for wanting to slap Bella.
I feel that proves I did my job as a parent (particularly as the parent of a young female). :)
Yeah, Bella annoyed me about as much as a character as the few girls I did meet who were like that annoyed me in person when I was a teen. Teenage girls aren't all like her, thankfully, I would have gone mad in an all-girl's school if they were.
And it makes me grind my teeth when people point at Twilight and say, "but see, this is what teenage girls are like and what they want!" Some girls. Some boys too. And, while it might be true, it's certainly not something to aim for.
|Date:||April 4th, 2012 02:22 pm (UTC)|| |
Again, Bella is a teenage girl. She's very fond of herself, feels like a martyr, ignores anyone she doesn't think is cool enough, is absorbed by the boy she likes, and doesn't have a ton of her own opinions. that's because she's a teenage girl. Of course she's not well rounded. She's not even an adult.
And yes, I get the anti-feminist overtones of Edward thinking he knows better, but in what way is that not realistic, too? Not only does he come from an era when that was pretty standard male-thinking but he's about a hundred years older than she is. Adults ALL think they know better than high school kids and they are only like a scant number of decades older if that.
To be honest, i think the problem most people find with Twilight is that the characters are honest in who they are and people wanted them to be idealized. They wanted Bella to be a strong smart free thinking female lead, but they got a 17 year old girl. they wanted Edward to be a perfect caring free thinking progressive man, but they got a turn of the century vampire. He's older than Bella and everything he says about her weakness, her inexperience, and her naivete is correct. He IS a monster, he IS bad for her and she IS incapable of protecting herself from other supernatural creatures. Big surprise, then, that it goes badly.
Some of that is Meyers' lack of characterization, though. It is troublesome that after 4 books you know very little about Bella other than she likes Edward, despite spending 1000's of pages in her head. Teenage girls can be vapid, and boy crazy, but Meyers turns it up to 11 in a rather unflattering and unrealistic portrayal. It would have been nice if Bella picked up a hobby, or accidentally thought about current events every once in a while. It would have been great if, in book 2, she started working on bikes rather than simpering at Jacob while he did it.
I just said the same thing about Edward, but Meyers doesn't keep up with it. Sometimes he's an older, wiser, overbearing supernatural creature with old fashioned values, and then when it suits the story, he's a dippy short-sighted 17 year old. Both aspects of his personality can be in play but it's wildly uneven in service of the story. It's fun, but it's not good, and unrealistic enough the his behavior reads creepy instead of logical.
Still, I'm sad Midnight Sun's been killed because the draft's a lot of fun.
I get frustrated that so much feminist critique of Twilight comes out of deciding the vampire boyfriend is only a thinly veiled control freak boyfriend. Edward knows what's best for Bella, which is grossly patronizing, and yet, he's also about a hundred years older than her. He really does know better. Sure he's all about protecting her, but in a world of vampire and werewolves, loving a squishy human is problematic. I was disappointed in the movie because I do believe there is a core of an interesting story there, but Stephanie Meyers was not up to developing it. I'd have loved to see a discussion of how to have equality in a vampire-teenager romance that has all the complications of an extreme May-December relationship, despite a similar outward appearance. It's really problematic when a 30 year old hits on a 17 year old girl, it should be infinitely more problematic when a 130 year old does the same. I was disappointed that "Edward the Pedo" and "Edward's eating disorder" were not themes actively explored.
|Date:||April 4th, 2012 02:26 pm (UTC)|| |
Doubleplus. And in her defense, Stephanie Meyer really did manage to make character that stand out as their own people, even if Bella forgets about them. I think that's a good thing, because some authors just cannot do it.
|Date:||April 4th, 2012 02:27 pm (UTC)|| |
My experience is that as soon as someone falls in love they have no interest in any of their other friends until long after the NRE has burned off. Then they look around and try to patch up the holes in their social life. They never seem to understand why the old friends aren't so ready to get back together.
It often happens. I was as guilty as anyone.
Yeah, but Dan Brown gets all his location details wrong.
|Date:||April 4th, 2012 03:20 pm (UTC)|| |
Irrelevant in regards to it's impact on the story, though a very good point in general about his research.
|Date:||April 4th, 2012 03:29 pm (UTC)|| |
That was super well done. I love her point about the imprinting, but to be fair, I think that anyone who thinks that feeling unconditional love for a baby is creepy has never been close to a baby. Or been a parent. It's not hard to see how you can love a baby unconditionally without wanting to make the sex with them. In fact, anyone who can't see that is deeply creepy.
an abomination unto the Lord? I don't know about that, but I think that it's an abomination to men and women alike and the sacredness of relationships, marriage, and parenting. It's especially insulting to men because this story leads people to believe that controlling others and forcing abortion/anti abortion on people is okay. That aspect of their relationship is extremely disturbing and how the characters raised Bella's daughter is disturbing as well, especially when she's forced to marry Jacob because he can't have Bella. I hate it so fucking much. I wish this series would have been banned.
Edited at 2012-04-04 03:32 pm (UTC)
I immediately am distrustful of anyone who wants to ban anything.
I read and blogged all four books a while back. http://finding-helena.livejournal.com/?skip=20&tag=post%20series%3A%20reading%20twilight
I thought there were some redeeming features but on the whole it's so dreadfully sexist and disturbing that I have to come down on the side of "It would probably be better if these books did not exist." With a side of "These books glorify all sorts of things that would be really, really creepy in real life."
Though you are right, she does do a good job with NRE. Too bad it has to be directed at someone as dreadful as Edward. Seriously hate Edward... until the last half of Breaking Dawn, and that's really only because he's barely in it.
i read part of the first page of twilight at half-price books several years ago. the grammar mistakes and word choices pissed me off and i pitched the book across the store. i think i read maybe three, four paragraphs? i don't even remember. but i do remember counting something like eight or nine sentences that started with "It was" - that's just lazy, sloppy, uncalled for writing.
I listened to the first Twilight book on audiobook a while back and found bits of is drearily dull, and other bits of it unintentionally hilarious, and other bits had a reflection of first time Twoo Wuv that's extra giddy off of teenage hormones that was so accurate it was cringe worthy.
My thoughts can be summed up as thus:
1. While the book captures the dopey NRE feeling perfectly, it doesn't present NRE as NRE. One could argue that this is because it's the first book and the teenaged protagonist narrating the entire thing to you is too wrapped up to tell the difference herself. Thing is, I've heavily spoiled myself for the rest of the books and have not heard a goddamn thing indicating that the books EVER present NRE as NRE. Rather, from everything I've heard they present NRE as Real Forever Love. This is a really problematic thing to present to teenagers. Hell. It's a really problematic thing to present to ANYONE who's never experienced love before.
2. That brings me to my second point -- a lot of the people I've seen shouting out "THAT'S NOT WHAT LOVE IS LIKE AT ALL", well, they shout that and I automatically become suspicious that they've never had to put up with hardcore NRE. Because what's presented in Twilight is PART of what love is like. Not the forever bits. Not the bits that make a long term relationship or a marriage work. But the bits that send you on a month long high while you fuss over your sweetie.
3. Beyond that, the NRE that shows up in Twilight is a really specific type of NRE. The NRE that comes from getting into a relationship you have a weirdly biological attraction to. Call it pherimones, chemistry, whatever. But occasionally someone comes along who, regardless of whether one wants to or not, makes one go "unf" and your heart does a hiccup whenever they look at you. If, on top of that, they're also a type of person one would like to hangout with regardless of CRAZY ATTRACTION it usually results in an out-of-control-crush where one all but deifies the other individual, placing them on a mental pedestal that goes above and beyond the usual NRE super-model-Buddha-from-outer-space* feelings someone gets in the early stages of a relationship. THAT is what's happening in Twilight. Bella and Edward have these crazy pants-feelings for one another and then OH MY GOD THE OTHER ONE HAS IT BACK. The closest thing they have to common interests in their interest in obsessing over one another.
Which is not to say that their initial love is unrealistic. But all too often kind of love collapses in on itself or flames out when the inevitable flaws are ignored and ignored... until one day the relationship just crumbles under their unbearable weight.
This does not happen in Twilight. Nor does Twilight provide a realistic or helpful guide on how to actually handle those types of relationships when they occur.
4. Most of the background characters are more interesting than either Edward or Bella. This is just bad writing. Unless one is Tom Stoppard one does not want a story where Rozencrantz and Guildenstern outshine Hamlet and Ophelia.
(Continued. I guess I have a lot of feels.)
(Continued from previous comment)
5. Edward being controlling of Bella is problematic in two ways.
First of all, Edward (as has been pointed out) is not consistently characterized as being a 100+ year old adult. Most of the time he's characterized as a teenager. This frames his controlling I-Know-Better-Than-You actions as actions coming from a teenage boy and STILL being kind-of-sexy-and-absolutely-right. Which is not cool.
Second of all, Edward, even if he IS being characterized as a 100+ year old his actions towards Bella are often bizarre and abusive. They are especially bizarre and abusive in our current time period. This would not be nearly as problematic as it is if the books as a whole treated his behavior as bizarre and abusive instead of oh-so-romantic. Realisticly, Bella's parents, and, hell, all the adults paying the tiniest amount of attention should be keen on keeping Bella away from the boyfriend who, I believe, eventually cuts the brake lines on her car to keep her at home.
That includes the adults who happen to be vampires.
Instead everyone in the books, other than Jacob, seems pretty cool with Bella and Edward being together. I believe by the time their wedding rolls around EVERYONE is one board with this shit because their Twoo Wuv is everyone's OTP at that point.
6. Bella is and is not a realistic portrayal of a teenage girl. She's like someone took all the worst traits I, my friends, my enemies, and my acquaintances had during our teenage years and condensed them into one oblivious, socially cruel, love-blinded set of characteristics... and then ignored or minimized all of our collective good bits and replaced them with blandness. Bella is exceptionally dull -- even for a teenager. With that in mind, it makes sense that she'd want to be with Edward who is exceptionally dull for a vampire.
Twilight invites a lot of inevitable comparison with Buffy. I'm not going to rehash it all here except to say that on nearly every point that the two series mutually address Twilight fails on while Buffy succeeds. Teenage girls are a mess, often shallow, and can be blinded by love. They're also human beings with a lot going on beyond that and need to be treated as such.
*These feelings are when one declares dreamily to friends "I don't know why XYZ chose little ole me. They're so wonderful -- like a super-model from outer space with the patience and serenity of a Buddha" and concludes that with a happy sigh.
Edited at 2012-04-04 10:17 pm (UTC)
I read the first 90% of the first book as being a pretty good story about how the excitement of new young love can separate you from your family and old friends and make you easy pickings for a controlling and potentially abusive boyfriend.
I was so disappointed that it wasn't that book. That book, I would have liked, even though the prose would've been nothing special.
|Date:||April 4th, 2012 11:55 pm (UTC)|| |
Thank you for basically repeating my own opinion of Twilight, albeit far more eloquently. Now I feel justified because a Real Writer agreed with me :)
(my last description of it went something like "the writing is not particularly good, but she really nails the feeling of being a teenage girl having her first crush"
|Date:||April 5th, 2012 01:53 am (UTC)|| |
Speaking of vampires
Have you read the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton? My daughter and I call it girl porn.
Of COURSE it's a teenage girl power fantasy. It is recognizable to most girls who identify as bookish wallflowers everywhere. That you will transfer to a new school, and SUDDENLY--!
1) All the boys want you, but you don't even notice, because you are Not That Girl--you're still special unique shy you
2) The hottest boy in the school, who doesn't like anyone else falls for you
3) He loves you more than heaven and earth
4) It turns out you are Super Special and are granted entry into a secret world of danger and adventure and Specialness
5) You are not meant to be one of the mundanes, you are meant to be one of the Sparklies.
And oh god yes, Bella is HORRIBLE to anyone she considers unappealing in any way. Nit just her "regular (boring) new friends" whose names she initially immediately forgets after she sits with them at lunch, but all the guys who try to be nice to her/give her directions/etc whens he first comes to the school and who are not cute enough for her. Mike gets relatively decent treatment from her because he is cute, if not Edward cute. But the poor nerdier-looking guys.
I take issue with the obnoxious characters, the sex-negative religious-conservative elements, and...the writing...but ultimately, I get the appeal of Sixteen Candles with vampires.
I have some friends who hate Twilight, and a few friends that love it, and a lot of friends who love to make fun of it, which is something in between, in a way. I've seen a hilarious one-man show ("Bite Me, Twilight") summarizing and making fun of the series, and read a few pages of the website poking fun at the grammar in the book.
This post is the first thing that's ever given me any desire to read any of the series. Because the phenomenon of NRE is something that interests me. I still think there are many things about this series that disturb me, and I don't know how many books of it I could take, but I'm going to get the first book from the library and have a look.
|Date:||April 5th, 2012 04:50 pm (UTC)|| |
I love Twilight. In general, I love Romeo and Juliet Against the World books. (In fact, the first novel I wrote is titled 'Against the World' in homage to that.) Twilight is obscenely typical of the genre. The part of what you said that jumped out at me was about the side characters.
Your typical RAJATW story goes like this:
1) Girl meets Boy
2) Girl is inexplicably drawn to Boy
3) Boy pushes Girl away "for her own good."
4) Girl discovers Boy is NotNormal.
5) Girl and Boy fall in love.
6) Girl gets sucked into NotNormal World.
7) Something Big Happens in NotNormal World.
8) Continue 7 while Girl gives up her old friends and old life, taking on the friends and family of Boy.
9) Girl becomes NotNormal
10) Girl saves the day.
|Date:||April 5th, 2012 11:21 pm (UTC)|| |
She suspects that the guy she likes wants to kill her. So she lies to everyone about where she is going, and goes off with the guy to a secluded forest from which she can't escape without his assistance.
Then he tells her, explicitly, that he wants to kill her.
... and this is supposed to be **romantic**? I just couldn't do it. I started to feel physically sick and began to shake whenever I thought about picking the book up again. Needless to say, I did not finish it.
I'm really enjoying the deconstruction by Ana Mardoll. She does an incredible job of talking about the problematic elements of the novel without romance-shaming.
|Date:||April 5th, 2012 11:22 pm (UTC)|| |
I think it's undeniable (possibly even tautological) that any bestselling book has some appeal. There is, however, a key distinction between having some appeal because there's something actually good about it and having the toxic, short-term appeal of a heroin high.
Capturing the goofy rush of NRE and making it interesting to the reader is an impressive feat. Revelling in and glorifying that rush is... well, it's understandable. But when you have an army of millions of fans proclaiming that THAT IS WHAT LOVE IS and that any notions of realistic long-term relationship-building are somehow "compromise" or a betrayal of "true love"... well, that's a belief that's not only untrue but profoundly destructive. The thing about NRE is that it's short-term. If your definition of WHAT LOVE IS has no room for anything outside of the rush of NRE, none of your relationships can last more than a couple of months before "the love is gone" and you move on, leaving a trail of destruction in your wake as you search for the high that doesn't wear off.
Add to that the deeply troubling narrative that THE PINNACLE OF ROMANCE is a 130-year-old homicidal paternalistic stalker pedophile who controls your every breath and actively wants to kill you and, well... it's not hard to make a case that this goes beyond "adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasy" and well into the realm of "toxic".