Twilight, An Argument For

Last week, Rebecca wrote quite a scathing review of the Twilight series, identifying a whole range of problems, from bad writing to bad gender models. However, we also wanted to offer another perspective on the whole phenomenon, and since I am the one here who has read all the books, saw all the movies in the theater, and say in my own bio that I like the books, the favorable review fell to me. But this is a challenging assignment, because it’s not that I actually disagree with anything Rebecca said. I think she’s right about all of it. On the continuum of me, Anna, and Rebecca, I am clearly the most pro-Twilight among us, but I will freely admit that these are Not Good books. Nonetheless, I like them, and I’m going to try to explain why.

First, let’s quickly run through some of the key problems with the books, just so that you know I’m aware of them:

1) The Twilight books are not-well written. The Host, Meyer’s non-vampire sci-fi novel, is actually kind of interesting, giving me hope that she might be able to turn out okay material. The Twilight series is not that okay material.

2) Bella is completely uninteresting. Seriously, totally blah. Say what you will about Kristen Stewart, she makes that more character more interesting than the source material. Which leads into the biggest issue . . .

3) Wow are these not feminist at all. Like, let’s make sure that the female characters have no agency whatsoever, and are completely at the whim of stalker-y, creepy, borderline-abusive men!

NONETHELESS, I like these books! They’re like Cheetos–you know they’re not good for you and you know you will feel a little ill when you’re done, but in the moment you enjoy yourself. I don’t want a relationship like Bella and Edward’s, but I sure wanted to find out what happened to them. The characters didn’t feel like real high school kids, but I enjoyed thinking about how much more interesting high school would have been if there had been vampires around. I also found that I enjoyed the books and the movies more when I had placed them in the proper context. These aren’t sci-fi books featuring teenagers, or coming of age stories with a supernatural twist. These are teenage romances that happen to feature vampires. When you read a Harlequin romance novel, you know that there’s a formula involved and that you’re going to get a certain set of ideas and characters. A romance novel may not lead to any epiphanies, but it will entertain you. The Twilight books aren’t trying to create an intricate vampire mythology, but once I read them as romance novels telling sort of fantastical love stories, it made more sense.

Plus, I am fascinated by Mormonism, and I love how you can SEE Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon worldview coming out in crazy vampire plot points.

Look, sometimes when I read I want to be challenged or to learn something or to be comforted. And sometimes I want to shut my brain off so that I forget the world around me. I wouldn’t want this to be the only thing I read, and I wouldn’t want for young women to read these without having taken the number of feminist theory courses I have. But I have read a whole lot of crappy Dan Brown and Michael Critchon books in my day, and if I’m going to pass the time on an airplane or at the end of a stressful day with something, I’m happy to pass it with sparkly vampires.

Twilight by Stephanie Meyers

Twilight
By Stephanie Meyers
2005

In honor of the last of the Twilight movies coming out, Biblio-therapy is going to be posting two reviews: one positive and one negative. I’m posting the negative review. I read it when the series was only just becoming a phenomenon. Someone told me that I’d love because I like young adult fiction and I like vampire books.

Alas, I did not like it, but I also wasn’t horribly offended by it.

There were a few good scenes, a few interesting premises, but overall the characters and plot didn’t hold together for me. The only character I actually felt any empathy for was the main character’s poor beleaguered father. I took this as a sign that I was, perhaps, finally aging out of my YA fiction reading days, and got on with my life.

It’s not that it’s a bad book, per se, because, let’s face it, I have read and enjoyed many quite bad books. The problem is that it’s bad in ways that I can’t wave away with a thoroughly suspended disbelief or a good faith effort to believe some character is not an idiotic milksop in need of a spine.

I am perfectly capable of overlooking all of the weird and outdated sexual advice presented in metaphor that has offended so many readers. At least the advice is presented metaphorically and in regards to vampires rather than outright (I’m looking at you, Barbara Cartland).

Belle is something of an idiot, making peculiar and random decisions, trusting strangers too much and her family too little. I found her mostly confusing. Why does she do the things she does? Is it just the “she’s a teenager” excuse that lets her get away with random acts of idiocy? I have apparently become an old woman, shaking her head at “kids these days.”

Edward is an unfortunately standard paradox of a stoic individual, putting great effort into showing how stoic he is so that everyone else can look at him and see that he’s really hurting inside and is a soft woobie. Also, as any strong guy (vampire or not) should know, that excuse of “I can’t help myself” is not a valid excuse for anything. If you have the strength to hurt someone then you had damn well better have the control to refrain from doing so.

Some of the basic premises of the story are even more problematic than having characters that I simply didn’t care for.

Bella enters school as a new student, having been nothing special before, and is suddenly the most popular and desirable person there. This is completely random. There’s no reason for it, either internal to the high school social structure (why did the kids like her?) or external to the plot arc (what did it bring to the plot?).

Despite first appearances, the trope of instantaneous and unexpected popularity is not inherently terrible; it can be done well. In fact, Meg Cabot has a few books that deal with exactly that issue and do it well: How popularity occurs and/or is manipulated, and what some of the related issues are. Stephanie Meyers, in contrast, avoids all of the real complexities and looks at the issue of popularity very much from the perspective of an unpopular student: I want to be popular but I don’t want to be like those popular girls*, and if I were suddenly popular I would show a becoming amount of humility and talk about how I really didn’t want it, so there.

Then we come to the sparkly vampires. This is possibly the best thing ever since the Care Bears and/or My Little Ponies. I’m not even joking. Here are Vampires that can’t go out into the sun because they Sparkle! How is that not awesome?

However, it does raise the question: why can’t they go out into the sun and share their sparkly magnificence with the world? They have none of the traditional vampire weaknesses:
• They don’t fall dead during the day.
• They can’t be staked.
• They’re too fast to be snuck up on.
• They’re too strong for it to matter if they are snuck up on.
• They have family and community ties.
• They aren’t creating enemies by eating anyone.

So why are they hiding?

If you answer: “Edward is a teenage boy (no matter how long he’s been that way) and doesn’t want to let anyone know that he naturally looks like he’s covered in glitter,” I would definitely agree with you. That would be an awesome answer. Unfortunately, it’s not Stephanie Meyer’s answer.

She doesn’t give an answer. Vampires hide because they’re vampires and hiding is what they do.

Admittedly there are bad vampires, too, who do go out and make enemies by killing people and fail to make allies by, you know, killing people. However, they still have all the other strengths of these Meyer Vampires. So why are they hiding out in the wilderness rather than simply living in a house and eating anyone who tries anything?

The vampire culture, such as it is, is a hold over from the traditional vampire cultures of other books, all about angst and dark secrecy. The problem is that Meyer has changed the vampire mythos so much already that it’s disappointing that she didn’t follow through on the repercussions of those changes.

So, to sum up, it was a story about stupid people making random decisions in a world that didn’t make sense. This was not, alas, the worst book I have ever read, or even real competition for the title, but it was still pretty bad.

However, one good thing about this book (and movie) is:

It’s very popular and has gotten a lot of creative people talking about it (positive and negative) and a lot of those responses are quite hilarious.

* I must have been really lucky in my high school because the popular girls that I knew (not very many of them, admittedly) were all very nice. They were popular because they were nice and outgoing and people wanted to be their friends. That’s what made them popular.

Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

This is the first of two reviews of this book. The next one will likely be somewhat more positive. So keep an eye out for another forthcoming review.

Fifty Shades of Grey
E. L. James
2012

I enjoy fanfiction, both the fact that it exists as a genre1 as well as the genre itself. Thus, when I heard that someone had written an AU2 Twilight fanfiction and then changed the names in order to publish it professionally, I decided to read it. I hadn’t enjoyed Twilight, but mostly I found it uninteresting and poorly crafted. With a different author and a different setting, this had potential.

Especially since the articles I had read about it, were mostly shocked by the fact that apparently women can like sex. Yes, even mothers! The fact that this is apparently shocking makes me mourn for the women’s movement. Given that this was the primary complaint about the book, I thought the book must be pretty good.

Alas, I was doomed to rather severe disappointment.

To a certain extent, E. L. James did fix one of the major problems I had with Twilight. The characters are well presented. The narrative descriptions match their actions. Thus, Ana is both described as shy and acts shy. Christian is both described as arrogant and acts arrogant.

Another thing the author does really well is build anticipation. What’s going to happen next?, how are these two characters going to get together?, etc. It kept me reading for about half the book.

Then I hit the first sex scene, and wow, the badness.

From there on out, as the book attempts to get more serious, it becomes something of a travesty that I had trouble slogging my way through.

It’s not clear to me that this author (or the editor for that matter) knows what sex involves or any real concept of physicality or how bodies work much less anything at all about the BDSM3 lifestyle. Given the whole plot of the book is based on the sexual awakening of a young woman and the moderate depravity of her love interest, the lack of understanding on the author’s part is a major problem.

The problem with this book is not that it was based off of another author’s work and not that it contains a lot of sex; the problem is that it’s poorly researched, poorly written, and, to an even greater extent than Twilight, it attempts to romanticize a highly dysfunctional relationship.

1 U.S. Copyright law involves a fundamental division between idea and expression. Ideas are not considered under copyright, ever; only the expression of those ideas is protected. In the past, this was taken to literally mean the exact words. Even translations were considered to be a matter of the ideas rather than the expression. More recent legal interpretations of copyright have expanded what exactly is considered an expression to include not only translations but also events, places, and characters. However, no case of fanfiction has ever made it through the court system, and thus whether or not the genre infringes on copyright remains uncertain.

2 AU in this context means “Alternate Universe.” In fanfiction, this means taking well-loved characters, relationships, and plot devices and transposing them into completely different settings and situations. In this case the Twilight characters were used in a modern setting.

3 BDSM stands for Bondage & discipline, Dominance & submission, Sadism and Masochism. (It is not to be confused with DBMS, which stands for DataBase Management Systems, with which I am somewhat more familiar.)

The rest of this review is going to involve spoilers of the R-rated variety, so I’m putting a break here. Proceed at your own risk. Continue reading

Wuthering Heights

By Emily Brontë

Book Cover: Wuthering HeightsLast night I was watching the new Fright Night movie (it’s okay—a fun, distracting movie; nothing mind-blowing or anything), and there is a scene where the female love interest is sitting on the hero’s bed, reading Wuthering Heights, when he comes in. She starts the conversation by saying, “You know, this book is actually really sexy, in a frustrated, unconsummated kind of way.” And it made me laugh and laugh.

It also reminded me of the stories from several years ago, when publishing companies were trying to sell Wuthering Heights to Twilight fans. (Apparently, Wuthering Heights is mentioned in Twilight as Bella’s favorite book? I read Twilight, but I don’t actually remember that.) And, I was so curious as to what those poor, bamboozled teenage girls thought of it.

Now, I haven’t actually read Wuthering Heights since high school, but I absolutely hated it then. I get that they are selling it now as a tragic romance for the new goth teen, but I think of tragic romances as people who are kept apart due to circumstances beyond their control á la Romeo and Juliet, not situations where the people are so hateful that they bring upon themselves every terrible thing that happens to them (no spoilers, though!).

So, what do you guys think of Wuthering Heights?

—Anna

A Discovery of Witches

This is not exactly my proudest admission, but the number one place I get my book recommendations is the Entertainment Weekly Books section. It may not be the New York Review of Books, but EW’s book section tends to include a good mix of literary fiction, genre fiction, and nonfiction, and the reviews generally manage to assess the book without giving away the whole plot. They also tend to be pretty stringent with their grading–they have no issues giving C or D grades to big names or wildly-praised books such as Run by Ann Patchett  or Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross. Which is why I was excited to read their review of A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. EW gave it a B+ and the review made is sound like a solid, well-written book with believable characters that just happened to feature witches and vampires–in other words, exactly the sort of urban fanstay based in the modern-day world that I love.  I knew going in that it wasn’t Faulkner, but I had high hopes that I might have found another genre book that incorporates the supernatural while not being trashy or badly written. Which is why I was a little dismayed to realize that it was basically Twilight for grown-ups.

Without giving too much away, the basic plot is that witches, vampires, and daemons are all real, but they live fairly normal lives alongside oblivious humans. (Side note: is it just me, or did the His Dark Materials series pretty much take over that spelling of daemon?) Diana is witch, part of powerful and famous witch family, who is trying to distance herself from her powers by living a quiet life as a graduate student at Oxford. Then she accidentally does something that attracts the attention of the supernatural community, she meets a dangerous yet irresistible vampire named Matthew, and her whole life starts racing away into adventure, danger, romance, etc.

Here are my three main issues with this book:

1) The lead character falls totally, immediately, and completely in love with a vampire, despite his vampiric nature, in exactly the same way Bella does in Twilight. In an adolescent this is annoying, but somewhat understandable and forgivable. In a grown-ass woman, it just seems like bad decision making.

2) The book is 592 pages long and it ends on a cliff hanger. After I read the book I learned that it’s the first in a planned trilogy. Look, I love a good book series, but I also pretty firmly believe that individual books should stand alone. Sure, plot threads may carry from one book to another, but it makes me grumpy when a book just stops in the middle of things. I like to think of a book as an entity both physically and in terms of the story telling. If the author can’t figure out how to make a single book at least somewhat satisfying and functional in and of itself, I start losing trust in them. (See also: Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis.)

3) The witches and vampires and daemons in Oxford all go to a special hot yoga class together. HOT YOGA.

Don’t get me wrong, I read it and enjoyed most of it and it was definitely better written than Twilight.  I suspect I’ll read the next one, if only to figure out what happens next since there was certainly no closure in this book. And there were some lovely parts–Diana’s family has a haunted house that is both creepy and considerate (creating new rooms when company is coming), and the descriptions of Oxford make me want to book a trip there–but I just feel like I need to warn other people who might be looking for more literary fantasy. Twilight for grown-ups.

But I hear good things about the new Colson Whitehead zombie book Zone One. His book The Intuitionist managed to be beautiful and heart-breaking and thrilling while describing an alternate reality in which elevators are glorified, so right now he’s got my trust. (Yes, elevators. And it’s about racism. It’s great.)