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Wednesday, October 31, 2012


In defence of Twilight

In discussion on the last post, I found myself mentioning the Twilight books to illustrate one way of reading. It being Halloween, a story about vampires seems appropriate enough ... but on the other hand, while I've written about Twilight before, I find that I actually have more to say.

What I have to say is this: I think it's time people cut those books a break. Online mockery is a major fashion at the moment and Twilight is an easy target; they've become more or less synonymous with 'ghastly, indefensible books'. So, since it's Halloween, I'm going to do something that appears to be, according to current Net-culture, horrifying: I'm going to defend them.

Now, I should say at the outset that I don't actually like the Twilight series. I've read the first book and seen most of the movies, and they're not at all to my taste. But it's become so axiomatic in pop culture that these are books with no redeeming features at all - one is either with them or against them, and if against, you can be as mocking and mean as you like - that I think it's time to mount the opposite case. These are not polished books, nor progressive ones, but not everybody who likes them is just an idiot who can't read: there are some good points about them, and they are worth acknowledging.

So, what can you say in defence of the Twilight series? Actually, quite a lot.

1. It is a work of art that succeeds on its own terms

There are certain standards one can use to judge art that are, if not entirely objective or beyond discussion, at least broadly applicable; by most of these - style, plot structure, psychological insight - Twilight is not very good. Its characterisations are not subtle, nor are they entirely consistent - Jacob's personality fluctuates dramatically depending on plot needs, for instance. Its style is nothing to write home about. Its plot structures raise and build up threats and then dismiss them at a pace my mother-in-law would call 'dispatchful'. There are lots of things to criticise, in short. There is, however, a standard that's always worth considering: does this work achieve what it sets out to achieve? Is it what it's trying to be? Does it accomplish whatever seems to be its main priority? And on those terms, yes, Twilight absolutely succeeds.

Twilight, famously, was based on a dream, and its goals are pretty simple. It sets out to be a piece of escapist romantic fiction in which an Everygirl enjoys a dramatic and passionate romance with a man who embodies an idealised version of masculinity. Now, you may not share Meyer's ideas about what an ideal man is like: Edward embodies a style of masculinity that can most sympathetically be described as 'old-fashioned': he is authoritative, dominant, there to protect his woman's safety rather than to support her independence; what he offers Bella is salvation through marriage, elevation to a higher plane of wealth and status that she could not access without him. It's also a very Anglo-centric and white version of masculinity, in which his superiority to the more animalistic, brown-skinned male rival is a key issue in the plot: if this were a bodice-ripper of Olde England, Edward would be the titled gentleman who protects his maiden fair not just from the rapist peers who rival him in the Pump Room but from the wild, disreputable gypsy boys as well.

It is the masculine ideal of a society fraught with inequalities, and most of us would not, in fact, enjoy living in that culture. But Twilight is not interested in questioning the values of such a society; it is interested in indulging a fantasy of a relationship with a stylised man of that kind. That's what it sets out to do.

And on those terms, it works very well. Bella's passion for Edward, the narcotic flush of youthful first love, is clearly conveyed. Edward remains relentlessly consistent to the code of values the book elevates, and both characters are rewarded for their playing out of the roles those values dictate. The good, according to Twilight's values, end happily, according to Twilight's values, and Meyer can lay down her pen in the knowledge that she achieved what she meant to achieve.

2. It's an honest piece of id-work

I think this principle can be best expressed by an anecdote. A few weeks ago I was walking down the street with a friend of mine, a woman I met in antenatal class with a son just a couple of weeks older than mine. As we pushed the buggies home, tired after a lively morning with the boys in a soft play centre, I started fantasising aloud: a beautiful spa with a hot tub, handsome young men bringing me cocktails, trained squirrels carrying snacks on trays. The squirrels, she remarked idly, sounded unhygienic, so I declared that the trays were covered. Good, she said, so I wasn't worried about e. coli, then.

No, I replied: this is my fantasy and it does not have any e. coli in it.

At certain times - when you're tired, when you're sad - fantasy exists so that you can get what you want. Even if it's implausible or silly; even if you don't deserve it. You can go into your head and have whatever you want: this is fantasy and it does not have negative consequences. In fantasy, you can be what women with responsibilities are not allowed to be in real life: greedy, selfish, having it all.

Twilight does not read like a cynical book, attempting to manipulate the reader from a distance. It reads like a book in which Meyer sincerely fantasised about what she would most like to have if she were Bella and then went all out to give it to her. Bella gets the most beautiful boy in school despite having no exceptional qualities? This is my fantasy and it does not have any e. coli in it. Bella is lusted after by every boy she meets, loved by every girl, the nexus of drama followed by a shower of gifts? This is my fantasy and it does not have any e. coli in it. Bella surmounts all the established drawbacks of vampirism - getting immediate self-control, a beautiful daughter she doesn't struggle to raise and a body that looks better after childbirth than before it? This is my fantasy and it does not have any e. coli in it.

And more than that, Meyer writes to fulfil these wants with a focused intensity, an utter seriousness, a cheek empty of tongue. It's an easy story to mock because it's so humourless, but its humourlessness is part of its charm: this is a story of lusts, and lusts are not to be taken lightly. Her story is never casual about desire. You can curl up with the book and a bowl of popcorn, but it's not popcorn that the story feeds itself: it's red meat, gnawed from the bone. There is shameless hunger in this book; every impolite desire for sex and status, it sates.

Why do Twilight fans respond to it with such devotion? The answer, I suspect, is that it taps into desires through a direct line. Naively rendered in many ways it may be, but Meyer has a genuine knack for getting straight to the marrow of a wish, for writing desires - not just for sex or for love, but for standing, for power over others' attention, that secret giant of the wish-fulfilment triptych - that should not be underestimated. There is a place in art for raw id, and Meyer is good at id.

3. It has a cross-experience appeal

Originally, I'd written that it had a 'cross-generational' appeal, and so it demonstrably does. But in fact, its sexual catnip - Edward, passionate but controlled - actually appeals to different experiences of sexuality regardless of age. Different girls and women are in different sexual places, and the 'abstinence porn' aspect of Twilight spans the gaps very cleverly.

The appeal for a teenage girl is fairly clear. Teenage girls walk a fine and confusing line: their own desires are often strong, but seldom treated with much respect; the desires of men and boys for them can be a real threat. Edward, desirous but restrained, offers the perfect fantasy for girls both sexually frustrated, who can identify with Bella's desire and vicariously enjoy the promise that it will, some day, be satisfied, and girls sexually menaced, hoping for the chance of a man who does want them but isn't a pushy jerk about it. Edward is as dynamic as the most rapacious beast and as safe as a eunuch. In other words, a girl can be a virgin or sexually active and still, unless she's active with an exceptionally satisfying lover, and still find something in Edward's sexual paradox to love.

What's the appeal of 'abstinence porn' for older women, the so-called 'Twilight Moms'? I think the question is best answered by changing the word 'abstinence' to 'anticipation'. A happily married woman can generally have sex when she wants to - or if not exactly when she wants to, adults tending to have busy days, then within a reasonable waiting period after the first twinkle in her eye. But happily married women with children have very, very busy days. They can have sex if the children are asleep or safely babysat, but spontaneous, rip-each-others'-clothes-off sex is probably off the cards, at least most of the time. Sex becomes a matter of scheduling. Between the twinkle in her eye and the opportunity to get some husbandly booty falls the Packed Lunch and the Changed Nappy and the Play Date and the Trip To The Park, and while mothers obviously love their children, healthy mothers do not find childcare sexually exciting. Especially with young children, the kind of sex a Mom can have is more likely to be either a quiet quickie or a long-planned event with a lot of unsexy practical stuff preceding it. What Moms lack is time, the time to luxuriate in one's own sexual feelings. Bella can afford to obsess about Edward for long stretches, can afford to build up her desire and enjoy the anguishing, delicious mental foreplay. Ain't nothing weak about that sauce. 

In its formula of intense desire and assured safety, long-delayed but certain gratification, Twilight puts its finger on one mother of a sweet spot. You have to give it credit for that. 

4. The basic idea isn't at all bad

Think of the story in skeleton form. Quiet young girl moves to a new town, falls in love with a mysterious boy who turns out to be a vampire, is drawn into both his world and the world of her best male friend, who turns out to be a werewolf. Big conflicts between the two sides ensue, endangering her. Everybody pays a lot of attention to her and there's strapping talent yearning after her wherever she looks. Grand passion overwhelms her. Sex is endlessly, tantalisingly present. It's a guilty pleasure kind of tale, but you know what? I'm just going to say it: if I found Bella and Edward likeable as characters, I'd enjoy that story. It sounds like a lot of fun.

I don't find Edward or Bella likeable, as it happens. But what is dislikable about them to me comes from a place that is, at least, recognisable. Meyer has overstretched a common writerly device, and one which seldom works very well in the first place: she's written negatively about almost everything but Bella and Edward in order to cast them in a positive light. To make them charming, she's written almost everyone and everything else as irritating, and that is not an effective device, especially when a story is written from a particular character's viewpoint: rather than making them look beautiful against an ugly background, it starts to look like they have an ugly attitude. Likewise, Edward is a pretty classic masterful hero, but it's overdone to the point where he comes across as mean and controlling; again, it's an excess that many pulp writers slip into.

These are faults that lie in the overuse of devices that might, used in stricter moderation, serve the story perfectly well ... but there is nothing moderate about Twilight. Everything is done to excess; that's its whole aesthetic. And for many readers, it seems, one can actually ignore the excesses, adjust them to suit one's own imagination. I've said elsewhere that Twilight isn't a book you're supposed to read. It's a book you're supposed to fantasise about, re-imagine, occupy, dimming this light and brightening that to suit yourself; Bella and Edward's excesses can be, for many readers, moderated according to their own wishes, leaving them with nothing but the basic idea and the passion - and the basic idea is, for a certain kind of wish-fulfilment, pretty enjoyable.

5. It is not genre partisan

Genre loyalists have taken offence at Meyer for her decision not to read vampire books while writing Twilight, and more broadly, for writing, in effect, sci-fi-fantasy books for people who don't much like sci-fi-fantasy. Personally, I think this is a good thing.

The idea that one keeps one's writing original by not reading anything at all is a foolish one: we can learn a great deal from seeing what others have done. But the idea that one must study up on a genre if one is going to write in it is equally foolish: it depends entirely on what you're attempting to do. If your aim is to play cleverly with established conventions in a genre, then you'd better be sure you're up to date with them. If your aim is to write a simple story based on your own conception of something, you really don't need to fill your head with everybody else's conceptions, and you could indeed distract yourself from the original simplicity of your idea. It varies. I read up on werewolves a lot for my first book; I read nothing on mermaids for my second, just watched a lot of nature documentaries. Telling a story in which the main issue is a heady romance and in which vampirism is mostly a device to make the romance all the headier, and consequently can be repurposed according to whatever will serve that turn - keep the supernatural strength, ditch the bad breath, add some glitter and magical extras - is a perfectly legitimate decision.

The result? The books say nothing either for or against any particular genre. They're just doing their own thing. For some people they may act as a gateway drug, but a gateway drug to what? That depends on their own tastes. Perhaps more vampire fiction; perhaps more explicitly sadomasochistic fiction; perhaps the classics that Twilight references. It's up to the reader. Twilight is just itself, and if it makes you want more of something, it allows you a nice wide range of options as to what that 'something' can be.

6. It is unpretentious

Twilight doesn't attempt to be more than it is. This is a defence I particularly want to raise because of a comment on writing New Moon Meyer has been exhaustively mocked for:

What if true love left you? Not some ordinary high school romance, not some random jock boyfriend, not anyone at all replaceable. True love. The real deal. Your other half, your true soul's match. What happens if he leaves?
The answer is different for everyone. Juliet had her version, Marianne Dashwood had hers, Isolde and Catherine Earnshaw and Scarlett O'Hara and Anne Shirley all had their ways of coping.
I had to answer the question for Bella. What does Bella Swan do when true love leaves her? Not just true love, but Edward Cullen! None of those other heroines lost an Edward (Romeo was a hothead, Willoughby was a scoundrel, Tristan had loyalty issues, Heathcliff was pure evil, Rhett had a mean streak and cheated with hookers, and sweet Gilbert was much more of a Jacob than an Edward). So what happens when True Love in the form of Edward Cullen leaves Bella?

It sounds hubristic to call your own romance superior to those classics, but read it again: Meyer isn't actually saying that her book is superior. She's just saying that she considers her hero more romantic, which is to say more of a fantasy ideal. And, if you accept the terms on which she defines romance - which many people don't, but as they seem to be sincerely held, just try it for the sake of argument - she's not actually wrong in her list of faulty lovers. Her descriptions of the 'other heroines' loves are, in terms of assessing their non-ideal traits, perfectly correct. Romeo kills Juliet's cousin and gets himself exiled; Willoughby is indeed a scoundrel; Tristan marries another woman; calling Heathcliff 'pure evil' is simplistic but does acknowledge that he's not supposed to be romantic; Rhett Butler is an unfaithful husband and there's certainly a case to be made for the 'mean streak'; if sweetness doesn't do it for you, then it doesn't do it for you. These are actions and traits that make the stories more interesting - including, to many people including me, more interesting than Meyer's - but while it's not the way I read books to look to them for idealised fantasies of true love, based on Meyer's comment it seems plausible to assume that she does. You may question whether this is a good way to read books, and you can certainly question her definition of what 'true love' should look like ... but it is hard to deny that, if she does read that way, she seems to do so for her own gratification, not to impress anybody else. 'I write my stories because of my characters; they are the motivation and the reward,' she claims. She does it that way because it pleases her to do so, no other reason.

Which is, in its own way, integrity. She is a pleasure reader and a pleasure writer, and her engagement with literature serves that simple turn. Yes, Meyer refers to the Brontes and Austen within her books themselves, but in a way that suggests they're read by her as simple romances. It's not an interpretation you'd get many ticks on your essay for, but it's not a reading she's alone in - need I once again mention the 'I [heart] Mr Darcy' tote bags sold in Bath's Jane Austen museum? - and nor does it read like an attempt to sound intellectual. An attempt to make Bella sound meaningful, perhaps, by implicitly linking her fictional romance to historically notable others; to make her sound in-the-world-but-not-of-it by having her read more than her contemporaries while, cleverly, citing only stories that readers will reliably have heard of, with the neat result that Bella can sound deep without seeming intimidating. It's a simple trick, but it's a trick that works, and works with the smoothness of a fantasy glossing over the difficult bits: there is no sense of putting one over on the readership here. Twilight is a work of feeling, not thought, and it doesn't try to get away with anything it can't, on an intellectual level, handle.

7. In tackling sex, it also tackles childbearing

It's not unknown for pulp romances to go the baby-makes-three route, nor for them to sentimentalise the business of childrearing. It is unusual, though, for them to express quite so passionately, to employ quite such graphic metaphors to acknowledge, that pregnancy and birth can be fucking awful. And in a culture where floating through pregnancy with a divine inner glow and bearing your child with essential oils in your burner and a serene smile on your face is a secret but serious test of a woman's value - you don't find this out until you've run afoul of it, but women are judged on their birth experiences more brutally than men are judged on their potency - a female voice honestly speaking out to say that however much one loves and desires a child, bearing it can be nightmarish ... is not a bad thing. Frankly, I'd call it a long overdue thing.

Bella's experience of pregnancy and childbearing reads, I think, as off-putting to many young women who haven't had children. Speaking as a mother, though, I can see the appeal. Bella suffers extravagantly through the pregnancy and birth: where's the fantasy? Answer: the fantasy is in having it seen and recognised that pregnancy and birth involve suffering. Much of the appeal of an emotionally satisfying drama is in feeling your own emotions validated by seeing a character placed in a situation where things really are so undeniably bad that nobody would tell them to get over it. Nobody's going to tell Bella that it'll 'all be worth it once the baby's born' or that it's 'supposed to hurt'. Nobody's going to dismiss her pain as 'natural'. Bella can afford to dwell on wanting her baby because she's surrounded by people who take the danger to her seriously. This is not the experience for many, many women.

And then after the birth, everything gets magically better. Increased beauty instead of stretch marks and bags under the eyes; increased strength and health rather than weight gain and fatigue; a large supportive family network that does the childcare for her until she's fully recovered rather than days alone with a torn perineum or a Caesarean scar and no idea how to deal with this new baby; a child that grows instantly past the broken-nights-nappies-and-tantrums years to the age of communication and cuteness. Unrealistic? Of course. But while women get a lot of fantasies of trouble-free romance, fantasies of trouble-free motherhood are taboo, more often whispered to each other than committed to print. In reality, I wouldn't choose for my son to magically grow up while I slept - the rewards of watching a child develop outbalance the effort - but if there is a fantasy of motherhood, motherhood without the heavy hauling is what it will be, and I'd certainly like it to be true that giving birth makes you prettier and stronger.

And mothers should get their share of selfish fantasies too: for all its Marianismo, Twilight also has the guts to admit that if one has to be a Madonna, it'd be nice if it were easy.

8. It's original work

Not 'original' in the sense of 'strikingly unlike anything previous', but 'original' in the sense of 'not a knock-off.' Not derivative, except in the sense that all fiction is influenced by other fiction. And there's something to be said for that.

It's been remarked in various places that Twilight reads like fan fiction of a book that doesn't actually exist. It certainly has the note of fantasy-fulfillment privacy that you'd expect in an amateur work written purely for gratification, but personally I think it's more accurate to say that Twilight could be considered fan fiction of an entirely body of work - the Brontes, Austen, the tradition of pulp romances that followed them and a lot of vampiric twentieth-century pop culture. Which is to say that in sinking into the warm bath of fantasy, Stephenie Meyer also took the trouble to reach into her own imagination and come up with all her own characters, her own plot, her own setting and her own imagined rules. (Even the sparkling skin, which must long ago have passed some kind of mockery event horizon, is an original touch, and in itself not necessarily a bad one. Imagine a character like that turning up in a Susanna Clarke novel: it has an eerie oddness that wouldn't look out of place.) She turned to her own dreams. She looked up a real town to fit with her conditions. She looked into the traditions of a Native American tribe - in an appropriative and tactless way, and the Quileute people are apparently far from getting their fair share of the tourist wealth Forks, Washington currently enjoys; one thing I find very hard to defend about Twilight is its racial politics - but while she didn't think about it with much cultural sensitivity, she did think about it.

Elliptical and hazy the story may be, but she did, if nothing else, actually do what original writers do, which is bundle together one's influences and let them mulch until something new grows out of them. Stephenie Meyer wanted to dream, and she made her own way.

There are a lot of criticisms you can make about Twilight. There are doubtless a lot of criticisms I could make here, but you know, I really don't feel like making them. I don't share its politics and I consider it a rough-hewn piece of work, but at the end of the day, it just is what it is ... and for what it is, it's an effective version of that. The word I keep coming back to is 'sincere': it's a work of genuinely-held fantasy that has its own internal integrity. If it's not a fantasy that appeals to you, there isn't much else in the books to attract you. But that's part of the design: it's not meant to be anything but a fantasy to be shared by like-minded people; if you're not one of them, it's not talking to you.

And it doesn't much speak to me. But it has its own voice, and for what it is, it has some qualities that deserve their due.


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