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some thoughts on Twilight

For reasons too depressing to explain, I spent a few hours last night reading Twilight, the first installment in Stephanie Meyer’s teenage vampire series. It is, dear reader, a deeply strange book. Ok, there’s been a lot of press about Meyer’s Mormonism and how her social conservatism informs the novels. Sarah Seltzer puts it like this:

Meyer, a practicing Mormon, has said she draws a line at premarital sex for her characters. But, as Times columnist Gail Collins noted last month, boyfriend Edward holds the line, not heroine and narrator Bella. Bella, after all, is so hot for Edward she tells him she’s going to “spontaneously combust” and frequently forgets to breathe when he kisses her.

Meanwhile, he is equally besotted with her, so much so that he trains himself to ignore his thirst for her blood, which has an aroma that could make even a good vampire (Edward and his coven have forsworn munching on humankind) go bad. Yet Edward still won’t go all the way because he doesn’t want to get carried away and hurt Bella with his superhuman strength. Her physical safety becomes a symbolic substitute for her virginity, and Edward guards it with overprotective zeal.

Now that’s a real fantasy: a world where young women are free to describe their desires openly, and launch themselves at men without shame, while said boyfriends are the sexual gatekeepers. Twilight‘s sexual flowchart is the inversion of abstinence-only/purity ball culture, where girls are told that they must guard themselves against rabid boys, and that they must reign in both their own and their suitors’ impulses. But even while inverting the positions, Meyer doesn’t change the game. Purity is still the goal. Men, or vampires, are still dangerous and threatening while females are still breakable and fragile. Intercourse still has the potential of resulting in “death,” just as it once relegated women to a social death. The only difference is the controls are handed over from the teenage girl to the guy–who happens, in this case, to be totally responsible and upright.

Having read such articles previously, the weird gender dynamics of Twilight didn’t surprise me. But two other things did.

Firstly, there’s almost no plot at all. Like, in most mass-market YA fiction, plot matters a great deal. Think of Harry Potter. JK Rowling’s not a great wordsmith (mind you, she’s a zillion times better than Meyer) but, right from the start of Harry Potter, there’s an unfolding mystery, both in each individual book and the series as a whole. In Twilight, nothing happens at all. For the first half of the book, the narrative drive comes from Bella trying to work out what Edward actually is. Given that anyone who buys the damn thing presumably knows it’s got something to do with vampires, the puzzle about Edward’s identity doesn’t exactly make for a page-turner.

So what’s going on? Well, I guess it’s a reflection of Seltzer’s point. Given that the appeal of the book lies in what we might call the thrill of the chaste, any actual action (if you pardon the pun) would detract from the central dynamic between Bella and Edward: the ongoing angst about whether he like me, whether he really, really likes me.

The second piece of weirdness about Twilight is the extent to which it foregrounds class. The book begins with Bella moving from a big city to a hicksville town and right from the start, she regards her schoolmates with amused condescension. The other kids are a collection of backward bumpkins — they drive old cars, dress badly and struggle with their schoolwork. Edward and his posse of vampires a million times better looking than all these hillbillies. Besides, they have better cars (Edward’s a Volvo driver) and clothes. Indeed, Bella and Edward first bond over a shared contempt for the yokels, with Edward using his vampiric abilities to belittle and humiliate his slack-jawed schoolmates.

Now, there’s always an element of this in fantasy, which sells so well to teenagers precisely because its basic narrative appeals to every pimply adolescent’s secret sense of unacknowledged superiority. Think of the typical sub-Tolkein swords-and-sandals novel: invariably, the protagonist begins as a lowly pig herder before gradually discovering that he’s the greatest wizard there ever was and the whole future of the universe hangs on whether or not he can complete some asinine quest or another.

The difference with Twilight, however, is that the distinction between Bella and Edward and the risible kids surrounding them is explicitly social, measured in Bella’s superior knowledge of fashion and Edward’s impeccable manners and commanding (literally: he specialises in bossing around teachers and other minor authority figures) presence.

Again, one wonders how much this reflects Meyer’s religion. That is, contemporary Mormonism is, as I understand it, overwhelmingly middle-class, yet it’s still seen as something of a fringe by mainstream America. That sense of being socially superior to those around you and yet still an outcast pervades Twilight, giving it a quite peculiar form of nastiness.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. I thought Twilight was remarkably like a Mills & Boon novel – lots of erratic heartbeats, clenched jaws and unresolved sexual tension. In a Mills & Boon novel, the protagonists meet and are instantly attracted to each other. Therefore, in a typical romance novel, the author has to invent some way of keeping them apart until the last page (e.g. often a ridiculous misunderstanding but sometimes an murder mystery etc). In Meyer's novel, the vampire thing is the plot device keeping them apart.

    I didn't read this book terribly analytically; having read a few Mills & Boon when avoiding study at various point in my life I liked that Bella had some guts and was making up her own mind about things, instead of being a helpless sap, which is often the case. Some interesting points to mull over in your post!

    PS I don't want to seem 'down' on romance novels, by the way – how many of the great novels are essentially this anyway?

  2. Just wait until you read the final installment, with its very disturbing anti-abortion message. The mother insists on going through with the pregnancy even through her half-vampire fetus will probably kill her. Charming.

    Um, hope I haven’t spoiled the story for you.

  3. Yes. I should have made clear, I'm only half-way through the first book. Perhaps the second half is different.
    Must say, though, I do find the popularity of Twilight quite mystifying. Like, I'm not a big Harry Potter fan but I can see that the book works, that does something quite distinctive successfully. Twilight? Not so much.

  4. Jeff, I enjoyed your post as I enjoy any review which highlights Twilight's inadequacy. I too am mystified as to why the Twilight series is so popular.

    I was given the first by a friend who described it as a good holiday book. Hardly an enthused recommendation but I gave it a shot nonetheless. Unfortunately the book doesn't even come close to a good holiday read for me. I feel like i am reading my 10 year old sister's attempt at a novel. Meyer's writing style is unchallenging, unexciting and basic. At times during the novel I wondered why I was even bothering. My self imposed rule to never finish a book got me through. As I turned the last page I was disgusted and vowed to read no more of the series. I bring the topic up with friends and am faced with a barrage of gushing fans. I cannot understand this, the success of the Twilight series baffles me. The only answer I can suggest is that the simple and cliched style is so easy to read it appeals to a generation brought up on text and twitter. Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald prove all to much for a generation who spells you as u and late as l8, so Stephenie Myer finds her niche. I say this in fear of sounding like a pretentious literary snob. Nevertheless, much like the barely restrained sexual tension between Bella and Edward, I just can't help myself.

  5. Much as I hate to say this (go on, crucify me I deserve it)…maybe it's a girl thing. Like 'blokey' entertainment fiction often has lots and lots and lots of irrelevant details about weapons and windspeed and fisticuff strategies and what tank model was that anyway? I mean, I don't mind a bit of it myself, but I suspect I have a higher tolerance for the antics of moody ridiculously good-looking well-mannered honourable HEART THROBS who are just HEAD OVER HEELS FOR YOU. Who may also be vampires. And I call myself a feminist…

  6. Alice,
    I'm sure there is a gender dynamic to it — hell, it's obviously pitched to a female readership. Even still, I was thinking of those Georgette Heyer regency romances when reading the damn thing. Like, Heyer's not exactly my cup of tea but even I can see that she knows what she's doing. Twilight seems much more out of control than that.

  7. I agree with Alice: the appeal is all in Edward. He's a good-looking, charming almost-superhero who loves Bella so much that he is essentially at her beck and call. That's the fantasy of the book: wouldn't life be sweet with something like that around? (But, good lord, Bella is ridiculously undeserving of this special treatment.)

    Spot on about the lack of plot, though, Jeff. The Harry Potter plots are far better structured and thought out. Oh, and in book 4 (according to what I read on Wikipedia), the aforementioned killer fetus gets together with Bella's werewolf admirer. Now THAT is messed up.

  8. Oh, and Edward seems to be some kind of Young Republican.
    “Music in the fifties was good. Much better than the sixties, or the seventies, ugh!” He shuddered. “The eighties were bearable.”
    A Huey Lewis fan, I'm thinking.

  9. My 14-year-old sister was swooning with Twilightitis last year, and I couldn't see the appeal of such a badly written book. Yet recently I saw Interview with the Vampire, which was my generation's vampire schlock, and it all suddenly made sense. Vampire erotica of this sort presses very particular buttons for girls (and feminism, I would argue, has nothing to do with the buttons themselves); and Meyer is extremely good at locating them. Twilight is almost pornographic in the way it gives the reader exactly what she craves.

    At this age (14ish), girls are absolutely terrified of sex, and yet, of course, close to it. To them, sex is alluring, something they know they'll experience soon (something that everyone else is doing), yet something they know will physically hurt, and entails a million kinds of risk, not least emotional risk. Sex Ed as we tend to get it is focused on the physical risks, and yet the experience of opening up to another person is emotionally terrifying. A few years later, it's easy to forget the terror of being naked in front of another person for the first time as an adult; not to speak of being in love for the first time. And it is physically painful, often very painful.

    Vampire stories are extremely safe erotica: not only is there no risk of pregnancy or STDs, but nobody is even able to get old. The homoerotic lacing of Vampire Chronicles removes the risks once more, because the girls can identify with the super-powerful, attractive, rich, strong, smart, etc, male characters (again: no risk of rape, pregnancy, not even of physical violence). Twilight's Edward is the perfect boyfriend for a 14-year-old girl. Unlike in other didactic tales of that kind, she doesn't need to manage her boy's desire: he manages all the risks for her. He is in no way dangerous. She can relax. He teases her (and there are long passages of weird, softcore foreplay throughout the book), but she is safe.

    To a more literate (or emotionally mature) person, Twilight is tacky emotional soft porn. But for girls at this age, it is an extremely pleasant fantasy. It has very little to do with feminism. Unless we want to argue that harbouring fantasies is wrong, at that or any age.

  10. Hi Jana,
    That's a really good analysis. Perhaps one could argue that, in a strange way, the emotional stunting fostered by Mormonism's cluster of sexual neuroses makes Meyer particularly successful in relating to adolescents. It is interesting, however, that the books cross over so well to older readers, too — hence the so-called 'Twilight Moms'.
    Maxine, as far as I can see, there are no non-white kids at the school (or at least none are mentioned). Within that context, both Bella and the vampires distinguish themselves by their almost translucent whiteness, both metaphorically and literally. Here's her first description of them: 'Every one of them was chalky pale, the palest of all the students living in this sunless town. Paler than me, the albino.'
    One other point: can anyone who knows more about romance say anything about the physical descriptions of Edward? That is, here's a selection of adjectives from the space of a few pages: perfect, beautiful, exquisite, beautiful, lovely, dazzling, beautiful (it comes up a lot), godlike, etc. And it continues like that, chapter after chapter.
    At first, it just seemed another manifestation of Meyer's basic incompetence (show, don't tell, kids). Nonetheless, it is kinda interesting to have such an obsessive focus on the physical appearance of a male character. Is this normal in romance? I'd always assumed that, yes, the male lead was handsome but the emphasis fell more on his dashing deeds than his lovely face. I wonder if the fact that Neddy's a vampire rather than a human allows Twilight to get away with a bit of a gender bending that wouldn't be possible in a realist narrative. That is, for someone as socially conservative as Meyer, men aren't supposed to be pretty — but being a vampire makes it OK.

  11. I completely agree with your analysis Jeff. The writing's flat tending to bad, there is no plot, it is almost tedious to read. And yes, far inferior to Harry Potter, where writing, imaginative conception, plot and character are a zillion times better. And yes, Bella has the superior teenage thing, but not just over country yokels, over all human beings, all mortals. She can only relate to supernatural creatures. She's left behind no good friends in Phoenix, she's a loner, a feisty, difficult, smart, bookish girl who's annoyed by, then intrigued by, then obsessed by another outsider. And I think that's where my interest began. Initially I was more than indifferent to Twilight and then suddenly it got me and now I'm completely obsessed. It perfectly evokes that exquisite agonising teenage longing for sex and beauty, in this case beautiful boys, with a lot of torment thrown in (tormented hero, tormented heroine). Passion to die for. Yes cliched, but real too, like all cliches. A mass market Romeo and Juliet (which Meyer bangs on about in second book) or Wuthering Heights (which is mentioned too). That's 'all' it is. Its appeal is very basic, artless, clunky, but I sure can see it now. And she does a good love triangle in the second book too.

  12. It scares me to hear both Jane and Jeff say that the writing is better than the Harry Potter's. I have read all of them, and by the end they're really baggy and flat (despite the bones of an excellent plot – which can be still be found if you're determined enough).

  13. oh yes, I also said the writing was 'far inferior' to Harry Potter. And can see there is a plot, but it's pretty meandering and obvious. Hence the mystery of my obsession. I am beguiled by 'tacky emotional soft porn' as Jana so aptly describes it.

  14. I don’t think that Meyer’s novels are as a whole are disappointing. In effort not to seem like I am making excuses for her writing, I would like to make it clear that I do not like the Twilight series nor would I encourage people to read the books.
    I was first told about the books before it became mainstream and seemed to be known by every female tween in the world. I had not read many romance novels, nor books with nuances of romance in them. Hence, with only a faint knowledge of the plot (something concerning vampires with an element of romance in it) and no prior judgements or perceptions, I in earnest liked the book. I made no attempt to analyse for its literary sophistication or complexity. To me, it was a nice book with a nice protagonist and a nice plot (or lack thereof). I gave me nice fluffy feelings and I didn’t question it further.
    The second again read before the hype gave the similar experiences.
    The third, read also before the hype, I started to question some of the things that were happening. In consideration of the target audience of mostly tweens and teens, I thought that perhaps some of the elements such as marriage was a little inappropriate. However, still under the sort of hypnosis (eg the zealous repetition of the words, dazzle, beautiful, god etc) that the series had me under, I maintained my appreciation for the books.
    Between the time that I finished Eclipse to the time the Breaking Dawn came out, people were starting the notice the books and Twilight exploded on people’s radars. When the sample chapter came out, I was abruptly pulled out of my trance by the transformed charcterisation. Every character had changed their “voice”. When the book did come out, I has shocked and appalled by the things that Meyer wrote. The pregnancy, the marriage and the baby only ercked me. The writing had the tone and the quality that I would expect from a nine year old. I started to look back on the other books and realised that they were all similar as well. The lack of a plot, the overuse of the physical descriptions of Edward and essentially the abuse (both emotionally and physically) that Edward was inflicting on his supposed true love.
    In retrospect, I don’t regret reading them as now I have a better insight and understanding to what makes a good romance novel tick and what makes them thrown under the category of trash. I think that if Meyer refrained herself and stopped at Twilight and had not written the subsequent novels, she would have a lot more respect as a writer that she has now. The first novel’s appealing quality was a product of careful planning, unhurried writing, anonymity and importantly of Meyer not reading Twilight fanfiction which warped her writing in Breaking Dawn.
    Whilst irrefutably, Twilight has may pitfalls, there is a reason that it has become so well known and Meyer has evidently tapped into something and made money off something that all struggling authors are attempting to find. Just as no one admits to listening to Miley Cyrus, she still tops the charts. Perhaps we must all accept that Meyer is a pop song that we all love to loathe.

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