Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Twilight: The Book

This weekend, I was at a rock concert, and the guy in front of me had a tee-shirt that read, “Hot Topic is not punk rock.” Which is, of course, true, and the message was clearly a poke at the younger, prone-to-screaming-hysterically contingent of the band’s female fanbase. Hot Topic promotes bands that are like the Sex Pistols defanged, punk rock watered down and made palatable to legions of swoony young girls who want to tack pictures of William Beckett and Pete Wentz all over their walls. So it’s unsurprising that Hot Topic sells scads of Twilight merchandise, since, as Fall Out Boy is to the Sex Pistols, Twilight is to, say, I Am Legend. (And I say that as a fan of all four of those things.) Twilight is vampires watered down, made palatable to the generation that’s too young to have seen Interview With A Vampire (the first emo vampire movie) in the theatres.

The last time I wrote about vampires, I had nothing to say about Twilight because the movie wasn’t out yet and I hadn’t read the book. (My friend Lindsay had read it, however, and came down firmly on the side of "YOU SHOULD NOT READ IT.") I had the book sitting around for a while, because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, plus it was recommended to me a couple of years ago by a beloved professor who had never steered me wrong when it came to reading recommendations, so I figured it had to either have some kind of merit on its own, or in the very least had to be the kind of thing that generally appeals to me, since this professor knows my taste (and occasional lack thereof) pretty well. Still, I was reluctant to dive in because it seemed like it would be unbearably cheesy, but then I read the second Entertainment Weekly cover story and saw this:

The author loves the movie, though she had her disagreements with Hardwicke. ''I mostly stepped in on the script level,'' she says. ''You know the line 'So the lion fell in love with the lamb'? It's a bit of a cheesy line, I have to say. They had changed the wording on that, to downplay it a little. And I said, 'I really like how you've changed this, but this line is tattooed on people's ankles. I think you're going to have a problem if you don't do it exactly right.' And they listened to me — and saved themselves the outrage of the people who know these books.''

I kind of liked that acknowledgment of both sides of the coin – the cheesiness of the source material, the devotion of the fans. It made me think that maybe the people involved in this juggernaut had their heads screwed on straight.

So I finally cracked open Twilight, and I didn’t put it back down until I was done several hours later. Suffice to say, it was a lot better than I expected. Granted, after taking something like ten or eleven writing workshops in college, I have a nearly endless capacity to tolerate crap writing and find the merit in nearly everything I read. After some of the exorable sadsack excuses for student writing I had to slog through on a weekly basis for several years on end, something has to be really atrocious to even ping my radar of bad writing. I think I’ve got the literary equivalent of PTSD, I’m the dead-around-the-eyes reading equivalent a war vet who can walk past a nasty car wreck and not even flinch because I’ve seen real horror. You think a little purple prosey vampire melodrama can compare to reading a novel-in-progress, written partially in a hokey southern dialect, that regularly waxes rhapsodic about the massive torso of the psychotically unhinged narrator who is really just a thinly veiled version of the douchebag writer? And then having to find nice things to say about said exorable piece of dung in workshop because if you don’t, the unhinged writer/narrator might follow you home after class, chop off your head, and add it to the trophy case of heads you’re convinced he has stashed under his bed? Jesus, people, I’ve been in the shit, okay? Those who complain about the quality of Stephenie Meyer’s writing need to live inside my head for a moment and see just how much worse it could be.

Um. Sorry. Like I said, literary PTSD. Anyway, I found a lot of the book surprisingly charming. If you can get past the purple prose, the narrator’s unflagging low self-esteem, and the ten thousand exclamations of Edward’s immortal hotassness, there’s actually a pretty good book in there. It needed a more brutal edit, to be sure, and I’ve no doubt it would have gotten one had they known how much it was gonna blow up. Twilight is surprisingly funny, the characters are all pretty likeable, and the story moves along at a decent clip. I read the other three books in the series over the course of the week. It was interesting to see Meyer’s prose fade from vivid purple to a pale lilac as the series progressed and she honed her writing (albeit on a very public stage). Alas, her plotting skills do leave something to be desired. The books build towards big, climactic battles that are either fought off-page and described later because the narrator was not present mentally or physically, or are resolved with lame truces. And the fourth book, Breaking Dawn, rather famously went off the rails and into wackadooland plotwise, though I still enjoyed much of it. It probably helps that I was already spoiled for the la-la-lunacy so I knew what I was getting into before reading page one of book one.

It’s easy enough to see why the books are so popular. For the teen set, well, come on. When I was the age of the Twilight target demo, my friends and I were addicted to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. We saw it over and over in the theatre, clipped pictures out of magazines, memorized the soundtrack, all that good stuff. There will always be something like this for teen girls to rally around. Of course, it wasn’t as big a media story back then because we weren’t in the midst of a major economic depression that’s left the oh-so-very-doomed media (who are all sick of writing about the major economic depression at this point) grasping at any straw of what might be a viable story in vain hopes of proving its continued relevancy.

And the books work even for those of us whose hormones are finally mostly in check, because they tap into the two most primal driving forces of human nature: sex and death. Sex and death are the only things worth writing about because they’re the twin codes of our entire existence. We are programmed to avoid death at all costs, both on a personal level by, you know, breathing and eating and sleeping and not stepping into oncoming traffic, and on a species level by mating and procreating. It’s the reason naval-gazing literary outings don’t fare well outside of the MFA incubator while mysteries and romances clog up Bookscan’s top spots, because sex and death will always trump artistic merit when it comes to mass appeal. And star-crossed romance has been popular since Shakespeare wrote about Romeo and Juliet, since Ovid wrote of Pyramus and Thisbe, since ancient Greeks sat around telling the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The archetype has endured for over two millennia because there’s something about that dynamic that appeals to us on a really primal level. Bella and Edward are merely the newest iteration of something very old and enduringly popular.

The thing about the Twilight series is, the author basically wrote it on a lark and sent it off to see if she could get published on a lark. Luck was on her side and she got published and it snowballed into this huge thing that’s put her – a young and unrefined author with definite potential but lacking polish – under a huge microscope. Now, I can’t exactly cry for her because she was certainly well-compensated for her troubles, but I still think she didn’t set out to write the Great American Novel, which is why I find the furor on both sides – she’s a genius! she’s everything wrong with the world! – to be frankly hilarious. Is it Mormon propaganda masquerading as vampire romance? No, it’s just a book written by someone too green to properly pull herself and her views out of her writing – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless you’re a Mormon or a Scientologist or a douchebag sociopath with an under-the-bed head collection and a massive torso. Taken at face value, stripped of all the hype, the Twilight series is a good yarn and an engaging read, no more or less.


Lindsay said...

Thing is, man, I've totally been in the shit too. Come on! PROFESSIONAL SLUSHPILE READER!

Guess I haven't reached the literary PTSD phase yet, though. I'm incapable of not noticing the bad shit. Bad shit just makes me want to throttle people a little more.

smd said...

Yeah, but you at least get some catharsis from rejecting the shit. I had to suck it up, smile vacantly, and discuss the usually-dubious merits of said shit. (My friends always said they knew when I really hated something because I would keep saying "interesting" over and over in a really forced voice. "I think your characters are...interesting. And this plot sure is...interesting.") Plus, slush crap is usually marginally better than workshop crap because at least slush crap authors have figured out that they need an agent to get published and they've figured out where agents are located so some thought has been put into the endeavor, whereas many workshoppers seem only to have figured out how to turn on a computer and spew their sad little minds onto digital paper. And with workshops you have to face down the authors rather than interacting via the relatively safe mail. Trust me, the shit I encountered in the publishing house slush pile - I'm talking crazy white supremacy propaganda from a guy who claimed to commune with Laura Ingalls Wilder's spirit - was like high art compared to some of the crap I had to wade through in school. Honestly, I think it was the forced-merit-finding that induced the PTSD. I had no rejection outlet for my rage, no way to sit back and at least be happy that I'd blocked one avenue of letting this stuff get unleashed onto the world - I think that all contributed to my dead-around-the-eyes look.

Sex Mahoney for President said...

I'm torn on this issue. On the one hand, I abhor most wildly popular books because anything that well liked is usually pretty bad; however, the contrarian in me wants to defend the book from the plethora of detractors who have already torn it apart (and if you haven't already seen it, the South Park send up was one of their best episodes in a while).

I think I would much rather read that White Supremacist Novel written with Laura Ingells Wilder's help.

I suppose now I'll have to illegally download Twilight and give it a shot on the plane next week.

I took one writing class for two class periods while at university. There has to be a better way to teach people how to write.

Sex Mahoney for President

smd said...

Yeah, Twilight definitely gives equal opportunities to people who hate popular things and people who want to defend loathed things. The thing is, I figure anyone who wants to be a writer needs to read as many wildly popular books as possible, because love it or hate it, Twilight obviously did something right to sell 17 million books. So it's worth trying to figure out what it did right and what it did wrong.

And writing classes can be hit or miss. As much as I bitch about the crap I had to read in mine, I do think mine were a useful, practical way to teach writing because they were all workshop style - minimal lecturing, you'd just read and workshop three or four stories a week. People could (and did) write whatever they wanted, from complete short stories to novel excerpts. The only real way to learn how to write is to just do it and see what works, and we usually had three firm deadlines (the writer's best friend!) and three workshops for our stuff, giving us a chance to try things out and see whether our classmates recoiled in horror or totally got it. (The response tended to be the exact opposite of whatever you guessed it would be.) Plus, I got to work with some incredible professors and read some really fresh and exciting student work (in among all the traumatic stuff). So I am in favor of workshop-style writing classes, but the way they teach creative writing in most universities - lecture-style, lots of useless writing excercises maybe leading into one end project - just doesn't work.