Every year or so, I usually try to read a really awful book as part of my ongoing reading project. Back in 2006, I read James Frey’s excremental A Million Little Pieces; in 2008, I read Dan Brown’s unholy The Da Vinci Code. This year I read Twilight.
I do this for a number of reasons. First and probably foremost, I’m an asshole, and enjoy telling people that they have awful taste; in order to do that, however, I really do need to read that awful dreck first.
I was almost entirely unaware of Twilight until it wriggled its way into Hollywood, at which point the hysteria for this miserable dross was almost overwhelming. A book about vampires in love, written for young (female) adults, managed to capture the hearts and minds not only of its target market, but about 70 million hearts and minds around the globe.
Meyer is not the first person to accomplish a feat of this magnitude: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, unarguably a book for adolescents when it began, became extraordinarily popular with readers of all ages. And not without good reason: Rowling’s books, though hardly a treasure trove of literature, had the benefits of being entertaining, genuinely engaging, and filled with characters who we loved or reviled appropriately.
Meyer is also not the first person to make money from a vampire chic: Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (originally a book in 1976 that nobody really cared about) made vampirism suddenly sexy and desirable, at least if you want to get bitten by Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt. For several years after it came out, it was almost impossible to distinguish between brooding Goths and regular movie-going shills.
Neither is Meyer the first person to write a book for young adults (or older, for that matter) about the difficulty of relationships. Much hay has been made in Meyer’s defense that Twilight is a delicate metaphorical treatment for the uncertain of teenage romance. Which is true, but only insofar as Striptease is a treatise on domestic violence or Flavor of Love is a metaphor for the existential angst of age.
No, in fact, there is nothing original about Twilight. Meyer’s been out-sold by J.K. Rowling, out-vampired by Anne Rice (or, for that matter, Bram Stoker—even Richard Matheson), and out-romanced even by authors like Jerry Spinelli1. It’s not that Meyer is unaware of what makes a good book. I can see her trying: character development, suspense, romance, even humor. Unfortunately, Meyer isn’t really very good at writing any of these things; she uses such stilted phrases as “The shape of the door slowly took shape,” she mistakes redundancy for detail (“When I woke up, I was confused. My thoughts were hazy”), and thinks that developing a character consists of having them repeat the same thoughts over and over again2.
Isabella is the new girl at school in Forks, Washington, having just moved there to be with her estranged dad. She’s ghostly pale, doesn’t dance, is clumsy, and is the sort of ostentatious brat who brags (to herself, anyway) about not being “normal.” In other words, her description is that of the poor chubby girl you knew in high school who died her hair black, wore a Slipknot t-shirt (or, if you’re older, a The Cure t-shirt), and went out of her way to self-alienate as a defensive mechanism. We all know these people; maybe you are/were one. However trite this narrative setup is, it is at least realistic….. until her first day, when no fewer than three boys start to vie for Bella’s affections. This figure does not include Edward Cullen, the devastatingly handsome vampire who falls in love with Bella, and whose affection (as well as Bella’s mutual lust) forms the basis of the plot. Notably, Edward is actually a century old, and only appears to be 17 years old; while it’s easy to forget that he isn’t a young man, I think Edward’s apparent immaturity is a gaping plot hole.
Ask yourself if it’s likely that a stock misfit character just happens to be the center of widespread male attention, or if—as I suspect—Twilight just happens to be a virulently awful piece of wish fulfillment fantasy. This is a rhetorical question: Twilight is a bit like an extended daydream, an updated Harlequin romance for a darker and morbid audience who, instead of a preferring muscled pirate stealing your Victorian virtue, enjoys a hair-gelled vampire talking about how damned good your blood smells. Well, gosh, ladies, no wonder you’re moist!
To recap thus far: Meyer is an awful writer spewing out mediocre claptrap stolen from much better writers before her (see also Christopher Paolini). Twilight represents a petty, ridiculous kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy that reveals the worst in its readers. As my brother has argued, however, is this much different from traditionally male wish-fulfillment fantasies? I just saw Taratino’s Inglourious Basterds, which is the equivalent of Jewish porn. Is hyperviolent Jewish wish-fulfillment better than Meyer’s odd sort of buttoned-down angsty tween wish fulfillment? I would argue that the execution is better, if nothing else—also that Tarantino’s wish-fulfillment was, while fictional, not necessarily farcical. But that is a philosophical debate best left for another time.
In the case of Twilight, there is little to redeem it. It combined the horrendous writing skill of Dan Brown with the plaintive, whining sort of characters favored by Christopher Paolini—the kind whose narrative deaths you fervently wish for. It is not merely a curious conceit from a subpar fabulist, but apparently indicative of a much larger issue with its readership—namely that they all, on some level, want to be popular misfits3, and they all want to meet and seduce handsome, brooding, dangerous young men who inexplicably fall in love with them4. The entire affair is infuriating and not a little sad. Clearly, if you’ve got any sense, and you aren’t simply reading the book out of morbid curiosity, run as far as you can from this terrible dross.
- Though in ranking young adult novels in terms of their fidelity to the complexities of human relationships, you can’t beat Ellen Emerson White’s The Road Home[↩]
- Frey thought this, too, and hence his belabored clich´s like “ice-blue eyes”[↩]
- This is as impossible and ridiculous as it sounds[↩]
- One important point that I didn’t get a chance to bring up in the review is the nature of the relationship between Bella and Edward. While she is (literally) entranced by him, Bella is a real teenager, while Edward is a century-old supernatural being with superpowers: the balance of the relationship is thrown entirely off by this fact, but neither character seems to care; neither, it would appear, does the author or her readers.[↩]