Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Boys, Girls and Twilight

Herein is my entry in the Absolute Write Blog Chain for books. Here are the participants:
DavidZahir - http://zahirblue.blogspot.com/
Lost Wanderer - http://www.lostwanderer5.blogspot.com
RavenCorinnCarluk - http://raven.youareannoying.us
Vein Glory - http://podpeep.blogspot.com/
Shethinkstoomuch - http://shethinkstoomuch.wordpress.com
Lady Cat - http://randomwriterlythoughts.blogspot.com

So many folks I know stare dazedly at the statistics. Four books by a Mormon housewife who's never written fiction before -- Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn -- shot to the top of best-seller lists. The first movie, panned by many, transformed the lead actors into stars and media sensations in their own right. Their appearance, especially by Robert Pattinson, sparked near-riots in some places. The second, panned as well, breaks box office records. Stephanie Meyer is hailed as the new J.K.Rowling (whatever that means) even as Stephen King opines she "...can’t write worth a darn." Many agree.

But millions of teenage girls do not. Some of those teenage girls aren't in teen-aged (or even necessarily female) bodies. Something about Twilight appeals to the teen girl in people -- including a couple of co-workers of mine well into their twenties. One also adores "torture porn" a la Saw or Hostel. So another stereotype goes crashing to the ground. Good riddance, say I.

Still, the whole saga of Meyer's books (as opposed to the saga in the books) drops jaws and stirs envy, especially by better writers with not a tiny percentage of her success (or--now--bank account).

Like me.

Here's the thing, though. Meyer actually accomplished quite a nice feat of characterization in her novels. Bella Swan should have been a Mary Sue yet is not. The interplay between the various and sundry people in the books makes sense and they all seem "alive." Some criticism of the books frankly seems trivial--I myself prefer my vampires with fangs and not sparkles, but this is her fictional world and her explanations make sense so give it a rest, already. Her writing style is readable, not at all beautiful or elegant or particularly polished. But it works. Her plots are obvious and become moreso as the series progresses. The world she's made is a fun urban fantasy, not up to the level of Harry Potter but perfectly okay in its own right.

But the characters stand out. And given the way fans divide up into teams based on their faves indicates that is what drives all the mania. Something about them struck a chord. Which in turn, at least so I believe, says something about boys and girls right now.

Starting with the Boys--it seems clear that (apart from the whole vampire fandom going on, which applies to True Blood and The Vampire Diaries as well as loads of others right now) what has got girls in a tizzy is the nature of this romance. Edward Cullen (our undead Mr. D'Arcy) is as passionate a teenager as one might imagine. He would kill for Bella. Without her he wants to die. At the same time, Edward is in the grip of near-overwhelming desires, especially for Bella. He openly says he wants to kill her, longs to suck ever drop of blood from her body. Yet he controls himself so totally he can kiss her. Indeed, he often overreacts in his efforts to protect and care for this girl (let us face it, Edward Cullen is a drama queen--but then, after nine decades as a 17-year-old virgin methinks this is forgivable). In other words (are you listening, my younger fellow males?) Edward Cullen is everything about a teenage boy thrown into sharp relief but then made positive. He is driven by urges he cannot control, but somehow does. He is attracted to the point of almost being a Stalker, but genuinely loves. He is awkward about how to show his feelings, but uses gallantry as a fallback. Edward is the ultimate fantasy for every teen girl (well, the straight ones, anyway) who wants a romantic leading man to treat her like a princess. And why is this such a strong fantasy? Well, I don't think too many males are even trying to be gallant these days.

When my late fiancee came home from the hospital, I had set up christmas lights all over her apartment because she loved them and didn't like bright, direct light. The look on her face was something I still treasure. When I've related that story, women almost invariably look amazed and pleased. Men look puzzled and impressed. Therein lies a divide between the genders in our culture right now, or so I maintain. Somewhere along the line women have developed a genuine hunger for romance, for gallantry. And men have developed an aversion to same, lest they be seen as "girly" or "gay" or some variation of not-manly. This is a very foolish notion that has crept into men's thinking and habits.

Twilight offers a vicarious feeding to that hunger on the part of girls (or the girlish part of women) longing for that kind of love story--a central Myth (note the capital 'M') in our collective dreams.

But now, Girls--this all says something about you, too. Bella Swan epitomizes what I think most people think they really are--the outsider, the stranger who doesn't quite fit in, the lonely one even surrounded by more-or-less friends. Yet isn't it telling that in this, a wildly successful book (and now film) series about wish fulfillment in the romance department, Bella falls in love with two men whose beauty is literally superhuman? Edward looks like the marble statue of a greek god come to life, while Jacob is the incredibly hunky guy-next-door with muscles a-rippling and heat actually emitting from his six-foot-plus form in waves. Wow. Just a little superficial maybe? I don't want to deny anyone their eye-candy, but when the fantasy so resolutely includes physical perfection, methinks therein lies another reason for a thirst unquenched. Twilight fits only-too-easily into our common habit of judging by appearance, falling in love with the surface rather than the substance.

I should also point out parenthetically that a passionate love story between human and vampire offers plenty of adult, more sophisticated opportunities--many of which enjoy strong audience loyalty. Nick and Natalie. Henry and Vicky. Eli and Oscar. Bill and Sookie. Twilight is fun and all, containing some rather more sophisticated ideas than many give it credit for (Bella as an Influence without power comes to mind), but the love story itself needn't have been quite so simplistic. But then, if it weren't, neither would it show off quite so clearly this trend in our own gender relations now would it?


Daniel H said...

I think the angst of the books is what speaks to so many of us. The life of a teenager is fraught with angst and frustration.

I think that is why, in large part the books speak to so many.

As a writer, I readily admit that Meyer could've used a heavy-handed editor (how many times must we hear how gorgeous Edward is?). Much of her writing strikes me as a chord on a keyboard, the same notes over and over, maybe transposed.

Of all the characters, my wife and I would say that Jacob is the most fleshed out.

With all of that said, and acknowledging that this is not going to be viewed as "high literature", it's still a good string of books to read.

I know that Meyer has it in her to produce quality writing. The Host is a MUCH better work of fiction than any of the Twilight series.

Kate Hart said...

Very interesting and even handed assessment. Nice work.

victoriawinters said...

I personally think your take on these books rings true. Women and their daughters are flocking to the books and movies because Stephanie Meyer has created two dream men. So much so, they are supernatural.

Gallentary and even manners from most men (not all) is in short supply.

I personally find Jacob the most compelling character.

I would like to see some adult novels from her. She had a great deal of potential.

Dolly said...

David, your review is fabulous though it still does not tempt me to read the books. I know the story of the books, and I have seen the first movie, and while Edward's character is interesting, I found Bella's character in the movie and just generally from the storyline of the book totally pathetic. Also when I picked up the book and flipped through the pages, Meyer's writing style seemed far too weak, so I don't think I will bother with these books.

But going back to the review, I do love your reviewing skills. Great first post. :-)

C R Ward said...

David, I commend you on an amazing job done on your review! Unlike L.W. it does tempt me to read the books.

While I love a good vampire story, I've been avoiding Twilight mainly because it's geared to young adults. I like my vampires a little more grown up. :-) However, perhaps I just might borrow my daughter's copy of the series to see what all the fuss is about.

Anonymous said...

I got sucked into reading the Twilight series. She plopped the first book into my hand. I promptly went out and bought them, in hard cover.

It did speak to the teenage girl in me. And I had the added enjoyment of actually talking about a book I read with a close friend of mine who also read the book.

So for me they were a lot of fun. I enjoyed your book review and I think you brought up some good points.

Anonymous said...

Great review. While I didn't care for Twilight, your points are sound. I agree with your assessment as to why people enjoy them so much.

Good work!

The romantic query letter and the happy-ever-after said...

I read a dozen books or so every year with my goddaughters and this was one of them a few years back. Now, the girls did not like it but they are very peculiar little girls. Your review is very good and I liked it far better than I did the book, which I would have more than likely have forgotten had they not made a movie of it.
You take care.

Raven Corinn Carluk said...

You put some great thought into this, and it's almost enough to make think there's some merit to the books. Almost. I can't get past the sparkles.

But the appeal to the girls that you mention, I know that to be true. My old man's ex-girlfriend/best friend is reminded of their romance; a young girl in love with a dark and mysterious boy-man.

veinglory said...

Despite being such as fan of vampire lit, this is one I could never get into....