Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Declaration of War on All Things Twilight

I tried to read Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. I really did. I am conscious of the many historical instances in which the seemingly unredeemable popular work of the day—championed by the great unwashed masses, but ridiculed by the literati—later became a pillar of English or American Literature. And so, I very consciously refrain from judging a work before I actually read it for myself and, in all likelihood, determine that it is not, in fact, so much trash, but just another in a long line of additions to English or American pop culture that is mildly entertaining and, perhaps, of latent artistic value to be recognized in some far off date when our children seek to define the age gone by. But fifty pages of Twilight revealed the issue to me in stark detail: we have finally become a nation of literary panderers. For every Cormac McCarthy, there are a dozen Stephenie Meyers who direct the focus of American literary endeavor to the very lowest common denominator. And I, for one, will not watch the ship of American literature founder and sink without at least trying to plug the leak and bail.


There are many arguments to be made against the story of Twilight itself, which anyone who has not been living in a cave for the past decade knows whether they’ve read the book or not. It’s decidedly unoriginal—both Anne Rice and Charlaine Harris did vampires better. It’s also decidedly creepy—the story of a man 109-year old man having an affair with a 17-year old high school girl. Not since Nabokov’s Lolita has a story so successfully cashed in on society’s prurient interest in young girls. And it unabashedly perpetuates the princess myth, wherein the helpless young girl is unable to defend herself against the terrible forces of this world and must seek the protection of the impossibly strong, handsome, and wealthy man that will, of course, dedicate his life to her safety and happiness. That literally millions of young girls around the world are being raised to think that this is an acceptable framework through which to see the world is more our failing as a society than Stephenie Meyers’ as a creative artist.

But none of this is surprising or even particularly bothersome to me. I am sufficiently jaded by popular American culture at this point that lousy, recycled stories roll off my back like so much water off a duck. What does bother me is the scale upon which Twilight has been adopted by and incorporated into American culture and the resulting shift of our collective focus toward those stories that present an airbrushed (if not wholly animated) depiction of American life in a series of clich├ęd cliffhangers and caricatures while eschewing (or at least relegating to a distant secondary status) any story that accurately depicts the joys and the hardships of this life and the emotional struggles that realistic characters endure in order to survive within it. I genuinely fear that the overriding popularity of Twilight has finally pushed us irrevocably into the category of slack-jawed cartoon watchers, with no interest in stories with organic meaning for our condition as human beings, stories that make us think, stories that make us consider other points of view or strive to be better, or at lease stories that involve an original thought.

And so, somewhat surprisingly, I feel that I owe Stephenie Meyers a personal debt of gratitude. Twilight was, to me, a boot to the head. I can now see the dark night about me, but I refuse to go quietly into it. I am awake, and I recognize that, in order to find those stories that I treasure—stories by which we collectively define and experience the many beautiful variations on the human condition—I must trade Twilight for The Long River Home, Penguin Books for Pushcart, the Oscars for the Independent Spirit Awards, Blockbuster for Netflix, and Amazon for the local library. I must refuse the dry pellets of food poured in my feed bowl and instead beg from the table, because that is where the nutrition lies.
And so, The Literate Man hereby declares war on all things Twilight. I would ask you to join us by making conscious decisions about where your entertainment dollars (and those of your children) are being spent. Rather than dripping amorphously into the jellied mass of the lowest common denominator, let us try to raise it up, slap it around, and help it to recognize that genuine meaning can still be found in literature, if only we are willing to look for it.

14 comments:

  1. Amen, buddy. I've actually decided to open a publishing house in order to help bail out the ship of American literature. I go back to school in the fall (if my very late application is accepted) to begin the process.

    I will publish intelligent, creative, thoughtful writers. I will I will I will. I guess I owe Twilight a debt, as well. The ridiculousness of it spurred me into action.

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  2. teadevotee, thanks for the support!

    Jane, you have to keep me updated on this very worthwhile project. And if you need any legal advice along the way, just ask. What will you be studying? BTW, I didn't know that you lived in VA (I picked it up from your profile)--I went to undergrad at UR.

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  3. At the risk of being frowned upon for my apparent lapse in judgment, I should say I kind of liked the New Moon film adaptation (to be sure, mainly for its technical qualities rather than for its story, although the absence of a particularly annoying main character was very much welcome). But that doesn't mean I am not for this inchoate war. I say, "Hear, hear!" This coming from a guy who's read three and a half Twilight books (the last novel in the series was just too much for my gag reflex to oppose).

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  4. You know I read all four twilight books and enjoyed them BUT at the time I was nursing a month old baby, my brain had gone to mush and I needed something to stop me falling to sleep at 3am. Even as I was reading them I was thinking in the back of my head 'this is really bad actually'

    I did try reading the books again a few months later when my brain had kicked into gear again and I couldn't even get past the first chapter it was so terrible.

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  5. I think anyone with half a brain knows that nearly all romances are unrealistic and more often than not don't have healthy, plausible relationships. They're fantasy. And I think if you realize that when reading them it isn't such a bad thing to enjoy them. I actually liked the first three Twilight books. Yes, the writing was substandard. But they were fun. The danger is that young people are reading book after book like this (not just Twilight), getting a steady diet of, as you put it, bad nutrition or bad examples. We can only hope they will have loved to read and eventually pick up something with more substance. Honestly, I don't think it's fair to pick on just Twilight. The U.S. market is flooded with similar books. And romances in general should be viewed with the same critical eye. I don't think it's the authors who are to blame. They write the stories they have to tell. I blame parents who aren't involved in their kids' lives enough to know that a steady diet of this rubbish is unhealthy. In the end, I'm not worried about books like Twilight. It's a fad. In a decade or two we'll be like, "Do you remember that ridiculous series? I saw a copy in a thrift shop."

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  6. I think vampire and "Urban Fantasy" is the current craze in books. I've been a fantasy reader for over 15 years and I remember going into the bookstore and not finding anything but Anne Rice and maybe a few others on the shelves for urban fantasy but in part, because of Twilight there has been a ton of books published now that fall within the urban fantasy sub-genre. I think that has been both a good and bad thing. There are some pretty amazing new writers coming out and that is what they are writing (there has also been a lot of crap).

    My biggest pet peeve with Twilight is the age group reading it. I'm sorry, I just don't think I can take someone seriously who is my age or older who proclaims their love of all things Twilight. Umm.. Twilight was written for mopey 16 year olds. Not 20 somethings or 30 somethings, or older. But for a teenager and the writing reflects that. My other issue goes with the age group, I also have opinions about the behavior of characters within the books and those teens and upward thinking that it is ok for men to behave in certain ways. It is not okay for a men to sneak into girls rooms and watch them sleep. Stalker behavior is not ok and I think the Twilight books teach people that it is.

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  7. Thanks to all for such interesting contributions.

    Aldrin, I too have a confession to make--I've seen all three Twilight movies, even the most recent, which my wife dragged me to this weekend. Truth be told, I don't mind the movies. They're not great, and I probably wouldn't seek them out on my own, but I have much, much lower standards for movies than I do for books. I think I've been conditioned by Hollywood. If it were a movie phenomenon, I don't think that I'd have any opinion at all.

    Jessica, I can totally see how they would be enjoyable as a break from heavier reading. I admit that I enjoy the odd Clive Cussler (adventure) and I have the strangest addiction to Orson Scott Card audiobooks (sci fi). We all need a break from the heavy stuff now and again. It seems we agree that Stephenie Meyer cannot write very well, but there are legions of bad authors out there, and who am I to judge what is good or bad writing. My real objection is to Twilight as an all-encompassing phenomenon of literature, which is an art form that I actually care about (as opposed to cinema) and the further cheapening and commercialization of that art form by the publishing industry. I don't mind that bad books are being published and read so much as I mind that they seem to have become the only books being published and read.

    Chelle, I agree with you. Stephenie Meyer is not to blame. I mean, she's doing what any one of us would do in a similar situation, which is capitalize on an unmitigated commercial success. I do think that responsible reading (and parenting) is part of the problem, and I can only hope that you're right in stating that it's temporary.

    WonderBunny, I share your thoughts. And as long as we can keep Twilight and its ilk contained to the age group for which it is appropriate, I have absolutely no problem iwth it. But it is changing an industry (which badly needs to right itself before it goes under completely) and those resources that are poured into crossover YA novels could be used for something worthwhile and actually artistic. BTW, I agree with you on the behaviors comment too--when you really tkae the story apart, it's downright creepy.

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  8. Just found you from one of your comments on The Ape, and based on this post, I think you and I are going to get a long juuuust fine!

    I can now see the dark night about me, but I refuse to go quietly into it! Brilliant!

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  9. Thanks, Greg. I think we're going to make the War on Twilight a recurring piece. Stay tuned!

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  10. ABSOLUTELY RIGHT! I'm so tired of seeing trash paraded about as quality just because it has been accepted/lauded by the maddening crowd.

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  11. Just found this piece & although it isn't as virulent a problem here in the UK, it does exist & so needs stamping out. The problem wouldn't count if it was a stepping stone to more adventurous reading, but I fear it's not, even if it was a Mackie D as an alternative to proper fayre it wouldn't matter(my site name comes from a D.Koontz character)but again I fear not, I'm guessing it was written as a movie script in the waiting .

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  12. I read all four books. For two reasons: 1) I wanted to know what all the hype was about and why all the teenagers went "Oooo, twilight!" 2) once I start something I just have to know the end...even if it is absolute rubbish! It is such rotten stuff, and children are lapping it up like milk!

    I can't say that the Twilight craze is as a big a phenomenon in India as it is in the U.S. it would seem...but, having started out in the book blogging world, I have been rather alarmed at the rate in which Twilight seems to have influenced other trash that is now flooding the market.

    While some of these are okay for a light read (I guess) children are so easily influenced by all of this. I have heard kids say, "Oh, I wish I could marry Edward/vampire/werewolf", and while all this sounds absolutely silly, I also find it rather disturbing. As you've mentioned in your post above, Patrick, none of this is real!

    I disagree with Chelle a bit there - while it is the parents' responsibility to filter what their children read, it IS a world where information comes quickly and while you can't monitor everything your children are exposed to atleast you can prepare that they might distinguish between what is real and what is sheer imagination. The point I want to make, however, is that it is a writers' repsonsibility as well, as to what they let out into the market. If I'm not wrong Meyer has three kids as well. Shouldn't she be sensitive enough then to what she is exposing children to? This would go for other writers as well.

    I think it was Camus who said that writers are the VOICES of the people and for the people. They have a HUGE responsibility because of their ability to write.

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  13. I second teadevotee's comment. EXCELLENT post.

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