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February 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more Another Look at
Nice things have been said, too. That Twilight pumped very welcome cash into the publishing world is indisputable (number one or number two on best-seller lists for two years); that it birthed thousands of dedicated readers is undeniable (those more than 155 million copies sold weren’t a dead end); that Meyer—before Suzanne Collins, before John Green—focused a literary spotlight on young adult books like J. K. Rowling did on children’s books is evident.
But commerce is commerce, and art is art. Twilight, many still believe, represents everything wrong with YA. Today, the dust has cleared, the vampire craze has dwindled, and Meyer’s influence is either less pervasive or more ingrained. Is the novel what we remember it to be? Let’s take a second look, but with the open mind and benefit of the doubt we might extend other authors. In other words, let’s not look at Twilight as the cultural Godzilla of sequels, movies, and smartphone cases that it became but, rather, as how it began: a book for teens.
Most readers can agree on what is weakest about the novel. Through her protagonist Bella Swan, Meyer displays a stark lack of synonymical acumen when describing, as she is prone to do, vampire Edward Cullen’s beauty: he’s a “perfect statue,” with “perfect muscles” (or, if you prefer, “perfect musculature”), “perfect face,” “perfect lips,” “perfect nose,” “perfect crooked smile,” “perfect, ultrawhite teeth,” and is, in general, “too perfect.” It’s not the book’s finest moment when Bella literally faints at Edward’s touch.
But to disregard the whole book as poorly written is dubious. To a degree, Meyer is channeling Bella as “everyteen” in order to contrast her with 104-year-old Edward. His antiquated dialogue includes phrases such as “if you wish,” while Bella’s first-person narrative includes phrases such as “dang it.” Some of Meyer’s passages, meanwhile, are cracking. The first paragraph of the first chapter is wonderfully economical in showing Bella’s despair about moving from Arizona to the Pacific Northwest: “I was wearing my favorite shirt—sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka.”
Grab your copy from where you’ve hidden it, and look at the scene where Bella meets Jacob and learns his tribe’s history with the Cullens. This sequence tells a great yarn and includes the first mention, way over on page 126, of vampires, while developing Jacob, the book’s most believable and nuanced character, and creating an affecting gray frisson between him and Bella—there’s nothing black-and-white here, as it can be with Bella and Edward. Compare this pregnant episode to the dry, my-power-defeats-your-power supernatural stuff that came out in Twilight’s wake.
Or try revisiting the threatening phone call Bella receives from villain James. It’s easy to assert that James is a hastily sketched bad guy tossed into the book’s final 100 pages—because it’s true—but the tension generated by Bella not being able to tell her friends what she’s hearing is excruciating enough to be at home in the gritty, and admired, I Hunt Killers (2012), by Barry Lyga. James’ whole scheme has an intricate diabolism that Meyer’s previous 400 pages of romance hadn’t prepared us for—it’s a pleasant, jolting surprise. Also note how Meyer craftily quits with the word perfect until the post-threat epilogue.
(An aside: Meyer is no slouch at simple but effective symbolism, even when using real-life details. Bella moves from Arizona’s Paradise Valley District—paradise, as in heaven—to Forks, Washington—pitchforks, as in hell. Mike, her human admirer, drives a desexualizing “Suburban.” The meaning of “Bella Swan” is obvious, and I’d love to think “Cullen” is a wink at “sullen,” because, boy, is Edward ever.)
The romance, of course, is what takes most of the heat. In those aforementioned 400 pages, detractors say, little happens besides the slight ups and down of two characters getting to know each other. These detractors would be correct. Then again, this is what romance books often do. Meyer didn’t invent it. The question is, Why did it bother so many adults?
The gist of many criticisms is that Bella, in thrall to Edward, has no power. On occasion, this is admitted: “I nodded helplessly.” Some of this, of course, is driven by plot. As the human entering a supernatural enclave, she literally has fewer abilities. Indeed, Bella wants to become a vampire in part to gain a vampire’s agency. If we’re being charitable, we can view the novel not as a fantasy about having a “perpetual savior,” as Bella dubs Edward, but as a fantasy of simply having nothing to fear anymore, whether it’s the sexual-assault threat of chapter 8 or the more existential threats of being human.
Though Bella seems weak alongside the Cullens, that doesn’t erase the girl we met earlier, who was hardly a shrinking violet. Bella lies constantly (page 4, 17, 28, 38—it keeps going) and is vain (throwing out a neck brace because it’s “stupid-looking”), judgmental about classmates, impatient with friends’ yammering, smug about boys’ rivalry for her, and—unlike most YA protagonists—instantly popular at a new school.
And, wow, is it ever refreshing. That a female protagonist can be so “unlikable” and yet become liked by so many readers might indicate that a lot of those readers, worried they might be unlikable themselves, found it empowering that Bella could be as churlish as anyone else (say, a vampire) and still be adored.
Regarding her transformation to lovelorn paramour, it’s useful to remember that Bella comes from a place of romantic impossibility. Her parents are divorced—Meyer writes about it dismissively, as if they were born divorced—and the father she moves in with is an unhappy bachelor. Bella calls herself out for mooning long before critics could (“It was pathetic”), but what teen could blame her for giving into infatuation? Meyer seems to know what she’s doing; Can it be coincidence that Bella’s English essay is about “whether Shakespeare’s treatment of the female characters is misogynistic”?
(Another aside: E. L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey began life as Twilight fan fiction, and it’s impossible to read Twilight today without finding erotic kernels. Bella and Edward meet in biology class, at which Edward “went rigid”; Bella has what appears to be a sexual fantasy on page 148; their relationship balances “on the point of a knife”; Edward suggests that Bella “bring the shackles—I’m your prisoner”; Bella feels that Edward is “holding me more securely than iron chains”; and, well, I could go on and on.)
To critique passivity in Bella is both legitimate and accurate. To extend that critique to Twilight’s readership, which is what happened, is more troubling. Often the top-grossing books in any genre aren’t the most advanced in style, substance, or message, so why pile on this YA romance instead of some popular mystery, thriller, or horror novel?
The depressing but obvious answer, pointed out by lots of people, is that romances tend to be read by women and girls and are, therefore, deemed a genre less worthy of respect. Librarians and other adults do a great service shining spotlights on brilliant and/or edgy and/or esoteric books that otherwise might not find an audience. But the idea that anyone should judge young readers who want to read about a tough girl who becomes involved with a boy desperate to hear her thoughts (he’s a mind reader, yet he can’t read Bella’s mind—pretty clever) feels discordant.
Make no mistake: if you’re looking for a feminist text, you can do way, way better than Twilight. That Edward stalks Bella isn’t really up for debate; the way the book fetishizes abstinence is creepy; and Bella’s personality at the start of the novel is simply more vibrant and alive than it is at the end.
But when we look back on the paranormal romance phenomenon, Meyer’s dedication of often 20-plus-page chapters to Bella and Edward’s courtship feels generous. Literally hundreds of pages are dedicated to Bella’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences, a significant portion of which are spent among family and friends, when the book could have been focusing on Edward Cullen’s serious vampire shit. Think about that. Now think about how popular the book became.
Doesn’t that say something? And isn’t that something kind of amazing?
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