Friday, February 13, 2009

Twilight (Without the Penetrative Puns)

Within the children's literature community, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series is decidedly old news. Apart from noticing the recent film at the cinema or the unusual range of "Edward" merchandise in shops, all those who do not inhabit the body of a teenage girl, however, are probably unaware of the reading phenomenon that the series is. Given my interest in girls' books and the gothic, I had to belatedly read this bestselling account of human-vampire love. It took someone else to lend me the whole series (thanks Dr Kristine!), and lots of cryptic discussions about **spoiler alert** the violent birth of a parasitic mutant baby, to place the first book in my hands.

I was disappointed to find that I was not one of those people who was going to be able to spout the "I know it's tripe, but it's so addictive" line. I have concluded book one and I think this will be as far as I can make it. Many people deride Stephen King's writing. I think he writes very well (apart from when he produces something like the sleep-inducing Insomnia), but even he, a man who had his literary initiation via dime novels and horror magazines, has spoken publicly about Meyer's shoddy writing. Sometimes frustrating books can be enticing to read from a critical perspective, but I couldn't even drag that much from the first book.

It is fascinating to read the discussion that the books have prompted, though. Even the fans of the series who were bitterly disappointed by the final title (almost half as many as the 2,000 who have left five-star Amazon reviews) have felt sufficiently aggrieved to write thousand-word explanations expressing their disgust. Feminists have found plentiful examples of Bella's passivity to fuel dozens of blog posts and hundreds of comments. Devoted fans have jumped to Meyer's defense (King's comment provoked more than 1400 online replies, a number from outraged girl readers), and there's currently a poll on the same site with more than 5000 related remarks about whether Twilight is superior to the Harry Potter series. I'd like to champion girls' fiction and speak about how boys' books are universalised while girls' books are ghettoised, but this would be a poor example to choose to champion the merits of girls' fiction. That said, I was still aggrieved by one blog comment that remarked "these are girls' books", as if that explained the myriad gripes that critics have levelled at the series. Even Harlequin Mills and Boon novels do not necessarily have such frustratingly male-obsessed heroines.

What is interesting to me is not whether Meyer's Mormon faith is infused in her choice to depict a chaste-till-marriage turned teen-mom heroine, but why these books have had such a cultural resonance. Vampire stories have been popular at various times and for various cultural reasons throughout the past century, but in Twilight the supernatural serves as a vehicle for, as King has suggested, allowing the safe exploration of thwarted sexual feelings for girl readers. My favourite blog comment had the alias "Dubya": "Twilight is why I was president for eight years." I wonder whether there's more to be drawn out there about the American political climate during the years of Twilight's publication (one in which religious influenced abstinence-focused sexual education seemed to proliferate). This does not entirely explain Twilight's popularity outside the US, however. But something must explain it!

For anyone who has not read Twilight, I would instead recommend this 1718 word summary that is a useful substitute for the novel. The humour in it is also partial compensation for those who have suffered through the book.

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