My girlfriend is a book snob. She just can’t help it: having appreciated classic literature from the ripe old age of 8, when she used to tote a heavy volume of Shakespeare around her neighborhood in a wagon, she followed up with a major in Lit through college. She’s spent a lot of time reading really good writing, and it drives her crazy to see people obsessed with the kind of popular fiction that lines the front-of-store racks: Nicholas Sparks romance novels, James Patterson thrillers, Robert Jordan fantasies. She has a sort of verbal diarrhea about it, too: when confronted with a person who rhapsodizes about the joys of the latest Nicholas Sparks novel, she will, quite unthinkingly, say something like, “Oh, you can’t read him. He’s a terrible writer!” It’s a habit that has driven me crazy on more than one occasion, as I think it’s mostly rude to offer unsolicited critique on someone’s reading life, and I’ve often taken the devil’s advocate position just for spite. (I never said I was mature.)
So I’ll admit that my interest in the Twilight series was piqued mostly because of Donna’s strong opinion against it. She spent a lot of time denouncing the series as poorly written, unoriginal and uninteresting. I was irritated because she hadn’t read any of the novels in the series, but was willing to generalize so broadly. So I started a little research of my own into the series – and two of the analyses I read opened me up to the idea that perhaps Donna was right, despite her lack of personal experience with the novels. The first came from Racialicious, which compared the Twilight series to the Harry Potter series in terms of race and race relations. The second was the feminist analysis at Bitch Magazine, which discussed the concept of abstinence porn and the dynamics of the Edward / Bella relationship.
Still, the secondary sources weren’t enough for me – I wanted to read the real thing. Donna added my name (a bit grudgingly, I think) to the waiting list at the township library (I was #26 on the list, some three years after the novel was first published!), and in the meantime I tried to get my hands on a copy of the first novel from friends and family. No dice. But my number came up at the library last weekend. I had Twilight in my hands on Sunday afternoon, and I’d completely finished it by Monday evening – I think it took me a cumulative total of about 6.5 hours to read the 498 pages.
I’ll get right to the point: the book was horrible.
Stephenie Meyer is not, whatever anyone else says about her, a good writer. (Even Stephen King backs me up here.) The book reads like a piece of bad fiction from my high school creative writing class: lots of dialogue tags modified by adverbs; overly extensive descriptions of the setting, the mood, the lighting, the characters; unoriginal plot points (and twists); occasional moments of completely incoherent conversation between characters. I was not impressed.
And then there are the messages sent by the story. There are so many levels of subtext to explore, and I just don’t have the time (especially when the two articles I mentioned above do it so well), so I’ll hit the major themes that really irritated me:
Throughout the novel, Bella constantly references her clumsiness, her ordinary appearance, her lack of understanding of the attention she receives from the male population when she moves to Forks, WA. She is self-deprecating to the point of concern, and she makes it completely clear that she has absolutely no respect for herself. She tells Edward on more than one occasion that she’s absolutely ordinary, and doesn’t believe that she’s anything special until he confesses his love for her. The implication here is that Bella is only of value if she is loved by the person she loves. She views her personal characteristics as demeaning, rather than endearing and uniquely identifying. She focuses on her flaws rather than her abilities – over and over, she reinforces that her lack of prowess in athletics is a problem. On the other hand, her obvious natural ability in Biology is barely acknowledged.
This relationship is portrayed by Meyer as one of true love, but it really comes across as unhealthy obsession by both parties. Edward admits to visiting Bella’s home to watch her while she sleeps – she finds it romantic; I call it stalking. Bella is truly driven to distraction when Edward is absent, and both characters consider suicide when faced with life without the other. While I understand that the initial bloom of love is passionate and exciting, I’m not sure this is the best model of a relationship to offer to the young readers across the country.
There’s also the control factor – Edward has the ability to read minds, essentially – everyone except Bella’s. So instead of saying, “Well, shit, that’s too bad, I guess I’ll have to have a normal relationship,” he instead uses his ability to read the minds of those around her, using their thoughts to determine what she says when he’s not around. Bella figures this out pretty quickly, and starts to manipulate her friends and family (and, indirectly, Edward) by planting thoughts in their heads; it’s a weird and uncomfortable dynamic of game-playing the two have set up.
Further to the control issue, Edward also seems to have the ability to derail Bella’s train of thought simply by holding eye contact. Bella attributes this to his beauty, and Edward claims to have no knowledge of this power, but once she draws his attention to it, he uses it again and again to get what he wants from her – all in a playful manner, of course, which makes it harmless and totally acceptable, right?
And then there’s the physical differences: Edward is strong, and there are several scenes in the book where his physical ability is showcased – the first being when he saves Bella from being hit by a car, simply by putting his hands up to stop it. Later, he playfully “pounces” Bella to demonstrate that his speed, agility and strength outstrip hers by miles – Bella is trapped in his embrace, and openly admits that she can’t free herself. And in a moment of intimacy, Edward warns Bella that he could “quiet easily kill” her, simply by accident. Bella isn’t intimidated by this; rather, she thrills to it, warming to the idea that Edward can be her protector and savior. The relationship strikes me as abusive – perhaps not physically, though Edward’s constant watching, coupled with his displays of Alpha-Maleness, seem more than a little ominous to me.
It’s pretty clear that the balance of power in this relationship is completely off, and that Edward always has the upper hand. Bella’s character is poorly developed, and is, at best, a simpering, klutzy damsel in distress who is always waiting for that handsome big strong man to come to her rescue. I’d like to know why Meyer believes it’s ok to send these messages to our young people, why she thinks it’s ok that young women will learn to be dependent and young men will learn to be manipulative and domineering.
Oh, and we haven’t even talked about the fact that by the end of the book, Bella is literally begging Edward to change her into a vampire. How’s that for a metaphor, kids? “Can’t face life without that one dude you just met a few weeks ago? Don’t worry, you don’t have to – just change everything about yourself, your very nature, and he’ll be yours forever!” Gah.
Now, the real problem for me was not all of what I’ve discussed here – that’s bad enough, but my real frustration was due to the fact that I went into this endeavor with open eyes. I knew I was looking for specific themes and messages, and I was prepared for the writing to be sub-par. But still, I couldn’t put the damn book down! I was captivated, and kept turning the pages. Sunday night, I was up until 1:30 (despite being totally exhausted) reading because I just couldn’t help myself. Part of the intrigue was due to my curiosity as to how bad the dynamics were going to get – how completely off-the-wall would Meyer really make this relationship? But the other part was just that somehow, despite the bad writing and the offensive subtext, I just wanted to know what was going to happen. I just couldn’t stop myself. I knew it was like eating a box of Girl Scout Cookies: entirely lacking in nutrition, likely to make me sick later, but dear God, how good they taste going down. Sigh. And if I, who knew full well what to look for, still got sucked in – what does that say about readers who are more susceptible to subtext and subliminal messaging?
Now I’m debating: do I finish the series in order to gain full perspective, or do I just write it off now as being more of the same?