For more on Stephenie Meyer and her work, visit Reading Until Dawn.
The Time Magazine profile of Stephenie Meyer attempts to explain her work — the three Twilight books and an upcoming novel called The Host — by exploring Meyer’s Mormonism, claiming, in fact that although “the characters in Meyer’s books aren’t Mormons, but her beliefs are key to understanding her singular talent.”
It makes for a fascinating, almost convincing piece of analysis. The problem is that it tends to boil Mormonism down to a set of filters, the thou-shalt-nots, that narrow what can happen in her work.
For example in reference to Meyer’s vampire books, Lev Grossman writes:
What makes Meyer’s books so distinctive is that they’re about the erotics of abstinence. Their tension comes from prolonged, superhuman acts of self-restraint. There’s a scene midway through Twilight in which, for the first time, Edward leans in close and sniffs the aroma of Bella’s exposed neck. “Just because I’m resisting the wine doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the bouquet,” he says. “You have a very floral smell, like lavender … or freesia.” He barely touches her, but there’s more sex in that one paragraph than in all the snogging in Harry Potter.
And then in reference to her next novel, The Host:
It’s set in the near future on an Earth that has been conquered by parasitic aliens who take over the bodies of humans, annihilating their hosts’ personalities. One human host resists; she lives on as a voice in the head she shares with the alien. When host and parasite (who goes by Wanda) meet up with the host’s old lover–now a resistance fighter in hiding–the alien falls for him too and joins the humans. It’s a love triangle with two sides, a ménage à deux. Like Twilight, The Host is a kinky setup–two girls in one body!–played absolutely clean.
There is also, of course, the obligatory list of stuff that Meyer doesn’t do, like drink alcohol and watch rated-R movies. And then the even more obligatory admission that she drinks caffeine. [Hint to mainstream media reporters — the whole drinking Diet Coke thing is not as transgressive in Mormon culture as you think (or have been led to believe)].
This is all well and good and really to be expected. And the article has forced me to admit (and, mind you, I haven’t taken quite the dim view of Meyer’s work that some other Mormons have* — with the caveat that I’m neither female, nor young, and I’ve only read Twilight) that what Meyer has done is something that I have long thought would be a rewarding strand of Mormon literature, that is, to explore how abstinence leads to a heavily charged play of small gestures among Mormon teenagers and young adults. Of course, I never had vampires in mind. More Jane Austen plots alloyed with the intensity of Henry James (sort of The Golden Bowl at a stake dance).
However, I still think that something is missing. Both in the Twilight novels and in the Time article. One clue leaps out right away. Although I’m not fully convinced (because neither Bella nor Edward convince me as the best agents with which to explore agency, each buffeted and swayed by forces; the choice almost always obvious), I have to give Meyer credit for attributing:
Edward’s choice–and the willingness to choose a different way in general–is a major theme in Meyer’s books. “I really think that’s the underlying metaphor of my vampires,” she says. “It doesn’t matter where you’re stuck in life or what you think you have to do; you can always choose something else. There’s always a different path.”
Grossman gives a passing nod to the idea. The terse — “True. But that does not exhaust the meaning of the Twilight books.” And then gets on to the whole erotics idea. Which has merit, as I mention. In fact, it’s something that should be explored more fully in Mormon literature (Eric Samuelsen has done so in some of his plays, I believe) — all the dating rituals and the dancing and the eating (and then there is the oddness of NCMO and so on). Yes, not so much different from youth across the world and in all ages. It all comes down to who likes whom and who does what with whom. But there are particular patterns and forms and gestures and small dramas that could be worth capturing. And okay the erotics of abstinence and guilt and rejection and conquest and love and loss.
Still. I wonder if there’s something to this agency thing. I find it difficult to apply it to Twilight for the reasons I’ve already stated. Bella doesn’t so much choose as have choices denied her. But I think that Mormon literature, even popular literature, even young adult literature, could do with some more thorough treatments of agency (and of other doctrines that make us unique). I don’t see the mainstream media (and others) changing their definition of us by mainly what we don’t do rather than what we believe.
I do see the possibility of stronger transmission of these ideas to our people through the use of culture.
Also see: My 2005 interview with Stephenie Meyer.
Note: I originally spelled Meyer’s first name wrong. Sorry, Stephenie. It’s fixed now.
* See: Squeaky Clean by Anneka Majors (AMV); Twilight: Discuss by Angela Hallstrom (Blog Segullah); The Twilight Series for Dummies (Normal Mormon Husbands); Jana Riess’s review of Twilight (The Review Revolution)