Twilight on My Mind

11.20.08 | | 33 comments

Maybe you’re sick of Twilight by now; maybe you’re not.

Or maybe you’re just indifferent.

Whatever the case, I don’t think Stephenie Meyer’s going away any time soon; and with the highly anticipated release of Summit Entertainment’s Film—coming tomorrow to a theater near you!—it’s increasingly difficult to escape the hype.

In mid-September, Ellen Degeneres had Meyer on her show to talk Twilight (though they didn’t discuss anything that hadn’t already been said and that’s not readily available on Meyer’s website). Last week, Entertainment Weekly dubbed Meyer “Entertainer of the Year” and roughly two weeks before that, they headlined an in-depth interview with the writer “about the Rob Pattinson casting controversy, Breaking Dawn‘s mixed reception, the deal with Edward and Bella’s big [onscreen] kiss, and what she’s working on next.” And this past weekend, USA Weekend’s featured story was “Twilight: The Story Behind this Season’s Biggest Page-to-Screen Sensation” in which Brian Truitt calls Meyer “publishing’s newest literary superstar.”

As a student of (Mormon) literature and culture, as a cultural/literary critic, and in my capacity as creator and editor (with Laura) of Reading Until Dawn, an online literary journal devoted to discussing Meyer and her work (still soliciting submissions, by the way!), this cultural excitement/investment/passion (however you choose to see it) intrigues—and baffles—me. Hence, when Truitt asks, “What […] is the appeal of [Meyer’s] […] dark vampire tales?”, I can’t be completely content with the answer he gives us (right from Meyer’s mouth): “We love to be scared,” she says. “But most of the monsters that you see are disgusting. They are usually oozing something. Vampires are the only ones who are dangerous and scary, and, at the same time, they’re hot.”

Aside from vampires being, in Meyer’s eyes, non-disgusting, non-oozing monsters that are, at the same time, dangerous, scary, and hot, what rests beneath our cultural fascination with Twilight? In my introduction to the first edition of Reading Until Dawn, I point to the realism of the novels’ world and to their “narcotic effect” on readers—on the “physiological response” they seem to evoke. And in a short article that’s docketed for the Summer ’09 issue of Dialogue, I intimate the story’s ties to the always popular Gothic tradition, briefly reading Meyer’s vampires against Freud’s notion of the uncanny, a psychological concept that ties deeply to our experiences with the literarily sublime and the emotion of terror. In addition, William points to the erotic attraction of the books.

In honor (as it were) of Twilight’s birth into cinematic reality, what do you AMV readers think? What rests beneath the incessant appeal of Meyer’s world?

33 comments: “Twilight on My Mind

  1. kevinf

    Disclaimer: Ihave only read excerpts of “Twilight”, but have heard my wife, my daughter, and three daughter-in-laws talk incessantly about these books.

    My comment is that the writing is on a par with most popular literature these days, but there is a mix of the dangerous (ie, vampires) with the sublime (true love, of the Princess Bride variety). This sets up all sorts of interesting parallels for adolescent girls who may just be starting their dating years. Can I be chaste and still have fun? If Bella can love a vampire that gets all hot and bothered by her blood, but restrains himself, then maybe there’s a chance that dating will work as well.

    This is not just conflict, it is huge layers of tension between characters (sexual, moral, ethical) that is easily accessible to the targeted readers. If the movie captures that tension successfully, I think it will be a huge hit at the box office.

    I think Meyers took a little talent and hitched to an idea that transcended the genre of vampire literature (vegetarian vampires!) and created a sensation.

    I haven’t read the books, but the idea is a great one.

  2. Eric Russell

    What rests beneath the incessant appeal of Meyer’s world?

    Estrogen?

  3. Proud Daughter of Eve

    What rests beneath the incessant appear of Meyer’s world?

    Beats me. Whatever it is, I don’t see it. Which is a shame; I really wanted to like it but the characters completely failed to grab me. Also, I kept hearing everyone talk about how “wholesome” it was, only Bella does many things that don’t count as wholesome in my book. And any young, romantic girl who expects her boyfriend to have as much self-control as Edward does is in for a rude awakening.

    I think the appeal of vampire romance to women comes from a subconscious metaphor that likens vampires to men. They’re attractive, some see you as prey, they all make you feel like prey to some extent and being with them can be wonderful or dangerous and is often both.

  4. Th.

    .

    We’re a;ll oversimplifying this. Everything we’ve said could be said about dozens of books that haven’t sold kajillions of copies. Something sets these books apart. It might be something as simple as timing or something as not obvious as a textual or literary reason. I don’t know what sets her apart; it’s a great mystery.

  5. Tyler Chadwick Post author

    I have to agree with you, Th., when you say, “We’re all oversimplifying this,” which is why I’ve developed some interest in the Twilight phenomenon. I don’t think it’s as simple as anything I’ve suggested or anything that I’ve read about the books (which usually stops at “because Stephenie Meyer is an awesome writer”).

    Maybe there isn’t a single reason underlying the books’ popularity and Meyer’s rise to stardom. I kind of like Eric’s suggestion, though: estrogen. *Laugh* That would partially explain why so many women like them (and men, too, for that matter: because they’re so popular, the books might just provide an outlet for many men’s pent-up estrogen). And that points back to the physiological response I mention.

    But, like you say, these things could be attributed to any number of other books that haven’t been best-sellers. So why Twilight? Why Stephenie Meyer? Why now? Maybe we’ll never know. But I’m finding it interesting to throw some ideas around, especially those that move us beyond the more conventional explanations of “Bella’s hot!” or “Edward 4eva!” (Thanks for pushing beyond those, by the way.)

  6. Adam Figueira

    I wish I had something profound to add, but I haven’t read any of the books yet. I don’t love to be scared. It scares me. I do love to stop being scared, though. Do you think these books have any value for someone like me?

  7. Eugene Woodbury

    To be sure, there’s often no explaining why something becomes a phenomenon. But besides the eternal demand for the genre itself, I don’t think there’s much of a mystery to the popularity of this kind of storytelling. It’s the product of political correctness.

    On the one hand, every love story has a billion years of genetic antecedents to deal with–“nature, red in tooth and claw”–and on the other hand, there’s civilization.

    Civilization exists because “the natural man is an enemy to God.” Nature does not make men chivalrous. Civilization does. But human beings being imperfect creatures, the civilizations they produce are inevitably highly flawed.

    So some stupid people (Rousseau) think eliminating it will “liberate” us. Quite the opposite. Anarchy serves nobody well, and women and children worst of all. But the baby went out with the bathwater. What we’re seeing are efforts to reclaim it.

    In short, “repurposed” genres like fantasy and yaoi have become ways to insert politically incorrect power dynamics back into the romance genre, with no apologies necessary. And you can keep your cake to boot.

  8. Mark N.

    I took my 15-year-old daughter and one of her friends to the midnight showing of “Twilight” this morning (I’ve read all 4 books as well), and I think they did an excellent job. I’m sure I would have loved it even more if I were an adolescent girl, but I did enjoy it.

    It’s the romance. Prior to the movie, amidst all the commercials that they now show before the movie trailers start, there was a commercial that I know I’ve seen on TV, and it was for a jeweler pushing diamonds and engagement rings and wedding rings. It involves a guy who proposes to his girlfriend “long-distance” by sliding an engagement ring down a string that he has connected from his apartment balcony to hers (which is located at least one level lower than hers, so gravity can aid in the delivery of the ring). There was an amazing verbal response to this commercial from this primarily female adolescent audience. If I had been there simply to gauge response to that ad, I’m sure I would have gone back to the company who purchased this ad with very happy news.

    My daughter was prepared to hate, hate, hate this movie (because she was sure that they would botch it up somehow, and she loves the books). She was especially not thrilled with the choice of “Cedric Diggory” for the lead role of “Edward” in the film, but she came away won over. I think this movie (and the sequels) are going to make a lot of money.

  9. MoJo

    In short, “repurposed” genres like fantasy and yaoi have become ways to insert politically incorrect power dynamics back into the romance genre, with no apologies necessary. And you can keep your cake to boot.

    Oh, I so agree with this.

  10. Angie

    As a 20 – 30-something SAHM, I have an opinion about why women in my deomgraphic love these books so much:

    Edward is the ultimate fantasy for mothers of young children whose bodies have changed and whose husbands are always working. Edward exists to love, protect, and buy expensive gifts for Bella. He is always hyper-aware of Bella’s needs, begs to buy her things, never has to work, and is constantly saving Bella from her own weaknesses and from scary villains. Plus, Edward is “beautiful” and can’t resist Bella, who has always felt that she was plain. Contrast this with real life, with the competing needs of husband, wife, children, bill collectors, church, etc. “Twilight” is an escape from reality into a world where the perfect man (he even has supreme moral self-control!) finds the heroine irresistible.

  11. Angie

    Ha ha! I forgot about the mind-reading-block thing. Actually, that might argue against my previous point. Would a woman want a man who could read her mind? Or maybe that’s Bella’s control over Edward.

  12. Laura Craner

    I think Angie and Eugene have pretty much nailed it. But I also think it’s worth pointing out the titillating nature of the books. They aren’t dirty–they fall just short of crossing the line–but they are sensual in nature and, well, people respond to that. That must fill some sort of need for younger and older readers.

  13. Anneke Majors

    what rests beneath our cultural fascination with Twilight?

    Us as in Mormons? It’s socially acceptable soft porn.

    Us as in the national teenage market? I’m not sure… it’s trendy? It hit right in the middle of supporting cultural currents?

    Sorry to be so cynical, but it’s not because Meyer is a fantastic writer and it’s not because she’s done anything particularly new. I know for the Mormon girls who are obsessed with the series, it’s the same kind of fan-high that comes with any pop culture obsession, but compounded and “validated” by the fact that the author is LDS and so many female role models within the church are reading and recommending the books. A friend of mine was talking to me one day about how uncomfortable she had always been with her grandmother’s collection of romance novels.

    “I just always felt there was something wrong with being so into books like that. I don’t know why some people get so obsessed with them.”

    “I know!” I chimed in, maybe too enthusiastically. “It turns into this unhealthy obsession. The same as the Twilight books.”

    “Those are different,” she snapped. “Those don’t have any sex in them.”

  14. MoJo

    It’s socially acceptable soft porn.

    I’ve heard it called “emotional porn” elsewhere, which I completely agree with, but “soft” porn is a whole different ballgame.

  15. Cicero

    What was the phrase I saw one reviewer use?

    “The eroticism of abstinence”

    They then went on to claim that Mormons are the new Catholics.

  16. Katya

    Th. – The fact that Edward can’t read Bella’s mind makes her “special,” which is key to their relationship.

  17. Cory

    For Mormons: since when has “soft porn” ever been socially acceptable? If it is “soft porn,” it’s appalling that someone who is LDS would promote it just to make money. Whatever happened to “chaste … virtuous … if there is anything lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things”?? Shouldn’t we be seeking after things that make us better, not things to help us escape reality? (BTW, that’s an excuse drug addicts use to justify their addictive behaviors)

    The reason why “Twilight” is so popular: timing. It’s riding on the heels of Harry Potter and I think that everyone was looking for something to replace the popular boy wizard adventures. Sure it has sex appeal, which is always a seller (regardless of whether you believe it’s good or bad), and that may be why it outsold the HP chronicles. But at the heart of it all, marketing is all about appeal and timing.

  18. Tyler

    I hate to burst your bubble, Cory, but Twilight‘s barely begun to scrape the surface of Harry Potter‘s sales. If my source is correct (not the most scholarly, but it’s the best I could do this morning), while Harry’s sold over 400 million books worldwide and has been translated in 67 languages, Bella’s sales have only trickled in at 17 million worldwide (yeah, only–how would those kind of numbers feel if it was your book?) while the books have only been translated into 37 languages. This is partly due, I’m sure, to the fact that the Twilight phenomenon is only in its infancy; although it may someday eclipse Harry Potter–and there’s no indication that either book is going away anytime soon–it has not yet “outsold the HP chronicles.”

    As for your comment that marketing and timing have everything to do with the series’ success, I completely agree. Meyer and her publisher hit it big by peddling the book online (in part) and by establishing an official and persistent presence on the web.

    I also believe, as much as you decry the notion, that the books’ sensuality has much to do with their success. And, as MoJo points out, I think soft porn’s a bit too much for Twilight. Emotional porn seems more fitting, especially as this term carries the implication, discussed elsewhere, that the books embody an “erotics of abstinence”–a muted sexual interplay between Edward and Bella in which Bella’s hormones and Edward’s bloodlust repeatedly interact and their bodies ache to possess one another, often actively to the point of arousal, though never beyond sexual climax until after their marriage in Breaking Dawn.

    Yet, just because this erotic aspect is present, doesn’t mean Meyer fully intended her books as emotional porn. I’m positive that she was working within and against her understanding of teenage sexuality as she wrote, but don’t know that she meant for the text to be as emotionally titillating as it is.

    Now to tackle your comment that we should be “seeking after things that make us better, not things that help us escape reality”: Because I know that you’ve been in school for a while and that you thoroughly enjoyed Rowling’s Potter series, I have to wonder if you read them solely as a way to make yourself a better person or if there was some part of you that read them because you wanted to relieve yourself of the pressing demands of your reality—because you wanted to “escape” into or journey through that world with Harry and friends. However, such an escapist approach to literature (which exists, in my mind, on the opposite end of the spectrum of escapism, far from drug use as a means to get away from reality) doesn’t necessarily negate the pursuit of knowledge and character you allude to. As Orson Scott Card observes in a lecture given at the Harold B. Lee Library on March 13, 1980 as part of the Sesquecentennial Lectures on Mormon Arts, Letters, and Sciences (available online here–I recommend it; Card makes some interesting points that are relevant to our interactions with literature as Latter-day Saints),

    Fiction is not an escape from reality. Fiction is simply another kind of reality, one which takes place within finite borders, between endpapers. Unlike life, it begins and ends; we can close the book and draw conclusions. It is often easier to learn from fiction than from life; but fiction is a necessity to so many of us because through it we live many lives, and learn many things, instead of staying in the much safer reality and learning only a few things.

    And so, while I see where you’re coming from, like Card, I don’t see literature and reality as mutually exclusive enterprises. Rather, each ties into the other in ways that can give us experience with life, the universe, and everything else (including sexuality, evil, and sin) such as we can’t experience it all elsewhere (not that I’m saying we can get our porn on and call it gaining experience: literature and pornography are, to me, completely different avenues of “expression” [if we can even call porn that]). And this compression of life experience can ultimately work to make us more like God, which is what I think you’re really trying to get at here.

  19. Tyler

    Cory: Thanks for stopping by, BTW; it’s always nice to add more thoughtful commenters. Glad to see those links from my blog to AMV still work.

    Come back soon.

  20. MoJo

    Yet, just because this erotic aspect is present, doesn’t mean Meyer fully intended her books as emotional porn. I’m positive that she was working within and against her understanding of teenage sexuality as she wrote, but don’t know that she meant for the text to be as emotionally titillating as it is.

    By Meyer’s own account, she was writing from a dream she had and, I would argue, that it is a very immature, naive, and uneducated approach to sexuality, informed by church culture and the absence of real information or first-hand knowledge of some of the more nuanced layers of human (and female) sexuality.

    I would submit that Meyer had no idea what she was writing and that it was, in great part, stream-of-consciousness.

    Yes, Tyler. :D

  21. Th.

    .

    William — do your old connections still stand? Can you arrange a reinterview? I think Meyer deserves the opportunity to comment on the burgeoning criticism of her work. I don’t know that she wants it, but if she did, we’ve been friendly before.

  22. Wm Morris

    I didn’t need connections then. :-)

    To be honest, I don’t think that it is in Stephenie’s best interest to comment on this discussion. Yes, she has done interviews on her work. But we’re talking about a depth of criticism that an author shouldn’t have to engage in.

    There’s no way she’s going to confirm anything (Yes! I am obsessed with mountain meadows. Yes! I listened to Saturday’s Warrior incessantly while writing the books) so at the very best she set herself to being accused of being naive at the worst disingenuous or dissembling in order to protect her enterprise.

    In my experience, critics who push things this far don’t care about authorial intention anyway.

  23. Tyler

    I agree with William, too. As interesting as it would be to have Meyer lay out her personal theology and the specific influences she was working under while writing Twilight (though she’s done a bit of the latter already), she shouldn’t have to justify her work, even—no, especially to critics who want to impose readings on the text that move far beyond (IMO) the aegis of critical responsibility to maintain the integrity of the text.

  24. Th.

    .

    Clarification:

    Rather, she might be interesting in commenting on the hoopla rather than joining it herself.

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