Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Trending this week in Speculative Fiction: #TwilightHate

Perhaps I should have seen this coming. In a graduate class of literary fiction writers, I would certainly expect to hear my fair share of rants against Ms. Meyer, and I myself am not really a fan, but I did not expect a class of Fantasy and Science Fiction devotees to be so ardent in their dislike. Much to my surprise, I find myself coming to her defense, saying things like "she obviously knows her market" or "we can't argue with her sales," but for my students, such petty concerns don't matter. The disdain they feel comes from the heart, over-flowing in such scathing critiques as "but, Dr. Griffiths, vampires don't sparkle."

Herein lies, I think, an interesting point: my students are under the impression that there are rules for vampires. As a student not only of writing craft but of British literature, I find this interesting. After all, once Byron brought the "vampyre" into English consciousness in his Don Juan reference, it seems British writers were largely making up the rules as they went. By the time Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, he had a wealth of invented English mythology as well as the older eastern European tales to draw from, but that didn't stop him from taking some license in creating his own count, nor did Anne Rice feel bound to his rules when, a century later, she wrote her best-selling novel Interview with a Vampire. Yet, I don't hear my students lodging the same complaint about those. I don't hear them saying, "but, Dr. Griffiths, vampires aren't Egyptian."

Of course, they tell me that their problems with Meyer's novel are based in the poor quality of the writing, but push them on this issue and I'm not sure they'll be able to articulate exactly what they mean by that. Judging from some of the other books they love, I'm guessing the problem isn't language or characterization. The Hunger Games, for instance, is another high-interest, plot-driven book, but it doesn't thrill me on the level of insight and lyricism in the way that Louise Erdrich's or Toni Morrison's work routinely does.

The problem, I believe, lies in the expectations they have for the book. The problem with a vampire sparkling is not a "bad writing" problem. It shows no failure of the imagination. What it violates for my students is the idea of the monster, and therein lies the issue. Their disappointment with Twilight has everything to do with generic expectation: they are looking for horror, but what Meyer is writing is romance. A monster may not sparkle, a romantic lead can... at least, for millions of her readers, he can. Twilight haters may not want a literally dazzling lover, but Twilight fans do.

I heard a really interesting discussion of the sparkling vampires on an episode (and I wish I could remember which it was... perhaps world building?) of Writing Excuses in which podcasters Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, and Mary Robinette Kowal discussed the plausibility issues with Meyer's vampires. They pointed out that she had taken away the classic vampire weakness, a fatal sensitivity to light, and given them nothing in return, except perhaps a overwhelming sensitivity to ennui. Why, they asked, wouldn't such creatures take over the world? It's a great question, but I wonder if again it highlights the expectations of horror and other speculative fiction readers, with their insistence on plausibility in the worlds that their fiction creates, rather than those of romance readers, who ultimately want love to triumph over plausibility.

In the end, though, what I love about Writing Excuses is that they always come back to the same ideal in their writing tips: write what you feel is awesome. However much we may disagree with her artistic choice, Meyer did that for her romance and found a huge market who shared her desire. For those of us in other genres? Well, perhaps we won't be writing sparkling monsters any time soon, but if we too adhere to discovering what's awesome, perhaps we can learn something from Meyer's novel after all.


  1. For me, the sparkling is the smallest of concerns. It's the role of women she advocates, the completely creepy stalker traits she displays as romantic and acceptable, and the complete lack of a personality of the main character. This book is aimed at a young, impressionable audience, who is going to take these negative values to heart.

    Of course, the poor writing and inconsistency issues are grating as well, but I feel I have a unique argument that everyone else doesn't quote.

  2. Her vampires also drive Volvos.

    Next up: zombies that crochet and make their own pesto.

    (final aside: I liked Hunger Games better when it was called Battle Royale.)


  3. I think her writing is engaging, if totally lacking in substance. When I read the Hunger Games (Book 1, never got to 2 or 3,) there was a strong feeling of dystopia and a condemnation of reality television. When I read Twilight (again, just book 1) I got a Disney princess without valium undertone.

    The other issue that I think Twilight has is the deus ex machina ending. Everything is going wrong and there's no possible way out until suddenly everything is alright and no one ever hurts again. If the story is meant as a Disney princess fairy tale, fine, but happy endings, especially when they take themselves seriously, are the death of literature.

    On the plus side, I'm all for breaking rules and think that Zombie pesto would be awesome. I hope to see it in season three of Walking Dead

  4. Sami, you're right on about the role of women in Twilight. Totally gaggable. They're disturbingly weaker than those in the 19th romances that the story emulates. It's the main reason I won't let my nine year old daughter read Twilight (even though some of her other friends have, as she keeps reminding me).

    Brian and Stephen, I agree with you both as well. I'm generally feeling very agreeable this morning. I was just complaining last night that the beginning of Hunger Games is like a bad retelling of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," but I can't fault Collins's plotting. That book had me turning pages. She's very good with the unexpected plot twist, even if I'd like a lot more out of the characterization. For me that's the take-away. It's easy to hate a book, but harder to see why it's working for so many readers.

    Writing prompt for this week: zombie pesto.

  5. Follow-up question (because you guys have me thinking and because I'm thinking of how Twilight fits in the romance genre): Do you think that in contemporary romance on the whole, weak female characters are becoming more prevalent? As women have gained power in other aspects of life (the vote, careers, etc), have romance novels come to fetishize a certain brand of female weakness? And if so, given that the average romance novel reader is female, what do we make of this implicit longing to be victimized? to be saved? Or is this less a commentary on a desire to be weak than a desire to be saved by strong men (driving Volvos)? I wonder if psychologists are writing about this...

  6. I think the easy blame is the so-called "princess-industrial complex" - there was a book about it recently....let's see....


    Here it is: "Cinderella Ate My Daughter". http://www.amazon.com/Cinderella-Ate-Daughter-Dispatches-Girlie-Girl/dp/0061711527

    I think there are strong female characters being written (Lisbeth Salander, Stephanie Plum), but would you characterize those as "romances"?...eh, probably not.