So if it’s true that some of the nuts-and-bolts of Twilight just don’t work, as I may or may not have proven one post down, then what’s so appealing about the series?
Allow me to track back a bit. While I was writing Jacob Wrestling, I read a great deal of “Young Adult” literature to get a feel for what’s available to readers already. I came across a huge number of titles that dealt with cutting, depression, abuse, eating disorders, bullying and all manner of other heavy topics. We do need books that address this kind of subject matter, of course. Kids going through difficult times need to see reflections of themselves–reflections that assure them they’ll be alright in the end. But thinking back to not all that long ago (my students would probably laugh at this notion) I was a teenager–a teenager with an avid reading habit. What I really wanted was to get lost in a story, and to encounter ideas I’d never been exposed to before. I didn’t want to be told what to do, or what to think, or how to fix a tattered psyche. I wanted to get lost in a story that brought me out of my everyday world. It’s not as though I had a particularly easy time as a teenager, and didn’t encounter any of the above-named issues (though in the interest of not airing too much of my own or anyone else’s dirty laundry, I’ll be keeping those to myself today). I wanted to get beyond, above, and out of that layer of my life. I wanted fiction that had the power to take me places.
But adults aren’t always interested in taking anyone anywhere. Adults are most interested in making sure kids don’t make dumb decisions. We have, once we reach adulthood, enough dumb decisions in our pasts that we consider ourselves experts. And so we become didactic and patronizing, forgetting that we’re not out of stupid-decision territory ourselves, and aren’t necessarily equipped to instill our grand concepts of right behavior in others.
When we write, our dogmatic, old selves that want to educate and indoctrinate are in a bit of a war with our inner teenaged selves, the inquisitive and wondering parts of our personalities. How much to do we want our to reflect the actual dangers in the lives of teens, and how much do we want to offer them the gift of story? Is our goal to address the most difficult of issues head-on, or are we interested in giving readers the redemptive refuge of art?
The Greeks had a pretty good system of requirements for drama. To be supremely reductive, a tragedy needed to draw forth pity, terror, and ultimately, catharsis. My feeling is that a good bit of serious teen literature stops at pity. We we have compassion and identification with the protagonist in her troubles, but when she gets up the gumption to change her life for the better, we say “well, good for her,” then close and shelve the book. And as for terror, some authors–especially those who intend their works to keep kids away from drugs–approach heavy subject matter as though they could moralize teen readers into listening to reason. Being told how to behave is about as terrifying as having a librarian tell you to “shush.” True fear, the kind that leads to introspection and changed perspective, comes from watching a situation spin from a controlled orbit into widening circles of chaos and eventual destruction. We need to see, handle and taste the grime and the dirt, not merely be told that the grime and dirt exist. And catharsis? Pleasant endings, in which teenagers go back to obeying their parents, the boy gets the girl, or the protagonist makes the sports team, are fine; I’m not so coldhearted that I demand all characters be killed off Hamlet-style at the end of every book, but what do those happy resolutions do for readers other than end on a motivational note? I would argue that they certainly don’t constitute purgative emotional experiences that leave readers feeling as though they’ve come through a fire, and have been, in some way, purified by it.
The Twilight books, mechanics notwithstanding, work not only pity, but terror and catharsis, too. Sure, we pity poor, accident-prone Bella, bouncing between an inept mom and a near-stranger of a father, and identify with her as the new kid in school. But we have a little terror too–Bella’s life is high-stakes. One misstep and she or her family, friends, and loved ones could murdered. This is much headier stuff than the threat of a bad grade or detention. And through her, we experience catharsis, too; there aren’t neat, happy endings that shoot the reader back into the ordinary world as though popping out into sunlight after Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Instead, Bella does what Northup Frye called “throw(ing) a switch in a larger machine than (one’s) own life,” bringing the reader along for the unbeatable view.
So am I inspired to write vampire romance books now? No. And do I think Twilight’s the best read for your teenager’s summer break? An emphatic no. But I do think it’s worth considering the fact that maybe teens aren’t attracted to the books just for the vampires and the love story. Maybe they want a far bigger range of emotions in fiction than we writers have been willing to give them, or maybe even give them credit for.