And Now I Defend a “Bad Book.” (And Pigs Fly)

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.

15 Replies to “And Now I Defend a “Bad Book.” (And Pigs Fly)”

  1. I agree with your concluding points about Twilight. The concern I have as a writer and proponent of women’s right, is the manner in which her hypervisilibity is grounded in her vulnerability. Her emotions are complex as is the story, teens and tweens, some of whom read it three or four times, often engage in the way in which their sexuality dictates their social outcomes. Much like with Bella. Her danger is not so much being accident prone as it is that her vulnerability and impenetrability draw others to her.

  2. Agreed, ollda. There are a number of problems with her character: it seems like she has uncontrolled anxiety (all the heart palpitations don’t seem good!), she lets herself be bullied and even manhandled by guys who just can’t seem to help it, she can’t imagine existing without a guy in her life, and would rather be undead than live a normal, healthy existence. She’s no role model, that’s for sure.

    What I’d like to see it more literature that engages young readers in such a wholehearted way as Twilight does, but in a way that doesn’t fetishize all this dysfunction. Dysfunction happens, yes, but it’s not something to celebrate! We need a way to combine what kids want and what adults want them to want.

  3. “we’re not out of stupid-decision territory ourselves” — well said. I’m with you — I look for fiction with the power to take me places.

  4. >>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.<<

    All writers should keep this in mind when trying to build tension into their plots. I'm wondering if it always must end in destruction, or can we spin and spin, seeing the danger grow and the chaos develop almost to the breaking point, but still pull back and have a satisfying ending. Is that possible?

    Still don't like the Twilight series, though, and my teen girl calls them "dreck". She says: "What I object to is that this woman has achieved so much success for poor writing, all supported by teenage allowances." She's a smart one, my girl.

  5. I like your daughter’s comment–she’s a tough cookie! 🙂

    My sense is that, yes–there’s always something destroyed. Maybe it’s not a scene of fireballs and doom, but maybe it’s the destruction of illusions, of the former self, or even of the antagonistic force. I think you always have to slay a dragon of some kind.

    A good example of a really well-written book with a happy ending might be Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson. It’s fun, it’s sweet, it’s fast-paced, but there’s still a purgative destruction that has to take place for the protagonist to truly grow…

  6. Thank you for this insightful attempt at dealing with the fascination of this phenomenon. To offer yet another lens, what worries me about TWILIGHT — far more than the icky writing — is that the text may not, in fact open up emotional vistas, but may rather shut them down by a creepy appeal to a sexuality without bodies and without pleasure. The romance of Bella and her supernatural boys offers a neverending story of relentlessly heteronormative desire devoid of action and without release. How this sugar-free brand of romanticism can possibly advantage women is hard to see, but there is undoubtedly a power exuded by a text devoted and dedicated in a very real way to re-inscribing powerlessness and the authority of a patriarchy filled with dead men.

    I hope very much that YA folks and writers interested in young women’s experiences, can offer alternatives to a text, which is a kind of literary self-medication and which — I fear — may prevent and circumvent all kinds of alternate dreaming on the part of its predominantly female readers.

  7. I spent Sunday with my little sister. She quoted verbatim from The Hobbit while wearing a shirt that said, “…and then Buffy staked Edward. The end.”

  8. Claire–just don’t let your daughter know how true it is. 😉

    Stephanie–“The romance of Bella and her supernatural boys offers a neverending story of relentlessly heteronormative desire devoid of action and without release. How this sugar-free brand of romanticism can possibly advantage women is hard to see…” Very well said. I suppose I don’t see anything so new to Meyer’s vision, though. The sugar-free brand of romanticism is basically what many teenagers grow up with in conservative religious culture, where sublimation of natural desires is not only demanded, but celebrated.

    Gordon–I absolutely love it! Fantastic.

  9. When I was younger, and now as well, I loved books with secret worlds. Harry Potter was my first real taste of that, and I remember thinking the best part was that it was all in [somewhat] plain view. It was lurking right under the surface of every day life, and it was of epic importance. That appealed not only to the normal human desire to want to be in on secrets, but also to my teenage belief that I myself had an entire mysterious and secret world in my own mind that those around me just didn’t understand. “You don’t know I’m important, but I am” was what I wanted to feel and what I believed.

    I also think Edward in particular is a massive part of Twilight’s success. Even now, fantasies of obsessive, painful love are certainly more titillating for me than fantasies of stable friendship. Nobody grabs their battery operated boyfriend to go get off about hubby doing the housework and giving you privacy even though those things may be what you normally value. I think the painful love thing is also reminiscent of first love. My first few relationships with genuine emotional connection were very passionate and very painful, but the pleasure was certainly proportionate.

    I can’t say I like Twilight per se, but I also did want Bella to become a vampire, and I understand her desire. It is one of the worst feelings to love someone or something and yet be completely incapable of being a part of their world in a serious way. That provided a tragic aspirational aspect to the books and is probably why I read all of them even though I didn’t like them.

    Besides, the undead don’t seem particularly awful in Twilight. If they did, I’d take the “she wants to be undead, isn’t that terrible” argument a little more seriously, but there seem to be lots of moral and pleasant vampires in the Twilight universe.

  10. Kelly, I think you have a nice analysis here regarding mass market appeal. I haven’t read Twilight but I can apply the Greek pity, terror, and catharsis requirement to kids series books from Magic Tree House to Wimpy Kid to Percy Jackson.

    I can’t help but think of The Da Vinci Code in the same context as Twilight – badly written with mass appeal.

    I have two boys, both voracious readers, and they are aware that often they have to put up with bad writing for a good story. But they REALLY want that good story – at every reading level along the way they’ve rejected the “didactic fiction” (but there is so much of it!) and will choose to re-read well crafted novels.

  11. Good for your boys, seacliffmom! I hope writers will keep them in good supply of well-written, good stories!

  12. Hi Kelly,

    On another topic, I love the look of your site. It’s clean and easy to read and navigate. Good job!

  13. Maggie–how fascinating! Thanks for passing this along. I feel an entirely new blog post coming on…

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