In Defense of Twilight

by Tom Ingram

Twilight and its sequels are probably the most hated books of the last ten years. The level of vitriol directed at them is truly astonishing. Given the obscene piles of cash the books made (the first one alone sold 17 millions copies, and was adapted to a $382 million grossing film), it’s safe to say that it has some fans (or just a single really good one), but you’ll never get anyone to admit it.

For those who don’t know, the novels follow the romance between Bella Swan, an average teenage girl, and Edward Cullen, a 100-year-old vampire. Criticisms of the books have been many and varied, focusing on author Stephenie Meyer’s writing style, the…let’s call it non-traditional portrayal of vampires, and the unpleasant connotations about gender roles. From where I’m standing, only the last criticism stands up to even a moment of scrutiny.

Before we go any further, it’s probably wise to note that I’m not even sort of in the target audience for Twilight. As a straight guy who generally prefers highbrow speculative fiction like the work of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams or, failing that, fiction where shit gets blown up real good, I’m not exactly the sort of person Meyer had in mind when she set pen to paper. Keep that in mind. My experience with Twilight is limited to a few chapters of the first book, so I can’t speak to the quality of the later novels. I gleaned enough from the beginning of Twilight to know that it wasn’t for me, but the half-hour or so I spent reading it was very instructive.

First of all, Meyer’s writing style. She’s been accused of purple prose, repetition, dullness, repetition, and simplicity, as if she decided to write a book one day on a whim. I can’t really disagree with some of those. I found her style grating. She uses big words, but she uses them clumsily, as if they belong to somebody else and she doesn’t want to scuff them. It’s like she’s got a dictionary sitting in front of her as she writes. But it’s entirely possible that this is an intentional artistic statement rather than poor style. The books are written in first-person, you see, and Bella is very dull. Instead of being struck by what a terrible writer Meyer was, I laughed knowingly. I know all too many people exactly like Bella, and whether by design or not Meyer captured their voice perfectly. Any other style would give a mistaken impression of Bella’s character.

That’s not to say I enjoyed her writing, of course. There are many other authors I’d rather read, including a few that I can’t stand. But remember: straight male sci-fi/fantasy fan talking. Even if it’s not for me, I can appreciate Twilight as a respectable novel.

Probably around three quarters of the Twilight hatred is based on its portrayal of vampires. Meyer’s vampires don’t have fangs. They do have a reflection. They can’t be staked, sunlight doesn’t hurt them, crosses don’t repel them, and they can come into your house whenever they want (and do, I gather). They have all kinds of special powers and are, worst of all, invariably attractive at a super-Hollywood level. Remember Spike, Angel, and Darla? Imagine if all of Buffy‘s vampires looked like that, all the time. This depiction of vampires is a far cry from the usual Byronic murderers seen in the work of Anne Rice, Bram Stoker, and Joss Whedon. It serves the romance of the novel well at the expense of the plot. Bella gets her devilishly handsome, superpowered perfect man, but it’s extraordinarily boring to read because perfection kills conflict. Even more so, in my case, because I don’t really have the slightest interest in Edward. He’s a total nonentity as a character, who exists only for wish-fulfilment. The most interesting part of his character arc is when he’s inexplicably repulsed by Bella at the beginning, because that’s pretty much how everybody feels.

I still don’t think that this is a crippling problem. What we have here is miscommunication. People were expecting an angsty urban fantasy vampire fic like you’d expect from Rice or Whedon, but in reality Twilight is a romance novel with only superficial paranormal trappings. You cannot blame the author for writing a novel in a genre you don’t like. If you don’t like romances, that’s your problem, not Stephenie Meyer’s. If you take Twilight for what it is, and judge it against similar works, it’s still not anything Earth-shattering, but it’s not The Eye of Argon either. It’s respectable.

Much of the above criticism also carries an uncomfortable undercurrent of homophobia. Edward isn’t just an attractive young (young-looking, anyway) man, he’s gayer than Hot Space, and you should be angry about that. This is the sort of thing we can safely dismiss offhand, because it’s just insecure chest-beating from the locker room crowd. There’s no serious thought behind it.

Of the three criticisms above, the only one I think is a genuine problem with Twilight is the unfortunate implications. Bella’s entire motivation for everything is her desire for sweet, sweet vampire lovin’. Edward is a little bit of a bastard, not to mention more than six times her age. Whether it was intentional or not, the overwhelming implication is that women shouldn’t aspire to anything greater than being a wife, that a woman is nothing without a man. There can be no doubt that the subtext is there.

Still, I can’t help but feel that this is reading too much into a cheesy romance novel. It’s certain that nothing nefarious was meant by Twilight. The novel is sort of like pornography, only tame enough that you can talk about it in mixed company. I think the unfortunate implications arise from a combination of this and clumsy metaphor. The worst crime Twilight is guilty of, to my mind, is simply not being very good. That’s hardly worth all the bile that’s been spilled over it.

Any more problems with Twilight? Feel free to post them in the comments. Perhaps I’ll do a followup post.