I am formulating a belief that authors of novels should stay out of literary criticism. First of all, because I’m not sure how much good we novelists do writing critiques of other books. If our gift is storytelling, why should we spend time away from it? There are excellent literary critics out there: I know I am not one of them. Enough said.
It’s one thing if we like a book and feel it’s being unfairly maligned (which is how I felt about the Harry Potter series). It’s another thing if we read a much-acclaimed series and don’t care for it. I can’t help feeling that when we authors write negative criticism, it’s too easy for us to come off as sneering out of jealousy.
Writing is a solitary and often lonely profession: we writers spend long hours in uncomfortable chairs squinting at text on computer screens or scribbles on paper when most decent people are in bed. Often craving recognition is the base vice that keeps us plugging away at a manuscript when the virtues of serving the Muse or the Holy Spirit have failed us. We are chronically prone to jealousy, small-mindedness, and getting sour when someone who’s written an inferior work gets a big book contract and a movie deal and lunch with Oprah.
Hence my hesitation to slam the Twilight saga. As a small, relatively unknown novelist myself, I can’t help thinking that criticizing Twilight is just my own Green-Eyed Monster seizing the keyboard. And how can I be so certain that you all won’t read what I write and say to yourself knowingly, “Ah, but she’s just jealous . . . her own books . . . well, you know . . . ” And you might be right! Although I have to say that I would be a real crank to want to bring down Stephenie Meyer, whose blog and website sparks with the nicest of cheerful enthusiasm (I have to say, I find Stephenie Meyer as a person a lot more charming than her creation, Bella!).
However, earlier last year, when I was procrastinating on editing one of my novels, I started reading the series and writing reviews on the books as a favor for a friend at Hollywood Jesus. Then I started having concerns about the series. And then, after I mentioned this to another friend, I found myself on the receiving end of emails from moms wanting to know what I thought of the series, and whether or not I thought their girls should be reading it . . . oh dear. This is not what the novelist wanted to get herself into!
So it is with great reluctance that I am procuring this retrospective on the series. Hopefully this will be the last time I venture into literary criticism. At least, until the next big young adult blockbuster comes down the pike and captures all of popular culture, and I am procrastinating working on one of my books and . . .
I freely admit I enjoyed most of the books, though I found myself yawning and checking the page count during both Eclipse and Breaking Dawn. There simply wasn’t enough action in any of the books to satisfy the fantasy-lover in me, and too much time spent on sighs and thrills in the spine as Edward and Bella sweet-talked one another page after page after page. But given that Christians are praising the series for featuring both a virginal heroine AND virginal hero, whose long-awaited marital bliss is passionate, intense, and apparently well worth waiting for, why wasn’t I jumping on the bandwagon to endorse the series?
I guess I just kept being bothered by a recurring question: Was any of it real?
And therein lies the problem.
Obviously there aren’t any real vampires, internet rumors aside. Certainly no humans can claim to have escaped from mortal life into an undead life of eternal shopping sprees and joyrides in hot cars. Yet in a romance novel, however fantastic the trappings, the love has to be real. A good romance novel has to speak the truth about love. Romeo and Juliet, Jane Austen’s novels, the novels of the Bronte sisters somehow managed to communicate something true about the human experience when it comes to love. And I’m not sure that the Twilight saga does.
The love story in Twilight is just not real, virginal or no. It’s love with a pink haze, without the real struggles of selfishness and pettiness and failure that the best of lovers in this fallen world experience. Even the sexuality remains a female head-trip that not once breaks through into real life: not a speck of real dirt or bad smell or PMS moment mars the sexual ecstasy of Bella and Edward. As one girl reader observed, their romance is much more like infatuation than love.
Not once does Edward ever come close to resembling a flesh-and-blood man that a reader is likely to meet. In some ways, Edwards’s love for cool cars reads as more realistic than his undying love for Bella (no pun intended). “I Love Edward” fan clubs are chasing after a phantom.
There are no answers to the riddle of men and women here: only sweet lies that can whet the appetite for something that doesn’t exist. This can be more damaging to the female spirit than entertaining, especially if Twilight-style books are her steady diet.
In Twilight’s moral universe (as in too much modern girl/women fiction, sadly), women are never really wrong. Every moral action by a female can be excused “for reasons of the heart:” even the vengeful bloodhunt of a female vampire in Eclipse. Men’s actions, however, are automatically suspect. This kind of slant can make for emotionally charged narrative, but can make your head spin when it comes to giving a moral judgment.
But moral clarity is sometimes exactly what is needed. For example, it bears pointing out that Bella and Edward’s four-book-long habit of snuggling non-sexually in bed night after night isn’t kosher. In Christian terms, it’s a sin.
Of course this sounds Inquisitorial to say this: after all, we’re talking about a fantasy world of vampires with infinite powers of self-restraint. And after all, “nothing” really happens between Edward and Bella: their union remains unconsummated until (by Edward’s request, not Bella’s) they are publicly married.
So why is it a sin for two unmarried people to sleep together, even if nothing else goes on between the sheets? I’m not talking about a “Wake Up, Little Suzy” one-time accident or extreme circumstances like war or natural disasters: I mean the kind of habitual intimacy Bella and Edward practice.
It’s wrong for at least two reasons: the chance for actual sin to occur, and the sin of scandal.
Meyer seems to rule out the chance of actual sin occurring by constantly stressing Edward’s absolute self-control and high moral standards. But is it really so noble of this vampire to sleep with his girlfriend? (Okay, technically, Edward sits or lies down next to her while she sleeps: [yeah, I know, vampires don’t sleep . . . ])
Christ reminds us that “any man among you who looks at a woman in lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” It’s simply ingenuous to think that a woman who looks at a man in lust is doing just fine. And Bella is (frequently) aroused to lust after Edward, and despite the fact that he slaps her hands away, he’s not really helping the situation by tantalizing her with such emotional and physical closeness.
So in terms of protecting Bella’s chastity (instead of legalistically just protecting her physical virginity), Edward fails pretty miserably. From this point of view, he’s actually fairly selfish.
And then there’s the sin of scandal. While Bella and Edward were actually “doing no wrong” in bed together, how is anyone else from the outside supposed to know that? Bella rightly presumes that her father wouldn’t approve if he found out (and that Bella’s caring father is made to look like a dunce throughout the book also bothers me). Even I, as a reader, sure wondered throughout the first book if there was something else going on in that bed beyond the singing of lullabies.
Should we care what people think? So what if they think we’re sinning: we can stand before God with a clear conscience, right?
Not exactly. If you want to have it spelled out in Scripture, St. Paul deals with the sin of giving scandal when he warns those whose consciences allows them to eat food sacrificed to idols to avoid scandalizing their weaker brethren. And Christ was even stronger: “Anyone who causes scandal to these little ones: it would be better for him to be thrown in the sea with a millstone around his neck.” Ouch.
If sleeping with a guy “in a platonic way” still seems just fine to you, think of it this way: would it be wrong for me, a married woman, to lie in bed with another man who was not my husband? Uh, yeah: and if for some reason I couldn’t see what’s wrong with it, I bet my husband could.
I wouldn’t do it–and I wouldn’t want my husband doing it with another woman, either. If it’s wrong for a married person to do it, it’s wrong for a single person, no matter how restrained or how chaste they think they’re being, no matter what a pretty picture is painted by the image of Edward humming lullabies over Bella’s gently dozing form.
The truth is, we should avoid even the appearance of sinning, and in this regard, Bella and Edward act blindly and selfishly. We’d like to think that our actions affect only ourselves, but much to our dismay, we can have an enormous effect on others for good or evil.
And I hate to say it, but Stephenie Meyer might herself be guilty of this if some of her ardent fans try sleeping together in imitation of Edward and Bella, and end up with lost innocence and broken hearts. Double ouch.
There’s another more subtle way that Edward (and Jacob, Bella’s “best friend”) are bad for Bella: they constantly tell her that she is good: she is self-sacrificing and thoughtful and full of kindness and generosity. Having been inside Bella’s head for four books, I may be missing something, but I have to say that there’s nothing morally superior in Bella’s character that would earn this kind of praise. She’s pretty average, on the whole, and many times this reader (and others too) have found her fairly selfish and self-centered. She loves Edward, true, but “even the pagans love those who love them.” For her boring human friends and relations, she behaves with the usual amount of eye-rolling, politeness, fake niceness, and white lies that many of us tend to indulge in. In short, Bella’s no better than any of us.
In this light, Edward and Jacob’s constant showering of Bella with adulation isn’t much good for her. It doesn’t call her on to something better: it doesn’t help her be less selfish: it makes her more and more satisfied with herself and blinds her to the glaring faults in her relationship to her dad, mom, and friends that even most readers can see. In the short run, what a head trip! In the long run, people outside of fiction who are surrounded by this kind of affirmation turn into selfish jerks.
We women might dream about a man idolizing us, waiting on us hand and foot, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that’s not good for us. We have a sinful human nature too, and sometimes the best way for men to love us is when they call us to change instead of massaging our egos.
Unfortunately, the Twilight saga not only fails to tell the truth about human relations: it also tells some pretty sugary falsehoods instead. In that way, it comes pretty close to what I would term female porn. If we define pornography as a literary or visual work that plays on the weakness of one gender in order to bring about a selfish sexual absorption, then these books come pretty close.
Male pornography preys on a man’s visual orientation to bring about a self-centered sexual response. Female porn exploits a woman’s longing for emotional satisfaction and fulfilling relationships to bring about a self-centered sexual response. For women, it’s the steamy romance novel, not the X-rated photo, that’s their downfall.
Now, I completely agree that Twilight is hardly as steamy as the average teen or woman’s novel in the same genre. In fact, compared to the Gossip Girl novels, they’re models of restraint. Meyer eschews graphic in-your-face descriptions: she’s discreet instead of crass. And much of the emotional power of the book stems from the fact that it’s not graphic. As in the memorable scene when Edward leans over Bella’s neck in the first book and inhales, then comments, “Just because I can’t taste the wine doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the bouquet.” Meyer also taps the reality that a man who controls himself, and who is, like Edward, a gentleman, is enormously attractive to most women.
Pornographers typically argue that their obscene works are “art,” but generally the average person can easily distinguish between the artistic value of the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgment and a Playboy centerfold. But the difficulty with what I would call female porn is that it is indeed very difficult to figure out what constitutes art and what is truly problematic. What I do know is that a steady diet of this can ruin good relationships and good marriages, as women closeted with their private reads reject boyfriends and husbands who can’t match the romance offered by an Edward or one of his counterparts in the romance industry. Again, I hesitate to classify Twilight as this kind of female porn book: but it seems pretty borderline, given how much of the book’s action was heavily padded with extended descriptions of physical affection and sweet-talking. If Edward had spent more time fighting the Volturi and less time tracing the corner of Bella’s lips lightly with his fingertips, I’d have been more entertained and less worried.
So I suppose I consider the books . . . problematic, especially (now here I’m going to speak to the moms who are reading this) for those readers who are still growing up. Considering that many girls aged ten and just above are reading books, since the word is out that the books are ‘clean’ with ‘no sex,’ I’m afraid too many impressionable minds are being primed learning to fall in love with a man who just doesn’t exist. I actually feel really sorry for the teenage boys who are having to compete with Edward.
As a romance writer myself, I try to be kind to the average guy. While it’s laudable to create an idealized hero that will raise the standards of girl readers, I’m not sure it’s fair to make him so beyond the pale that no average guy can aspire to be like him. But I could be wrong.
Twilight and its sequels had some enjoyable parts: the vampires, the werewolves, the superheroes, the epic showdowns, the fantasy elements kept it a fun read. But ironically, the parts of the story that pretended to be “realistic”–the relationships between Bella and Edward and everyone else–were the actual fantasy. And for girls still forming their ideals about sexuality and relationships, this apple could be poisonous. Beware.
Please know that this review was written by an aspiring novelist whose sales will probably never equal Stephenie Meyer’s, and it just represents one opinion. This novelist is now resolved to return to writing her own manuscripts and to try to steer clear of literary criticism–at least for now!