A Nausea That Borders on Violence: Why Twilight is a Cancerous Sore on the Face of Literature
Let me preface this by saying that all opinions expressed herein are based on the first book in the series. I have not read New Moon or Eclipse, and unless gilded angels clad in robes of the finest silk deliver these tomes to my doorstep, I have little intention of ever reading them, because while I love things that are terrible, I love food more. Therefore, any counter-argument that begins 'but this is resolved in Book X' holds no weight for me, and wouldn't regardless: Twilight is 500 pages. If the problems I encountered in character, plot, and style cannot be addressed in 500 pages, then they can never be addressed.
When in workshop, it's prudent to begin by stating the things you like about the story, so as to soften the blow of whatever soul-rending criticism follows your praise. In that grand tradition, I begin by saying that I did like a precious few elements of Twilight, and they are as follows:
1. The title font.
2. The image on the cover.
3. Sorry, that's it.
Twilight performs the great feat of reversing the old adage, 'don't judge a book by its cover.' This phrase is usually meant to encourage readers to look beyond a poorly made cover to find the luminous writing within. In this case, the phrase becomes a warning: Twilight's cover is seductive, spare, and elegant, with striking contrasts in color and image choice (two pale hands offering a red apple, against a black background). But do not be deceived by the slick shine of this book's packaging: none of those descriptors can be accurately applied to the actual writing.
Even the very first page alludes to the author's problems in voice and consistency, with an oddly placed preface that is set at the novel's end, and suggests Bella to be in mortal danger. Bella's ice-cold reaction to this situation is that she's all right with dying because she is doing so for some kind of amazing dream (why she suggests that it's not "reasonable to grieve" for a lost dream is beyond my apparently limited understanding). She's 'terrified,' but her internal narration suggests a chilly acceptance of what's happening, a complete willingness to sacrifice herself for this dream of hers.
What dream is this, you ask?
Why, the love of a sparkling vampire-god, of course. Emphasis on the SPARKLE.
It's important to note, and to acknowledge, the reasons behind this book's immense popularity. First, it is about vampires, and if you know thing one about pop fiction, you know that putting a vampire in it usually means instant fanbase. Vampires are a particularly popular choice for YA romance, because they permit symbolic sexual expression by way of fang penetration (never mind that this work-around equates sex with violence). The central 'conflict' (I use this term loosely, and I'll explain why) in Twilight is the supposed ever-present threat of Edward 'penetrating' Bella--that is, biting her, going into a frenzy because of her delicious, floral-scented blood, and accidentally killing her. This problem occupies the bulk of the book, until the last 150 or so pages, when the plot detours into Ed and his family of non-human eating vampires protecting Bella from a passing rival group that decides Bella is the tastiest treat they've ever seen.
The thing is, the book's premise isn't bad. It's not ridiculously original (vamp romance being a genre unto itself), but it's not awful, per se, and it might even be interesting, were it written by someone who actually knew how to create characters that behave like human beings (or even undead beings), as opposed to characters who behave like bowls of Top Ramen taste. Most of the book's flaws come down to poorly drawn characters, with the two primaries being the top offenders.
Bella Swan is the series narrator, and everything is written in first-person, so you'd presume that you're directly inside Bella's head when reading, and you are: it's just that her head is depressingly empty, a bleak wasteland in which no genuine flower of humanity blooms. Bella's defining traits are thus: she loves Edward Cullen, and she falls down a lot. Her narrative voice is mannered and false, echoing Jane Austen only in the sense that a firefly echoes a fire. Outside of her feelings for Edward, there is nothing that defines Bella Swan as a human being, because Meyer did not deign to gift her with a personality.
All-consuming love is not uncommon to seventeen year olds, or to almost anyone really, but what makes it fascinating is when two already nuanced, three-dimensional characters come together on account of it. Five hundred pages and Bella expresses no emotion that is uniquely hers, because her perspective, her voice, is about as bland as a bowl of grits (sans butter). The sheer mediocrity of this work makes it difficult to criticize, because it isn't that Bella's development is bad, it's that such development never happens. Meyer takes sixty pages for anything of consequence to happen (Ed saving Bel from certain death by truck with his superhero vampyr powers), and then almost four hundred more for anything else to happen (Ed saving Bel from the vamps that have decided to hunt her on account of her blood, which is apparently cotton candy to all creatures of the night). In between, Ed saves Bel a few more times from disasters major (GANG RAPE) and minor (stubbing her toe), while Bel pines and thinks of absolutely nothing except for her demon luvver.
When I say absolutely nothing, I mean absolutely. nothing. Bel gives a few thoughts to her father (with whom she lives, and who spends the majority of the book in absentia because he likes fishing and arresting people, or something) and a few more to her mom (who was suspected to be in danger by the Bad Vamps, but really it was just A Trap), and even less to the completely generic cast of high-school kids that surround her. Honestly, every single one of her buddies at school could be cut and I wouldn't know the difference: they're one-note and boring, and what's worse, the author clearly thinks they're one-note and boring. Only vamps are capable of being interesting in this universe, though not really, since the Cullens are just as much of a snore-fest when you take a moment to look at them.
Edward isn't human, but that doesn't mean his character should be divested of human traits. Rather, one selling point of a vampire (and of all undead characters, for me) is how they come to terms with being human forever, with being nothing but themselves until eternity runs its course (or they are killed). But there's nothing for Ed to come to terms with, because he's got no flaws. Readers are meant to feel that Bella is in constant danger when she's with him, and that this threat intensifies the tension of the love they share. Again: not a bad premise. But despite all the mugging he does on the page, with his face changing from scowls to smiles in the space of two lines (imagine a person with drama masks for a face, and you'll understand how this character is typically written), he never does anything. He doesn't even come close to hurting Bella, and the reader knows that, honestly, he never will. He's Too Good. All of the mercurial emotion that Meyer attempts to imbue him with falls flat because his judgment doesn't lapse for even a second.
Aside from all this, he, like Bella, has very little in the way of defining characteristics: he's gifted with looks, brains, and various superhuman skills (super speed, agility, and strength, as well as his personal mind-reading power), but nothing that actually defines him as a person. The only preferences Meyer explores for her characters involve music, but that's about the extent of it: Ed is free of quirks and neuroses (aside from the raging bloodlust shared by all vamps, ofc), and with Bella he is the perfect boyfriend, always arriving just in time, never blaming her for her choices, never becoming truly angry with her for any reason.
Bella is much the same, though at times her sheer detachment borders on sociopathy. Although she appears to fear for her mother and father, she spends the most time worrying about what's happening to Ed at any given moment (setting aside the fact that he's essentially invincible and her parents are just poor, frail hyoomans). She cries when she deliberately hurts her father, but forgets all about it once she's on the road with la famiglia d'vamp, and doesn't think of him or his feelings again for the rest of the text. I realize that this is meant to be a romance, but there's more to a solid story--and a solid romance--than just creating two dolls and clicking their faces against one another's for three hours (or hundreds of pages), which is what you get when you seriously examine the lead protagonists. They're literally nothing without each other, and not just in the poetic, ourluvissoepic sense.
Again, no secondary character is afforded even a cursory measure of depth (aside from possibly Dr. Cullen, who receives a somewhat detailed history as delivered by Ed): Emmett is the brawny vamp, Rosalie is the hot bitch (and the only person who even remotely dislikes Bella for even half a second), Alice the child-like precog, and Esme the motherly weef of Dr. C. Those adjectives are all that are required to describe these characters; no other substance for them exists, however small.
OK, so the characters leave a lot to be desired. That, in and of itself, destroys a story: stories are about people, and if you don't have interesting people, you're never gonna have an interesting story. And, for me, both the villains and heroes need reasons, need explanations, need desires(PLURAL). One might argue that Ed can function as both the hero and the villain, but seriously--I didn't buy at all that he would falter and hurt Bella (and, SPOILER: he never does). Instead, Bella suffers by way of the visiting vamp group--gets the shit kicked out of her, actually. This scene might've been compelling if not for Bella's deranged detachment from everything except being touched by Edward. What should be a vicious, brutal scene of a frail human girl being beaten by a nasty hunter vampire (not vampire hunter, as I was first led to believe, and which would've been far more compelling, honestly) is instead reduced to a litany of 'Oh he is hurting me, and oh it hurts.'
Here's a good example of what I mean:
"His toe nudged my broken leg and I heard a piercing scream. With a shock, I realized it was mine." (450)
O RLY? This type of removal is not particular to this scene: Bella is often surprised by her own choices and actions, surprised by how casually she treats her own life. But not so surprised that she ever considers it deeply, or, you know, starts caring about it. Even in this scene, where we should be as close to Bella and her pain as possible, Meyer's narrator holds us at a distance by going for some surreal detachment from the pain, so that Bella's beating is muted, misted over by her own denial that it's even happening. But there's no power in that, and no consequence. Nothing that happens ultimately has any consequence at all--by the end of the things, Bella's parents still don't know she's dating a vampire (her injuries are explained by a bad fall ... right). Bella even gets to enjoy her prom in the last couple of pages. Uggh.
The narrative issues aren't the only problem with the style, which is, while relatively polished in terms of mechanics and flow, still plagued by amateurish overwriting and telling. For instance, Meyer has a deep-seated aversion to the 'said' tag, as if the word gives her hives, and avoids it wherever possible. I'm not of the school that a writer should use ONLY say or said when marking dialogue, because sometimes it's needed to clarify a given emotion or tone, but for the most part, dialogue itself should convey the tone the writer wants. For instance, in one scene where Bel is looking for reassurance of safety, she asks if a phone line is all right to use, and Alice answers that Yes it is. Alice's mere answer indicates reassurance--no voice tag claiming the same is required, yet there it is, and this is the case on every page of the book. Also, despite its length, the book reads remarkably fast, and not owing to its fleet prose, but because you eventually realize that you're reading the same set of sentences over and over and over again. Here, I shall condense it for you:
TYPICAL TWILIGHT SCENE
(Bella thinks about how awesome Edward is, and how awesome his eyes are, and how he is like Adonis, except a bloodsucking corpse)
BEL: Ed, you're awesome.
ED: No, Bel. YOU'RE awesome. And your veins smell like lilacs :)
BEL: (blush) No, I'm ordinary and dull~!
ED: AND AWESOME.
(repeat ad infinitem)
Much is made of Bella's ordinariness, her non-descript and unpretty nature, but her appearance in Forks catches not just Ed's eye but the eye of most every eligible bachelor in the high school (all faceless popular dudes that neither you nor I nor Meyer gives a fuck about). Essentially, Bel AND Ed are classic Mary Sues, lapped up by the populace for different reasons: Bel, because she's bland as toast and therefore able to serve as a projection canvas for whatever 13 yr old girl is reading about her, and Ed, because he's everything those 13 yr old girls dream of (gentlemanly, powerful, and dangerous in the safest kind of way). I assume that this dynamic is why the book's other absurdities are forgivable--for instance, the fact that Meyer attempts to 'play' with the myth of the sun and vampires by establishing that the reason Ed (et al) can't be in direct sunlight is because to do so causes him to SPARKLE LIKE THE HOPE DIAMOND.
I wish I were kidding. I also wish I were kidding about the game of vampire baseball the Cullen family plays, a game which causes noises loud enough to mimic a gunfight (owing to their super speed, you see) but which is adequately covered by peals of thunder (note: thunder doesn't drown out sonic booms, last I checked, and doesn't sound like them either).
I could go on enumerating this book's faults, but I want to speak briefly about why its popularity disturbs me. It's not just that we are rewarding mediocrity, but that we are rewarding the most vapid kind of entertainment possible. The villains here have no nuance: they are simply evil killers, and the Cullens, while hinted to be dangerous, are ultimately just as pedestrian and gentle as the average suburban family. Bella's personality is so weak as to make her almost a non-entity in her own story. What does this mean? Does the market want heroines like this? Girls with no definition, girls who spend their own stories being saved by their perfect male mate, girls who display a complete lack of agency or influence over their own destinies? Do we want one-note characters, sophomoric prose, and plot points that make no sense? To me, Twilight is the worst kind of love story, and the worst kind to feed to young girls: one in which the woman is completely in thrall to the man (never mind Ed's proclamations: their imbalance in power is clear throughout), and in which she is one hundred percent helpless without him. Note that I don't mind weak characters (that would make me a hypocrite, given Claris), and I love stories where otherwise average people are stuck in overwhelming situations. But I hope and expect (and try to write) those characters to have believable reactions to their unbelievable circumstances, and to at least TRY to do something about them, even if they are doomed to fail. And they don't need to have their entire existence and personality wrapped around their love interest. Many people do behave that way, especially in new relationships, but that doesn't mean their own identity doesn't exist--it's just being subsumed. Characters like Bella have nothing to subsume, because nothing exists to subsume.
In conclusion: this series sucks, and i am tired of its face.
Get a soda for this :|