Thursday, 30 August 2012

RETROTHURSDAY: SOME THOUGHTS ON TWILIGHT

Hello, hello, hello, Dear Readers! It's RetroThursday, one of those random and unexpected posting days when I drag a mature, well-aged post, kicking and screaming, from the dark dankness of the archive where it had been quietly mouldering, into the light for your edification. Maybe you've never read this one before, or maybe you have but would be interested to refresh your memory. In either case, I present to you:

SOME THOUGHTS ON TWILIGHT

Firstly, I must admit that, yes, I *ought* to be writing right now. However, I've just realised that I have once again wandered down the forbidden Cul-De-Sac of Plot Digressions and found myself at the Dead End of Doom. Which means that in a few moments I am going to have to go back, find the point at which I began work today, highlight and delete. And that stings us, my precious, it stings us. So I'm going to delay the stinging just for a little while - just long enough to get these thoughts out.

I'm not going to summarise Twilight here. Chances are that even if you haven't read it, you know enough about the story to keep up. If not, and you still want to read on, go here first. But not if you're at work. Your boss may find your uncontrollable hoots of laughter suspicious.

I'm also not going to make any comments like 'lots of people loved it anyway' or 'these are just my opinions' because that's blindingly obvious. If you want to try and flame me because you're convinced Twilight is perfect, go ahead, although you should be aware that working in the publishing industry has made me pretty much flame retardant.

Romance is a tricky thing to write. I know - all my novels so far have a romantic element, and I find it one of the hardest things to get right because what you're trying to capture on the page is something that has been talked about, sung about, acted about since the beginning of time. Every description has already been used. Every phrase is already a cliche. When you're trying to convey a great, immortal love on paper, it's like trying to paint on a canvas that has already been painted on by every other painter that ever lived. No matter how good you are, all those layers of old paint are going to effect your colours and composition. They're going to shape what you paint. They're going to show through.

Even worse than that is the fact that in real life, love has a massive physical component. On film when Gwyneth Paltrow or Scarlett Johanssen walks into the room and the hero stares at her, drumstruck, we GET it. In writing, you can spend ten pages describing the beauty of your love interest without conveying the smallest part of that vital, obvious human connection.

Stephenie Meyer runs up against both these problems in Twilight. She spends on average one paragraph on every page of Twilight describing Edward's physical beauty. She's trying to create that impact - that blinding moment when you look at someone and fall a little in love with them instantly, just because of their eyes or the way they smile. Unfortunately, she does not succeed. To me, what happens instead is that I find her writing - and her main character's internal monologue - so incredibly tedious that I wish Edward had died of the influenza back at the turn of the century rather than inflict these endless lines about his butterscotch-ochre eyes, flawless sparkly skin, tousled bronze hair and perfect, crooked (how can it be both perfect AND crooked? Iunno) smile on the world.


What's more, Bella does not find one single way of thinking or talking about Edward that is not already a cliche. Perhaps aware of this, the author tries to pretend that the colours showing through her work are there on purpose, by flinging literary references at us. Unfortunately, once again, it does not work. Instead, comparing her own prose to that of Austen, Bronte and Shakespeare only makes it all the more clear how remarkably and painfully average her writing is.

So what I'm saying is, Smeyer (as I like to abbreviate her name, just for efficiency's sake) isn't that great a writer. She falls into the two big romance traps. However, I could forgive her that. I've read many, many books with worse writing, and Smeyer's universe, descriptions and plot are at least internally consistent. My main problem with the Twilight books is that, once you've read them all and begin to compare them to other romantic books, a single fact begins to dawn on you.

The Twilight Saga is not actually romance.

Deep breaths now, people. Stay with me.

To illustrate my point, I'm going to talk to you about one of my favourite YA romance fantasies, which is Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Here, we have two characters who are (like the lovers in Twilight) separated by many factors. The main character, Sophie, is a shy, dutiful and self-effacing young woman who, through a misunderstanding, falls under a curse which gives her the apperance of an eighty year old woman. Following this, she becomes part of the household of the Wicked Wizard Howl, famed for eating young woman's hearts.

Actually, Howl isn't a cannibal. He's a vain, arrogant and cowardly young wizard who (unbeknownst to Sophie) is under a curse of his own. He seduces and abandons young women without a qualm, slithers out of any real work and, on one memorable occasion, fills his entire castle with green slime because he's having a bad hair day. Sophie (finally freed from the need to be 'respectable' by the fact that she's a crone rather than a young woman) meddles, argues, bickers and fights with Howl constantly, messing up all his plans, forcing him to do things he doesn't want to do. Her interference sets Howl's world upside down, but he does the same to her, turning out to be an entirely different person than his first appearance would suggest.

This doesn't sound romantic, does it?

BUT IT IS. By the end of the book, when these two finally risk their lives to save each other and declare their love, the reader is totally and utterly convinced that their love is a real, breathing thing between them. That they are perfect for each other, not because their relationship is or ever will be perfect, but because it isn't.

The reason why this romance is convincing is that Sophie and Howl are both fully realised people in their own right. They come together despite or even because of their differences, make a choice to be the most important thing to each other, to mesh their seperate lives into one life, despite possibly having to sacrifice other things which are are important to them. This holds true of every good romance any of us have ever read, from Pride and Prejudice through to The Sharing Knife books by Lois McMaster Bujold.

Now let's look at Bella. I mean, really look at her. Who is she?


She's clumsy - but that's not a personality trait, anymore than having a mole on your cheek is a personality trait. She likes reading. Not much - she's not passionate about it or anything, but it's something she does. She doesn't like rain or cold. She is mildly fond of her parents, but has no respect for either of them, and no apparent need for or reliance on them. She cooks, but not out of any sense of enjoyment - just because she thinks she should. Aaand... that's it. Those are literally her only traits.

She has no ambitions. No dreams. No hopes or fears. She doesn't worry about college, plan to travel, intend to become a writer or an actress or a bank manager. She doesn't think puppies are cute or disgusting. She doesn't sing in the shower. She is completely self-reliant and has no true bond to any human being or human experience.

She comes to Forks not because she wants to but because (once again) she thinks she should. Despite what appears to be a borderline disassociative disorder on Bella's part, young people at her school try to get to know her, but she has no interest in or empathy for any of them. They bore her. She doesn't think any of them are attractive or worth her attention. Her only emotion when any boy approaches her is 'Eugh'.

Then Edward appears. By her own account, he is utterly, breathtakingly beautiful. And he's the only person in Forks who apparently doesn't like her and want to be friends with her immediately (apart from one girl, called Lauren, who is so minor a character that she doesn't count).

Considering all this, it's hardly surprising that Bella is willing to risk her life to be with Edward within a week of knowing him. That she can say to him, straight-faced, that she would rather die than have him leave her alone. It's because he's a) the only person who she has ever found attractive or interesting b) SHE HAS NOTHING ELSE IN HER LIFE. In sacrificing her humanity she's called on to give up nothing significant to her, nothing that she needs or cares about. She's not human in any real sense anyway.

Now Edward. He has spent his entire undead life believing he is damned and soulless, moping about being the only singleton in a 'family' made up of passionately devoted couples. He says he loves his family, but they seem to inspire more exasperation than affection in him. He plays the piano (although, again, he doesn't seem to be passionate about it). Other than that, his only occupation seems to have been going to High School over and over and over and over, feeling superior to every person he meets because he can read their minds. He's done a stint at medical school, but he's never attempted to be a practising doctor. To do that he'd need to take an interest in something other than his own misery, which he cannot apparently bring himself to do.

He's never had a relationship, even of the hand-holding variety, with anyone. What kind of a life is that? He might as well have died!

So of course *he's* willing to sacrifice his being for Bella. She is literally the only interesting thing that's happened to him since he turned into a vampire. He can't read her mind and she smells good enough that he actually wants to kill her, unlike every other girl he's ever met, who all put him off with their stinky perfume and bore him with their pointless internal monologue.

And even when these two link up, there's still not enough human life in the pair of them to make one real human being.

Bella and Edward never think of anything but each other, discuss anything but their feelings for each other, or have any thoughts about their future except for being together. They're perfect for each other because no one else could possibly establish or maintain a relationship with either of them. When you think of it like that, you realise what you're looking at in this book isn't a romance at all. It's about a co-dependent relationship of socially retarded loners who are both so isolated that they have no choice but to cling to each other and call it love.

Now, if you want to write a story about the suffocating and unhealthy relationship between a pair of sociopathic teens who are both unable to form any meaningful relationship with anyone other than each other...fine. But please don't gussy it up and pretend that it's the next Romeo and Juliet. The 'love' these two have for each isn't the 'love' that the rest of us experience in our lives. Neither of them appear to know what love is.

Love is accepting (as Bella and Edward never do) that the other person in the relationship is a PERSON. Flawed. Conflicted and contradictory. Stuffed with insecurities and anger and shame and sadness. And laughter and life and joy. Love is looking at another person, knowing that they are not and never will be your 'dream lover' and choosing to be with them anyway. Choosing to give up every fantasy you ever had about Mr Perfect swooping in and fixing your life, because that fantasy doesn't mean as much to you as the guy with the head-cold snoring on the sofa in front of Match of the Day.


Love is being with someone not because they're imprinted on you or destined for you, or the only person in the whole world whose mind you can't read, or the only person who ever aroused you from your crippling apathy for five seconds, but because they're them. Joe, or Sally or Pilar or Hasif. Just that. Only that. That's what love is. And when we try to convey love on the page, whether or not we're successful, whether or not our depiction of that feeling is to everyone's taste, that is what we should be *trying* to achieve.

But Smeyer doesn't attempt that. She doesn't want that. Her stories give us two rather horrible people who are each convinced (justifiably) of their own inadequacy and equally convinced (without basis) of the other person's perfection. No matter how arrogant, patronising, controlling and hypocritical Edward is, Bella clings to the unshakeable conviction that he is without any flaws at all. She can't admit that he ever has or ever will do anything wrong or made a single error. She loves him only as a sparkly marble cupcake Adonis, not as a person. And no matter how mind-numbingly stupid, self-absorbed, over-dramatic and boring Bella is, Edward remains convinced that she is the perfect delicate flower of womanhood, without blemish, without stain. He loves her as a symbol of the shining, virginal girl he ought to have married if he had remained human - not as person with her own valid desires, dreams and doubts.

 Twilight a love story? Not in a million years. And that's why, despite being amused by the lulz involved in the ridiculousness of the 'saga', and despite wanting girls to be able to read romances without feeling shame about it, deep down I kind of hate these books. Because they're supposed to be about love, but there's no heart in them. What they're really about is desperation and loneliness.

Oh, and sparkly stalker boys. Mustn't forget that.

13 comments:

Q said...

Dang, you're intelligent. And articulate. This is wonderful.

Frances Hardinge said...

This is a fantastic account of love and romance.

Like yourself, I'm always suspicious of 'love' that doesn't seem to involve any understanding of the 'beloved' as a real person in their own right. To quote Giles from Buffy:

"It's not love. It's obsession - selfish, banal obsession."

Rebecca Lindsay said...

Haha, I couldn't stop laughing when I was reading this! It's brilliant :D
I do like watching the Twilight films, but I still agree 100% with posts like these.
I think you were completely right, it is really hard to write about the true journey of love. Sometimes cliches just pop out nomatter how hard I try to lock them in the "do not write" cupboard.

Ems said...

THIS.

You've said every single thing I've never been able to articulate about why I hate Twilight so much.

Thank you.

Zoë Marriott said...

Q: Aw, shucks! Thank you :)

Frances: I should have used that quote! I've always loved that line, and the stern contempt in Giles voice when he said it (Giles is still my favourite. *Sigh*). Thank you. This is actually a post from when I was first blogging, so I'm glad that it's held up well.

Rebecca: I do as well! They're so over the top and insanely convinced of their own epic-ness! I just wish so many people weren't convinced that B + E = Twu Wuv.

Ems: Thank you. This is the result of stewing about it for a long period, I must admit.

So Many Books, So Little Time said...

I loved the books the first time around, but you're right. I never really thought of how non-people they are, but I won't be able to forget the way they made me feel when I first read them - they swept me away.

I like to think that if I read them for the first time now, I'd feel differently, but who knows!

Zoë Marriott said...

So Many: They definitely have that incredibly readable, addictive quality! I actually enjoyed the first book when I read it the first time - it was only when I started New Moon that I realised (despite enjoying the absence of Edward immensely) that there was something a bit 'off' there... by the time I'd finished the whole series I had all these thoughts swirling in my head. So I burped them up onto my blog :)

Isabel said...

I LOVE THIS POST. What a coincidence, because a couple of days ago I was re-reading this and hoping you'd decide to re-post it. It's one of my favorites!

Kristina said...

Fantastic! I admit I fell under the Twilight spell, but not the crazy. I have read the series a few times, but after I listened to the series I began to hear every single word and understand and see a bit of what you just stated. Bella is just a blob of a person and Edward is a sparkly overprotective annoyance. Their relationship is not something I would ever want to have, they are indeed perfect for each other.

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: Oh good! I thought I remembered you saying a while ago that you'd like to see it again; that's why I dug it out today.

Kristina: It's surprising the amount of people who say that. It's like there's some weird magic attached to these books. And what I want to know is - how can I get some for MY books?!

Elyndra said...

You don’t need that magic, the Twilight books might seem shiny at first glance, but once you dig a little deeper they are quite empty and a little bit disturbing. I much prefer a book that keeps you rereading because the story just won’t release it's hold on you.
It’s funny that you mentioned Howl’s moving castle, because that’s my favourite book. I’ve reread it so many times the spine is about ready to give in.
That being said, I did read Twilight and moderately liked it the first time round. It was before the whole craze and I only picked it up because it had vampires in it. (I used to like vampire stories) I think the attraction, especially for young girls, is the whole “he changed for me” and “I fixed him” trope. Add that Bella is kind of nondescript, which helps for them to envision themselves in her place and I think you have the formula of why it got so popular. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but not very lasting.
I’d prefer Howl over Edward any day.

sarah said...

I totally agree with you, and if I'd had time this morning I would have written you a comment which simply applauded this post. I have actually taught classes dedicated to unpicking exactly what is wrong on so many levels with the Twilight series.

But this afternoon, writing my own blogpost, I remembered yours, and it suddenly occured to me why so many like the books. I think maybe alot of people (teenagers, women especially) do feel disconnected from themselves and the world around them, to the extent that Bella reflects, and feel like they come alive only when they're with another person. I know, I know, we're told this is wrong and terrible, but all through the history of human literature we see that story told over and again (albeit way better than Twilight; ie, Wuthering Heights.) I wonder if Meyer, no doubt accidentally, has written in a way which captures that longing for connection.

I don't mean this to come across as praising the books, but I do wonder if that is why they captivate so many people on a barely conscious level.

Jessica said...

There's a book called Twilight, True Love and You, which basically looks at the psychology behind the relationships in the Twilight books and explains why they suck. The author compares things that happen in the series with real life examples of relationships that are seriously broken. I bought it because I met the author when she was doing a signing and she called it her "cure" for Twilight. She wanted to explain as a psychologist that relationships like that were actually really dangerous.

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