Thursday, January 7, 2010

Twilight of the West?

Not to go too far off on a tangent, but has anyone read this new essay by Michael D. O'Brien decrying the Twilight series? I love Mr. O'Brien's novels, but his work as a self-styled gatekeeper of morality in adolescent fiction is unsettling to me. The essay is long -- more than half is taken up with a historical survey of vampire legend and literature -- and he begins his argument about halfway down. His argument is based on his distaste for the transmutation of symbols, in this case, that of the vampire, who in legend and lore is the evil undead, but who, in the figures of Edward and his family, is moral and possessed of a conscience and perhaps even an immortal soul. According to O'Brien, this turning of the historical tradition on its head is opening the door to evil through moral relativism.

Now, here's the thing: I think he may be quite right. But my problem with his argument is the "evidence" he uses to support it, particularly some dreams reported by author Stephanie Meyers on her website. He suggests that her dreams may in fact be apparitions of evil spirits. Well, maybe they could; any dream could. But I guess I just feel insulted by the idea of suggesting that someone's dreams, as self-reported on her promotional website, may or may not be the work of the devil, and further insulted that a self-appointed Cassandra about the destruction of our youth by Harry Potter and his henchmen would use an author's promotional web content as any kind of evidence of anything at all. Perhaps I'm being overly sensitive because I'm a researcher, or perhaps it's because I've been accused myself on my blog of having dreams inspired by the devil. Anyhow, the Twilight books are crap and may even be dangerous, but there has to be a more cogent way to say so. And I don't think suggesting that they are a catalyst for the decline of Western culture is that way.

19 comments:

Steven Riddle said...

Dear Blog Contributor,

I have always had this feeling about O'Brien's nonfiction and, unfortunately, it has colored my opinion of his fiction. I read what sounds very much like funadmentalist screed in his nonfiction, and I'm reluctant to partake of the fiction where such impulses fly in under the radar.

I'm glad to see others noting a similar discomfort with his nonfiction.

Thank you.

shalom,

Steven

Pentimento said...

Welcome to our little reading circle.

Actually O'Brien's fiction is wonderful.

BettyDuffy said...

As though artists and writers needed another reason to doubt themselves when putting hand to plow, what O’Brien equates with demonic possession—the dream sequence, the compulsion to write it down, the voices taking shape in one’s mind—sounds to me like textbook creative process. O’Brien supports his demonic possession theory with the fact that neither Meyer, nor JK Rowling had prior writing credits, they wrote mediocre plots and prose, and met with tremendous success. Demonic possession or professional resentment?

As far as research and reporting goes, I’d like to see some sort of investigation into how exactly young minds are affected by Potter and Twilight. Is there evidence that a moral conscience can change after reading one of these books, or is moral conscience of a more hereditary nature—passed on, protected and perpetuated by the moral conscience of the young reader’s parents? O’Brien offers only conjecture on this point, which, as Riddle points out, seems to have a fundamentalist origin.

I don’t really have a problem with turning symbols on their heads—encourages a wider breadth of interpretation, a skill I should think we’d want to encourage in the adolescent imagination.

If I have a problem with the Twilight series it’s this:

1. I read the first book rather breathlessly, even though, yes, it’s crap. Went to see New Moon with my cousin, watched with a sheepish grin on my face through the entire movie, came out to find my cousin wearing a similar expression. We are both grown women. The movie was essentially pure female erotica. Beautiful boys who want only to be as close as is comfortable for the typical adolescent girl—in other words, kissing, hugging, hands touching, but no sex. What could be sexier? And what could be more fantastical?
2. It takes the threat of death to make men chaste.
3. Bella has the personality and gumption of a glue-stick (which of course makes it easier for the young girl to replace Bella with herself).

What O’Brien seems to have overlooked in his essay is that Twilight it less about vampires than it is about sex. And the sexual symbolism (sex=death) is one that has pervaded throughout history.

I do find it interesting that most books in which women are awakened by coitus (Bovary, Chatterley), are written by men. Meyer has broken the bank in creating a story where a young woman’s virginity—which is intricately connected to her life itself—warrants the protection of an entire town: her father, the Cullens and the Werewolves—each fighting the bad guy who currently poses the greatest threat. Characters are divided between those who want to consume Bella, and those who protect her from consumption. Dramatic tension ensues.

Even though Bella throws herself with abandon into harm’s way again and again, the thrill of it all is that she gets to remain ever virgin, at least in the first two books. Other pre-teen books on the market today address adolescent sexuality in much scarier terms than these, moving constantly towards an inevitable and arbitrarily set moment of sexual readiness.

I haven’t read the last two books, but I think I would take issue with the idea that it is through marriage and childbirth that Bella joins the undead—hardly a new symbolism, however.

With its intergenerational appeal and broad use of symbols that are open to varied interpretation, it’s a pity Twilight is crap in the literature department. If it were better written with more nuance, it could potentially be a classic, and then we could be certain no one would read it.

The biggest question O’Brien poses, and one I think he doesn’t accurately answer in his essay is: Are authors and storytellers responsible for the souls of those who read their books? It seems a question we only take up when an author meets with commercial success.

Pentimento said...

What really bothers me about all of this is that O'Brien et al. appear to be trying to police the imagination, and to attribute the creative process to demonic forces, which strikes me as inherently dangerous. This attribution is nothing new; it goes back at least to the Greeks (I'm thinking of The Bacchae by Euripides), and the Romantic poets and composers wrote about the fine line between genius and daemon. But the possible results of O'Brien's way of thinking here include the spread among the devout of a fear of creativity and of the imaginative processes, and a Soviet-style condemnation of the new or unusual that could find its logical conclusion in a horror of art itself. His argument is also reductively essentialist. Before we read a book or look at a painting, must we consider its genesis in order to determine whether it's worthy of our consideration?

I read all the Twilight novels, and, while they're hardly literature, they are suspenseful and exciting. The main attraction to their target audience, adolescent girls, is . . . the gorgeous Edward Cullen, who, incidentally, is the keeper of traditional morality, insisting that he and Bella wait until they're married to have sex. Bella also stands firm against abortion in the last book in the series. The main reason I wouldn't want my teenage daughter to read them is that they play into the mooning, pie-faced fantasies of love and dependence that already afflict teenage girls. But do the books open the door to evil? Is the author's success, as O'Brien seems to suggest, the filthy lucre of the enemy? Maybe, maybe not. I just think it's irresponsible to let those sorts of accusations fly.

Pentimento said...

Oh, B, I didn't read your comment before posting mine. Yes, absolutely, the books are about sex pure and simple. And the sex is "safe"; Edward is distinctly feminized as opposed to the über-virile Jacob; he spouts the same lines that teenage girls everywhere dream of; Edward keeps putting the brakes on Bella's erotic desires through hundreds of pages. I'm quite sure all of this is why the books are so successful.

I only read the first Harry Potter and I also thought that, from a literary perspective, it was pretty crappy. It's a pale imitation of many excellent children's novels from the first half of the twentieth century. The literary merit of these works has nothing to do with their success. Would O'Brien make dark hints about, say Barbara Cartland's or Danielle Steele's success, also completely separate from their literary abilities?

BettyDuffy said...

I think we were posting simultaneously, and saying essentially the same thing. Great minds...

Pentimento said...

:)
Just today there's this on www.writersalmanac.com:

"Today, writer Isabel Allende (books by this author) is starting a new book, just as she has been doing every single January 8th for the past 29 years. On January 8, 1981, when Chilean-born Allende was living in Venezuela and working as a school administrator and freelance journalist, she got a phone call that her beloved grandfather, at 99 years old, was dying. She started writing him a letter, and that letter turned into her very first novel, The House of the Spirits. She said, "It was such a lucky book from the very beginning, that I kept that lucky date to start."

Today is a sacred day for her, and she treats it in a ceremonial, ritualistic way. She gets up early this morning and goes alone to her office, where she lights candles "for the spirits and the muses." She surrounds herself with fresh flowers and incense, and she meditates.

She sits down at the computer, turns it on, and begins to write. She says: "I try to write the first sentence in a state of trance, as if somebody else was writing it through me. That first sentence usually determines the whole book. It's a door that opens into an unknown territory that I have to explore with my characters. And slowly as I write, the story seems to unfold itself, in spite of me."

She said, "When I start I am in a total limbo. I don't have any idea where the story is going or what is going to happen or why I am writing it." She doesn't use an outline, and she doesn't talk to anybody about what she's writing. She doesn't look back at what she's written until she's completed a whole first draft — which she then prints out, reads for the first time, and goes about the task of revising, where she really focuses on heightening and perfecting tension in the story and the tone and rhythm of the language.

She said that she take notes all the time and carries a notebook in her purse so that she can jot down interesting things she sees or hears. She clips articles out of newspapers, and when people tell her a story, she writes down that story. And then, when she is in the beginning stages of working on a book, she looks through all these things that she's collected and finds inspiration in them.

She writes in a room alone for 10 or 12 hours a day, usually Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. During this time, she says, "I don't talk to anybody; I don't answer the telephone. I'm just a medium or an instrument of something that is happening beyond me."

http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2010/01/08

I wonder what O'Brien would make of it.

Emily J. said...

Interesting thread. Not hard to guess what he would think about Allende's invoking dead spirits. Does O'Brien say anywhere where his inspiration comes from? Maybe directly from the Holy Spirit? Does he have a problem with imaginative depictions of a creative muse? (Since I just read "Recovered Body," Scott Cairns erotic depiction of Erato comes to mind.) I've enjoyed his novels, too, and read about his icon writing; it would be interesting to hear his description of his own creative process.

When Harry Potter first came out, my oldest was just beginning to read and was fascinated by dragons, knights, magic, etc. I avidly read all the back and forth arguments about HP, and then finally read the books myself. I had the opposite reaction of Pentimento: I thoroughly enjoyed the first 3 HP books, thought the last were too long, saw a lot of Christian symbolism (in addition to a lot of reworking of children's lit predecessors - who's free from anxiety of influence?), but couldn't finish Twilight because it was so boring. Edward didn't interest me, Bella was insipid, and their conversations made me giggle with their inanity. Maybe high school girls like it because it sounds like it was written by a high schooler. Anyway, I saw more to fear from the romantic "mooning" in Twilight than from the imaginary school for wizards.

Anecdotal evidence for Betty's query on the actual effect on the moral imagination: None of my older children has tried to cast spells on any one. They did for awhile, however, run around with their friends who had read all the Redwall books together pretending they were animal warriors. But could you say that anecdotal evidence for the dangers of romance novels abounds or is there a predisposition toward a romantic temperament? (For instance, my friend, who in middle school consumed dozens of Harlequins, eventually left her wonderful husband for an old boyfriend she felt she had to save.)

I was just looking at Writer's Almanac the other day for a poem by Wendell Berry from his new book, but felt self-conscious about posting it after the lambasting that NPR received from Sally et al for the terrible cartoon! So off and on I have thinking about the public funding of the arts. Another thread to pick up sometime.

The poem is here: http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2009/11/21
The image of the old farmer feeding his animals, seeing beauty in the ordinary, brings to mind our dad on his small farm, while suggestion of the mystery of the known brings to mind Betty's last post.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I have problems with Mormon vampires myself. They seem so . . . defanged.

Stephenie Meyer's writing has never had the expected wonderful effect on me, but that's because other (better) writers of Paranormal made it to my bookcase first.

Here's something I wrote in another comments box a little over a year ago. I hope you don't mind my recycling it here . . .

The varied reactions to Twilight remind me of the way Gothic novels were received in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Young women found them thrilling and romantic, and couldn't get enough of them. Adults, being more sensible and discerning, knew that the books were "trashy" at best and dangerous at worst. (Yet even Louisa May Alcott, she of the sensible and moralistic Little Women, also secretly penned A Long, Fatal Love Chase--"New England Gothic," if there ever was such a subgenre.)

. . . I say that the appeal and the danger of Gothic novels, modern Erotic Romance, and the Twilight series lies in one thing: it gives young readers a symbolic language in which to talk about natural desires they would otherwise not have words for. As entertaining (in a hilarious, fanwankish way) as I myself find
Twilight, I know that if I had a teenage daughter, I wouldn't want her code words for romance and sex to be "Edward" and "Bella."

PS -- Now I wonder what kind of dreams O'Brien has.

Pentimento said...

I agree that if vampires are not seen in the classic context of absolute Good and absolute evil, they do seem pretty wuss. If anything, the lack of spiritual mystery in the Twilight books is a sad loss that reflects the pedestrian everydayness of our de-mythoogized culture.

I'm still bothered about the dreams-as-evidence thing. Because, um, dreams are not reality. They are, well. dreams. I think O'Brien's argument is absolutely tainted by his criticism of authors' self-reported dreams.

BettyDuffy said...

Seems like I read somewhere that OBRien writes in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Certainly admirable, but if we're crying demon, it's no guarantee against spiritual malfeasance.

Pentimento said...

Bringing your laptop to Adoration sounds kind of heterodox to me, but what the heck.

mrsdarwin said...

I'm going to come out and say it: I found O'Brien's article stultifyingly dull, and had to force myself to do more than just scan it for the purposes of this discussion.

I find it a bit disturbing that he's so willing to pronounce "demonic activity!" on both Meyerss' and Rowling's inspiration. I do not doubt for a second that some people are under demonic influence, nor that books have been written under that influence, but frankly I don't think O'Brien has any standing to pronounce on these cases. What is he, the Vatican Exorcist? And who has not had a fully fledged idea that could make her rich pop into her head -- if only she had the drive to write the thing down and the determination to do the legwork necessary to bring it to fruition?

My acquaintance with Twilight doesn't go any deeper than Alex's summaries on youtube, but I have to agree with Embretheliel that Meyers's stuff seems to have a great deal in common with Gothic romance (which I have actually read) -- especially in regards to the emotional passivity of the heroine. If I were to guard my child against anything in this kind of pop lit (past and present) it would be the idea that things just happen to one, and all a girl can do is react. Especially when those things happening involve creepy guys, romantic or no.

Dunno -- hope I have any standing to pronounce, seeing as I haven't read Twilight. However, O'Brien is starting to have this effect on me where, no matter how good his fiction is, I wouldn't be able to read it without filtering it through the lens of his non-fiction, which I find kind of sensationalistic and moralistic. If anyone is interested in a truly compelling discussion of how an author creates, check out Dorothy Sayer's The Mind of the Maker, which compares and contrasts the creative processes to the creative powers of the Holy Trinity. Now that's some intelligent writing.

(BTW, I enjoyed Harry Potter, found Rowling's style charming for the most part, and would certainly let my kids read them when they're a bit older. The sucky tidbits of Meyers's writing I've been subjected to nudge me in the direction of declaring them anathema based on quality.)

Pentimento said...

Maybe that Dorothy L. Sayers work should be on our reading list.

Owen said...

Came here by way of Betty's post. Excellent comments.

I've read all but one of O'Brien's fiction works and mostly enjoyed them but I can't say the same for his essays which address various arts and, for this post protestant former evangelical, smack as much of the worst kinds of protestant fundamentalism as they do a reasoned Catholic approach.

I think Betty gets it spot on when she says, "but if we're crying demon, it's no guarantee against spiritual malfeasance."

And Pentimento echoes my thoughts in saying ", the Twilight books are crap and may even be dangerous, but there has to be a more cogent way to say so."

But then the Holy Father, whom I greatly respect, is no fan of Harry and the gang so, I dunno, what do I know?

mrsdarwin said...

Pentimento,

Absolutely! Sayers's book has given me so many new paradigms (though I do not believe she ever uses that benighted word) for literary criticism and analysis. And it's written by Dorothy Sayers, so you know it's good.

Owen, I believe the story behind the Holy Father's remark (made before his pontificate, of course) was that he was handed a book by a German woman on the evils of Harry Potter and made a few polite comments on receiving it. It's unclear that he ever read either Harry Potter or the woman's book -- though of course that doesn't mean he can't issue a cogent criticism of the series, much as I've done with Twilight. :)

Owen said...

Pentimento, I didn't know that. Thank you for divesting me of misinformation :) seriously

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Mrsdarwin, I wouldn't say that Bella is passive as much as she is a self-entitled princess whom all the boys love and all the girls hate.

Twilight was okay, but New Moon made me so angry that I could have spit. Bella constantly endangers her own life, without thought of what her father might feel; uses other people for her own secret ends; refuses to get a life beyond a hundred-year-old emo vampire; AND asks, at the end of it all, when she finally does get into trouble for something that was entirely her own fault, "What did I do to deserve this?"

Oh, yeah . . . she doesn't seem to have any sense of humour . . . but correct me if I'm wrong about that.

Melanie B said...

I agree that this like all of O'Brien's attempts at literary critique felt off to me. I think many writers make poor critics because they interpret other authors in terms of their own creative processes.

I'm trying to think of how O'Brien portrays the creative process in his own fiction. Pavel Tarnowski's play writing in Sophia House and the painting by various painters in Cry of Stone come to mind; but I'd have to re-read those novels for pertinent details. I'm pretty sure there are dreams or other rather mystical experiences. I suspect his interpretation of Myers and Rowling's dreams has more to do with the foregone conclusions he'd reached about their novels than the dreams themselves.

I've not read Twilight nor am I interested. But vampire it in general does intrigue me. I wrote a paper in grad school about Catholic symbolism in Dracula. Stoker had some odd ideas about the Eucharist there. the way Van Helsing uses it as a sort of magical talisman is fascinating. I went through an Anne Rice phase too and think her morally ambiguous vampires are so much more interesting than O'Brien's schema would allow for.

Aaargh... Typing this one handed so I know I'm necessarily being too terse to really think this through.