It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since the world was first introduced to angsty love triangles, whiny heroines, and vampires that sparkle in the sunlight. It’s hard to believe that Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight is into the double-digits. It seems like only yesterday that nobody had ever heard of the amusingly named town of Forks, Washington, and the mention of a shirtless Robert Pattinson didn’t fill us all with dread and horror.
So why did I decide to re-read the Twilight series? Couldn’t I have found a more constructive use for my time, like making paper aeroplanes, or teaching myself to draw cartoon iguanas, or learning how to make my own hummus? (Seriously, am I the only person who just cannot seem to get it together on the homemade hummus front?)
The ten-year anniversary of Twilight caught me by surprise. After all, I remember when it came out. I remember reading it. There’s nothing like a little anniversary to make you wonder where the decades go. Still, nostalgia wasn’t the reason I revisited Meyer’s hit book. I wanted to know why people talked about (and still talk about, but less loudly and with a lot less violent gesticulating) these books. More than that, I wanted to know why I – oh boy, here comes the shameful confession – why I loved the book when I first read it, if only for a little while.
So I forced myself to read all four books in the series. And then, because I’m a glutton for punishment (yet another in the long list of traits that I rather embarrassingly share with the series’ protagonist, Bella Swan), I went and read the thing that had most interested me: Life and Death, Meyer’s gender-swapped retelling of the story (I have so many things to say about this particular thing that I’m afraid I’ll have to do it in another post). Because I wanted to know how such a famously sexist book would work with the roles reversed. Because I was curious about the amount of change required for such an undertaking. Because I don’t have a TV here in the UK, and I’m too cheap to pay for Netflix every single month. Pick whichever reason you prefer.
Well, I’ve finally made it through to the other side of this five-book… let’s just go with the words reading experience here, since calling it an ‘ordeal’ seems a little dramatic, and calling it a ‘soul-sucking eight-week course in self-loathing and pure, unadulterated fury’ is… well, just a bit mean.
First off, some of the life lessons I learnt from re-reading the Twilight series:
- Immortal beings love pop quizzes, reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and acne. This is why, in every teen vampire story ever, they spend their time endlessly repeating high school.
- Apparently it’s totally cool for guys to sneak into girls’ rooms and watch them sleep, without asking their permission first, so long as they have the vampire superstrength necessary to climb in through the window in the first place.
- Female friends are useless next to one’s immortal lovers and/or shape-shifting male friends. Call them once a month so your human father thinks you actually like hanging out with the living, and then ignore them for the next four weeks. Repeat as needed.
- Sex before death is super lame when compared to the wonders of a good post-vampification shag.
- Being in love is kind of like being a drug addict (can we all just groan in unison, please?)
- Teenagers are all a lot like Bella – they do their chores, cook you dinner, and – I’m sorry. Why do I hear the mothers and the fathers of the world roaring with laughter right now?
- Getting dumped feels like someone’s punching holes in your chest. But if you’re lucky, pretty soon a hot werewolf-guy will come along to fill those holes (weak double-entendre achieved – go me!).
- Teen pregnancy leads to super-fast growing babies that will be grown up and out of the house in seven years. Hooray for teen pregnancy!
(End of extreme sarcasm.)
Twilight made the world sit up and take notice of teen fiction on a scale that hadn’t really been seen before. It was different from the Harry Potter phenomenon not only because of the target age group, but because the attention directed at Twilight and its readers turned the focus on female desire, and particularly adolescent female desire – a topic more than a few people feel perplexed and unsettled by.
Twilight also set a blueprint for Young Adult fiction to come. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that it exposed patterns in the writing of (popular) fiction for young adults: love triangles, a fascination with ‘dark’ masculinity, and a conflation of death and desire which probably says some disturbing stuff about the way young women think about (or are encouraged to think about) sex.
Here’s the thing: I kind of understand why girls got into the books in the first place. Leaving aside the disgusting concoction of angst, emotional abuse, melodrama and wilful misunderstanding that is the last three books, Twilight itself is not… horrible. Sure, it’s slow, plotless, and contains way too many descriptions that liken Edward Cullen to a Greek god – but I think what saves the first book is the character of Bella Swan. She’s not a brilliant character, of course, exciting or admirable or somebody everyone is rushing to be, but she’s the kind of character teenage girls identify with. She shares their complete lack of self-confidence (and after all, what more does a teenage girl want than to imagine that a handsome guy would actually want her, no matter how plain and boring and ordinary she is?) and she’s quiet and bookish – in other words, exactly like many readers themselves. I think Bella’s voice has a lot to do with the popularity of the series, because for many girls (myself included) it was probably very easy to graft themselves onto the character of Bella, particularly given the first-person narration that Meyer maintains throughout the series.
Is the Twilight series problematic? Yes. Particularly from the second book onwards, where the main character rapidly devolves into a dribbling ball of self-involvement, and the hero morphs into a dramatic, creepy stalker (okay, so he’s a creepy stalker from the very first book, but by Eclipse it’s just ridiculous, and the book police really ought to show up and slap a restraining order on him). The problem is, of course, that the devotion between the two characters overbalances everything else in their lives; they’re consumed by their love-plot and can’t get out.
Twilight explicitly models itself on the classics of literary romance: Wuthering Heights (in which the hero is a homicidal stalker who just will not let stuff go), Romeo and Juliet (in which two adolescents decide to get married after one date and despite the fact that the hero was, up until quite recently, completely ga-ga for another woman), and – more loosely – Pride and Prejudice (in which the heroine spends way more time hating the hero than Bella spends hating Edward, which would have made for a more satisfying book all round). Twilight tries to slot itself into this ‘grand tradition’ of romantic narrative – indeed, on the title page for Life and Death, the book is rather optimistically dubbed ‘A Reimagining of the Classic Novel’, although calling a novel a ‘classic’ after just ten years is a pretty gutsy move, a little like calling a newborn baby a ‘college graduate’.
But while Twilight is from the beginning an attempt at a ‘classic’ love story, it fails to deliver the range of complex self-awareness and irony that can be found in the work of Austen, Brontë, and Shakespeare. Although there are moments of clarity – Jacob Black is frequently the voice of reason in the series, pointing out Edward’s insane behaviour with relish – Twilight nevertheless takes itself extremely seriously, which is perhaps the reason why it’s been so easy for critics to take the piss out of it. Its earnest and steadfast devotion to a romance that most can see is profoundly destructive makes it an easy target for some well-deserved ridicule.
I wish I could say that ploughing through all five books led me to some incredible insight. If not about the books themselves and why they were so popular, then at least about why my adolescent self bought into them, if only for a little while. Perhaps it’s because the answer to that last question is boringly predictable: because I was a teenager. Teenagers want and need books that reflect the complex sexual, social, and psychological changes they are experiencing. Twilight has all these things in abundance – I’m just not sure that the conclusions the series comes to about them are particularly forward-thinking, or even helpful.
Who knows? Ten, twenty, or fifty years from now Twilight may indeed be considered a ‘classic’ of Young Adult literature. If it is, however, I can only hope that its status as a ‘classic’ goes hand-in-hand with a profound awareness of its problematic and disturbing view of the world.