Posts Tagged ‘good literature’


In Books on August 29, 2010 at 9:49 pm

It’s rather difficult to take the trials of the heroine seriously when her name translates into ‘Beautiful Creature Symbolizing Grace and Elegance’.  A moniker like that is easily one of the least subtle ways an author communicates to her reader that the majority of this chick’s issues are going to center around the fact that she’s too hot for all the men in her immediate vicinity to handle, and that no matter how bad these issues are, everything’s going to end up beautifully for everyone involved, excepting those who don’t deserve it.

Before I begin, let me reiterate (see the former post) – I’m not saying that Twilight has no redeeming qualities as a story.  There’re good things about it – the fight scenes, the vampires’ physical prowess, the arguable support of pre-marital chastity.  I like a good smackdown; I totally want to be able to run from San Diego to Seattle in fifteen minutes, and I like the fact that Meyer didn’t allow her characters (not from any lack of trying on Bella’s part) to have sex before they were married.  And my nieces loved the fact that the vampires drank Bambi-blood.[1] It’s got action, danger, dramatic revelations, romance, bad guys – all the elements that make for a fun story.

Here’s the problem, though – the simple combination of all those elements alone doesn’t create good literature. It’s not a box of brownie mix; one doesn’t just throw in a good guy, a hot chick, a problem, and get an artfully-crafted narrative – it’s a subtle balance between an elementary and an esoteric use of these elements that distinguishes a good story from great literature.  In the next few posts, Jane and I will be talking about Meyer’s use of some of these elements in the Twilight saga – in this one, we’ll be focusing on her characters; specifically, Bella, Edward, and Jacob.  The purpose of this post will be simply to give a superficially-comprehensive overview of what sort of people they are – I’ll reserve my rant – ahem, my critique for the next one.

It’s a generally accepted maxim among writers that if the characters are neither believable nor likeable, then it won’t matter how tenderly the heroine describes her lover’s manifold perfections nor how many times the author graphically depicts the hero pounding a villain’s head into a wall – the reader will have a difficult time engaging with the story because they can’t enter into the experiences of the protagonists.

‘Right, Brooke.  That’s why those books have sold enough copies to fill Central Park, been translated into thirty-eight languages and spent four and a half years on The New York Times’ Bestseller List.  Because people can’t ‘enter into the experience’.

Excellent point.  If people were having such a difficult time digging the Bella-Edward-Jacob-Renesmeé love-quadrangle awkwardness, then why is Meyer’s tax attorney working overtime to keep her from having to pay out on those fantabulous capital gains she’s netted?  Why aren’t the editors at The New Yorker pounding down my door to get me into that cushy corner office in the Condé Nast Building?  I shall tell you why.  Because the characters don’t need to be good (i.e., well-written) in order to be entertaining. People don’t much care whether or not a book (or a movie, TV show, or even a human being, for that matter) is good, provided that it’s (or he’s) entertaining. The Twilight Saga is a prime example of how unbelievable and unlikeable characters can still create a fun, readable story.

‘OMGEEEEE what is your PROBLEM!?!  What’s wrong with Bella?  Isn’t she a good daughter?  Doesn’t she do her homework, listen to her Dad, help her Mom?  What’s your issue with Edward?  He’s nice to her, right?  Treats her with courtesy and respect, is totally in love with her, protects her, is soooooo hot!’

Chillax.  I’m not saying that Bella, Edward, and Jacob are detestable characters; merely that they’re neither believable nor likeable, and that this lack of authenticity and sympathy is one of the principal reasons why I won’t classify Meyer’s main characters as ‘well-written’. I’ll explain why in my next post; for now, let’s take a look at the characters.

BELLA: Bella Swan is the seventeen-year-old daughter of an impetuous, puerile woman and a staid, reliable policeman – while she enjoys living in Phoenix, the realization that her mother’s short attention span can only encompass comparably-immature men (e.g., Phil, Bella’s stepfather) prompts her to move to Forks, Washington to live with her biological father, Charlie.  It’s this sort of precocious sagacity that prompts her mother to affectionately nickname her ‘my middle-aged child’ and makes her father’s loving apathy toward her physical welfare more forgivable – any teenager possessed with such penetrating perception surely might be permitted to spend nearly every moment (waking and sleeping) with her boyfriend without adult supervision. After all, her slavish devotion to her idol in no way detracts from her filial duties – her father’s home is always kept in order, and dinner is nearly always ready for him when he lumbers into the kitchen at the end of the day.  Neither are her studies neglected for her passion – she attends school regularly, does her homework, and is accepted to several colleges before graduation.  To be sure (as it invariably is with young love), her friends are somewhat neglected, but considering that the majority of them seem to be composed of smitten suitors and false jades, this is perhaps all to the good.  Her true friends (e.g., Alice; Edward’s sister, and Angela, a friend from school) are themselves equally enthralled by their young men, so the charge of sororal neglect may as easily be laid at their door as hers – she certainly doesn’t intentionally neglect them, just as she doesn’t intentionally place herself in harm’s way or intentionally attract the attention of most of her male acquaintance.  Bella’s character is largely formed by her circumstances – like any young girl devoid of parental guidance, she reacts instinctively to her surroundings and the circumstances in which she’s placed, so any sketch of her personality should take this into account.

EDWARD: Edward Cullen is the physically-seventeen-chronologically-one-hundred-seven-year-old vampire paramour of Bella Swan.  He is He-Man without the fur briefs.  He is Byron without the homosexuality.  He is Churchill without the fat.  He is Ronaldo with a moral conscience.  Take every quality that women have wanted in men since the beginning of time, strip it down, platinum-plate it with diamond pavé, and you have the behemoth of archetypal masculinity that is Edward Cullen. Born in turn-of-the-century America, Edward was ‘turned’ by his ‘father’, Carlisle Cullen, when an outbreak of Spanish influenza swept the country and annihilated a large part of the population.   As his mother lay dying, she begged Carlisle (whom she knew to be a vampire) to save her son’s life – Carlisle assumed the role of mentor/father to the (literally) new born Edward, and is largely responsible for the shaping of Edward’s intellectual and physical development, post-transformation.  Like his ‘father’, he is well-educated, handsome, suave, well-mannered, and genteel – he speaks several languages, plays several instruments, holds several post-graduate degrees, is impeccably dressed (his penchant for neutrals notwithstanding), protective without being overbearing, kind without being simpering, and athletic without being thuggish.  He also worships Bella.  I don’t say that flippantly – if the verb ‘to worship’ may be defined as holding someone or something in reverent awe and adoration, then I may accurately represent his treatment of Bella as worshipful. He has no thought but for her; there is no impetus to his speech or action that has not its foundation in her desires or well-being.  Is Bella safer without him?  He will exile himself to the frozen north or the soporific south.  Is Bella happier being with Jacob then going to class?  He will grit his teeth and make her excuses.  Will Bella sleep more soundly for his presence?  He will keep the most watchful of vigils at her bedside.  Is there a mortal female who would be able to withstand moral, physical and intellectual magnificence of this magnitude?  Say what I will about him (and I shall), I can’t deny that so many virtues united in one man wouldn’t tempt me to overlook the glitter.

JACOB: Jacob Black is Bella’s James Dean-esque werewolf / shape-shifter childhood friend – smash a Native-American Channing Tatum and Orlando Bloom together, and Jacob Black is the resulting remix.  They meet up again when she returns to Forks and – prepare yourself – fall in love.  How’s that for a plot twist?  While Edward may be all that is great and good in men, even he cannot withstand the assault that Jacob’s post-phased abs unleashes upon Bella’s already overcharged libido.  Graduate degrees are great, and being able to compose sonatas is pretty kickass, but he’s pitted against a six-foot-four ripped-out-of-his-mind space heater with an affinity for cliff diving and custom dirt bikes – and who doesn’t glitter.  Or skip town on a mood swing.  While Edward is a decidedly more cerebral character (and I use that term in the loosest of senses), Jacob is a much more practical dude; he attends school on the reservation where he lives, but his life (like Edward’s, interestingly) primarily centers around Bella and his pack.  While he’s as devoted as Edward in many respects, his adoration takes on a decidedly less flamboyant form – there are no page-long professions of love, no outpourings on the banality of existence prior to her appearance in the drama of his life, no declarations of intent to suicide should capricious Fate see fit to rob him of the glory and wonder that she is.  Jacob’s identity is primarily rooted in his tribe and place in their history, as a member of a band of brothers united against a common enemy for the protection of their ideals and their culture.  As a result, his loyalties and affections are claimed by something  greater than Bella, and so provide what Stephenie Meyer has called a more ‘realistic expression’ of love.

NEXT WEEK!  Jane explores the possible reasons behind Meyer’s choice of the moist and mystical state of Washington as the setting for her heroine’s foray into the tempest of teenage love.  (Reasons besides the one that stated she needed a place where Edward’s glittering magnificence would be appropriately veiled from unworthy eyes.)   

[1] So not joking.  Shoot us an e-mail at lesfootnotes@gmail.com.