In (Strong) Defence of Twilight

On Saturday, The Guardian’s weekend magazine published a great interview and article on Stephen King. It covered his new book, a sequel to The Shining, which sounds intriguing, and his early struggles to juggle three jobs when he was trying to make it as a writer. He’s outspoken – offering some pretty harsh criticism of the film version of The Shining – and candid about his alcoholism and addiction to cocaine. Moreover, he is generous in his descriptions of the process of writing, how ideas form, and even shares a concept for a future book. 

With this in mind, I was baffled as to why The Guardian had so aggressively pushed his brief comment on the Twilight franchise in its advertisement of the piece. It’s the one quote singled out to appear on the paper’s front page, despite only covering a mere paragraph within the article. The paper then also ran an article about the article, gleefully proclaiming, ‘Stephen King slams Twilight franchise as 'tweenage porn' and thus breaking my heart. It’s true that King is less than flattering about the novels, but it also feels as though the interviewer is pushing him into a discussion, actually prompting, ‘What about the Twilight franchise?’ King dutifully offers a dismissive opinion (‘tweenager porn’), but Brockes wants more… ‘Sweet Valley High with teeth?’ she asks, clearly with a glint in her eye. I wonder how long she’s been working on that one. 

This is just the latest in a long tradition at of deriding Meyer’s books. At The Guardian particularly, the series is discredited and vilified in a way that doesn’t seem to happen to other mass-market authors and their literary outputs. This began when the books first became popular, and has continued for years afterwards, due to the periodic release of the film franchise. Aside from this recent piece of Twi-hate, Tanya Gold used the premiere of Breaking Dawn Part 2 to write last year that it was ‘female masochism’.A delve into the archives reveals plenty more where that came from. Bidisha has also criticised its protagonist, Bella, as a ‘deadzone ofpsychic antimatter’ and ‘anticharisma’ whilst Stuart Heritage labels her ‘an empty cipher for a grown woman'swrongheaded sexual belief system’. There’s the odd defence, such as Mathilda Gregory’s Comment Is Free post, ‘Leave Twilight fans alone’ (slightly uncomfortably calling to mind the unhinged 'Leave Britney alone' fan, but whatever) but the overall impression is one of contempt. Search for Twilight in The Telegraph or The Independent, however, and discussion seems to focus on reports of its box-office success and the stars’ love lives. There’s the odd negative review (Bill Condon calls Breaking Dawn Pt.2 the end of a ‘preternaturally boring series’) but not much to match the virulent criticism so decisively foregrounded in The Guardian, even now, years after the last book was published (in 2008) and almost a year after the last film was released (Nov 2012).

To put my cards on the table, I really like Twilight. The books are real page-turners, drawing on the Gothic tradition, with great atmosphere out in the misty forests of Forks, Washington. It captures that adolescent sense of isolation and heightened sensitivity so perfectly that, even as an adult, I was hooked. Having read the first three novels, I hurried to my local bookshop to buy the fourth, only to find bare shelves where it had sold out, and another customer with the same bereft look in her eyes – we shared a brief look of mutual understanding before I went home to order online. Sure, sometimes Bella can be annoying, and Edward can be possessive – but since when were fictional characters supposed to be flawless? When did enjoying a novel imply that you unquestioningly approved of every action, decision and conversation described? 

Criticism of the Twilight series seems to revolve around it having an anti-feminist plot and providing bad role models for young women. I find this frustrating to say the least, as it pre-supposes that the female, teenage audience are particularly brain-dead, and automatically absorb any views they read in fiction. If this is the case, we should ban most of the books I read as teenager – Gone With The Wind supports slavery and the Ku Klux Klan, Wuthering Heights sells us a violent and unstable romantic hero, whilst Bridget Jones’ Diary pretty much suggests you need to get yourself arrested in Thailand in order to bag a man. Moreover, Twihards and Twimoms are boringly characterised as mentally unhinged by the media again and again – but why is wearing a ‘Vote for Pedro’ t-shirt a cool reference to a cult film, whereas wearing a ‘Team Jacob’ t-shirt is completely tragic? Why not characterise the punters queuing up for the sixth instalment of the endless Fast and Furious franchise as Fast and Facile? I think the answer lies in the gender of the target audience. Books marketed for teenage boys – for instance, the Percy Jackson series and film franchise – have nowhere near the same interrogation for appropriate role models, and dissection for gender stereotyping.

I could spend hours listing the many ways in which the Twilight series actually promotes an excellent role model for young women – I could mention Bella’s impervious attitude to peer pressure, her resolution not to judge people on appearances, insisting that not all vampires are evil, and I could point out that she acts as a peace-weaver, a literary tradition with its roots in Anglo-Saxon literature, bringing rival gangs of werewolves and vampires into harmonious accord. I could also defend Meyer’s writing – often underappreciated – citing her use of blank pages, not to obliterate Bella’s identity, but as an homage to one of the earliest examples of postmodernism in literature, Tristram Shandy’s black page. That’s before I even get started on how Rosalie and Bella’s conversation about death, gang-rape, procreation, mortality and revenge in Eclipse flies through the Bechdel test. But this would be missing the point, because criticism of these books has less to do with the content, and more do to with a jaded debate about the novel and its educative purpose, which has been dragging on since the eighteenth century. 

Dr Johnson wrote in a 1750 edition of The Rambler (No.4) about a newly emerging form of writing: what we now know as the novel. He argued that they were written ‘chiefly’ for ‘the young, the ignorant, and the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct, and introductions into life’, that they were for the ‘entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas, and therefore easily susceptible’.

Of course, any work of fiction, whether in the medium of literature, film, television or even music, has the power to educate, but twenty-first century debates have moved on from this early view of Johnson’s. We recognise the autonomy of the reader, watcher and listener, and accept that they have a role in this exchange: we have the common sense to question, debate and argue about what we read – and it would be patronising and unfair to assume female young adults aren’t capable of the same. When discussing the Twilight saga among friends, and other young women I’ve met, most agree that these book are great reads, but are also quick to question characters’ decisions, laugh at misguided plot decisions, or analyse narrative techniques – which is exactly as it should be with any literature, irrespective of target audience.

It may be aiming to promote feminism, in line with its liberal politics, but in singling out the Twilight series for endless jibes and mockery, the usually fabulous and liberal Guardian unfairly subjects a fairly harmless series of books to scrutiny which is not applied to many other works, and especially not applied to those written for young men. It’s about time journalists found something else to laugh about. One consolation in all of this, however, is that Meyer undoubtedly has the last laugh: it says something about the incredible success of Twilight that, even if they love to hate it, the editors have to use its name to sell an interview with Stephen King.