Ready your pitchforks: I'm about to make an unironic defense of the Twilight series, and even argue that you---or any other intelligent writer---should read it. Here are eight reasons you should spend time with these famously terrible books.
1. Twilight sells
"Sometimes [...] defenders of what they call 'literature' feel like a book has to be ignored if it reaches more than 750 readers."
As of October 2010, the Twilight series had sold over 116 million copies worldwide. How many copies did your last book sell?
It's simple wisdom to study those who've accomplished what you're trying to accomplish. And your goal to write for a living presumably means you want to sell books. Even if your main objective is that ethical, "change the world" outlook, you'll need to convince the world to buy your book first.
We seem to have a prejudice against books that sell, shunning them when we could be learning from them. As Stephen King put it, "Sometimes I think that the people who are defenders of what they call 'literature' feel like a book has to be ignored if it reaches more than 750 readers."
2. Meyer employs a powerful archetypal story
At its core, Twilight is not a story of sparkly, stalker vampires and fuzzy, telepathic werewolves. Yes, those elements are present, but any story can be de-contextualized in ways that make it sound ridiculous.
Star Wars is the story of a farmer who was supposed to be working on some machinery but instead ran away with an old man, kissed his own sister, and blew up his father's most recent construction project. But Star Wars is much more than that. Believe it or not, Twilight---like Star Wars---is an archetypal journey.
The protagonist, a normal person, discovers a mythical world hidden all around them. They are inducted into this secret and shown the hidden realities by a guide who reveals that the protagonist has a special role within this world.
They are "the boy who lived." Or an expert on symbols whose knowledge is the key to uncovering secret societies. Or the last of the Jedi. Or they're able to resist Edward's mind-reading capabilities.
More important than the role of the protagonist is the journey of the reader. They're able to discover the hidden world within the shadowy spaces of a recognizable, everyday reality. This story is powerful because it continues to act beyond the borders of its pages: It transforms the common world into a potentially mythical place, and puts the reader in a position where they could be the next "chosen one."
3. Bella may be an effective "projection screen" protagonist
Two common complaints about Bella (Twilight's lead) are her lack of depth and her constant passivity. Are these weaknesses of character? Sure. But they may not be weaknesses in storytelling. If the objective is to allow the reader to take the protagonist's journey, to project their own qualities onto the lead character, Bella's thin personality may allow her to serve as an optimal "projection screen."
Bella is concerned with the mundane---with classes, with what to make for dinner, with making friends. She lacks conviction or direction of her own. She is entirely ordinary. In these ways, she is very like your ordinary reader: Also concerned with the mundane, and in this confusing world of ours, often lacking a clear sense of direction or purpose. To start from a blank and powerless position and gradually add layers of power and purpose to Bella's---and vicariously, the reader's---life is cathartic.
4. Meyer isn't as bad as we like to pretend
If the objective is to allow the reader to take the protagonist's journey [...] Bella's thin personality may allow her to serve as an optimal "projection screen."
Twilight suffers at the sentence level. For practiced writers, it can sometimes be painful to read. However, being godawful at some things doesn't preclude being good at others.
Meyer is good at the macro level. As writers, you and I often obsess over the micro level. Beautiful sentences matter to us. But not to all of our readers. To them, a worn cliche may be indistinguishable from a beautifully novel display of craft. There's nothing wrong with taking care of that audience---by both decreasing our obsession with the micro level and paying more attention to the macro level of our storytelling.
5. The world and characters are interesting
Is Twilight's world novel? Insightful, inspiring, or otherwise meaningful? Nope. But stories don't always have to be. We want someone to hold our attention. And Twilight does, because the Twilight universe is, if nothing else, interesting.
The world provides a mythos that allows tested fantasies to unfold. Everything makes a showing: our favorite super powers (from mind-reading to super speed), our desire for love and friendship, our need for status and praise, and even the desire to overcome aging and death. The supernatural abilities and the characters who possess them are put into play with enough variance that they don't get worn out to your average reader.
6. Meyer's sense of suspense is brilliant
You'll forgive me for ruining the plot of the second book for you. Here's what happens:
Edward leaves. A few hundred pages later, Edward comes back. The end.
Sure, there are motorcycle accidents and Italian people in there somewhere, but really, the plot centers around nothing more than Edward's absence and return. And Meyer keeps readers interested the entire time.
How? The world she's built, the intermediary struggles she sets up, the way she uses chapter hooks---and a dozen other minor elements of her writing. Beyond that, Twilight is abstinence porn. Bella is continually not having sex with Edward. The constant effort involved fuels a very different sort of suspense.
Despite everything wrong with the series, Meyer does an amazing job of convincing readers to keep turning the pages. In honing your ability to do likewise, Twilight shows itself as a powerful artifact to study.
7. You can learn from Meyer's weaknesses
If your critical eye stays open during the reading process, you can learn far more about the craft by reading a shoddy sentence than a decent one. And Twilight has lots of shoddy sentences. You'll find repetitive and indulgent descriptions (especially of Edward), wordiness, cliches, stilted dialogue ... and plenty more.
And there are plot issues. The fourth book culminates in a mighty anticlimax (so much for abstinence porn). The second book runs around in circles. The "villains" of the first book follow empty notions of "pure evil." I could go on.
But I won't. Rather, you should read the book yourself and learn what miss-steps make people so eager to kick this series into the dirt. You may just be making some of the same mistakes in your own writing.
8. Reading Twilight gives you the right to bash on it
Twilight is huge. 116 million copies sold, a five-movie deal, and endless internet memes. This story is part of our Zeitgeist. And bashing on Twilight is part of the literary Zeitgeist. If you're condemning the book without having read it, however, you're no better than political talk radio hosts, Larry Craig, or any of the other uneducated phonies who prefer big talk to basic understanding.
Once you've read the book, please, feel free: Bash away. There's plenty to hate about the series. There are far better writers out there who have far less recognition, and as a writer who cares about the craft, that can feel unjust. So hate on Twilight all you'd like.
But knowing what you're talking about should be part of the process. Further, as part of the modern Zeitgeist, it's important that we talk about Twilight in a way that recognizes how far its central messages have spread. The story speaks to its readers (whether that's us or our neighbors or our students or our daughters), and its messages are often disturbing.
"Here, Bella: Choose between the boy who stalked you and the gang leader with a major anger problem." "Here, Bella: Let me show you why you should let the men take care of the problems." "Here, Bella: Self-destructive behavior will help you get pity and rewards from others." If we don't take the book seriously, it's hard to talk about these messages in a way that helps readers---including young, impressionable readers---distance themselves appropriately.
I'm not here arguing that Twilight is a good book. I'm here arguing that Twilight is a successful book. There's much to learn from its strengths and even more to learn from its weaknesses. Whether you wish it so or not, Twilight is part of our culture---and if you want to be part of the conversation or the bashing---you need to read the damn books.
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