Wednesday, September 2, 2009

In Defense of Stephanie Meyer.

It occurs to me that at this late stage I haven't lent my voice to the already cacophonous choruses debating the literary merits of Ms. Meyer's work. I realize that by making any sort of statement, I risk alienating good friends with strong opinions, but weighing that hazard against that of letting my friend continue in strong opinions unchecked, I have decided to go forth as originally planned.

I don't think Stephanie Meyer is a bad writer.

Now this isn't to say that I think her prose merits inclusion in the next Norton's anthology or that a world of Twilight would usher in the literary revolution we've been waiting for, but I've had enough of people calling her a talentless hack. Sure, maybe some lines of teenage angst strike the reader as perhaps overly melodramatic, or crudely hewn, but that doesn't make her talentless. In fact, if she's talentless, then may God bless me with the talentlessness to make the New York Times Bestseller Lists for seemingly marathon numbers of weeks. May God bless me with the talentlessness to create a public mania with more fan-allegiance, more marketing power, and more imitators than (dare I say it?) even Harry Potter. May God bless me with the talentlessness to inspire hundreds of thousands, and I might suggest millions, of "non-readers" to pick up a book, read it straight through, get to the end and then start it again. That seems like a nice kind of talentless.

Some people will claim that a novel can be "popular" without being "good." Usually what people mean by "good" is that some sentence-level eloquence or clever plot construction is present. I have in my mind some of the rules that "good" writing employs: varying your sentence length, creating meaningful characters, be consistent in your details, avoid the cliche or obvious, etc. These rules do, more often than not, create a pleasurable reading experience for someone who expects reading already to be a pleasure, but it seems like there are another set of rules at hand for mad, feverish popular success. It may have something to do with reading the zeitgeist. It may have something to do with fulfilling a psychological or socialogical need. But while "good" fiction adheres to some academic standard floating around among people who have read Moby Dick all the way through and a sufficient amount of the Latin American prose poems, popular fiction is good because people enjoy reading it. In fact, I'd venture that it's easier to teaching someone (or yourself) to write "good" fiction, than it is to teach them to write something that will be popular.

I don't think there's a magic formula to Twilight, or The DaVinci Code (and I admit that I'm not fond of the DaVinci Code, but I will say that"The Truth about DaVinci's Codes" lecture series filled our humble art museum to fire-marshal capacity, when actual DaVinci's had not had the same effect), or any other other imensely popular book that causes literary types to scrunch up their eyebrows and frown. If there was a formula, I'm certain publishers and editors and agents would put it on the back of their business cards. Still, though you may wince your way through Bella and Edward's dialogue, something about it causes a sudden bout of irresponsibility to other tasks and you inexplicably find yourself in the bathtub at 3:00 am wondering if Bella's going to become a vampire this time. This doesn't happen to everyone, but I'll admit that it happened to me.

And, finally (and this is the last refuge of the literary apologist) if you think Stephanie Meyer's written a bad novel, then I heartily welcome you to write a better one yourself. Having just finished my first novel(la), I can testify that it's a mighty hard thing to string together a beginning, middle, and an end, especially over the course of 300, 400 pages. Everyone who completes the task in the most primitive way deserves a gold star. If you write a better novel than Twilight, you may enjoy the same successes. It broke my heart to hear of Stephen King's denunciation of Stephanie Meyer; it broke my heart enough for me to cry out in spite, "yeah, well, Stephen King, the 1980s called--they miss you."

And if your novel doesn't break to the same wild acclaim, it won't be because the hegemony of Twilight has ensnared all your adolescent readers in zombie-like rituals of re-reading; there was once a book that was written precisely as the world of young adult fiction was caught up in adoration of a fantasy world that extended into bookstore release parties, clothing, movies, action figures, music, bedspreads, posters, themed birthdays, and seemed to hold the literary world in its iron, serial grip. It was the year 2005. The hegemony was Harry Potter and the underdog was a first novel by a housewife--you know it as Twilight.

10 comments:

Jamie Zvirzdin said...

Well spoken. I especially liked the bit about Stephen King. What are you going to do with your book? Is it in the publishing process?

xister said...

How come I keep hearing about your book and I'm not reading your book? I'm anxiously awaiting you email with it attached. :)

Makayla said...

I've never read Twilight, but various friends and family members have. Some are open fans (all three of my sisters -- ages 13, 17, and 29), some are closet fans (I won't out them), and some... are apologetics.

I am not likely to read the Twilight series, but not out of any hatred or jealousy or elitist notions I might have concerning Stephanie Meyer. I just don't have time, and other books come first. But I thought your post was interesting, and fair. And probably true. :)

Day said...

I sort of agree with you.

I agree that Twilight is very good at something--what might be described as "the same thing Harry Potter is good at," or, "appealing deeply to a huge mainstream audience while still being a book." I agree that the thing Twilight is good at has merit beyond improving the finances of various individuals involved.

Stephanie Meyer is, indeed, exceedingly talented at the thing that she does. . . which we shouldn't confuse with what Melville did. We also shouldn't be bothered that the two skills aren't interchangeable. It's like comparing a master survivalist, who can live in the wild indefinitely and build a solid lean-to in minutes, with a master architect. Both interesting--both valuable--not the same.

However, I feel that Twilight is an ethically bankrupt specimen of this kind of merit. I didn't used to feel this way, till I started mentoring teenage girls in the foster care system; one of the LAST things they need is to have abusive relationship models continually presented to them in an incredibly appealing format. . . and it lead me to think, is this really so good for the rest of us?

Therefore, I do think that Stephanie Meyer is bad, and a writer.

Jon Ogden said...
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Jon Ogden said...
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Jon Ogden said...

After two tech problems with posting (sorry!), here we go:

When English majors at BYU kept mocking Twilight,, I got fed up that no one I talked to who mocked it had read it.

I decided to read Meyer's book so I could stand up to them and defend her, but I could only go so far as page 300 before I set the book aside and never returned to it.

Honestly, her syntax didn't bother me because I know from my own writing how hard it is to write pretty sentences. Meyer is a fine enough writer, she has a terrific imagination, and she knows how to pace a story.

But it was the constant mention of Eddie's eyes and muscles (jealousy on my part?) ;) and the kissing up and down the jawline that got me peeved. Twilight is a thinly veiled harlequin romance, a genre I personally haven't yet found appealing.

I don't disdain Meyer, but certainly other YA writers (Ann Dee Ellis, Shannon Hale, Jerry Spinelli, Katherine Paterson, Beverly Cleary, and on and on) are helping teens in more admirable ways.

But I had the same reaction (though not as clever, I must say) to Stephen King's comment about Meyer: Wha?

mlhedengren said...

Percentage of Adults Who Read Literature: 1982-2008



60% 50% 40% 30% 60%
1982 1985 1992 2002 2008

source: NEA

Coincidence? I think not.

Emily Lyman said...

That Mary...she's always thinking. I want to read your book. I'm hoping it is a spin off of the novel you started in 7th grade.

Day said...

Interesting. How are we defining "literature" for these statistics?