I chose this book because it’s the latest big sensation to hit the market, because it’s always worth looking at a blockbuster which has come from a first-time writer and lastly because of the effect it has had on young people’s attitude to the opposite sex.
Doing research on the internet – and trusting that the information lodged there is correct – I learned that Stephenie Meyer is a member of the Latter Day Saints where it is written that ‘when our leaders speak, the thinking has been done.’ In their church, it is believed that men are given the gift of priesthood, enabling them to perform the sacraments, but that this gift was not given to women. Women, it seems, are to concentrate on being home-makers.
Stephenie Meyer was the busy mother of three small children, who had a vivid dream which wouldn’t leave her alone. She managed to work on the plot during the day between looking after the house and the children, and in three months finished her first novel, TWILIGHT. It was picked out of a slush pile at Writer’s House and went to auction, being picked up by Little, Brown. Rushed into publication, it knocked JK Rowling off the top sales spot and is now only second in the best-sellers list to James Patterson.
Three more books continued the story of star-crossed lovers Edward and Bella, to be joined later by another series called HOST. Within four years Meyer has become the most popular author in the States, spawning two (so far) indy films which have earned more than the Titanic. And, she has sold over 53 million copies alone of her first book, Twilight.
On the downside, the haste with which Twilight was written and published revealed her inexperience. The speaker attributes are clumsy – by these I mean ‘He says, she says.’ Most of the time Meyer uses a different verb for ‘said’ but it’s usually considered better to use a short action to flag up who is speaking and to push the action on. In later books, this problem disappeared. Remember; in writing Twilight, she was a first-time author who was not in contact with college courses for creative writing, or in a writers’ group of any kind. She just got down to it, and produced a rattling good page-turner.
One of the giveaways to a newbie writer is that they use the first person and sometimes the present tense as well. It is generally recognised that third person in past tense is easiest for the reader, but there are, of course exceptions to this rule.
Meyer manages the limitations of using first person well, although there are one or two lapses. The problem with first person is, of course, that you have to stay in that character all the time, and it’s difficult to switch characters without giving the reader the bumps. It also means you may have to get information delivered by another character in big chunks at key points in the story. The major point of view switch to Jacob’s character in the last of the four books is necessary, as he goes through violent mood swings and decides to leave the wolf pack, but it’s hard to see how this important part of the plot could have been done any other way.
Meyer’s publishers knew the market for her work; they knew they were not selling finely wrought, poetic literature, they guessed they were on to a winner and they pushed the books out as quickly as possible. Can you blame them? Would the books have sold as well if they had been reworked and reworked – costing time and money – to appeal to the literary festival market? No, of course not.
This heady success story has brought about criticism for Meyer which has not come from the literary critics, since she’d made Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year (they publish reviews of books for the library market and they play rough. I’ve been very fortunate in what they’ve said about my books, but many writers I know cry all the way to the kitchen sink when they see what Publishers Weekly has said about their latest.) No, the chief criticism has come from the Christian reader in the Bible belt.
Recently I was asked to choose some interesting books for a column in a Christian magazine. I included Twilight to counter criticism from a certain section of Christian readers who believe that the Twilight series is pernicious nonsense and that it has a seriously bad effect on the teenagers who are mopping it up.
The first point I wanted to make to these complainants is that vampires and werewolves are no recent creation of the devil, but come from folklore. I don’t know how far back we might be able to trace these fabled creatures, but I do know that there is scientific evidence for certain physical conditions – such as extreme hairiness – which might have caused people afflicted by this problem to be thrown out of society, becoming shunned by all and feared. Such outcasts might easily become desperate enough to fight for food, and even to kill for it. As for people who drink blood; well the Masai people do it all the time, though admittedly they use their cattle as donors rather than people. I think we can accept that over hundreds and thousands of years, mankind has now and then thrown up ‘sports’ with characteristics which lend some strength to the legends of both vampires and werewolves.
I am not claiming that such creatures exist nowadays, but that like dragons – which in my humble opinion are folk memories of pteradactyls and other dinosaurs from prehistory – storytellers have always made use of the old legends, and improved upon them to meet current fashions.
Other ‘fairy’ tales may have influenced Meyer. What about Little Red Riding Hood, where the wolf morphs into the grandmother? And what about the tale of the Flying Dutchman, doomed to sail the seven seas for eternity, until a mortal maid gives up her life for love of him?
And speaking of fashion, there has been a considerable change in the way people perceive both vampires and werewolves in recent years. Once they were creatures to terrify. They were the undead, the stuff of which nightmares were made. Then gradually – particularly over the past century – the vampires in literature have begun to show a distaste for what they do. The next step was for this distaste to grow strong enough to become a conscience and for them to long for companionship. From being outcasts, they have morphed into something still potentially dangerous, but also capable of entering society. Buffy the Vampire Slayer leaps to mind here, as although she slays the old fashioned blood suckers, she enters into a relationship with Angel, who is from the dark side.
Then came Terry Pratchett, who includes dwarves, trolls, and pixies (or rather, Pictsies in a nod to their possible roots in the Pictish clans that populated Scotland). He also includes werewolves – one of whom works in the City Watch – and vampires who seek power rather than human blood, and go to AA or Anon meetings just as a reformed drinker attends his daily session. We really shouldn’t be surprised to find a writer turning to folklore for a new twist on old material.
Meyer wrote books which can be criticised for trite phrases, over-writing, and for their emphasis on schoolgirl type yearnings – but she produced a story which resonates for teens of all ages. The first story was called Twilight, and the series has somehow come to be known by that name, although there are in fact four titles built around the story of an American teenager falling in love with a vampire, who also falls for her . . . and the problems this raises not only for both of them but also for her best friend Jacob, who happens to be a werewolf or a shape-shifter and the mortal enemy of all vampires.
The trick to making this book stand out from other vampire stories comes from Meyer’s treatment of the heroine. Bella is a clumsy teenager with no sense of self-worth, driven back to live with her father in a small rain-washed town when her mother – long divorced from her father – gets married again. Seated next to her in class is a perfection of beauty in the shape of Edward, who appears to be as revolted by her as much as she is fascinated by him.
It gradually becomes clear – and it is one of the strengths of the book that realisation comes slowly – that Edward is actually attracted to her. He is in fact a vampire, although one who drinks no human blood, and to be with her he has somehow to overcome his longing to slake his thirst by killing her. Bella is immediately head over heels in love, and stays that way. Edward gradually, by self-restraint, becomes able to spend time with her; then to touch her, embrace her, kiss her.
It is a truism that the hero or heroine of a book is the one who changes most as the storyline develops, and if this is the case, Edward wins hands down. The fact of his being a vampire only gradually dawns on Bella, who is bright enough at schoolwork, but not exactly a world class brain in anthropology. It actually takes a friend of hers, Jacob, an Indian boy from the nearby reservation, to start her guessing at the truth about Edward.
In book Two – NEW MOON – Edward’s self-restraint leads him to exile himself from Bella. This is because he believes that, although she now wishes nothing more than to join him as a vampire, he cannot bring himself to allow it, because he thinks that vampires lose their souls when they gain immortality. Also in this book, Meyer ups the danger quotient by introducing some unreconstructed vampires called the Volturi, a deadly tribe who still require human blood, and who police others of their kind throughout the world. They are horrifying!
A technical device which Meyer uses in Book Two is recognised by writers as being a first. After Edward leaves, there are four pages blank except for the words ‘October, November, December, January.’ This is a brilliant way of conveying the deadness of Bella’s life in those months. I haven’t seen this done anywhere else, but I expect it’s just a matter of time till it is. Two more volumes carry on the story until Edward and Bella finally get married and, before she becomes a vampire, she falls pregnant with his child, which threatens her mortal life. The very existence of a child born of mixed race brings the Volturi back to exterminate them, and the final battle is quite something.
So what made me want to read the other books when I’d finished TWILIGHT? You can say they are addictive – like Cadbury’s milk chocolate. And yes, they are. I identified completely with Bella while I was reading the story, although of course when I’d come up for air, I was conscious of her short-comings. She’s a gawky, clumsy girl who falls for a youth of unearthly beauty and brains – who returns her love without being able to consummate it. Edward is someone safe to go out with, who doesn’t care that she falls over her feet and is so accident-prone that no insurance company would ever give her cover; someone who loves her so much that he sacrifices himself to save her; someone who makes up his mind to die if he loses her. Oh, please! Isn’t that every girl’s dream?
And then there’s Jacob – as warm and dark as Edward is cold and fair-skinned. Bella loves them both in different ways, and can’t bear to cause either of them pain. And yet to be kind to one is to hurt the other. Isn’t that another girlish dream? Mind you, that emphasis on how her feelings take priority over everything, while it moves the story along, does tend – once you’re standing back from the plot – to remind you of the intrinsic self-centredness of every hormonal young female. But then, she’s very far from perfect, and knows it. So far from it, in fact, that you do rather wonder at Edward’s love for her, until it’s explained that her scent and her looks (which she doesn’t think anything of) send him doolally.
He loves her despite her very human failings. Good. But she also has some strengths – which develop further over the series and come to fruition in the fourth book. As for Edward, he doesn’t raise my pulse rate, I’m afraid. Too, too perfect. I find the emphasis on his beauty overdone. But then, I’m only human, and married to a good man, and don’t really fancy immortality or the possibility of losing my soul. Then again, a cold-blooded suitor leaves me – er – cold. How can you cuddle up to a stone statue, however much they are accommodating themselves to your curves? I much prefer the idea of someone warm and cuddly like Jacob. I’m not sure where Meyer got her stone cold vampire idea from; is this something I’ve missed in the literature of the past?
Then again, her vampires never sleep or eat (except when they hunt wild animals). The notion of not having to cook for your husband might appeal, I suppose. But not sleep? Is that correct? I thought vampires slept by day and came out by night – but the Cullens seem not to need sleep at all.
Another point that struck me was; how did the Cullens get their money? I know that Meyer says they used Alice’s foreknowledge to play the stock market. Hm. Maybe. But I was not convinced, particularly since they must be multi-billionaires to live their luxurious lifestyle.
On the positive side, although there is not a word of straightforward Christianity in these books, and there is no mention of any of the protagonists ever going to church or praying, or even thinking ‘Oh, God!’, these books have given a tremendous boost to young people who have lacked a positive role model in the courtship stakes. As teenage pregnancies turn up more and more often in the young, there is a tendency for the girls who don’t feel they can cut it in the job market, or who are, perhaps, looking for approval in their peer group, to fall pregnant with the idea that they won’t need to work hard for anything but can rely on the State to provide them with housing and food. That’s a bit cynical, perhaps, but how some girls perceive their chances in life. Now along comes a girl who has aspirations for college, who works hard at school, who keeps house for her father, and yet has attracted a man who loves her without strings.
Believe it or not, this message has got across to millions of teenagers, who are now dreaming along the lines of old-fashioned chastity and self-sacrifice. What a counter-attraction to our hedonistic, must-have society. Bella doesn’t care how she dresses. She certainly doesn’t care about enhancing her charms to appeal to the opposite sex. All she cares about are the people she loves. She believes that no one should marry straight after school. She loves her father and her mother and can’t bear to think of them being made unhappy by her leaving them. Yet she can’t wait to become a vampire because while she is ageing from eighteen towards nineteen, Edward stays the same apparent age – seventeen; well, a very mature seventeen going on a hundred.
I hope Meyer will continue to produce page-turners, as she is a born story-teller.
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