Monday, September 13, 2010

I Struggle to Understand The Success of a Certain Vampire Novel

One of the courses I'm taking for my MFA this semester is entitled "Individual Aesthetic and Process" the goal of which is to develop standards of value appropriate to the genre in which the student (me!) wishes to succeed. Because I have such a dissociative desire to write both screenplays and fiction I've decided to explore my aesthetic and process with regard to both genres.

How in the heck am I going to do that? Good question. One element of the course requirements is to explore what makes effective and significant fiction and screenwriting by examining three novels which have been adapted to film, the subsequent film, and the screenplay then write responses to each discussing story elements, themes, and structure and how these either were or were not successful in the novel form versus the film.

Basically as a student of writing I want to learn how to write well. But what writer doesn't also want to experience success? Are writing well and success mutually exclusive? I don't think so. And to explore that question, the stories I chose to look at in both novel and film form are: Twilight, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and Whip It. These novels and screenplays were all written by women and, I think, range all along the scales of quality and success.

I wrote the paper on Twilight today, and I've gotta say that I just don't care how popular it was, how successful it was, how much money it made....I just don't like it. It's insipid, it disregards conventions (i.e., it's littered with excessive adjectives and adverbs which make the writing so much weaker than it should have been), and I'm seriously disturbed by some of the messages and themes (co-dependence, underage relationships, obsession, etcetera....).

When I read it the first time I fell for the soap-opera allure of a vampire glamour it mesmerized me to just keep reading no matter how bad it was. It has a certain crack-on-the-page addictive quality to it, though I still can't identify exactly what that quality is because an objective look at it just makes me embarrassed that I fell for it.

However, on second read-through the flaws were much more evident and I actually had a hard time forcing myself to keep reading. The repetitive nature of references to Edward's astonishing beauty, strength, speed, marble-like form, cold skin, and overall perfection in general were gag-inspiring. And Bella's teen angst and utter lack of self-confidence was dispiriting.

The film was even worse.

In just a 3-page paper I couldn't attempt an explanation for the incongruous success of both the novel and the film. I'm stumped to explain it other than it must have struck a chord with its target audience (tween/teen girls who daydream of idealized true love, Prince Charming, and all the trappings thereof) and it was just the right thing at the right time. Nothing more than a quirk of fate.

So...what are your feelings about Twilight? Love it? Hate it? Don't understand it's appeal? Why do you think it was so successful?


Frankie Diane Mallis said...

I think it did strike a chord at the right time. One of my theories is that the wish fulfillment is beyond strong! Most people know the wish fulfillment aspect of having a super hot older boyfriend whose rich with a nice car and loves only you. But if you think about it, Bella gets EVERYTHING you ever could have wanted in high school.

1. She saves money to buy a car and then her dad (Electra complex fulfilled!) buys her a car and now she has a car AND money for a new wardrobe.

2. She gets the homework in English and she ALREADY wrote the essay. She goes to bio and she's already done the lab!

And so on and so on. 5 guys in love with you, asking you out, your homework is finished, you have a car and money, you get to go grocery shopping and pick what you want for dinner---and get a hot boyfriend.

So that's one idea.

M. Bail said...

Frankie - I think you're on to something there. And even when she's in danger, she's really not because she's got a gaggle of vampires who trip all over themselves to protect her. Everything she'd ever want or need and no real conflict.

David J. West said...

I have not/will not read them, but I have talked about it with a number of other writers and I always hear-
"The writing is not good but it's how it makes you feel."

These were all women telling me this.

I have to laugh thinking, what if I wrote a novel droning on about this perfect woman-how sexist would that be?

M. Bail said...

David - I totally agree with you. I'm not thrilled with the expectations these novels reinforce in tween/teen girls. It's kind of sad, actually.

Mellie said...

I agree completely with Frankie's suggestion of it being serious wish-fulfillment. I think that explains the popularity of all of the vampire/shifter/paranormal books out right now. None of them are normal people dealing with real issues. Everything is bigger, faster, stronger, richer, ______er than anything in real life. FANTASY. With the thrill of peril, but none of its messy likelihood.

Funny, nobody ever writes about how boring life would be if one had everything, and could do anything, and had forever to do it in.

drea moore said...

Before the movie came out, my coworker was reading Twilight. I asked her "Why?" because the story (based on premise) always seemed to me to be more of a romance than a fantasy novel. She said that Bella's emotional state was "believable."

I look to a good story to stress strength, to reveal to me what I can become. A sort of "I know I've got it rough right now, but look! This character has magic or whatever, and they are going through more difficulties than I ever will. And they persevere. So look, I can too."

I am an epic fantasy lover, and when attending a SFF convention 6 years ago now, all the writing panels seemed to mention the brand new and (then) highly controversial "Luna;" Harlequin Romance's incursion into the Fantasy genre was not wholly welcome. Yet with Laurel K. Hamilton's success, I suppose it was inevitable. I find that while romance-elements have bled into fantasy (beyond there being two characters who fall in love), the audiences for Twilight and "traditional" fantasy do not always overlap.

I do think that character development is what creates bestsellers (Including Twilight). I think it's granting characters feelings with which the reader can deeply relate. So while it is anti-feminist (and as such has earned much scorn in my writers group--especially from the girls in their early twenties) I think Twilight reveals that despite the feminist movement, women have internalized a traditional gender concept which Bella embodies.

It resounds strongly beyond the tween category. My coworker was 26/27 when reading Twilight 2 years ago. A (non-writing) friend loves the book/series, and she didn't start reading the books till 25/26 herself. Following the more general facebook connections...there are a ton of Twilight their late twenties.

I know how many friends read Romance, also. And I knew many who read "paranormal romance" before it became obvious that sub-genre was such a cash-cow. Whether they do so openly or not depends on the individual and their community's attitude to romance books. Despite romance books not always being as "sexy" as their reputation paints them, their audience is insanely strong...but quiet. I think that Twilight made the romance readers--and potential romance readers--pop out of the woodwork.

Because Twilight was a PG13, "sanitized" version of a romance, it transcended the popular construct of the genre, the way Harry Potter did for fantasy fiction. IMO. :P