“The Books of Magic makes The Lord of the Rings, The Avengers, Harry Potter, and even Twilight all look like entries in the same broad genre of tween-superhero fantasy, in which someone insignificant gets mighty powers, fights the forces of evil, and ultimately triumphs. …The pop culture landscape starts to look like an endless row of Tim Hunters, the same successful formula applied again and again.” From The Atlantic, a look at how Neil Gaiman’s The Books of Magic prefigured the runaway success of Harry Potter and the modern YA fantasy-adventure craze.
What happens when you grow up reading Harry Potter, Twilight, and Fifty Shades of Grey? At The Morning News, five women discuss what it meant to come of age reading these books. “It’s more socially acceptable for a guy to watch porn than it is for a twentysomething woman to read these books. There is something that bothers me about that,” one women said.
Happy Hunger Games! To celebrate the release of Catching Fire, read Ben Blatt’s textual analysis of the most popular adverbs, adjectives, and sentences used by Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games trilogy, Stephenie Meyer in Twilight, and J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series. Unsurprisingly, the most popular sentence in Twilight is, “I sighed.” We’re sighing, too. Pair with: Our essay on how teen fantasy heroines need to grow up.
When I was twelve, I read a lot. I read novels in the cafeteria over chicken patties while my friends traded folded-paper fortune tellers, and I read novels on the bus ride home while my friends relocated to seats with travelers who would talk to them. I read novels while I walked home from the bus stop, and for half hour stretches in the bathroom until my legs had fallen asleep. There never seemed a good point at which to put down the book, pull up my pants and relocate to a chair, so I stayed seated.
The books I read today can still inspire this total preoccupation, but more rarely. Often, I only have an allotted hour or so to read before I have to turn off my light and play slave to my impending alarm clock. My “real” life is never far from mind; reading is just a part of my day. But last night I lay in bed with Mockingjay, the third installment of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, not reading but devouring the book, transported not only to the fictional world of Panem, but to the years when I always read like this: flopping from back to stomach as the hours passed, jumping at every creak of the house, and finishing late, late at night, reluctant to release my hands from the book and a delicious disorientation that would be gone by morning.
My former self understands these feelings, and happily, so does my cousin’s son, Will. I know he reads like this because I’ve seen him, shooing his football-toting friends away at the beach because he can’t abandon Harry, Ron and Hermione at such a crucial moment. He’s got an English-teacher-turned-college-professor for a mom, and an older brother tossing worn copies of The Golden Compass and Percy Jackson his way, so he’s been reading for a while now, and he’s got discriminating taste. He’s the recent recipient of Cedar Mountain Primary School’s Accelerated Reader Award, but the prize is incidental. Kid’s got a love of the game.
With Twilight and The Hunger Games securing a vast readership among the young and older, Will and I are not an anomaly as we sit and excitedly discuss Harry Potter, he ten and me twenty-three. As we’re working our way from The Sorcerer’s Stone to The Deathly Hallows with great attention to both cherished and forgotten detail, he’s the book-club I didn’t have as a twelve year old Madeline L’Engle addict. We started talking because I was hoping to glean a few book recommendations from him to write about, and so I’m taking notes. Exhibiting his careful attention to fellow readers and his strong loyalty to story, our conversation is punctuated by uncertain pauses preceding each recounting of a momentous plot twist. “I don’t know if you should write this in case anyone hasn’t read it yet,” Will warns me.
That is one of the great appeals of young adult literature: there is so much plot to spoil. Storytelling is paramount here, and the sheer imagination of the author is so awesome that enjoyment overpowers any hint of farfetchedness. And while, yes, the Harry Potter books are about wizards, our own Muggle concerns are reflected in the struggle of good against evil, and the difficulty we sometimes have distinguishing the two. In the spirit of C.S. Lewis, the best young adult fiction today embraces universal themes and compelling moral ambiguity. These stories captivate our attention because they are adventures in the deeper dramas that inform human experience. They are life and death stripped of daily distraction.
As we sit over a hardcover copy of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Will and I try to articulate what we love about this series and about The Hunger Games. It is difficult to express the emotionally charged relinquishing of reality and the fervor and flush that comes with truly inhabiting a fictional world. “Just the idea of the book,” he shrugs, stumped. “Just the story.”
With imaginative and driving plots that are both similar and alien to your everyday world, in the really good books, the characters are rich and complicated, but when they are not, it doesn’t really matter. They are doing, and you are reading as fast as you can.
Of course, one of the reasons you can read this fast is that the language doesn’t always delight your synapses or persuade you to kick off your shoes and stay awhile. When I’m reading Collins’ writing, I’m not savoring a sentence like I do when I’m reading Michael Chabon. The plainspoken pulse of The Hunger Games doesn’t beg a reread like the poetry of The God of Small Things, or set you still like a scene of Cormac McCarthy’s. But I’m not reading Mockingjay for those reasons. I’m reading to find out whether the Capitol mutations bred deliberately to hunt Katniss are going to tear her to pieces before she manages to kill President Snow.
Books hinging on this level of intensity burn a haze that muddles your Muggle world and your Hogwarts world. As in a dream, you have no difficulty surrendering to the unrealities: the story holds you. Sometimes it holds you merely until an unwelcome interruption by your real life, but sometimes it lingers after the book is closed, unwilling to be relegated back to fiction. Young Will confesses to me that Harry Potter’s unlikely entrance into wizardry clung to him in this way. “I was really hoping that when I turned eleven I would be found to be a wizard. I felt that it was so real. I thought that maybe J.K. Rowling was a wizard… and I kept on feeling that. But then, after I read the next series that I really liked, I didn’t feel that anymore, and I knew that it was definitely, one hundred percent fake. But… it really seemed real. The whole way.”
The yearning in Will’s voice brings me back to my own youthful reading of the Harry Potter books, with a swift and sudden nostalgic ache. For Will isn’t yet eleven, and the force with which he instructs me on the odds against his dormant wizardry has the hardness of a person reprimanding himself for a foolishness. He isn’t waiting for his eleventh birthday. He knows better. But maybe this is why reading these YA books can be such a wholly captivating experience for adults. We have no choice but to surrender our reasons to the terrors and beauties of a make-believe world. And it really seems real.
Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read. Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.
Over the years, this has changed. Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable. I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution. It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.
One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read. One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those! Should should should. Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt. I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust! And Dickens! And Virginia Woolf! And (these days) Bolaño!
My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose. And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence. I’m not getting any younger, after all. Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time. Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.
My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.
Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual. For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment. As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):
Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is. You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:
Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)
It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it. And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many. What can I say…
Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit
The following category speaks for itself:
Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake
I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons. There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.
Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.
“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego. An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level. But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity. So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games. I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way. It absolutely was not. I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:
Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End
The Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett
This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary. This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read. I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.
In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience. I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable. Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking. But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing. This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.
Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift. If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older. I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life. To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.
Part I of this essay explains how the vampires of our historical moment–exemplified in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels–have had a crisis of conscience and changed their ways. They’ve become more human (wearing Grateful Dead t-shirts, driving Mustangs) and more humane (not murdering people to feed on them). This reformation means different things for Harris and Meyer. Harris uses it to explore the dark, vampiric side of human nature, while Meyer, mistakenly, thinks that she can vanquish the vampiric altogether (she can’t and doesn’t, though possibly she doesn’t realize this).
Through her contact with vampires, the danger and intrigues and moral conundrums they bring into her life, Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse discovers her own primitive, uncivilized self—and a capacity for violence. Sookie may be friendly, hard-working, kind, and generous most of the time, but when she drinks from vampire Bill a second time, she begins to feel her own vampiric longings and potential:
A little ripple of madness went through me . . . I drank and saw visions, visions all with a background of darkness, of . . . going hunting, the thrill of the run through the woods, the prey panting ahead and the excitement of its fear; pursuit, legs pumping, hearing the thrumming of blood through the veins of the pursued.
In later books this “primitive self, the truer me,” as Sookie calls it, rises to the surface when she’s threatened. Several times she kills in self-defense without remorse. She is attracted to several men at once, and acts on these desires without feeling ashamed of them.
Twilight’s moral universe is rather different. The wariness of fixed, inflexible human characters and easy moral absolutes, continually apparent in Sookie’s world (in which the only consistently demonized social group is the fundamentalist, occasionally terrorist anti-vampire church, The Fellowship of the Sun) is absent in Stephenie Meyer’s. This is in part because Meyer’s heroine, Bella Swan, a sheltered, self-absorbed teenage girl, narrates the majority of the Twilight novels.
Kenneth Turan, reviewing the first Twilight movie in the Los Angeles Times, argued that the film succeeds, “because it treats high school emotions with unwavering, uncompromising seriousness. Much as you may not want to, you have to acknowledge what’s been accomplished here.” Turan is right: the movie succeeds because, like the novels, it takes adolescent emotions—in all of their naive absolutism and world-consuming intensity—very seriously.
Bella certainly believes, as only young lovers can, that no one has ever loved as she does, that her love will be eternal and absolute, that no man before Edward has ever been so deserving of love. And Meyer’s plot allows this to be true. From the first time she sees Edward, Bella is filled with a fascinated reverence for his beauty. He and his family are all “devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful.” Edward in particular, has “the face of an angel,” and his face, Bella insists, is the outward sign of transcendent, spiritual beauties: “Edward had the most beautiful soul, more beautiful than his brilliant mind or his incomparable face or his glorious body.”
Bella feels this—without qualification, without doubt—through all of the two thousand and some pages of her saga, and Meyer seems fully invested in her teenage heroine’s worldview. Edward becomes like a drug to Bella: “Edward’s lips were like a shot of some addictive chemical straight into my nervous system. I was instantly craving more.” When she’s away from him, “each tick of the second hand aches like the pulse of blood behind a bruise.”
In order to enjoy the Twilight novels, you have to be willing to enter into this intense emotional and hormonal fundamentalism, the twin of the moral fundamentalism apparent in Meyer’s refusal of nuance and ambivalence in favor of an either/or approach to good and evil. You have to believe that Edward and Bella’s love is eternal, unqualified, rare, imperturbable—that it will never waiver or end. Meyer’s plot never calls these teenage certainties into question. The final pages of the novel find Bella more certain than ever of her love for Edward: “No one’s ever loved anyone as much as I love you.” Nor does Meyer’s saga question the goodness of the Cullens—though other than Carlisle, the doctor vampire, they don’t do any useful work in their community, aren’t particularly friendly or generous, and generally seem to live only to satisfy their own material desires (for cars, clothes, travel).
And even by the generous standards of fantasy, there’s something obscene about Twilight’s happy ending. It denies its heroine nothing and asks nothing of her. No major characters die in Twilight; no one has to sacrifice or lose anything they love, especially not Bella. Meyer suggests repeatedly that Bella’s determination to be made a vampire so that she can be with Edward forever will require heavy sacrifices on her part: that she will not be able to see her parents or her best friend again, that she will not be able to have children, that, when she gets pregnant with Edward’s vampire baby, carrying it to term will kill her. But none of these sacrifices are required.
The final book, Breaking Dawn, promises that most sacrosanct of fantasy conventions, an epic battle between the Cullens and the Volturi (evil vampire royalty who still feed remorselessly on humans and who believe that Edward and Bella’s half-vampire/half-human child, Renesmee (a name Bella invents by combining her mother’s name and that of Edward’s mother), presents a threat to the vampire community as a whole). However, when the good and bad vampires finally gather on the field of battle, Bella’s new vampire talent–the ability to shield all she loves with an invisible, impenetrable force field–immobilizes the enemy. The battle’s over before it starts. And so begins happily ever after “forever and forever and forever” for beautiful, rich, immortal Bella Cullen, who will spend eternity with her beautiful, rich, immortal family, eternally in love and in lust with the god-like Edward. It makes Harry Potter, with its dead parents, friends, classmates, teachers, and relatives, look like brutal realism.
Reading Meyer against Harris is a lesson in the varieties of fantasy. Meyer’s fantasy is total—as much a fantasy about human nature and love as it is a generic fantasy. In Twilight, perfect happiness and love, perfect goodness, and perfect material satisfaction are all bestowed on the heroine. Harris’ fantasy, by contrast, is temperate, self-aware. Sookie is a waitress; she’s never been to college; she has no health insurance. In between her forays into the luxurious and exciting world of vampires, she worries pretty constantly about money—medical bills, her need for a new car, a new roof.
Harris’ characters are also readers of genre fiction. We see a Tami Hoag suspense novel tucked into Sookie’s coworker’s apron; Sookie’s grandmother reads Danielle Steele; Sookie repeatedly professes a love of romances and mysteries. In True Blood, we catch a glimpse of Sookie’s grandmother reading a Charlaine Harris novel. These images of escapist reading in Harris’ own novel series don’t allow her reader the sort of total immersion fantasy that Twilight demands. Harris’ novels show you yourself engaged in fantasy (Look! That’s me! That’s what I’m doing—reading vampire-romance-mystery novels, just like Sookie’s granny, trying to forget about being unemployed/bored senseless by work/behind on the mortgage!). And through Sookie’s incessant money worries Harris incorporates into her fictions the mundane oppressions that create the need for escapist literature. In this, Harris’ books offer a metacommentary of sorts on their own social and emotional function and that of genre fiction more generally (and please forgive me for using the word “metacommentary” about the Sookie novels–I know it’s at least silly, possibly profane). Sookie dates and goes to work for the vampires just as I might pick up one of Harris’ vampire mysteries: to leave the real world and all of its tedious, squalid hassles behind.
Harris knows what her books are and what they do and she won’t let her readers forget it. She forces you to see yourself trying to escape your own life and in so doing she refuses you the total fantasy that Meyer offers—she reminds you that escapism and fantasy are just that—fantasy and escapism: They are not real, they are not ultimately the solution to the oppressions of daily life. Like Sookie, I always have to go back to the hassles of real life (unemployment, health insurance, family drama)—have to close the book, leave behind the vampires in all of their impossible glamour and titillating danger.
Harris is also keenly aware that class as much as race is at the heart of our cultural myths about vampires. Sookie works for vampires because she’s poor and they are wealthy (through long lives and disdain for human laws, circumstances the Harris vampires are unapologetic about). They pay well and she can’t afford not to, despite the dangers this work inevitably entails. And Sookie’s unabashed about how dazzling and tempting the luxuries of vampire wealth are to her as a small town barmaid, though the money’s not so intoxicating that it keeps her from being regularly revolted by the machinations and violence that vampire business usually entails (Harris’ vampires are engaged in business or work of some kind, unlike Meyer’s). Making money is bloody, dangerous work—a truth that Alan Ball’s True Blood makes queasily literal.
On her first assignment for the Viking vampire and nightclub entrepreneur, Erik Northman, Sookie gets a Carrie-style blood soaking when she (using her telepathic powers at Erik’s behest) discovers that Erik’s vampire partner has been embezzling. The vampire embezzler is staked and erupts into a fountain of blood–gasp and guffaw-inducing in its abundance. Anna Paquin, who plays Ball’s Sookie and wears a lovely white dress in this scene, ends up as red and slick and gooey as Erzsébet Báthory after one of her blood baths (see Part I of this essay for more on her).
And this pretty much sets the tone for all of Sookie’s vampire work: she ends up bloody, battered, sore, almost dead. It’s working for the man—er, vampire. It’s another day in the salt mines. Harris doesn’t have any illusions about what it means to be socially vulnerable, to live somewhere around the poverty line. While part of Sookie’s motivation in accepting the vampires’ lavish payments for her telepathic services is definitely the allure of their world of beauty and intrigue and money, sometimes, even when she’d rather not, Sookie feels like she doesn’t have much of a choice—as a single woman with no college education or health insurance whose day job is waiting tables and whose savings are dwindling.
Meyer, on the other hand, attempts to obscure the workings of class and money in her books, but she acknowledges these even as she try to hide them. The first vampires, Vlad the Impaler and Erzsébet Báthory, fed on the lives and labor of their subjects. The Cullens, Meyer’s enlightened vampires, don’t literally feed on human beings—and yet their whole monied way of life is the product of a different sort of feeding on others, a metaphorical but nonetheless illicit sort of feeding. The Cullens’ beautiful houses, cars, parties, clothes—their leisured and essentially dilettantish lives (playing cards, hunting, driving Ferraris, composing melodies on the piano, shopping) are all funded by supernatural insider trading:
Edward had a lot of money—I didn’t even want to think about how much. Money meant next to nothing to Edward or the rest of the Cullens. It was just something that accumulated when you had unlimited time on your hands and a sister who had an uncanny ability to predict trends in the stock market
Vampirism, in its most basic structural form, is not a collection of campy trappings (pale skin, pointed canines), but the ability and willingness to appropriate the life, work, property, and livelihood of others. Edward’s sister Alice is psychic and while Meyer never shows Alice having visions of the future of the stock market, here Meyer rather unapologetically reveals insider trading as the source of the Cullen’s unbelievable wealth—this, and an unlimited time in which to wait for investment returns. The Cullens, for all of their virtuous vegetarianism and pangs of conscience, are no better than the arch-villain Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, no better than the host of “vampire capitalists” who, by some accounts, who brought the global financial system to its knees in December of 2008.
Bella is wary of the Cullens’ money while she is human, and she claims that this is because she has nothing to give in return:
Edward didn’t seem to understand why I objected to him spending money on me—why it made me uncomfortable if he took me to an expensive restaurant in Seattle, why he wasn’t allowed to buy me a car that could reach speeds over fifty-five miles an hour, or why I wouldn’t let him pay my college tuition…Edward thought I was being unnecessarily difficult.
But Bella, as usual, has it wrong. She’s wary because she knows it’s bloody money (never mind Edward’s condescending paternalism—which, creepily enough, is appropriate given that he’s around 100 to Bella’s 18). Bella’s wariness here is motivated by the same horror that made her recoil from her brief glimpse of a Volturi (i.e. evil, human-eating vampire) feast: a flock of unsuspecting tourists are ushered into the turreted throne room of the Volturi’s Italian castle and happily begin to snap pictures. In horror, Bella watches the doors close and lock on the unsuspecting lambs; she hears their screams as the feeding begins.
Intuitively, she recoils from the Cullens’ money for the same reason (at least while she’s human—once she’s a vampire she revels in it). The “vegetarians” no longer suck blood from human bodies, but they suck money from the labor of others through illegal means. It’s not quite as physically repulsive or terrifying but it’s still not quite in line with Bella’s insistence that Edward and family are spiritually radiant individuals.
And so we’re back to the beginning, to Erzébet Báthory, Vlad the Impaler: remorseless aristocrats taking blood and life and labor from their poor. Meyer’s vampire is no more enlightened for his vegetarianism, no better and no different than he ever was. But Meyer doesn’t understand the difference. The Cullens’ “vegetarianism” and its patina of moral evolution is enough for her—just so long as they don’t bite anyone outright, literally. Harris knows better and uses her fantasy to teach as much: We’re the vampires, the vampire collaborators, now and we always have been—but vampires can be people too.
Vampires figure the anxieties of their cultural moment. They come out at night—and during periods of social and political turmoil, and their habits and looks mutate to personify the fears of the age in which they appear. Bram Stoker’s Dracula dramatized Victorian fears of sex as morally corrupting and fears of English culture as threatened by invading foreigners. The vampires of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, published primarily in the 1980’s, shared a certain kinship with the ruthless, amoral financier characters of the age, Gordon Gekko of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and Patrick Batemen of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, but their most striking feature was their homosexuality. Rice’s vampirism as blood-borne pathogen also came to seem a metaphor for AIDS—a taunting metaphor, since her beautiful men could not die.
So what about our vampires—the vampires of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels or those of Stephenie Meyer’s ubiquitous Twilight? Our vampires seem a domesticated, morally evolved breed. Meyer’s vampires have been defanged altogether (Meyer only agreed to sell the film rights with the caveat that the Cullens could not be depicted with fangs in any film version), while the vampires of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels (better known as HBO’s True Blood) have discretely retractable fangs. Both authors’ vampires are committed to humane, sustainable diets. Indeed, if Michael Pollan wrote for vampires, he might recommend the diet devised by the vampires of Meyer’s Twilight. The members of the Cullen household, the forward-thinking vampire “family” at the center of the series, forswear feeding on humans. “I don’t want to be a monster,” Edward Cullen, Meyer’s teenage vampire hero explains to his human beloved, Bella Swan, when she asks him about his diet.
Turning from the gruesome practices of most of the rest of the vampire community in Meyer’s alternate version of contemporary America, the Cullens feed only on wild animals they hunt in the woods around their home on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. And even in this (by some standards) less murderous diet, they take a sustainable approach, carefully alternating their hunting grounds so as not to decimate the local populations of deer and cougars. Carlisle, the patriarch of the Cullen clan and the originator of what they refer to as their vampire “vegetarianism,” goes even further in his determination to be good. Through hundreds of years of practicing this vegetarianism, Carlisle has perfected his self-control to such a degree that he remains seemingly unmoved in the presence of human blood. His control is so great that he can practice human medicine. Not only does he not kill human beings—he heals them and saves their lives.
The vampires of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, which are also known as the Southern Vampire Mysteries and are the basis of Alan Ball’s hit HBO series True Blood, share with Meyer’s Twilight a kinder, gentler vampire whose physical beauty seems the outward sign of his moral improvement. Gone are the days of the repulsive and remorseless Count Dracula, with his hairy palms and rank breath, his insatiable hunger for blood. Like Twilight, Harris’ series presents a morally enlightened vampire. Set in an alternate version of the contemporary American South, the Sookie novels depict a world in which vampires have declared themselves publicly, sought and won some civil rights, and live openly amongst humans. Their emancipation from the shadowy world of myth and legend is possible because a synthetic blood developed by the Japanese allows them to refrain from feeding on humans.
Living only on bottled blood, however, doesn’t satisfy like organic warm-from-the-body human blood. Fortunately for the vampires and humans who occupy the Sookieverse, Harris’ mythology also revises the nature of the vampire bite. Unlike Meyer’s vegetarian Cullens, Harris’ vampires still feed on humans, but do so more considerately and in moderation. In the Sookie novels, being bitten by a vampire isn’t normally lethal, nor does it turn one into a vampire. In fact, the vampire’s bite, a quintessential symbol of sex (penetration, exchange of fluids), becomes pleasurable for human and vampire alike rather than damning or damaging: “I felt Bill’s teeth against my neck, and I said “Yes!” I felt his fangs penetrate, but it was a small pain, an exciting pain,” Sookie says of her first bite, given to her by the prosaically named vampire Bill Compton. (“I thought it might be Antoine, or Basil, or Langford!” Sookie responds, laughing, when Bill first tells her his name.) But the point of vampire Bill’s prosaic name is that he’s one of us—that vampires are people too.
Harris’ and Ball’s versions of Sookie’s world are full of such prosaic details of modern vampire life. Their vampires play Wii Golf, serve Fresca to guests, shop at the mall, wash their hair with Herbal Essence shampoo, wear Dockers, renovate their homes. For Ball and Harris, vampires are people too, both materially and morally. And while the melodramatic pitch of Twilight makes Edward and his kin seem like they couldn’t possibly do such grubbily vulgar things as shopping or styling their hair, their artfully tousled locks and well-cut leather jackets tell another tale. These vampires, our vampires (whether we like it or not), do and feel human things: They attend high school, practice abstinence and medicine, tend bar, go to the prom, get married, create computer databases, lobby for civil rights. They cry, fall in love, feel guilty, worry about whether they have souls and what state those souls might be in. Which is why they’ve gone vegetarian—or at least Whole Foods sustainable.
Our vegetarian vampires, I think, are afflicted with the same crises of conscience that we are as first-world twenty-first century humans. We eat too much, we shop too much, we use too much fuel, water, land; we mistreat the animals on which we depend for food and the other peoples whose labor produces for us the cheap abundant goods we have all grown so used to. The vampire’s insatiable hunger for blood mirrors our insatiable hungers for food, wealth, property, and possessions. Contemporary vampire fiction mirrors our collective anxiety about our need for self-discipline and a return to a more humane approach to our fellow beings: Now, the vampire, the most appetitive and unrepentantly murderous of our culture’s mythic archetypes, restrains himself in our popular fiction. He has become a “vegetarian” of sorts, the vampire version of a Whole Foods shopper, who prefers humanely raised meat, free range eggs, sustainably farmed produce. From the shimmering pâleur of the vampire radiates something new and hardly otherworldly: an aura of white liberal guilt.
But being kinder to your food, whatever it might be, isn’t the be all and end all of ethical living, nor does it mean you’re not a vampire. Harris and Ball’s versions of the Sookieverse acknowledge this: that even as we try mightily to live ethically, the dangerous, cruel, and illicit—the side of human character that the vampire has always represented—cannot be vanquished altogether. Vampire Bill, born and raised in the antebellum South, may be an attentive suitor and a perfect gentleman whom Sookie can take home to her grandmother, but he’s also a self-professed murderer and his sexual appetite can turn terrifying. All of the characters in Sookie’s world, both human and vampire, have this same moral ambivalence.
Harris/Ball’s vampire is not all bad, but their human, in turn, is not all good. The world of Meyer’s Twilight, on the other hand, embraces Stoker’s basically strict segregation of good and evil. The heroes and heroines of Twilight are all understood to be morally exemplary. Meyer often has Bella compare Edward’s body and soul to that of an “angel” (and Stephenie Meyer doesn’t offer a single sly wink to let you know that she knows it’s all a bit over the top—which is really impressive in a way. I certainly couldn’t get through 2000+ pages of treacly teenage melodrama without a single devious aside to my audience).
So, in both Twilight and the Southern Vampire Mysteries, vampires do and feel human things–but a crucial philosophical difference between Harris’ books (and Ball’s series) and Meyer’s remains. Harris insists, as Meyer does not, that people are vampires—that people do and feel vampiric things—rape, murder, illicit and subversive sexual desire, manipulation, betrayal. After all, the first vampires, the sadistic historical figures out of whose strange cruelties the idea of the vampire came, were human beings: the fifteenth-century Romanian prince Vlad Dracul (meaning “dragon” or “devil”), whose name Bram Stoker immortalized in Dracula, and Erzébet Báthory (known as the Beast of Csejthe), the sixteenth-century Hungarian countess sometimes referred to as the first female serial killer. Báthory tortured and killed hundreds of young serving girls and bathed in their blood, believing that the blood of virgins had powerful restorative and magical properties. Prince Vlad was known for torturing his enemies and citizens alike, often en masse—usually by impaling them on stakes. He liked to make public spectacles of these executions, sometimes eating meals while watching them. He was also, more mundanely, known for unscrupulous labor practices such as working his peasant laborers to death. Karl Marx refers to this exploitative cruelty of Vlad’s in Capital and uses the figure of the vampire repeatedly to describe the behavior of the capitalist—though he never makes the connection between the vampire and his historical forebear (nor does Marx to Vlad by name; he refers to him “a Wallachian boyar,” but the practices he describes are Vlad’s).
This basic connection between human monstrosity and the vampire is explicit in the Harris novels. Harris’ vampires have gotten a little nicer, but her humans have picked up the slack. As her vampire characters limit their consumption of human blood, her human characters drink vampire blood in a tidy little economy of gore. Vampire blood heals humans with extraordinary speed, makes them more attractive, sharpens their senses, and enhances their libidos. It is the recreational drug of choice in Harris’ fictional world. In the first two scenes of blood drinking in the first Sookie novel, Dead Until Dark, Harris reverses the traditional roles of human and vampire: vampire becomes victim, human becomes blood drinker. In the first, an unsavory trailer trash couple, the Ratrays, begin draining the vampire Bill Compton using needles and medical tubing. They plan to sell his blood as a recreational drug. In the second scene of blood taking, human Sookie, who has been beaten almost to death by the Ratrays for preventing their attempted draining/murder, drinks vampire Bill’s blood at his insistence. At first, Sookie gags on the blood, but as she forces herself to swallow, knowing it’s her only chance of survival, she begins to enjoy it: “Suddenly, the blood tasted good, salty, the stuff of life . . . my hand clamped the vampire’s wrist to my mouth. I felt better with every swallow.”
This human taste for blood becomes the emblem of other vampiric traits. Harris’ and Ball’s human characters can be arrogant, chilly, and race-proud: murderers, rapists, self-righteous hate mongers, child molesters. Harris’ vampires may inevitably have a detached, cool demeanor, an unnerving lack of human emotional response, a disregard for laws and a disdain for human lives, but on balance the people in her books are little better. Her heroine’s most potentially devastating encounters come more often at the hands of humans, rather than vampires. Sookie’s great uncle molests her as a child; a local man revolted by relationships between human women and vampires attempts to kill her when she starts dating vampire Bill; an anti-vampire church called The Fellowship of the Sun blows up a hotel during a massive vampire conference killing scores of humans and vampires and nearly killing Sookie.
Alan Ball’s version of the Sookieverse also inverts the traditional structure of the vampire genre (vampires = bad; humans = good) to expose human moral failings, cruelties, abuses of power. In one of True Blood’s most socially canny plots, a young woman addicted to vampire blood coerces her boyfriend into kidnapping a gentle, paunchy middle-aged vampire. They tie him up with silver chains and keep him in the basement, thereby assuring themselves of an unlimited supply of V or V-juice, as vampire blood is called in Ball’s series. The vampire starves and becomes weakened in his captivity and his hunger causes him excruciating pain. He senses that his female captor is going to kill him and confronts her about it, as she’s milking blood from his tender, weakened arm. She punches him savagely and commands him angrily: “Don’t you dare get morally superior on me.” She tells him that she gave up a full scholarship to Vassar to work in an impoverished village in Guatamala, helping to bring clean water to the village. She continues, “I am an organic vegan and my carbon footprint is miniscule ’cause I know that ultimately we’re all just a single living being. But you are not.”
The scene indicts Whole Foods piety as morally insufficient—as a frail ethical blind that can obscure and justify monstrous selfishness and cruelty. By reversing the roles of human and vampire, turning the human into the torturer, the scene suggests that we humans are the vampires now—that we have always been. For Ball and Harris, the essence of the vampire is a ruthless, violent selfishness that characterizes fanged and unfanged characters—humans and vampires—alike. The Sookie Stackhouse novels and True Blood continually pose the question, “Who’s the vampire now?” They repeatedly refuse easy distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong, vampire and human.
In another such equivocal scene, an ancient vampire saves Sookie from an aspiring human rapist. This vampire, it turns out, believes himself damned and intends to destroy himself by walking out into daylight (where the sun’s rays will burn him to death). “We take the blood of innocents,” he explains, when Sookie asks why he thinks himself an abomination. She counters his claim with the question, “Who is innocent?” He says simply, “children”—the vampire fed exclusively on children for centuries. But Sookie, in gratefulness for his kindness, still decides to bear witness to his self-destruction, a decision that the vampire doesn’t understand. “I am an evil creature,” he tells her. (A confession that might seem more noble and poignant in light of the Catholic Church’s failures this week to take such responsibility for crimes against children.) “But you did a good thing, saving me,” Sookie responds. To her own surprise, she cries when the vampire steps into sunlight and begins to disintegrate.
Meyer’s fiction, on the other hand, scrupulously avoids such subtle moral shading, favoring instead the stark good/evil duality of Victorian vampire fiction—more on this in Part II.
With the launch of Apple’s iPad, some of the literary web is focusing on the impending doom and loss that the e-book revolution will bring. Though some of the major publishing houses have welcomed the iPad with open arms, others are less eager to sign on.
Yet beyond the publishing houses, there’s a whole group — the consumers of books — that is very much concerned with the way in which e-readers will change how we read. It’s the readers of books, after all, that will be affected most by a switch from print to digital. Lost will be the days of curling up with a yellowed and musty book adopted from your local library. Farewell to those nights when you, on an impulse, run to your local bookstore and return with more than you ever intended to purchase and sit up reading until the wee-hours. Adios to those cookbooks with grandmama’s annotations, sprinkled with splotches of her world famous pasta sauce. While these moments have the potential to be lost to modernity, they will be replaced by new experiences with the written word — albeit, perhaps less fragrant
And yet still, there are those who are now, as in Mokoto Rich’s article in the New York Times, lamenting another loss, the culture of reading. You know the scenario, but here’s my anecdote. I’m sitting on the shuttle to my gym. The girl sitting across from me is about my age, she’s dressed similarly to me, wearing glasses, and she has a yoga mat strapped to her bag. In other words — she could or could not be my future best friend. In her lap is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I think to myself, “I wonder if that book is any good.” Maybe I go home and read reviews of the book. Maybe I take a leap of faith and purchase it right away. But regardless, I’m now seeing the book as something of interest to me because I see myself in its readers.
These types of encounters happen all of the time in the culture of reading, and yet as e-books are clearly the way of the future, the likelihood of the scenario happening will certainly decrease. Years (maybe even months) from now, the others on the shuttle will be immersed in their e-readers — much in the same way that many of them are currently focused on their iPhones or Blackberries. And I, looking at each of them, won’t have the slightest idea of what they are reading or looking at. The yoga mat will be there, and the clothes will still be similar, but the only cue I will gather is that I too should be looking down at a device.
But of course, we don’t just get our book recommendations from random people on public transportation. Amazon has virtually changed the way we can browse and buy books, and online communities such as Goodreads have sprouted up to connect forlorn readers to other like-minded folks on the internet. If you are a supporter of the independent bookstore movement, you know that a good bookstore is like a great wine store — its shelves are curated by experts (or maybe just people with a lot of time to read) you trust. And there will always be the world of web reviews.
“Yes,” you say, “all of this is true. But what about when I am on a bus?” With some certainty I’ll say that we can look to the iPhone to get an idea of the possibility for the iPad. Though there are far too many applications available for the iPhone than one could ever keep track of, one category has been getting lots of attention — location-based social networking apps. Gowalla, Foursquare and Whrrl are the big three, but I’m sure there are others out there. What these apps all provide is the ability to know where your friends are and let others know where you are by “checking in” to restaurants, bars, bookstores, etc. The apps also identify your location and then tell you “What’s Trending” near you. Right now, for instance, the coffee shop up the street from my office is trending (10 people have checked in).
So what does all of this have to do with the iPad and the culture of reading? Currently, when I search ‘Literature’ or ‘Books’ or ‘Reading’ in the App Store, I come up with pages and pages of apps. Many of them help you read e-books or listen to audio books. Some of them are actual compilations of certain types of literature (Classics, Shakespeare, etc.). And there are others, such as Electric Literature or Small Chair that operate like magazines, feeding subscribers weekly or monthly exclusive bits. From my cursory view, only one of the apps, the Goodreads app, actually has a community element baked into it. There is potential here and I’m not a product person so I can only imagine a sliver of the myriad, though I will try.
What if there were a way to know what people near me were reading? What if I could find out what other books they’ve read to know better if they’re a compatible recommender of books? What if I couldn’t judge a book by a yoga mat? Would I find better matches, or perhaps more accurate ones? Because though the girl across from me might look like my type of friend, I may actually hate The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and let’s be honest, what 20-something girl in San Francisco doesn’t practice yoga. Certainly not all of them share my literary tastes. Perhaps, even, my taste in literature is more compatible with the quinquagenarian sitting at the back of the shuttle.
While it sounds like a huge invasion of privacy to know that someone near me named Ed is reading the Twilight Saga, if Ed wants me to know, then I could potentially learn from Ed by knowing that not just is he reading New Moon, but he’s also a huge fan of Poe and just finished a collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates that I didn’t even know existed. By not judging Ed for the fact that he is a fifty-five-year-old male wearing tube socks, I transcend the shackles of whom I imagine I can identify with — as a reader and beyond. I can identify with anyone, and that’s really the point of technology: to open up the world.
We are social creatures by nature and we like to observe the people around us — public transportation sometimes gives us no other choice. But just because technology will change the way we read does not mean that a new culture of reading won’t be born of it. Indeed, our constant has always been change. Though seemingly scary now, I’m confident that whatever amount of visual transparency we lose from going digital we will gain in learning a bit more about ourselves and the world outside of our walls of judgment.
[Image credit:Bruce Clay]
The literary world, and I speak here primarily of its online incarnation, does some things really well. We chew on abstract issues like why literature matters, what counts as art, and how to navigate the writing life. What we don’t do as well is consider “average” or “real” readers, the people who subsidize most of the book production in the country. This wouldn’t be a big deal if we simply left them alone. (Not that I’m advocating this strategy.) But these people come up all the time, if only by proxy: we chuckle at Dan Brown’s unit sales or snipe at HarperCollins’s “It” imprint, all without necessarily engaging with the readers behind these trends.
So, late on a late December Friday, I decided to try something different: I headed to a mall-bound Borders and asked 37 customers about their relationship to books. I realize my approach has its own problems (sample size, anyone?), but it offers something others can’t—readers speaking in their own voices.
Don’t be fooled by the Seattle’s Best Coffee and all those overstuffed chairs: Borders is not a great place to talk books, mostly because, in my experience, doing so requires weeks of answering machines and unrequited emails—all to secure the Borders Group’s tepid “yes” and a two-hour time limit.
At least I didn’t have much territory to canvass. In the last year, especially, Borders has flailed about for a business model—like Barnes & Noble, it’s now looking to lose its mall locations—and one new initiative has been Borders Ink, a teen-themed sub-store. If the Borders I visited were laid out like the back of a paperback book, the bar code would be checkout area; the author photo would be the coffee shop; and the three blurbs would be music, movies, and Borders Ink and its mass of Twilight merchandise. (Does any celebrity look more like his plastic figurines than Robert Pattinson?) The paperback’s plot summary—maybe 30 percent of the space—would be the tables and shelves of books.
My first interview ended up being my favorite. Mary Anne, an older woman with red clogs and a kind face, tells me that “reading is a real passion of mine.” Her favorite author is Diana Gabaldon, and Mary Anne likes to let the TV hum in the background as she reads (or rereads) 10 to 12 books of historical fiction per week. “Books put me right in the moment,” she says. “The story, the characters, the period stuff.” (Dan Brown elicits an “eh”—he’s “outlandishly far-fetched,” in her nice phrase.)
I start every interview by asking people what they read, coming across all the names the bestseller lists would suggest: Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum, Mitch Albom, Steve Berry and James Rollins, Stephen King (“The cheeseburger of American lit,” as one Borders employee puts it), Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, and plenty more I hadn’t heard of. (I confess to writing Diane Gabeldern? in my notes.) Bob, an older man in a grubby New York Giants hat, gives the same one-word answer to “What do you read?” and “Why do you read?”: “mystery.” Another guy admits he reads “whatever’s in the airport.”
Most people, though, classify their reading tastes as “eclectic.” Kelly, a young English major, reads Shakespeare and Jane Austen for “inspiration” and “this stuff” (she gestures at the Borders Ink sign) for “relaxation.” But where Kelly seems genuinely eclectic, others invoke the descriptor simply because they aren’t in the habit of talking about books. “I’ll read anything” is the easiest answer to questions you don’t regularly think about, and, when pressed for specifics, most of the people I talked to either reaffirmed their eclecticism or settled on a sub-category—yes, romance, that’s it. All of them lacked a ready vocabulary for stuff like style, technique, or genre.
People were more articulate on why they read, which is also, of course, a genre-inflected question. Beth, a mom loading up on chapter books, reads to learn something. “I didn’t pay too much attention in school,” she says, “so I like to read about our nation’s history.” Ted, who sticks to sports, demands books on current events—ideally someone “with a checkered past.” Tom relied on Ian Fleming to survive his New York City commute; he’s got a different job, now, and “it’s been harder to find the time.”
Renee, a bubbly twentysomething, says she reads “all kinds of stuff”—David Sedaris is a favorite—but also cops to a Twilight addiction. Just don’t ask her about the movies: “The books are so much more horrifying. With movies, you can only feel by seeing. With a book, your imagination does the work.”
This is an idea I hear again and again—the idea that, more than any other medium, books let you “put your own spin on things” and “escape from the real world,” in the words of Stephanie, a college student. Leah and Tammy, two moms in the Nicholas Sparks section who don’t appear to know each other but immediately begin swapping stories about reading after their kids fall asleep, agree that books offer a unique, imaginative escape. Cheryl, a middle-aged woman, enjoys novels steeped in “criminology and anthropology.” Books provide her with “details and depth that the TV shows just can’t match.”
Cheryl also stresses that she tries to remain faithful to her favorite authors. “I just love the way she writes,” she says of Patricia Cromwell*. Most of my conversations were similarly author-centric. (At least as it pertained to novelists; not a single person named a journalist or historian.) When I asked people if they attend author readings, though, I got the weirdest stares. I think you could make a pretty solid argument that these readers have a healthier connection to their authors (and to their art) than do more literary audiences.
But this brings up another question: How else do the people I talked to interact with the book world? Renee subscribes to Entertainment Weekly and reads its page of book reviews. Beth, a fan of “mysteries and romances,” reads the New York Times Book Review “religiously.” And… that’s it. Mary Anne watches the bookish segments on CBS’s Sunday Morning, but she distrusts professional critics because “they don’t look at the story, which matters to me. Besides, they’re too worried about trends.”
No one else seeks out any more extensive book coverage, online or off. Those who do surf the web stick to authors’ official sites or to those of Borders or Barnes & Noble. Only one woman mentions Amazon; a couple of people bring up used-book stores or warehouse club chains. When I ask how they learn about new books or authors, people point to browsing book stores and seeking out “if you like X, you’ll really like Y” recommendations from the staff. (I should add that the Borders staff I talked to, while universally helpful and kind, were not exactly the literary equivalent to the cast of High Fidelity.) The biggest driver of book sales seems to be word-of-mouth. Stephanie is currently reading Gregory Maguire’s Wicked because her sister gave it to her. And let’s give the last word to Mary Anne: “I always buy books for everyone for Christmas—especially for my six grandchildren.”
On one of the sinks in the Borders’ bathroom, I found someone’s forgotten Christmas list, printed out and water-stained:
The list went on for a full page. It even included two books: Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy and Charles Bukowski’s Dangling in the Tournefortia. Point is, the people I talked to might not live for books, but they still live with and through them.
*Update: Paul Constant, the estimable Books Editor at The Stranger, emailed to let me know that Cheryl was almost certainly speaking of Patricia Cornwell, the bestselling crime writer, and not Patricia Cromwell, whom I appear to have invented. Sigh. I hope it’s clear that my heart was always in the right place.
[Image credit: Kevin Dooley]
Whatever your feelings about Twilight, you have to admit that the breadth and scope of the Twilight phenomenon is spectacular. Boy wizards aside, literature-inspired hoo-ha of this magnitude just doesn’t come along that often. To begin with, there is the dizzying array of memorabilia: Twilight band-aids, duvet covers, water bottles, umbrellas, jewelry, wallets, life-sized wall decals, as well as the standard t-shirts and movie posters. Kristen Stewart, the actress who plays Twilight heroine Bella Swan in the film adaptations, has expressed astonishment that rather mundane items of clothing she’s spotted wearing sell out in hours. There’s a Twilight make-up line that includes a pinkish gold-flecked lotion that promises to give “Twihards,” and anyone else, vampirically luminous skin (according to the editors of Lucky Magazine, “it’s gleamy but not over-the-top-Edward-in-sunlight-sparkly”). And that’s not to mention the Twilight fan blogs (oh, TwilightMomsBlog!) and the legions of YouTube videos posted by less satisfied Twilight readers burning, beating, and taking chainsaws to their copies of the best-selling novels (Breaking Dawn, the fourth and last book in the series, sold 1.3 million copies in the first day; total sales of all of the books are at upwards of 40 million, and since the final installment came out last year, all four books in the series have remained in USA Today’s top 10 bestsellers). And then there are the sell-out midnight shows whose fangirl audiences reportedly squeal with delight when the lights dim. The father of one of these fans told me that his 14-year-old daughter had taken to signing her text and email messages “Twilight,” instead of her name.
The books have also had a startling effect on the small town of Forks, Washington, the setting of Meyer’s series. Tourism has been booming. Last year, the mayor of Forks declared the weekend of September 12-13th to be Stephenie Meyer Day Weekend (September 12th is Bella Swan’s birthday). This year, the weekend’s events include a birthday breakfast for Bella, tours of Forks High School (where Bella was supposed to have been a student), a Twilight character look alike contest, and a sunset bonfire at the Quileute Reservation, on the same beach where, in the novels, Bella meets Jacob Black, a Quileute teenager, who becomes her best friend, a werewolf, and the rival of the beautiful teenage vampire Edward Cullen for Bella’s affections. By all accounts, this year’s celebration was a massive success, nearly doubling Forks’ population of somewhere around 3,000 and drawing visitors from as far away as England and Japan.
Marveling at all this on the eve of the second Twilight movie’s release, I found myself thinking of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. Pamela, published in 1740, was the first best-selling novel in English; it is the story of a teenage servant girl who resists her aristocratic master’s increasingly violent sexual overtures, eventually wins his heart and becomes his wife. It was the first novel to inspire the sort of frenzy that Twilight is inspiring right now. Like Twilight, Pamela spawned themed merchandise: Pamela tea cups and tea towels, Pamela prints and painting, Pamela fans, Pamela playing cards. Pastors recommended the book from the pulpit and European intellectuals as well as private citizens sang its praises. Rousseau, for one, reported weeping copiously over it. There wasn’t any declaration of a Pamela Day, but one famous and oft-repeated anecdote about the Pamela mania verges into the kind of confusing of the fictional and the real that the Forks’ Twilight celebrations offer. There are many anecdotes dating back to the eighteenth century, in which Pamela’s wedding is taken as fact or publicly celebrated. In one of the best known, from an 1833 address given by Sir John Herschel at Eton, a blacksmith in a small village in Windsor got hold of a copy of Pamela
and used to read it aloud in the long summer evenings, seated on his anvil, and never failed to have a large and attentive audience…At length, when the happy turn of fortune arrived, which brings the hero and heroine together, and sets them living long and happily according to the most approved rules—the congregation were so delighted as to raise a great shout and, procuring the church keys, actually set the parish bells ringing.
These readers were practicing the English custom of ringing church bells to celebrate and announce a marriage–though in this case, the marriage of a fictional hero and heroine: Pamela and her former master, the landed squire named Mr. B.
Pamela was revolutionary in its day and Richardson was both celebrated (as by the Windsor townsfolk) and reviled for the novel’s “leveling” tendency. Servants and common laborers were widely considered a lesser order of being in the eighteenth century—there to serve the pleasure of their masters, whatever that pleasure might be. The idea of a titled landowner marrying his maid—when he might sleep with her with impunity—was considered scandalous and subversive, to say the least. Historian Lynn Hunt’s recent book, Inventing Human Rights, claims that novels like Pamela were foundational in the development of the idea of human rights that surfaced explicitly in the French and American Revolutions of the late eighteenth century.
On the surface, then, it would seem that the similarity between Twilight and Pamela, between Bella and Pamela, ends in their popularity and the mania they inspire(d). But these twin phenomena, one sitting at each end of the history of the novel, I think, share more. By an admittedly cynical and reductive reading, Twilight and Pamela are the same book, the same archetypal female fantasy: a poor or undistinguished girl is chosen as “the one” by a handsome, rich, aristocratic man who sweeps her off her feet and takes her out of her (more or less) grubby, mundane, low-born life. And the cynical reading goes further. These are not merely Cinderella love stories; in fact, they are not love stories at all. By the cynical reading, these novels are only about class, about becoming rich, becoming one of the rarefied beautiful people.
A year after Pamela’s publication, Henry Fielding published Shamela, a parody of Richardson’s novel motivated by the belief that Pamela didn’t resist her master’s attempts to rape her out of fear or a moral certainty that her desires were just as important as his, but because she thought she might get more out of him if she held out. Fielding’s sham Pamela is a hypocrite, a wily girl on the make—after money, finery, and social position that she was not entitled to by birth or by her incredible virtuousness (which Fielding tells us is only a ruse designed to ensnare Mr. B, her master.). Pamela protests too much on Fielding’s reading: he suggested that Pamela’s belaboring of the spiritual peril that Mr. B’s advances threaten her with, combined with her obvious attraction to him, didn’t quite ring true.
In Pamela’s case, I think Fielding goes too far. A marriage to a landed, titled man would have been quite literally beyond the wildest dreams of a servant like Pamela, even assuming that she possessed the sort of calculating wiliness that Fielding attributes to her. In fact, if she were as wily as Fielding drew her, Shamela would have known that she’d never become Mr. B’s bride. (Only by the rules of Richardson’s quasi-allegorical plot can Pamela’s virtue be rewarded as it is.) But in the case of Meyer’s Bella Swan, I think Fielding’s hypocrisy reading might stand. Like Pamela (and Pamela is more convincing), Bella insists that what she values, particularly in her beloved vampire Edward, is spiritual: “Edward had the most beautiful soul, more beautiful than his brilliant mind or his incomparable face or his glorious body,” she tells us.
But why, if the spiritual is supposed to be paramount, are the Twilight novels so distractingly full of money – literally, piles of cash – and the things money can buy? “There was enough cash stashed all over the house to keep a small country afloat for a decade,” Bella reports of the Cullen family home. This cash buys Bella an acceptance to Dartmouth, a special order Mercedes (a model preferred by drug dealers and diplomats for its bulletproof glass—Edward’s very protective), a Ferrari, lots and lots of couture clothing, and a faux rustic cottage in the woods that I came to think of as a version of Marie Antoinette’s hameau (the little faux farmhouse where the queen and her ladies played at being peasants). All of this, Bella claims to resent or to feel uncomfortable accepting.
But the idea that the Cullen wealth holds no appeal to Bella, when it is Bella herself who draws so much attention to it in her first-person narration, just doesn’t stand. When, at the end of the fourth book, she finally admits a little pleasure in the jaw-dropping, head-turning spectacle that this wealth allows her to become, it feels like she is finally admitting what she’s felt and wanted all along—a pleasure that anyone, most especially a teenage girl, would feel:
He took the calf-length ivory trench coat I’d worn to disguise the fact that I was wearing Alice’s idea of appropriate attire, and gasped quietly at my oyster satin cocktail gown. I still wasn’t used to being beautiful to everyone rather than just Edward. The maitre d’ stuttered half-formed compliments as he backed unsteadily from the room.
Of course, the idea here is that it’s (spoiler alert) Bella’s newly enhanced physical beauty that stuns the man (she’s become a vampire at this point, and vampires are more beautiful in order to attract their prey, i.e. humans), but Meyer/Bella lingers on the clothes—the things money can buy.
Bella’s compulsive observation of the Cullens’ beauty and their beautiful things does not come to seem a metaphor for spiritual superiority but a conflation of material wealth, physical beauty, and moral elevation. While the books suppose to be about a perfect, otherworldly love (this love could be metaphor: it certainly doesn’t exist in the real world), the material intrudes constantly (cars, money, clothes), suggesting that beauty and money and blessedness and happiness are all one, confused and interchangeable.
This pernicious lie that is at the heart of Twilight. When I see pictures of young girls waiting in line to buy these novels or tickets to the movie, this is why I get angry. I don’t get angry because Meyer’s recycled the classic female fantasy of the most desirable boy picking the girl he never will in real life (I love My So-Called Life, while knowing all too well that Angela Chase (Clare Danes) would never have gotten Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) in “real” life), I get angry because Meyer didn’t seem to trust the unbelievable love between Bella and Edward as sufficient to hold her readers’ interest. Love, apparently, needs to be tarted up in designer clothes, given sparkling six-pack abs, armed with platinum credit cards and Ferraris before we’ll recognize it. For all of its heavy-handed allusions to Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights, Twilight is, in the end, fatally invested in the shallow materialism and the youth and beauty worship that continue to define and corrode American popular culture.
It’s scarier than vampires.
Oh, those poor little Twilight-addled tweens–as if they weren’t already goggly-eyed with quasi-chaste adoration of Edward Cullen, hero of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books. How they will melt when they see this utterly shameless New Moon poster that portrays a melancholic Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) in a state of tasteful-ish dishabille.
While millions of teenage girls and grown women (see the Twilight Moms blog if you don’t believe me) wait with bated breath for the November 20th premier of New Moon (see the preview here), the film version of the second installment of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, some less satisfied readers are making movies of their own–movies in which they beat, burn, and otherwise insult copies of Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn. See Burn, Twilight, Burn!, Twilight Burning, with Techno, The Twilight Chainsaw Massacre, Twilight Baseball. And that’s only for starters. I also like this one, Twilight Burning Party, in which two spunky Ghost World-y young ladies, Cassi and Angel, do a little stand-up literary critique before burning the book.