Natalie Wilson, Seduced by Twilight, McFarland and Co. 2011. ISBN: 978-0786460427
Gizelle Liza Anatol (ed.), Bringing Light to Twilight, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011. ISBN: 978-0230110687
“I’m so mad you think I read Twilight.” Fright Night
Was it out of sheer stubbornness that I resisted so long? Literary snobbery? Was it the fact that when the films came out, my ‘tween’ niece thought they were ‘sooo amazing’? Whatever the reasons, in the end, rather like Natalie Wilson, author of Seduced by Twilight, I put aside my reservations and plunged in at the deep end.
The experience was not pleasant. For me, Twilight was Sweet Valley High, only more naïve and saccharine. It was a wish fulfilment narrative that even the least jaded 12 year old girl surely would find hard to swallow. It spoke of deep emotion and inner turmoil and yet felt emotionally empty. The characters uttered clichés that spoke of a complete ignorance of the long history of Romance fiction and Twilight’s vampires seemed to exist in a world untouched by the likes of Anne Rice, Ford Coppola, and, god forbid, Joss Whedon. Fans describe it as a page turner, Wilson among them, but the best I could say is that I turned the pages quickly only to finish it sooner.
Thus my position towards Twilight on undertaking this review was not positive. I found it hard to see how I could be convinced that such inane nonsense should be worthy of the critical attentions of Seduced by Twilight and Bringing Light to Twilight. And yet, I didn’t want to be accused of dismissing the phenomenon outright, of being guilty of, as Wilson quite astutely points out, part of the antifeminist backlash that rejects Twilight fans as ‘silly girls’, and dismisses the whole thing as trivial. (p. 188)
Don’t misunderstand me. Like the authors and editors of these volumes, I’m not denying that there has been a huge Twilight phenomenon and that as such it might be worth spending a little time looking at why and how this has come about. But then, should the fact that something is a phenomenon automatically mean that the cultural artefact itself – in this case the books penned by Meyer – have any great social, cultural or political insight or value? The question of literary ‘value’ is, of course, fraught with many critical difficulties, which plague Wilson’s monograph, Seduced by Twilight. Positioning herself as a ‘critical fan’ (p. 2) Wilson oscillates from arguing that the text itself is ‘worthy of literary study’ (p.11) to feeling duty bound to expose its ‘stereotypical, conservative, and disempowering messages.’ (p.10) On the one hand, it ‘offers a vast textual landscape that echoes the world in which we live’, and it should be applauded for being one of a rare set of books that offers up an ‘empowered’ female heroine (pp 2, 8, 10). Yet, on the other hand, Wilson denounces Meyer for promoting ‘many facile, misleading notions about feminism’, criticising the saga for being ‘part and parcel of the post-feminist move to make feminism “seem redundant”’. (p. 207)
Undoubtedly, Wilson is accurate when she describes the texts as ‘unstable’ and ‘contradictory’, and uses this to explain the series’ supposed huge and varied fan base. However, just as the text vacillates, so does Wilson. Her invocation of Bordo in the opening is problematic. Aligning herself with Bordo’s ‘love / hate struggle’ with popular culture, Wilson describes herself as ‘beguiled but sceptical’. Her work then, throughout Seduced by Twilight seems to be, in part, a project to free the implied imprisoned fan-base of Twilight from the saga’s dangerous allure. For Wilson, in order to be empowered, we must be able to ‘see through the illusions’ of the text with a superwoman-esque ‘laser-like’ gaze. (pp. 7, 8 ) Adopting this stance is, of course, difficult, for, as Bordo also points out, not even cultural and literary critics can really ‘“cut through” the maze of cultural images’ bombarding everyday life. Wilson doesn’t necessarily need to solve this contradiction, of course, but one feels it certainly needs to be more specifically addressed. Particularly when, later in the essay she also claims the text acts as a ‘comforting salve’ in a cultural moment which abounds with insecurity, violence and fear. Edward’s wealth, beauty and intellect allow readers to escape to ‘a life of privilege not hampered by worry over the end of oil, the rising cost of electricity, nor the weakening dollar.’
Wilson also struggles to find what is original in Twilight as a Gothic text and cultural phenomenon. In chapter 1: ‘The Allure of the Vampire, the Danger of the Wolf’, Wilson links Twilight ephemera to the long history of people dressing up as vampires or adopting a vampire lifestyle, drawing on Spooner’s assertion that such activity is not always necessarily subversive and often is led by mass market forces. (2004, p. 167) Sound reasoning, but Wilson fails to add where Twilight fandom differs from what has come before, or how it can tell us anything more about this process, finally summarising that, for Twilight, ‘the fandom is not resistant to major trends and beliefs of the contemporary moment – it is not so much a counter-culture fandom as a pro-culture fandom.’ This seems to directly contradict her opening claim that the series allows its fans to resist cultural norms, and that readers of the texts can be ‘seduced’ by it in a myriad of ways, including active and subversive participation.
When Wilson turns her attentions to fan culture, the analysis becomes more assured. Her examination of Twilight marketing strategies and the book as ‘transmedia’ product in chapter 8: ‘Consuming Desires’ is certainly interesting and useful to anyone studying popular series fiction. In this, she draws on Marianne Marten’s work to show how changes and business mergers within the publishing industry results in a transformation in the very way books are evaluated. Now, the profit potential of a book, beyond the paper thin pages, takes ‘primacy over literary value’. This is certainly a very relevant debate, particularly for those working in young adult or children’s fiction. Likewise, her comments on the activities of the fan-base of Twilight, particularly in the US, provides an insight into some of the many the reasons why Twilight continues to hold an allure for its audience some years after its publication. The anecdotal portions of Wilson’s analysis provides a cynic, like myself, with some evidence as to how active participation in fan activities might be seen to be creative or subversive. Certainly, the description of Summer School in Forks, 2009, illustrates how fan activity does not have to be dictated by market forces, and how concepts such as membership can be brought into the wider Twilight debate. (pp. 195, 196)
Still, by the book’s end I hadn’t been fully convinced of Twilight’s status as ‘an important cultural text’ (p.11) and was left struggling to decide whether or not Wilson had aptly demonstrated that it was possible to ‘enjoy the saga while simultaneously examining (and resisting) its more delimiting messages.’ (p. 208) Perhaps, then, the multiple authored collection, Bringing Light to Twilight could, indeed, shed some light on some of these difficulties.
Unlike Seduced by Twilight, this book ‘makes no claims for justifying the aesthetic quality, widespread acclaim or adult readership of Meyer’s fiction; rather its primary goal is to take a rigorous analytical view of the books.’ (p. 2) And whilst this doesn’t necessarily involve criticising and evaluating the books perceived lack of depth, their un-originality, conservatism or materialistic ideology, one still finds that many of the articles in the collection are trying to account for in some way the texts’ ‘worthiness’. For a Twilight cynic, such as myself, the fact that Bringing Light to Twilight claims that the books’ value is found in their ability to inspire debate across audiences from ‘teenagers to senior citizens, Mormons and Buddhists, college professors and junior high school students, stay-at-home moms and Marxist theorists’ (p. 2) seems a little grandiose. I can’t help doubting that there’s really that many people who have a stake in Twilight. Surely, for many, the phenomenon is nothing more than a broody looking film poster passing by on the side of a bus? Countless people will never have heard of the Washington town of Forks, or ever considered whether or not they are ‘Team Jacob’ or ‘Team Edward.’ Despite this still problematic premise, Bringing Light to Twilight does do a good job of situating the saga within a long standing tradition of vampire fiction and young adult maturation narratives. Thus, it loses some of Seduced by Twilight’s starry-eyed quality in its hesitancy to class Meyer’s work as unique.
Some of the same critical difficulties are present, however. The editor assumes, inspired by children’s literature critic Peter Hunt, that because children’s and young adult literature performs an ideological function it must necessarily be the subject for critical scrutiny: ‘children are impressionable, and can be emotionally and intellectually prone to automatically accepting the ideological constructs underlying all texts.’ (p. 4) As with Wilson’s invocation of Bordo, this critical positioning is on shaky ground. Certainly, the work of Lesnik-Oberstein and Steven Thomson, for example, would question the notion that the work of critic is to assess books on their ideological suitability for young readers, and characterise the whole network of relations between producer, text, reader and critic as far more complex. (see Children’s Literature: New Approaches, 2004)
Beyond the introduction, though, the variety of approaches in the collection is interesting, giving a broad view of the varying – mostly cultural and literary – work on this popular series of novels. One problem, however, is the collection uneasily situates itself as both a rigorous academic tome, and light introduction to critical perspectives on the phenomenon. This can lead to some disparity in the approaches taken by the authors.
‘Twilight, translated’, by Kim Allen Gleed, for example, has a reasonably basic starting point, covering many general definitions of translation and explaining in fairly elementary terms the process of translating fiction from one language to another. Its instructional rather than discursive approach fails to make much analysis of the texts’ (both French and US versions) impact. The analysis that Gleed does undertake tends toward to personal and evaluative. For example, she describes some of the translators choices as ‘bizarre’, or criticises decisions made in the translation process that ‘unnecessarily’ emphasizes certain aspects of the language over others, and she denotes where he ‘could have’ used this French phrase, rather than the chosen one. Gleed’s discussion of the differing connotations and cultural significations in the French translation certainly bears interesting fruit, but a research student might find the explicative tone of the essay doesn’t meet their needs.
Essays like Maria Lindgren Leavenworth’s ‘Variations, subversions, and endless Love’ are more theoretical, though do spend some time at the outset outlining fairly basic concepts like what ‘fanfic’ involves, so as to include a reader not directly involved in the field. Leavenworth’s choice of fan-fiction certainly highlights the variety of creative activity going on beyond the Twilight ‘Canon’ and does give some solid examples of how the more negatively perceived characterisations, such as Bella as abused, submissive spouse, hiding her bruises from her husband to avoid provoking his anger (in Breaking Dawn), might be rewritten by fans aiming to subvert gender power relations. Leavenworth also avoids simplifying the effect of fan activity. Fan fiction isn’t just about subverting the canon, or allowing previously perceived passive consumers to become active participants in text. Instead, Leavenworth recognises the conservative impulse in fan fiction, and shows how the ‘fidelity to the central theme of love’ allows for endless repetitions of the original story’s themes and messages.
Merinne Whitton’s feminist analysis of the saga, ‘Motherhood and Masochism’, is notable for its direct challenge to those trying to claim or recuperate Twilight as feminist. For critics such as Wilson, an affirmative reading of Twilight, and Bella in particular, is possible. We need not read her as a conservative, anti-feminist creation. She does, for Wilson, despite the rather conservative, patriarchal trajectory of the narrative, get to be the hero of the day, and is ultimately allowed to triumph. However, for Whitton, such a reading is flawed. As she points out, to recuperate Bella as a feminist icon is disingenuous, and the notion of Bella’s choice an illusion. Her argument compellingly demonstrates how, as the saga progresses, ‘motherhood is the only licit objective of womanhood.’ In this way, Bringing Light to Twilight allows multiple voices to enter the Twilight debate, and could be the source for some lively scholarly discussion.
But, at the end of all this, I am still left with a sense of dissatisfaction. It’s not that exploring Twilight is an unworthy academic pursuit. The many absorbing ideas in both of these volumes show that this is not the case. However, I still want to shrug my shoulders and say, ‘so what?’ Twilight – the phenomenon – as many of these critics term it, in late 2011 seems a little passé. At least in the UK it feels like adolescent girls and their mums have moved on, or at least the Marxists and Buddhists have at any rate. Not even my no-longer-tween niece has a poster of Edward Pattinson on her bedroom wall anymore. Perhaps there’s a transatlantic cultural shift, here? After all, most of the contributors cited above are US based critics, and locate much of the impact of the phenomenon in US culture, fashion, marketing and merchandising. So, maybe, in America at least, the Cullen’s sparkle hasn’t worn off just yet?
However, for me, this seems to be an issue situated around the concepts of ‘text’ and ‘phenomena’. A discussion of the Twilight phenomena alongside other Gothic multi-media trends, such as Harry Potter, True Blood etc. might well be something that occupies scholars for years to come. However, I don’t think one can make a good case for saying there’s anything peculiar, particular or uniquely insightful about Twilight, the text, which means it can stand alone as the moment of cultural importance argued for in both Seduced by Twilight and Bringing Light to Twilight. Instead, we need to situate Twilight as part of an ongoing resurgence of the Gothic pervading popular culture. Ultimately, this Gothic resurgence, already well underway before Meyer published Twilight, was responsible for mass market forces turning their attention to all things vampire and might be read as the catalyst for these rather insipid books turning into the global phenomena of Twilight.
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