Arriving at the “Twilight” Party Years Too Late

The words have been said so often by so many millions of lads to so many millions of lasses, that they must be worn to tatters. But when you hear them for the first time, in some magic hour of your teens, they are as new and fresh and wondrous as if they had just drifted over the hedges of Eden. Madam, whoever you are, and however old you are, be honest, and admit that the first time you heard those words on the lips of some shy sweetheart, was the great moment of your life…    L.M. Montgomery, 1924

While my husband was away from home this winter, fighting crime, I fought to keep my happiness from capsizing. Little sorties became important, like roaming alone through Wal-Mart during Valentines week. It was there, in a seasonal hearts-and-flowers display, that I found a three-in-one DVD collection, the trinity of twenty-first century young adult romances, the first three movies of the Twilight series, for $9.99.

I have a secret weakness for young adult romance (secret up until a moment ago, anyways). I spent my teen years reading Greek drama and the Victorians. My idea of escapist reading was L.M. Montgomery. My idea of desperation reading was my mother’s Stephen King collection. The Sweet Valley High novels on my sister’s side of the room neither interested nor tempted me.

My appreciation for YA romance is an adult-onset phenomenon but it’s genuine. When I paid $3.33 per flick to catch up on Twilight five years too late, I expected to be indulging in a guilty pleasure. Ironically or not, I wanted to like the series. I understood a lot of people didn’t like it. But haters’ gonna hate, right? And Stephenie Meyer and I have more in common than just our professions. Rock on, Sister Meyer. Thanks for the good time. That’s what I hoped to be saying.

But instead of cheering, I was groaning my way through Twilight.




Carol and Mike from the Brady Bunch

There wasn’t a lot of dialogue in the movie version of the story. The film was mostly heavily filtered frames of pretty scenery, clunky CGI action shots, quiet staring, and slick soundtrack. When there was talking, the lines were often awkward and incongruous. For instance, big daddy vampire and his bride—the Cullen “parents”—were written and played like Mike and Carol Brady.

Sometimes, when I wondered why a character says something in a certain odd way, I’d find out it was because he was repeating a stand-out line from the original novels. What was more puzzling than these strange lines were the ones that weren’t nearly strange enough—the obvious lines a writer might jot down in a first draft but then refine into something more nuanced and artful as the story matured.

“Never go for the obvious kill,” a Twilight vampire warns a werewolf, “They’ll be expecting that.”

Never a truer word…

Forty minutes into the fourth movie (yes, I keep buying them) Twilight’s appeal started to *ahem* dawn on me. By that point in the movie, nothing has happened except exactly what we knew would happen. In all that time, the couple gets married. That’s it. The plot doesn’t advance a single step. It just delivers in hair-shoes-makeup detail what it’s been promising all along. It’s “fan-service.” Twilight gives its target audience, mostly teenaged girls, precisely what they want—the pretty boys, the comfy wardrobe, the smooching, the cool parents, the social one-up-manship— everything, right down to each word of dialogue. That’s the genius behind the series. The entire endeavor is fan-service.

As a jaded old lady and a writer in my own right of fiction approaching a Gothic love story, my first reaction to Twilight—the groaning—was about weariness with cliché, disappointment with the people behind the story and the audience in front of it for going for “the obvious kill.” As a demographic of writers and readers, we can do better.

Romantic piggy-back: looks like it can be pretty boring

But L.M. Montgomery’s advice (the quote at the beginning of this piece taken from Emily Climbs, her folksy, nineteenth century flavoured, Maritime-y take on the gothic teen romance) is worth considering. So sit down, Madam—or Sir—and remember high school dating. I remember it as a cringe-worthy mess marked by a few perfect moments—iconic moments that are a lot like everyone else’s perfect moments. Epic piggy-back rides, private musical recitals, handmade jewellery, working on a car together, catching someone staring from across the parking lot, secret knocking at the window, dancing in public with everyone gawking because it’s obviously a huge deal (or so we imagined) —those aren’t just personal moments. They’re ones we share with each other and with stories like Twilight.  That’s what makes them clichés: their truth.

Twilight is criticized for the expectations it fosters in young girls about romantic love. I don’t know if there’s much anyone could do to prevent those expectations. The romantic words, the gestures within the story are fairly universal in contemporary Western adolescent relationship scripts—or, at least, in my old diaries. Maybe those expectations are just as inevitably widespread. Twilight didn’t strike a nerve with young women because it unearthed the vampire fad at just the right point in history. It resounded because it told our own stories back to us, without trying to dress up or disguise the worn out “tatters.” It didn’t so much create young women’s culture as it reflected and codified what was already there.

Here is where I could plough into the fact that movies like The Avengers and Transformers perform the same fanciful but clichéd reflective function for young men only they get away with it without the searing social commentary leveled at Twilight for no reason other than sexism. I could, but instead I’ll stick to girl-talk. I’ll continue with L.M. Montgomery and her description of what our sweet, tattered words look like to onlookers:

Everything had suddenly become ridiculous. Could anything be more ridiculous than to be caught here…That’s how other people would look at it. How could a thing be so beautiful one moment and so absurd the next?

This is what impresses me most about Twilight: its refusal to balk at its own ridiculousness, its headlong dive into the absurdity of everybody’s love story. I don’t know why she did it. I don’t know whether it was calculated or not. But I’m going to choose to believe Stephenie Meyer is a brave writer. She wrote what we all know, what so many people apparently wanted to hear repeated. And she did it with that “unflinching” spirit critics usually praise. It’s like a teenaged girl stood up and used her own fingers to flip off the entire literary world. There’s something fierce and kind of admirable in it—but nothing that can keep me from flinching my face off.

Lost in the Post: My Silly Ambivalence for Epistolary Novels

The first epistolary book I ever disliked.

At one point during the painful process of compressing my novel into a tiny synopsis to print on the back of the book, we ended up with a paragraph that described the book as a series of letters.  Letters — I guess the connection between the book’s back cover copy and the title, Love Letters of the Angels of Death, on its front should have been obvious, especially to me.  So it must have seemed pretty strange to everyone else involved when I objected to seeing “letters” mentioned in the synopsis.

I blame L.M. Montgomery for my aversion to the epistolary novel — a work of fiction imagined as a bundle of personal correspondence.  Yes, I said Lucy Maude Montgomery, the Canadian author of the Anne of Green Gables series – the woman I hold personally responsible every time I cringe at a fellow Canadian using “delicious” to describe something that cannot fit into a mouth.  She’s also prone to portraying fat people as bad and birch bark as important enough to interrupt everything with a lengthy description of it.  She might be onto something with the birch bark but she’s definitely wrong about the fat people.

Naturally, after our visit to Prince Edward Island when I was nine, my mum bought me the first book in the Anne series.  Maybe because we moved so much, we were often without many books to read and I was stuck with Anne.  Then came the rest of the series.  I enjoyed the books well enough that I started adding to the collection myself.  They were great resources for soaking up vocabulary and learning to discern the sublime in domestic life.

The worst of the Anne books is Anne of Windy Poplars.  It does nothing to advance the larger story arc.  It’s like a long detour.  And it’s the volume of the series written as a collection of letters.  I must have balked at the idea of the novel I’ve written getting filed in the same letter-book category.  The little girl reader still working somewhere inside my consciousness didn’t want our work to bear any similarities to the book we remember as one of the most boring reads of our adolescence.  Readers accumulate some strange, complicated baggage.

It’s true that my book’s title does contain the word “letters.”  But my book lacks the form and lexicon of letter writing – or even diary writing or any of the other gimmicks that flag a book as epistolary.  There is no “Dear,” no “To Whom it May Concern,” no “Yours Truly” with a signature at the end — not even a token date dashed beside the chapter headings.

The reason I put “letters” in the title is to orient readers to the book’s second person narrator.  Most of the writing we produce and read – all of our emails and texts – is written in the second person.  Poetry and song lyrics are typically written this way too.  A second person narrator speaks as “I” but he doesn’t just ramble to himself.  He’s talking to “you, you, you.”  With all our experience reading short pieces in the second person, it didn’t seem like much of a stretch to ask readers to follow this familiar point of view throughout a book-length piece.  An introduction to a second person narrator, along with an informal, intimate tone was all I wanted out of the epistolary form.

I was about to say Anne of Windy Poplars made such an enduring, negative impression on me because it was the first epistolary novel I ever read but then I remembered Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  (This one counts as epistolary even though its second person messages are sent through prayers.)  I read this book during the same time period (ahem) as the offending Anne book but I’m fairly certain it didn’t bore me.

With more thought, I realized there were other fictitious diaries and letters I had forgotten on my bookcase.  There’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Anne Brontё’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Douglas Coupland’s Hey Nostradamus!, my husband’s copy of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, and Christopher Priest’s The Prestige – a novel I’ve been meaning to return half-read to my brother-in-law for ages.

I enjoyed some of these books – but not all of them.  When I was enjoying them most, their letter-writing form slipped past my notice.  While I didn’t remember that Dracula was epistolary, I do remember getting up at night to quiet my baby while I was reading it and being idiotically afraid of running into undead Lucy in the hallway.  I felt many things for all of these books but I never felt confused or alienated by their narrative styles.  It works.

I’ve over-generalized my dislike for the epistolary form.  Rejecting it was silly – the result of a tenacious childhood prejudice.  I wrote an epistolary novel.  And that’s okay.  It’s not the kind of thing that should amount to a scrap with an editor — though I did feel a little lighter when I flipped my advance reading copy onto its back to read the synopsis and saw the word “letter” had disappeared.