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.

“Nooo.”

“Whyyy?”

“Dooon’t.”

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.

Down the Rabbit-hole, or, Jenny’s Adventures in the American-Mormon Book Scene

I’m churchy, okay.  I’m not even sorry.

I wrote a novel about people who quote the Bible at funerals, have a large family, and conspicuously don’t drink coffee.  I wrote a book with the words “Joseph Smith” printed in it.  In case anyone missed it, my characters are Mormons and so am I.

Like all writers, my goal is for everyone to read my book.  Everyone includes my fellow Mormons.  The Church is active throughout the world but its densest concentration of members is in the American state of Utah.  By the time my book was released, I had only been to Utah once.  It was when I was twelve years old and caught in one of my parents’ horrifically hot transcontinental summer road trips.

As a grownup author with a book to promote, I didn’t know how to begin to infiltrate the Utah market.  I picked through the Internet until I discovered the Whitney Awards.  They were invented to recognize fiction produced by Mormon writers.  It was a longshot but a few months later, a panel of judges selected my book as a Whitney finalist – one of the top five in the general fiction category.

And that’s when I tripped down the rabbit-hole.

I’m still a novice when it comes to understanding fiction considered “Mormon.”  I haven’t learned all its terminologies and talking points.  Please forgive any rookie misconceptions here.  As far as I can tell from outside the scene, “Mormon fiction” means several different things.  It has to since the Church is large and varied enough to include all kinds of people with all kinds of tastes and reading and writing levels.  Contrary to nasty, simple-minded fairy tales, there is no monolithic Mormon person.  Insisting there is would be calling on a stereotype and it’s as unfair to apply a stereotype to a religious group as it is to apply it to any other bunch of humans.whitneysepia

Far from being a unified movement, the Mormon book-scene is multi-faceted.  Within it there are writers who craft books intended solely for Mormon audiences.  They produce mainly historical fiction, kissing-only romance, inside jokes, and heartwarming lessons.

There are also Mormon authors – big commercial names like Brandon Sanderson and Stephanie Meyer – who write mass market speculative and young adult fiction.

When it comes to literary fiction, much of the book-length Mormon-y stuff is written from the negative perspectives of disaffected members – people who don’t like church anymore.  Some of these writers – no one famous or influential enough for me to spontaneously remember their names – loudly reject the idea that there can be a “Great Mormon Novel” that combines good literary fiction with Mormon orthodoxy.

I didn’t know this a year ago, but I’ve heard there comes a time in most Utah-Mormon writers’ careers when they must ask themselves if they’re going to work within the Mormon niche or in the mass market.  I have never asked myself this question.  Until recently, the Mormon book-scene hasn’t been part of my consciousness.  I’ve missed out on some good contacts and mentors because of that but I’ve also been spared some self-consciousness and second-guessing – the burden of a complicated, value-laden artistic and intellectual drama.

It was when my novel was named a Whitney finalist that it started to get traction in the Mormon book-scene.  At first, it was received with enthusiasm.  Kind reviews started to appear.  People were happy to read my book.  It unwittingly defied critics and filled a literary void in the 2013 Mormon publishing calendar.

What I didn’t understand was that all this goodwill was coming from just one corner of the book-scene.  I hadn’t counted on the larger, sometimes more petulant corner that prefers to have its heart warmed, flipped over, warmed again, flipped over, warmed again…  From that corner, literary work often seems risky and dangerous and pretentious.

I was about to learn this in an episode I’ll call “Off With Her Head.”

There’s a newspaper in Utah called Deseret News.  It’s not run by the Church but it is owned by the Church.  A freelance book reviewer assigned by Deseret News – a woman the same age as my mum — really, really hated my novel.  I can’t find a way to say this that doesn’t sound like bragging so I’ll just blurt it out.  I don’t have much experience with bad reviews.  The fact that this reviewer didn’t like the book was strange and disappointing.  But that wasn’t what made me sick about it.

The reviewer didn’t actually say much about the book – nothing that can be traced back to the text, anyways.  Instead of offering an analysis of the story, she chose to denounce it via the lowest road there is: the one that ploughs through my quality as member of the Church.  In this review, my book — and by extension myself — was pronounced “not the perspective of the Church.”

A complete stranger had called out my work in a Church-owned publication as bad Mormonism.  I don’t know how other churches work but in my Church, book reviewers aren’t supposed to have the authority to say what or who is or is not doctrinally orthodox.

Now, the last thing a novelist should do upon getting a bad review is challenge the reviewer and her editors about it.  Everyone knows that.  We are aloof artistes.  We ignore and move on.  But the reviewer had raised issues outside my book.  She’d attacked my integrity and fidelity.  It was so far offside I blew the whistle.

I complained first to her immediate editors.  They ignored me (though the reviewer showed some shocking hegemony when she wrote back telling me it is indeed her role to warn innocent readers when books “don’t match up” to good Mormon doctrine). Fuming, I wrote to the president of the newspaper.   Within half an hour of sending that email, Deseret News apologized, took the offensive comments out of the review, and asked me to forward the email where the reviewer voiced her absurd self-appointed mandate to judge my orthodoxy.

My novel had become controversial and polarizing.  When the controversy wasn’t terrible publicity, it was great publicity.  In the days after the review, people defended my work.  This included an old family friend who is actually an ecclesiastical leader in the Church. He likes the book, doesn’t find it doctrinally subversive, and when he read the review he wondered, “What book did she read?”

After all this, I decided to travel to Utah to attend the Whitney Award ceremony anyway.  I’d been tumbling down the rabbit-hole of the Mormon book-scene long enough to start to examine my surroundings and the other objects falling with me.  I was curious – perhaps morbidly so – and wanted to land in that world and move through it in the physical universe for a little while.

Once again, my parents were my traveling companions in Utah.  We had the good fortune to be in Salt Lake City’s Temple Square during a quick, free concert played on the massive pipe organ inside the big church that puts the “Tabernacle” in the “Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”  We all agreed this was the highlight of the trip.  Instead of indulging himself with a fussy highbrow organ piece, the organist played accessible songs – organ pop-songs with swelling choruses and big finishes like sonic tsunamis.  They were loud and fancy – songs meant to show us what the old pipe organ could do, sounds that vibrated through our chest cavities as if we were part of the instrument ourselves.  The organist was playing to the hearts and souls of musical Philistines like my parents and me – and we loved it.  It was exactly what we wanted.  There are times and places to play to more subtle and discriminating tastes but this was not one of them.

Back at the Whitney Awards, things weren’t going so well.  I’d brought books to sell and in an entire day, I’d sold one.  Sure, it was to the fiction editor of Sunstone magazine but – come on.  At the banquet I accidentally flung my tough cut of sirloin into the front of my dress and, of course, I did not win a Whitney Award.  I’d been nominated alongside three romances and a buddy-road-trip novel.  The best and most literary of the three romances won.  For the overall best book award, another romance – self-described as Bronte inspired — was the winner.  I was a little offended when, in her acceptance speech, the winner made comments that could have been construed as her claiming to have won because she had prayed harder over her book than the rest of us (again with the beside-the-point piety rankings) but other than that, the award made sense.

See, the final round of the Whitney competition is a popular vote.  It’s like a free, quick concert on an ostentatious pipe organ.  It’s got to be a crowd-pleaser, an easy, emotionally satisfying romp.  That’s just what it is.

What I do appreciate is that someone in the previous selection round, one or more of the Whitney judges, had stuck their necks out and brought my novel – a literary piece, a critic-pleaser by an obscure foreigner – to the Mormon book-scene’s attention.  The Whitneys aren’t really the time or the place to celebrate a novel like that – not yet, anyways.  But someday they might be.  This year, maybe they came a little closer.  Maybe someday that mythical “Great Mormon Novel” will appear on the scene and by then even the most guarded reviewers in the Deseret News will have learned not to be angry and afraid of it.

Until then, take my novel, Mormon book-scene.  Take it into your Wonderland and let it wear away some of the harshness of the hegemony still lurking there.  Grind it up, add its few small grains to the foundation being built for something better than what’s there now.

Lessons in Vocabulary and Art from Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly Reviews My Novel

Publishers Weekly Reviews My Novel

This week, my little Canadian novel was reviewed in Publishers Weekly.  (I know, right?  Read it here.)  The review isn’t long but it is perfectly positive.  The reviewer isn’t credited by name in the online version I’ve seen but she or he was thoughtful and insightful enough to have me Googling a few of the terms used to describe my own work.

The first was one of those words that’s still vaguely familiar from my Arts degree days — those spellbinding lectures on Jungian psychology at the base of the Tory Tower.  Somewhere in scrolling through the fanciful vocabulary of archetypes scrawled on the overhead projector film, the meaning of this term slipped out of my consciousness.  It’s “psychopomp.”  It doesn’t sound like a nice thing to be called but, as I now remember, it means a creature who serves as a guide to souls — newly deceased souls in particular but also the newly born or anyone unmoored.  As the PW review points out, my novel’s main characters are psychopomps.  I had never thought of them that way before but it’s certainly true.

The second term I had to look up was completely new to me: mono no aware.  Though it’s tempting, don’t try to use an English or Latin vocabulary to decode it.  It’s a bit of Japanese philosophy and translates into something like “the pathos of things.”  The idea is that instead of the bittersweet knowledge that this world is transient making us morbid and jaded, it moves us to reverence our lives and experience them as poignant rather than mundane.  I’m no scholar of Japanese philosophy but I think it might be the opposite of the Western ennui that makes up so much of literary thought right now.  Whatever it is, I think I need to find my old, water-stained copy of The Tale of Genji and read it again.

There’s a lot to love about being an artist.  That anyone would read my work is great.  That they would look up and from my work and have something to say about it is even better.  And having them teach me something I didn’t know about what I, myself, have written makes me want to fall on my face and cry — especially when it’s something true.  Sometimes, it’s wonderful to admit, “I didn’t know that was in there and I don’t know where it came from.”

I’m usually fairly pragmatic and cringe at the conceits and the headier romance of writer-life.  I don’t have much of a stomach for elitist memes and other silliness bent on making embarrassing overstatements about writing and writers.  But there is something genuinely sublime about art — even the quiet, tappity-tap, within sight of my laundry hamper art form of my own.  At its best, art is a miracle.  And we bow our heads, grateful and baffled that whatever it is that makes miracles would stoop to involve people like us.