For years, I resisted reading Twilight.  It wasn’t that I thought I wouldn’t like it. I was afraid I would like it too much.  I had heard that they were poorly written, misogynistic, and spiritually dark. And what would it say about me—a writer, a feminist, a Christian—if I liked Twilight? Twilight hit upon some of my deep and complicated fault lines.

 

 

But this summer, I broke down and read them. I justified it on a couple of levels. First, it was “research.” If I was writing an older children’s novel, then I needed to read popular children’s, middle grade, and young adult literature. Second, I had a lot of students I tutor who were reading it over the summer. I love to encourage my students to read, so I wanted to be able to talk with them about the books they were reading. But third, and most importantly, I love all of John Granger’s literary analysis on Harry Potter, and he wrote a book about Twilight. And I wanted to read his book Spotlight. So I took the plunge.

 

 

And I like them. A lot. And I didn’t feel like I was selling out reading them. So here are some thoughts on my initial three hang-ups:

 

 

1. Is Twilight poorly written?

 

I have a lot of baggage with the idea of “poor writing.” As someone with dyslexia, that label has been applied to my own writing a number of times over the years. “That is poorly written” are some of the more hurtful words I’ve heard. It’s been decades of work to embrace that my spelling and grammatical syntax issues do not preclude me from communicating a compelling story.  Also, I don’t think “poor writing” is a helpful category. Writing is communication. Do you communicate effectively? That is the question.

And Stephanie Meyer certainly communicates effectively. She has millions of books and fans. Without a doubt, she effectively enchanted the hearts and minds of her readers. And her stories are captivating and creative. They have amazing climaxes and interesting ideas.  She is a smart lady.  She plays around with literary alchemy, with feuding families, with X-men like super powers, and retelling classic stories, and myths. My favorite character is Alice with her glimpses of the future and buoyant joy.

 

 

 

Now, do I think it might have been slightly more effective with a bit more editing and prose-tightening? Maybe. I certainly need helpful editorial eyes to help me be the most effective. But when someone is as popular as Meyer, I think it’s hard to be objective about her work. I am reminded of that wonderful line from Midnight in Paris when the protagonist Gil asks Hemingway to read his novel manuscript and hear his hero’s opinion. And Hemingway says, “I hate it.” And Gil responds, “You haven’t even read it yet.” And Hemingway says, “If it’s bad, I’ll hate it. If it’s good, then I’ll be envious and hate it even more.” To me “poor writing” in actuality is sometimes simply veiled jealousy and bias against what is popular.

 

 

2. Is Twilight misogynistic?

 

I didn’t know that I was a feminist until college. My dad worked from home, and did the majority of the cooking. My grandmother was a scientist. My parents are equal parents. And I had no idea that was strange until I went to college. I sat in my introduction to theology class and heard a young man say, “Well, I might let my wife work, maybe.” Then, I realized that my background was vastly different from many of my conservative Christian classmates. And so I began to study gender. I learned about categories and the history of patriarchy.  I became passionate and sometimes harsh in my crusade. And then I went back and read some of my favorite Christian romance novels from high school. It was a sobering experience. But what I realize now is that the modern romance has come to us out of a patriarchal culture. I think it is often part of the genre.

 

 

So I don’t think that Twilight is any more misogynistic than most romance novels. I think that the category of romance novels is inherently prone to being somewhat patriarchal. The tropes of the strong and controlling male and the emotional and weaker female are difficult to escape.  In a romance novel, you are focusing on the maleness and femaleness of your characters and putting them into situations where they are flourishing and failing. Now, do I think that Meyer could have done more to push back against the genre predisposition towards patriarchy? Maybe. Genre conventions need to be challenged when they lend themselves to perpetuating injustice. That is part of the calling to tell stories that are true, even if they are fiction. But, to her credit, Meyer already has Bella writing papers about misogyny in Shakespeare, and ultimately the climax of each book has themes of Bella contributing and being a strong sacrificial figure.  So while Meyer isn’t doing anything overly heroic in bending the patriarchal conventions of the romance novel, she is certainly envisioning her main female character as a strong one.

 

 

3. Is Twilight full of dark spirituality?

 

My parents both came to a personal and deep faith in high school before moving to California and witnessing some truly strange cult-like groups. This led them to being somewhat cautious, and they at times took the party line of conservative Christians in the 90s. No Ouija boards and no Dungeons and Dragons, but lots of CS Lewis and Tolkien. We also had somewhat of an on and again off again relationship with Halloween. Some years we could go trick-or-treating, some years we’d go to museums instead.  I don’t really have memories of being confused about what I could and couldn’t do, although I did watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer in secret in junior high when they were at small group.  We didn’t really talk about books being not ok to read. Although there was definitely a subtext at our Pentecostal Church that Harry Potter was about witchcraft, you could read it, but shouldn’t really talk about it or get overly “involved.”

 

 

In the decade following, my parents have become Eastern Orthodox and the whole conservative Christian world has seemed to have lost interesting in burning and banning Harry Potter. My parents are only now reading through the Harry Potter series after much begging on my part that they do. (They are enjoying the books immensely!) What makes a book spiritually dark and dangerous isn’t a simple test of whether it has wizards, werewolves, or vampires in it. It’s what the characters do. It’s what the characters believe and rely upon. Magic can represent the way that God works, or it can symbolize the way that evil insidiously and deceptively perpetuates itself.

 

 

It turns out that Meyer probably had a somewhat similar background to mine. (Although I don’t think she snuck and watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer).  She relates how her initial dream about vampires that inspired the series was so intriguing because she didn’t know anything about vampires. So in many ways, Twilight, while it has spurred quite a bit of interest and expansion on the genre, isn’t directly related to many of the other works on vampires.

 

 

Actually, I think that the really interesting spiritual component to the work is that it is heavily (if subconsciously) influenced by Meyer’s Mormon faith.  One of the most interesting parts of John Granger’s book about the Twilight series is his fascinating discussion of the role and symbolism of the spiritual within the book. There are components such as Christ-like figures, alchemical transformations similar to Theosis, and reconciliation of warring factions that I recognized as I read through it. But for a fascinating look at the Latter-day Saints’ theology that is scattered throughout the books, I highly recommend reading Granger on the subject. I think that there is much that a Christian can engage and even critique about the spiritual message of Twilight, but our discussion needs to go beyond a surface layer discussion about vampires and werewolves and get to the heart of how sin and redemption are represented.

 

 

So all in all, I’m glad I read them, and I loved reading John Granger  as he took them apart and put them back together again.  I want to continue to work toward being the sort of writer and person who doesn’t reject something simply because it’s popular, but I want to respect the power of story and what it has the capacity to communicate.

I’ll be back next week with more prayer resources!

 

 

Have you read Twilight? (Be honest!) What are your feelings about the series?

 

 

10 Responses to Confession: I like Twilight + 3 reasons I had thought I wouldn’t

  1. Amy Sullivan says:

    ( I stand up from my chair ) Hello, my name is Amy Sullivan, and I read the Twilight series. AND LOVED THEM 🙂
    I Loved how Edward struggled with who he was and how he was made and that he chose to be something better. I loved how everyone had a special talent and gift that they could use for evil or good. I love how much of it, though a fantasy, had real life struggles. I Love how Bella and Edward (even though I am on Jacobs team :)) were connected by something other than just lust. They were made for each other. Chosen.
    The series as a whole, while not my favorite of all time, was a great read. It made me look at myself, and my relationship with God. That is a book worth reading in my eyes.

    Thanks for Sharing Little Amy! 😉 Miss you so much!

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      Thanks Amy! I really love the whole special role part too. That might be one of my very favorite aspects. Evan got me to watch the X-men movies a couple years ago, and I definitely see a lot of ties with how Meyer does her vampire extra talents. I think watching Bella discover her shield was perhaps one of the most satisfying parts of the book. And although I was so over the whole long-triangle thing (team-Less-Drama), I thought the way Meyer resolved it with the imprinting bit was pretty impressive. Again the whole idea of calling and roles and how our struggles and feelings of loneliness can be redeemed. You know I think that the way that you and James treated each member of our youth group growing up really reflected this too. You cared about us individually and compassionately. I still think of how you and I met when I first moved to Wisconsin and we read through that Relationship book. You both have such a gift for encouragement and seeing the beautiful and value in those that you care for. I think I need to write a whole post about how much I really appreciate the two of you!!

      • Amy Sullivan says:

        I totally agree with way too much triangle love drama! Actually, Bella kind of drove me insane with her instability. But that is also maybe an aspect of the book that youth can relate to. They have so many choices in life, I am sure it is confusing what road to go down.
        I am so glad you have fond memories of youth group days! I don’t think we knew what we were doing at all!…..all I knew was that I needed to love you and show you the love of God, and by his grace we hopefully did that 🙂 You have grown into such an amazing woman, I am SO proud of you and that I can call you my friend.

  2. Amy: I love this. And THANK YOU!

    I did read the Twilight books, and I LOVED them. More specifically, I loved the experience. Looking back after I’d finished them, I realized they weren’t the best thing I’d ever read, but I enjoyed the experience immensely. I completely agree with you — Meyer creates gripping plots, enchanting scenarios, and intriguing characters. Her books really hit a place in my heart — there’s something just so magnetic about the story. I absolutely devoured them. (This was a couple of years ago.) Sure, they’ve got their problems. But they were still a fun read.

    Some of the writing made me cringe in a few places, but overall, I didn’t think it was terrible. Again, I agree with you — calling writing “poor” isn’t very helpful. It could have used some editing, certainly. But she definitely communicated her story, and captivated imaginations all over the world.

    I only became a feminist after I graduated university, but I didn’t take too much issue with the books being “misogynistic.” My only complaint is that Bella is kind of a boring character, and was kind of pathetic when Edward left her. But I could still relate to her.

    Some people complain that she gave up her academic pursuits and aspirations to get married; but as a SAHM mom myself I don’t see how that’s a problem. Marriage and motherhood are noble vocations. In my eyes, there’s nothing inherently feminist about pursuing a (possibly soul-crushing) career.

    All that being said, I wouldn’t want a young girl to read Twilight. I don’t want my daughter reading it until she’s an adult. I’m glad that Edward and Bella wait until marriage to have sex (as silly and embarrassing as that story arc is), but I don’t like the message that if you just wait for marriage, sex will automatically be AMAZING.

    Bella really isn’t a great role model in general — she doesn’t have much for a personality, opinions, talents, or skills. Definitely too obsessed with her vampire boyfriend.

    But it’s a fun read for a mature, experienced adult, and I don’t hide the fact that I enjoyed it myself. 🙂

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      Thanks Kathleen! You know when you mentioned on your blog that you liked the books and the movies, it definitely was part of my inspiration for deciding to write about it here.

      I agree that I would be hesitant to let my own kids read it until they’re older. I vacillate a lot about whether I wish I had read fewer Christian romance novels as a junior high/high schooler. I have a lot of complicated feelings about what they did to my ideas of romance and marriage. Some are good, and probably helped shape my high standards, and some aren’t so good and I have to keep thinking about ways to adjust my expectations and vision of the romantic.

      Oh and the way that Twilight handles sex! You’re so right. I think that a lot of the first book’s discussion about Edward trying to control himself his some pretty clear underlying sexual tension. Yeah, I think that probably one of my bigger hiccups on the whole misogyny/patriarchy bit was the bruises on the honeymoon description. I’m not ok with the bruises. And I hadn’t really thought about how it’s part of the whole “message that if you just wait for marriage, sex will automatically be AMAZING” bit. But yeah, I totally agree with you, that is not good either. I think the fact that a wait-til-marriage-for-sex book is so popular and praised as being the an epitome of Romance is helpful in elevating sex to something more than a causal encounter, but I think that sometimes conservative Christian’s have jumped on that bandwagon without really looking at all the other messages about sex and sexuality in the book.

      Oh and I thought that when Edward leaves Bella, if you’re not reading that as how we’re lost without God, man it was rough. Get a life girl, have some healthy boundaries! And that does not mean do dangerous stunts on a motorcycle to feel alive. But it sort alines with my over all feeling that the first half of the first two books were majorly redeemed as a set up for the great climax endings when Bella’s back with the Cullens.

      Thanks for your great thoughts, Kathleen!

  3. Julia D. says:

    I read the Twilight books shortly before the release of the third book, in a book club with coworkers, and then read the third and fourth when they came out. I liked them!

    I would not classify Twilight as great literature. I often found the characters frustrating and the plot thin. But, it did something I really enjoy, which was to introduce an interesting world setting for the reader to explore through the adventures of the characters. I feel the same about Harry Potter.

    For me, that’s a big point in favor of any fictional or nonfictional story: good worldbuilding. An interesting world but weak characters and plot is also an invitation for fanfiction. Reading some good fanfic increased my appreciation of both Twilight and Harry Potter.

    In particular, I enjoyed Luminosity. The twist is that Bella is more rational (and also less emotional); everyone else is about the same.
    http://luminous.elcenia.com/

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      Thanks Julia! I have not been brave enough to dive into the whole world of fan fiction. But, I agree that Meyer definitely creates an intriguing world that you want to dwell on and explore more. It’s funny, because along with the three hang ups that I had, I definitely heard that Bella wasn’t a strong character too. And so I read it with a pretty critical eye toward the way that she was written. And, I sort of agree, but then I think it’s hard to separate the characters from the world. She’s our eyes into the world, and she does that effectively. I wonder if I hadn’t been predisposed to thinking that she was passive and boring if I would have thought about it much, or if I would have been too drawn into what she sees to care much about how she sees it. Although, I admit that I think almost the whole time she’s in the high school is really only worth reading as a set up for the second half of the first three books. I think the other high school humans are not nearly as interesting or flushed out as the vampires. Thanks for your thoughts, Julia! I always appreciate your insight.

  4. A friend sent me this link, and I’m absolutely delighted to find someone defending Twilight. Usually I feel like I’m standing on a hill by myself. 🙂

    I love the books. In fact, I have a somewhat different perspective from commenter Kathleen above: not only did I love Bella as a character, but her response to Edward’s disappearance read so strongly to me as an image of the loss of the presence of God in a life–something I’ve experienced in the past, in company with depression–that New Moon is my favorite of the series. I can see where some of the portrayal might be unhealthy for some readers, especially young girls waking up to boys and to new, powerful emotions while God is still an abstract or absent concept… but it did mean a lot to me.

    It was enjoyable to read your thoughts on the three reasons you wouldn’t like the story, and again, a delight to find someone recognizing the good in the books. So many people fuss about Twilight as if they expected it to be great literature and were shocked, but I think it would be fairer if we admitted that Twilight is pop commercial fiction that occasionally supersedes its category by much further than most popular commercial fiction ever dreams of. It breaks my heart that Meyer doesn’t look back on the Twilight experience as a happy one. I think she has perfectly good rights to be proud of what she achieved.

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      Thanks Jenna! You know I thought a little more about that zombie section when Edward left, and I think my strong reaction to it is an indication that it would be really meaningful and symbolic for some people. I read it as God leaving in some sense too, and how unable to cope we would be. I thought the starkness of those pages where just the month was written were really powerful way to indicate the emptiness. The funny thing about books is that we don’t actually want to “enjoy” every second of them. There need to be times when were are uncomfortable with the characters. We experience a catharsis with them as the struggle, sharing in a bit of their pain, and thus are able to share in their transformation. I think of the middle section of the The Deathly Hallows when we wander around with Harry and Hermione (and Ron before he leaves) as a similar desperate wandering and separation. I hadn’t really thought about the idea that Bella’s depression would be a connecting point with people generally (not just post-breakup sadness). Thank you for sharing that with me. One more thing to like about Twilight! I’m sure that Meyer has a lot of complicated feelings about Twilight it seems like a lot of people have been very vocal about their criticisms as well as their love for it.

  5. Deborah Chan says:

    Hi Amy,

    I’m late to comment here, but read your column in November and liked it. I was the friend who passed it on to Jenna, above. I get tired of Meyer’s characters being held to a perfection standard no other YA author’s are. I’m a feminist and Christian, and I love the books.

    1. Are the books poorly written? Well, Meyer is no stylist, but she’s an excellent storyteller. I think her success speaks for itself in her ability to communicate her story. I felt from the first that she was let down in the editing department (my specialty), especially the first book, but she improved as time went by.

    2. Is the story misogynistic? Well, it’s certainly traditional, as you say, but the strongest characters in the books are the females. Even Edward takes an almost invisible back seat when Bella becomes a vampire.

    I find the complaints about the honeymoon bruising kind of odd, to be honest. Bella was having sex with a vampire and had been repeatedly warned against it by Edward. I hardly think it qualifies as a cautionary tale about human sex.

    As for Bella being weak and waffling, I don’t see this at all. Bella is the strongest character in the books and it’s only when she allows herself to become weak in New Moon that she really begins to grow.

    When John Granger had his forksprofessor.com blog, I contributed an essay called A Psychological Look At Bella and Edward in Twilight and New Moon on their histories and dynamic. I’d be happy to email it to you, if you want to privately contact me. I’d probably adjust it some now, but can share new thoughts with you, too.

    But I have to say, Spotlight is an excellent and critical book for understanding and appreciating the Saga.

    BTW, if you haven’t read The Host, Meyer pulls out all the stops in this gripping psychological SF yarn. I like it better than the Twilight Saga.

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