Throwback Thursday: a Very Scientific Analysis of the TWILIGHT series by Stephenie Meyer

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Throwback Thursday is a new feature about books I once loved, no matter how embarrassing (or awesome!) I find them today.

I’m starting off with a bang by talking about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series: books that consumed my life for a few months and then fell off my radar just as fast. I went from getting into literal fistfights with my sister over who got to read Breaking Dawn first, to sheepishly dropping off all my copies at Goodwill, where Twilight box sets go to die alongside VHS box sets of Titanic.

 

photo description: a collage of the covers of the four Twilight books. From left to right: Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn.

It definitely wasn’t just me that Twilight sunk its hooks er, teeth into. I maintain that nearly everybody who’s in their early-to-mid twenties today had a Twilight phase, even if they lie about it now. Twilight also turbo-charged the YA, romance, and erotica genres as we know them today, so even if you hated the books and movies from the start, you’ve still been affected by them as a cultural phenomenon. (Fifty Shades, anyone?)

Why were these books so addictive, and why did they turn taboo so quickly? For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I’m going to do some intense science-ing to find out.

the good: 

More than anything, the wish fulfillment.

Sure, the romance was great, but nearly everyone I remember talking to about Twilight found the Cullen family’s endless wealth and opportunity to be the most charming and enthralling part of the series. Into fashion? You probably drooled over Alice and Rosalie’s ginormous closet. Wedding fanatic? The idea of having infinite money and support to plan your dream wedding (like Bella had with Edward) is pretty damn captivating. Love vacations? If you ignore the pillow-biting and bruises, it’s hard to beat Edward and Bella’s honeymoon. Love cars? Edward’s definitely got you covered. Motorcycles? He’s not filthy rich, but Jacob Black’s fine too, I guess.

While it’s hard to imagine why anyone who had the Cullens’ means would want to deal with high school over and over, and there are plenty of other silly plot holes that never get explained, I think the endlessly pleasant and escapist world Meyer created is unmatched in anything else I’ve ever read to this day. I still daydream about how Twilight‘s vampires never needed to sleep. Imagine what I could accomplish!

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Also: the Twilight movies boosted Kristen Stewart, lesbian icon for the ages, to popularity. While others thirsted after RPattz and that guy from The Adventures of Sharkboy and LavagirlI definitely had it bad for Stewart in all her awkward, lip-biting glory. Bless her for bringing such powerful queer energy to an aggressively heterosexual franchise. Bless the Twilight books for existing to give her the opportunity. Good vibes all around.

+1,000,000

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image description: Kristen Stewart in costume as Bella sitting in a red pick-up truck, winking, and flashing an “OK” sign. Swoon.

the bad:

The writing, the writing, the writing! I guess you could argue that because these books are so addictive, they must have done something right, prose-wise. Then again, there’s the textual evidence. Geek feminist blog I Wanted Wings did a fabulous round-up of some of the worst quotes from the first novel, like the one where Bella makes a terrible joke about being “part-albino” and then, when no one laughs, decides that “clouds and a sense of humor didn’t mix.”

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gif description: Marcia Brady sarcastically saying “Sure, Jan.”

I legitimately don’t understand how Meyer’s editor and publisher didn’t clean things up a little before unleashing Twilight upon the world. It reads like the first thing Meyer ever wrote (probably because it pretty much was) and the secondhand embarrassment I feel whenever I try and re-read excerpts of the books is…intense. I think this more than anything else is responsible for Twilight backlash.

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I will say that while Stephenie Meyer is terrible at writing about flirting, 99% of teenagers (and, like, 70% of full-grown adults) are really terrible at flirting. So while it’s hilarious to read things like:

“I love them,” I enthused, making an effort to smolder at him…

…you can’t fault the accuracy.

+2

the ugly:

Stephenie Meyer’s crappy abuse-enabling + repeated ignorance of the real-life Quileute Nation. No matter how fondly I look back on my Twi-hard days, I can’t get past how much damage Meyer and her publishers did in these arenas.

Bella’s relationships with Edward and Jacob are straight-up creepy, controlling, and abusive. On one hand, I think it’s okay to write, read, and fantasize about relationships you wouldn’t be into in real life–most of erotica and romance is based on this! –but the problem was that Twilight 1) was geared towards teens, who are smart and wonderful in many ways but are also uniquely vulnerable to this kind of messaging, and 2) that it gained purchase in lots of highly conservative, abstinence-only circles who are also vulnerable to this.

To get very political (because this shit is important to me), I think everyone deserves accurate sex ed as well as accurate info on what makes for healthy relationships, and the knowledge that the extent of what many people got for sex ed was literally Twilight (and now, Fifty Shades) makes me sick to my stomach. I think choosing the life Bella ultimately chooses in Twilight is fine, but that it was presented as this ultimate and inevitable romantic option is…not great. It’s not entirely Stephenie Meyer’s fault–she wrote the story she wanted to write, I guess–but it still gives me the heebie-jeebies.

-250,000

The Quileute stuff is even worse, in my opinion. In the Twilight books, Jacob is from the Quileute tribe, which readers later discover (in New Moon, I think) is home to shape-shifting werewolves who are there to protect their people from vampires.

Of course, that’s not at all the Quileute people’s real history and mythology, and Meyer’s Calvin-ball had consequences. The Twilight craze benefited some tribal members who got in on the tours and special events held in Forks and La Push, Washington, but it also seriously compromised their cultural heritage thanks to Meyer’s dilution of their real stories. Insensitive merch designers looking to make a quick buck off of Quileute designs didn’t help, either.

I don’t know if it would have been much better for the representation of Native Americans if Meyer had created a fictional tribe for the purposes of Twilight, but her wanton finger-painting with the creation story of a culture that’s not her own–especially because she didn’t get permission or any cultural consulting first–leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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bonus round:

The merch (just not the crappy Quileute stuff). Here, have a gratuitous picture of yours truly, wearing one of my most treasured thrift-store finds:

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photo description: Me (a white person with thick-rimmed glasses and brown hair) wearing a light blue T-shirt that says “Twilight Mom” in fancy font. I’m smirking.

This stuff was EVERYWHERE, especially during the lead-ups to the movies. The Christmas after my obsession had well and truly died, my well-meaning uncle bought me a giant set of Twilight journals and pencils that I promptly hid under my bed forever. There were also supremely cringe-y Hot Topic collections along with everything on this wack-a-doo io9 compilation of the 30 creepiest Twilight merch options, which includes a cross-stitch kit for Jacob’s abs and a felted replica of Bella’s vampire-infested womb. Seriously.

I thought about including all this crap under “the ugly” part of my Very Scientific Analysis, but frankly, I admire the hustle too much to insult it that way. These folks knew there was a limited amount of time to make hay, so they rolled out a bonkers cash-grab hay-baling-operation that I don’t think there’s been the likes of since. Kudos.

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Conclusion:

It’s funny how you can have a soft spot for a book you know you’re never, ever going to read again, and Twilight epitomizes that for me. It motivated me to write and dream bigger, not least because I knew I could write something better. It made publishing seem less like an un-assailable fortress, and more like the business it is. In a weird way, I think I can thank it for my current career as a freelance writer.

In short, Twilight is a hot, bland mess, but it’s my hot, bland mess. Just don’t make me read it again.

FINAL SCORE: 58. 

Thanks for playing! See you in a week or two for another Throwback Thursday deep dive.

Book Review: ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

Fear of losing one’s self and one’s mind drives a lot of fiction these days, but I can safely say that Jeff VanderMeer’s eco-thriller Annihilation is one of the most original and thought-provoking takes on the theme I’ve read. Somewhere in the American South, an ecological mystery zone is spreading, governed by the top-secret Southern Reach organization. Some who enter kill themselves; some kill each other. The last expedition materialized randomly back at their homes, dying of aggressive cancer within months. Annihilation is the story of the twelfth expedition, told from the perspective of the an idiosyncratic biologist. The expedition quickly unravels amidst ever-eerier encounters with the natural (and unnatural) world, leaving the biologist to uncover devastating secrets…and to wonder if Area X is truly a disaster, or a blessing in disguise. While parts of the story feel almost hypnotically dull, it’s also, somehow, unputdownable. If you’ve ever been lost in the woods, you’ll recognize the mixed sensations of dread and wonder that Annihilation inspires. VanderMeer’s vision is breathtaking here, and my quibbles with his execution pale in comparison to the vast feelings of awe and possibility I felt while reading: exactly what I go to science fiction for in the first place.

You can read my full review below.


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Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

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  • publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: February 4, 2014
  • length: 195 pages
  • cover price: $14.00

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

Annihilation, page 1

I’m usually a “book first, movie second” kind of reader, but the movie adaptation of Annihilation came out of left field earlier this year and had me completely under its spell before I’d even heard of the novel. The film’s vision of a sci-fi future in which an alien crash landing causes a violent “shimmer” to begin devouring the American South, mutating everything it encounters, completely engrossed me–and while I was warned that it was a very loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel (Annihilation is the first in a trilogy), I knew I had to read it, if only to get another hours-long fix of the eerie world of the shimmer, a.k.a. “Area X” in the novels.

It’s true that the movie and novel are vastly different, but after reading Annihilation, I wasn’t disappointed at all by those differences–far from it. If you’ve read the book and been hesitant about the movie, or vice versa, I’m here to say that I think they both do an admirable job with the premise: a doomed expedition explores a creepy cordoned-off zone that’s as beautiful as it is dangerous, and finds more than they bargained for.

And with that, I’ll stop talking about the movie, since I really do intend this as a book review!

The most striking thing about Annihilation from the very first page is how bloodless and almost bland the narration is. The conceit is that we’re reading the journal of a member of the twelfth expedition known only as The Biologist (for unknown reasons, the Southern Reach strips all expedition participants of their names before they enter Area X). The biologist’s voice is extremely idiosyncratic, cold, and obsessive; I think that’s a polarizing choice on VanderMeer’s part, but it worked for me.

Something I loved about the diary structure is how it exposes the way the biologist has little allegiance to humanity and much more to the natural world. We get the sense early on that she wouldn’t be sad if Area X up and swallowed society as we know it. Pages and pages are devoted to how beautiful Area X is, including unsettling sights like human-dolphin hybrids and a strange moss/lichen/something that grows in the shape of ominous psalm-esque words; more disturbingly, she seems to view terrible violence as beauty, too. Her reaction to the death of a companion has the resigned-cum-awe feel that I associate with watching an osprey snatch a fish from a lake: that’s just the way of things, and at least it’s stunning to watch.

I don’t think that the biologist’s stance on humanity is necessarily wrong; I think a lot of the world’s ills can be traced to the fact that humans view other humans as exceptional, and the rest of nature as disposable. It’s just an unusual perspective to read about, especially in science fiction, which often draws from the “humanity must unite against apocalypse” well. Annihilation‘s tack is much more “humanity must concede to the apocalypse, and also acknowledge that it’s nothing personal.”

A lot of other science fiction (looking at you, The Matrix) also proposes that the world might be better off without us; the difference is that in those other movies, books, and TV shows, I always feel like I’m being manipulated into thinking either that of course humanity should survive, or of course I should take the cynical, suicidal view and think we shouldn’t.

Annihilation, on the other hand, poses the question genuinely and almost casually; you’re welcome to feel either way. You don’t have to engage with the philosophical parts of this book if you don’t want to–the woman vs. nature story will be enjoyable regardless–but there’s an abundance of riches here if you’re an overthinker like me, and I love that VanderMeer has created a novel that works on so many levels.

Unfortunately, Annihilation‘s pacing and plot do fizzle at times. There’s a lot of doubling-back, both literal (the biologist hiking back and forth around Area X) and ideological (is Area X good? is it bad? what is it? we just don’t know). Sometimes there’s a heart-pounding action sequence that suddenly stops dead as the biologist reminisces about her life. And there are several revelations that left me scratching my head, and not in an exciting “I wonder what happens next” way: more of a “where could VanderMeer possibly be going with this?” way.

For me, it wasn’t enough to ruin my enjoyment, but if you’re the kind of person who can’t stand when characters act stubbornly and/or stupidly, you might find it to be a deal-breaker.

To be fair, some of the vagueness (though not the biologist’s stubbornness) could be attributable to Annihilation‘s position as the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy. I haven’t read the latter two books–Authority and Acceptance–yet, but I’ll gladly deliver a verdict when I finish the trilogy, which should be soon. I can’t wait for payday when I can splurge on those two in good conscience.

Ultimately, what I can’t get out of my head is Annihilation‘s drastic (and I think successful) experiments with selfhood and setting. VanderMeer creates a world in which giving up our individual needs to participate in collective systems instead–the human system of the Southern Reach, and the natural one of Area X–seems not only practical, but appealing. When you look at how society (especially Western society) is set up, inverting the reader’s perspective in that way is a tremendous achievement. I love that kind of ambition.

Annihilation is an immersive and reliable ticket out of everyday life for a few hours. It’s as visionary and cerebral as it is earthy and grounded, and I’m convinced there’s something here for everyone. Even if you don’t love the trip, it’s an unforgettable view out the window. ★★★★☆


I purchased my own copy of Annihilation and was in no way compensated for this review.