Genre Trouble: Twilight and the New Vampire Story

The good news about being a professional writer is that all sorts of oddball things become tax deductible: book purchases (market research), movie tickets (review essays), office supplies, the new computer (equipment).

The bad news: I have to read books that I don’t necessarily enjoy, in order to understand what’s going on in the Zeitgeist.

Twilight was one such read. I’ll be frank: my first introduction was a parody, the video mashup Buffy versus Edward.   It was November 2009, and me and about 12 of my closest NaNoPosse were at a write-in at the Coffee Gallery in the Open Book literary center. Devin Harnois was laughing over something at halftime and she said, “Hey,  you’ve got to see this.”

So I watched the video, which is an inspired masterpiece of remix, throwing into high relief the conflict between two very different notions of gender roles and romance.

And then an on-line buddy said, “You’re writing fantasy and you haven’t read Twilight? You gotta.”

The Zeitgeist had spoken.

I went to my local library and asked for the book. “It’s homework,” I said. “I’m a fantasy writer and I don’t think I’m going to be able to write vampires without knowing this.”

He said, “You’ll need context.”

Unspoken: and some relief from the nonsense. I’d already read Dracula, and some of its contemporary texts, including Carmilla, which interestingly showed up in an anthology of nineteenth-and-twentieth-century literature by and about lesbians. (Big surprise: vampires and other supernatural critters play out contemporary anxieties about sex and sexuality, gender roles, and class.)

Librarians, by the way, are literary superheroes. Did I mention that?

As for Twilight, I’ll be candid: I did not enjoy it.

No, I didn’t enjoy it. Not the zombified pacing,  not the weird passivity and banality of the viewpoint character, not the coldness (literal coldness, like ice or marble) of the putative romantic interest, not the dubious relationship dynamics …

… oh yes, and the author never, ever convinced me of the attraction between the two. And it’s sick and twisted, and abusive. This blogger nails why Twilight is dangerous, not just stupid: it’s a handbook for predators.

Then my Brain Sister sent me this article from Bitch Magazine. Halfway through a read-through of the comments, I got the germ of the story that turned into Erika and the Vampire: what does the girl with a crush on a vampire bad boy look like from the point of view of her sensible friend?

I discover that I’m not the only one who’s working this angle. There’s Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sara Rees Brennan. You can read the first chapter here. I laughed all the way through that excerpt and promptly went to pre-order it. (You can expect a review here when I’m done.)

Coincidentally, we’re both issuing our vampire stories in July 2012. Theirs is funny; mine is grim. Both depend upon a seismic shift in the vampire story as a genre, precipitated by Twilight as a mass phenomenon. The Big One might have made a splash, but alongside is riding a whole cohort of paranormal romance tales that conflate folkloric monsters with the brooding-Byronic-bad-boy of category romance.

Twilight has spawned other brainchildren, including the regrettable Fifty Shades of Gray. (We’ll be taking this on in later posts, but for the moment let it be said: I have no objection to erotic writing, but this work is neither erotic nor is it writing. No work that claims to be erotica should use the locution “down there.”)

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8 Responses to Genre Trouble: Twilight and the New Vampire Story

  1. sue says:

    It is really annoying (gross understatement) that trash like Twilight is such a hit and the good stuff gathers cobwebs on the internet. Sounds like the kind of writing my readers would empty their red pens if I tried it. I fear for the young women of today. As a friend would say, What the Fuck are they thinking?
    abstinence porn

  2. epbeaumont says:

    I scratch my head over Twilight and Fifty Shades both, and then try to remember the corresponding trashfests of fifteen years ago–and can’t. I’m not sure if they are literary or sociological movements. Certainly they are a marker for profound seismic upheaval in the culture: bland yet horrifying. I am just finishing the first viewing of the Twilight movie, which might also read as a fever dream of a deluded vampire victim (if they can mess with your memory, who’s to say that Bella isn’t dreaming all this in terminal anoxia as she’s being sucked dry?)

    • Sue says:

      Harry Potter first book 1997. And remember the frenzy that caused among the Religiou. Perhaps as with tv parent should discuss the books their kids are reading. But then, not all parents are a good judge of an apporopriate book….we can probably discuss this topic for a few years

  3. Becca says:

    I agree with you whole heartedly. I only made it halfway through the first book before I couldn’t take any more of the cardboard characters being forced through actions just because the plot needed them to. There was no real love shown between them by the time I threw the thing across the room. The gender roles and relationship rules shown in these books and movies is a dangerous thing. It is teaching the young and vulnerable readers to ignore all the gains of the feminist movement and dream of the worst that came before. Scarier still is the lack of discussion on how to protect our youth from falling into that ideological trap. Especially the unwillingness of even teachers to discuss the negative effects of the books with each other, let alone their students.

  4. Hmmmmmm, I agree with a lot of things in your post. I disagree with a lot of things in your post.

    I hated the Protaganist in “Twilight”. However, I read all the books even though I talked to myself and muttered most of the way through them. I preferred the book “Host” by S.M. Yes, the first 100 pages are a bit slow but if you persevere there is an interesting take on the whole theme of the “body-snatchers”.

    I haven’t read “Shades” yet, however hype aside – some friends have, and absolutely love them! I don’t get it and they are not my type of thing, but people are still buying them and enjoying them.

    My friends aren’t writers or literary critics and they love them, sat up late reading them and discuss them avidly. I would be honored as a fledgling writer, if people were sitting up till 3am reading my work. – Just saying :o)

    Sometimes, I think we are all in danger of thinking that our “viewpoint” or stance is the right one on books with ideas that we don’t get.

    • Sue says:

      You raise a good point. The distinction between readers and writers. Writers read differntly than “readers” read. this might be a blog in itself

    • epbeaumont says:

      The reaction with readers in such numbers is precisely what makes Twilight is interesting both technically and from a cultural-studies perspective. Reading is a waking dream; the aforementioned “zombified pacing” was my description of the dream-state it induced in me, a sort of woozy passivity not unlike the sleepiness induced by 50 mg of Benadryl. Where the novel defied conventional wisdom was in not moving along at a brisk pace; although it shares territory with category romance, it does not have the same structure, rhythm or pacing, and in fact harks back to the nineteenth century, when a novel was an alternate reality in which one could camp out for weeks. Yet quite a few readers report the experience as you and your friends–sitting up until 3 a.m. to finish–and let’s face it, that reaction is the writer’s Holy Grail.

      There may well come a time when I need to break the rules in a similar way, and I’m intrigued at how Meyer got away with it. How did she do it? is a question every writer should ask after reading, regardless of whether they liked the book or not. Analysis is one of the complex pleasures of re-reading. “Liking” is a complex phenomenon: certain books enjoy a fanatical following with their readers, because something in the story answers deep desires or resonates with their understanding of the world. And no book exists in a vacuum; it is part and parcel of the culture that produced it, and in case of notable success, can go on to affect other cultures. The tropes of relationship violence and control in Twilight are too important, and too dangerous, to leave unexamined. Given what I have seen of Fifty Shades of Gray, similar questions are raised, in addition to the question: “What is erotic?” which is nearly as difficult a query as “What is funny?”

      As a reader, I take apart my reaction in prose; as a writer, I answer in fiction. Twilight resonated with readers, and is now inspiring writers. It isn’t the first time this has happened, either; literary history is full of best-sellers that made other writers do their version.

      Lastly, our own viewpoint is all we ever have; however, it may be refined in dialogue with others (in person or in print), tested in argument, and modified in the face of new evidence. Honest thinkers are more than well aware that their picture is incomplete; however, that is not a reason to avoid thinking.

  5. Pingback: Genre Trouble: Twilight and the New Vampire Story | E. P. Beaumont | Vampire Occult Society

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