Revisiting The Twilight Phenomenon
When I started looking into the history of the Twilight phenomenon, I didn’t set out to piss EVERYONE off by saying that Twilight ain’t so bad. But that’s about to happen.
It was easy to hate Twilight at its height. Its Twi-height, as I call it. Because I’m clever.
When you go to Target and there are Team Jacob t-shirts all over, it’s slightly annoying. When you see some of the other big books that came out in 2005 (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Glass Castle, The Year of Magical Thinking, No Country for Old Men, Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted) Twilight’s top spot seems unearned.
When I was running a middle school book club around 2007, Twilight was the shit. And that’s what they decided to read, which meant I was supposed to read it. I read about twenty pages before I gave up.
I get it. I was annoyed, too. I didn’t want sparkly vampires, and they were EVERYWHERE.
But after fourteen years, the annoyance fades into the background. I'm annoyed by new and different things now. And I can look at the whole Twilight thing with a little more clarity.
Let’s Get The Weird Shit Out Of The Way
Twilight is bonkers in many respects. Let’s look at some of my favorites bonkers-isms.
A 109-year-old vampire falls in love with a high-schooler
I think we made the wrong judgment here. A one hundred and nine year-old vampire dating a seventeen year-old is creepy and weird, but it’s also fictional and not something to spend time thinking about. It’s not like teenage girls are suddenly going to have a hankering for centenarians and that would be “normalized” by Twilight. I think the weirder, more fucked-up choice would be if Edward was, say, forty eight. A forty eight year-old dating a seventeen year-old is creepier because it could actually happen.
In what has to be one of the weirdest love triangles of all time, a werewolf falls in love with a girl who is in love with an old man vampire. But it turns out the werewolf isn’t in love with the girl, he’s “imprinted on” her unborn baby. Who is named Renesmee, is super strong, and can speak seven days after she’s born. She will reach full physical maturity when she’s seven, appearing about seventeen, and will stop aging. Whether or not the baby could then bang werewolf boy and have a baby with him is a question that’s been asked, but remains unanswered as Meyer says she might want to go there in the future. Weird on so many levels.
Recently, I caught part of one of the Twilight movies. And...it was amazing. A bunch of vampires met in a field, started brawling, and then started decapitating each other, barehanded. They were flying around and tearing each others’ heads off. Enormous werewolves jump in. It was like some Lord of the Rings shit crossed with Ash Versus Evil Dead. I sat with my mouth open, and when the violence was over, I asked my girlfriend, “Hold on. Is this what Twilight is!? Has this been it all along and I’ve been missing it!?” Turns out, no, this is an outlier scene in a series of movies that doesn’t really fit with the tone of the rest. Sort of like the end of Rogue One where it turns into a Star Wars horror movie for about thirty seconds.
It's sort of annoying that Twilight vampires seem so flawless. However, the Sexy Vampire isn’t nearly exclusive to Twilight. Nobody seems to complain about Kate Beckinsale as a sexy vampire in Underworld, which came out a few years later. Or Wesley Snipes in Blade (although he’s half-vampire, so maybe the human half was the sexy half?). True Blood has more sexy vampires than you can shake a sharpened oak stick at. The Sexy Vampire didn’t start or end with Twilight.
Everything has silliness. Ghostbusters has a ghost blowjob scene that makes no sense in an otherwise perfect movie. Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” has that weird section where he just goes, “Woooh, wah wo wah wah.” If we look at everything like Karnak from the Inhumans, looking for the flaws only, we'll find them, and we'll never enjoy a damn thing.
I'm not here to say Twilight is perfect literature. Just that art isn't defined by its flaws.
Yes, I’m aware I used the word “art.”
The Harry Potter Generation Grew Up
Sex was almost entirely absent in the world of Harry Potter.
If you started in on Harry Potter when the first book came out, if you were in first or second grade, then you were about fourteen or fifteen when Twilight hit shelves. I suspect Twilight was the next step for a lot of readers who grew up following a group of ultra-chaste wizards.
While Twilight is oddly puritanical in some ways, it’s a step in the direction of a more adult world, one where sex is a little bit exciting, a little bit threatening, still a bit taboo, but where it certainly exists.
Even so, Twilight is in a no-win situation. If you want hardcore sex, Twilight isn’t going to cut it. Meyer herself said, “I don't think teens need to read about gratuitous sex.” Twilight is a throwback, sex as a sort of background noise that fades in and out rather than full-frontal jackhammering. Sex-wise, Twilight is almost Victorian. In fact, when it came out, Kirkus criticized Edward’s character by saying he was “overly Byronic.”
But for the puritanical, Twilight’s raunchy as hell, inappropriate for kids, and banned time and again for being TOO sexy.
Here’s my theory: Twilight is for people stepping into the awkward, weird world of teenage sexuality where you hear A THOUSAND different things about how you should act, how you should feel, and how it’s “supposed” to work, and it’s for people looking to remember life in that space.
Dare I say that Stephanie Meyer is in touch with those feelings in a way that most adults aren't? And that she re-created it better than most of us are able? Dare I say that the folks at Kirkus don't understand novels for teens as well as Stephanie Meyer?
I’m saying that maybe we didn’t get it.
The Forgotten Books
Most of what’s talked about in terms of Twilight comes from the main novels, Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn.
There are, however, some significant spin-offs and oddities.
The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner
A short novel (I guess that was explained in the title) that came out a couple years after the final entry, Breaking Dawn, functions to add some backstory from another character's perspective. It didn’t quite make the splash of the others, however it was available to read free online for about a month and still managed to hit it big on most bestseller lists and to compete for several sales records. Meyer also donated a buck from each copy to The American Red Cross, and those who read it online were prompted to donate, if they chose, and probably threw a million bucks at relief efforts in Haiti and Chile. Readers might've been ambivalent, but I'm betting that the recipients of the aid couldn't give a fart in high wind about what Pubilshers Weekly thinks of the book.
This novel, Twilight as told from Edward’s perspective, was partially written when the first dozen chapters were leaked online. At which point Meyer felt she couldn’t finish, at least without waiting until everyone forgot about it. She wrote Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined in the meantime, and right about the time she felt ready to get back into Midnight Sun, she saw that Grey, a retelling of Fifty Shades of Grey from Christian Grey’s perspective, had been released. Meyer was understandably pissed. First E.L. James rips off Twilight, then she rips off the idea for the follow-up? Word of Midnight Sun has all but dried up since.
Fifty Shades of Grey
Most of us can’t forget that Fifty Shades started life as Twilight fanfiction. We could talk all day about the pluses and minuses of Fifty Shades, but we have to acknowledge something here: What series, other than Twilight, was a phenomenon itself AND inspired a direct ripoff that was also a phenomenon?
Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined
Basically, we’ve got a gender-swapped Twilight.
It might’ve been before its time, a little too early to catch the wave of gender-swapped movie and comic book heroes that we saw in the early 2010’s. I seriously wonder if people didn’t really get it, which is an INSANE thing to say about a Stephanie Mayer book, but there you have it.
Or, it could’ve been after its time. I think the Twilight generation was done with Twilight by the time it came out.
It was also hurt by speculation that the whole thing was a cheap find and replace, a cash grab, because other than a couple necessities, the text is almost identical.
It’s another no-win situation. If you completely change the narrative, then isn’t that saying there’s an inherent role to be played by different genders in society? But if you simply swap roles, you’re lazy.
This one was in a weird space, publication-wise. Its audience had aged out, its timing wasn’t right, and although it might have said some interesting things about gender by nature of its existence, it would never be seen as a serious work, and therefore isn’t likely to show up in any gender studies curricula. It's a book without a niche.
I’m not arguing that Twilight is important because it was commercially successful. That’s like the argument that Kim Kardashian is brilliant because she’s rich. Plenty of dopes are rich.
I’m arguing that Twilight resonated. It was a BOOK THAT PEOPLE READ.
The “everyone is reading it” phenomenon is becoming lesser and lesser to the point I’m afraid it’s dying out. Harry Potter, Twilight, Da Vinci Code. These were books that turned into phenomena. Everyone was talking about them. You’d wait months to get a copy from the library. People lined up to buy them.
Are there other huge books today? Absolutely. But they’re huge in the world of books, not in the world, as a whole. You'll have an occasional Where the Crawdads Sing that penetrates into the world of regular folk, but just barely.
Twilight wasn’t just commercially successful, it was perhaps one of the last novels that can genuinely be called a cultural phenomenon.
Folks who are snobby about books hate Twilight’s success. Because, okay, sure, the prose isn’t highly-structured. It’s not the most thoughtfully-written thing on Earth. If a copy was put on the Mars Rover, I would still be unwilling to bet that it was the most thoughtfully-written book on Mars. Hey, there may have been life on Mars at one point, right? That could string together a solid narrative?
Book snobs hate Twilight because they feel that it's not a good representation of what they love about books. They cringe at the thought of people thinking of Twilight as Literature.
Twilight was never meant for book snobs. And as much as books aren't defined purely by popularity, they aren't defined by book snobs either.
Twilight was huge and important in its time. Twilight will have a place in history as a defining text in the rise of teen/YA literature. It's made a huge dent in the universe of books.
Twilight is a thing. Hating it is like hating the weather. You can do it, sometimes it's sorta fun, but it's ultimately stupid and fruitless. You and I are smaller than Twilight. Our opinions on Twilight will never compare to the juggernaut that is the actual material.
If you hate Twilight, I have a suggestion for you: Make your own thing that's better. Piling on with everyone else, your voice gets lost in a sea of voices saying the same things. And probably with crappier jokes. Because my jokes are awesome.
Twilight hate just isn't aging well. Make something that will.
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