Friday, January 7, 2011

My, How the World Has Changed

As is surprising to probably no one who has ever met either of us, my husband and I enjoy discussing books and novels. We're both voracious readers (although now we've largely made a switch from legitimate novels to internet articles and now have to specifically set aside time to read actual books) and we tend to have oddly strong opinions about the things that we read.

Yesterday, we were having a discussion about classic literature and how, until relatively recently, books that became literary staples generally fell into at least one of two categories: the story contains characters and themes that a large number of people from across space and time are able to relate to them and/or the way the book was written was new and different enough to make it stand out from any other piece of literature that had ever been written before.

Now, books that get the moniker "new classics" are, pretty much invariably, commercial successes. Given our culture, that's somewhat unsurprising, but possibly a little sad. Until maybe a century ago, most people couldn't be writers unless they were a) rich, b) single, or c) didn't care if their family starved. We, as a society, have far more leisure time than any other generation, so now any hipster with a laptop can crap out a novel. Even most people who stand in line for government-issued cheese have access to a computer and enough free time to write a book if they felt so inclined. My point is that up until recently, the only people who wrote were either the well-educated minority rich, or felt passionately enough about  their writing to make it a priority over things like food and housing. Now, education is free and open to everyone, and you don't really see as many people starving in the street. Like virtually every other resource in our society, the ability and opportunity to write is much more prevalent.

The increasing supply of books, coupled with the capitalistic nature of our economy, results in only a very small number of written manuscripts getting published. However, the books that do get published have a much increased likelihood of becoming smash hits.

Let's look at two examples. The first is Harry Potter. The Harry Potter series is a seven book long YA fantasy epic. The writing is, generally speaking, really very clever. Rereading the books, hints of foreshadowing of events of the seventh book are evident very early on in the series (I myself was convinced that Snape had a thing for Harry's mom as early as book two. It was the only thing that explained Snape's conflicting attitude toward Harry: he hated his father and loved his mother. Years later, I turned out to be right).

The most compelling thing about the series, though, was that the theme was incredibly universal. Good > Evil. Simplest theme in existence, something that everyone in the world can relate to. It also doesn't hurt that everyone feels like an outcast sometimes, everyone feels picked on or victimized, everyone has coming of age personal trials that, while typically not as extreme as the characters in these books face, they can identify with as the story goes on. The characters are human, with weaknesses and flaws. At the end of the story, while the threat is ultimately vanquished, it isn't without sacrifice. Permanent changes are made. People die and they don't come back, which adds meaning to the ongoing struggle. Prior to the very end of the series, the reader isn't sure whether even Harry is going to make it through alive. As a result, the novels have reached amazing commercial success. In this case, I feel that the hype in many ways matches the books. I don't necessarily condone forty year old women dressing up in costume to attend a midnight movie premiere, but that's between you and your God.

The second example, perhaps predictably, is the Twilight series. Twilight, I believe, acts as a very good foil to the Harry Potter series. Again, we follow an adolescent navigating a newly found supernatural world full of magic and dangerous creatures. Like Harry Potter, Twilight has received enormous commercial success. Unlike Harry Potter, I don't feel that Twilight is as deserving. I've read the entire series. I think they're fine. I don't have passionately strong feelings about the series one way or another.

However, I'd be hard-pressed to tell you what the overarching theme of the Twilight series is. The best I've got is "It's important to have a boyfriend." Not necessarily a particularly important theme in the overall scheme of things, I feel. Secondarily, I got "If you're yourself, an abusive but attractive man will fall in love with you."

The thing about Twilight is that there is no sacrifice. Threats are less imposing because, by book four, nothing with any kind of lasting negative consequences has happened yet. It's hard to believe that any incoming danger is actually going to have any lasting effect on anyone the reader really cares about. You know they're going to be fine, because why wouldn't they be?

To my recollection, one non-antagonistic character dies during the entire course of the series. It's a peripheral human character who is never actually seen, only referred to by other characters. He dies of a heart attack. It wasn't the result of being targeted by other, not friendly vampires. He died because he was aging and didn't exercise very much.

That's it. That's the extent of it. Everyone else makes it.

Secondarily, no one does anything for anyone else's benefit. Don't believe me? Let's dissect it book by book.

Book 1: Edward and Bella meet. Edward knows that dating Bella is dangerous for her, and for his entire family. He does it anyway. Bella knows that dating Edward is dangerous for her. She knows that if he kills her, her family will be devastated. She knows that dating Edward is dangerous for his family, who she purports to care about. She does it anyway. Collectively, they hope that things will work out. Bella and her family is targeted because of her association with Edward. Mildly bad things happen. She's in the hospital for a while, but she comes out of it fine. The two of them, despite having their fears confirmed, continue to date.

Book 2: Edward's family throws Bella a birthday party. She cuts herself, and is almost ripped apart by one of Edward's more attractive siblings. Edward then leaves to assuage his guilt over the situation, not because it will actually help anything. Bella falls apart. For months. For some reason, she has no friends to tell her she needs to snap out of it. Her father does very little to encourage her to get help, for reasons that escape me. When she eventually begins hanging out with Jacob, it's to do scary things that allow her to continue her delusional hallucination-relationship with Edward. If Bella had not discovered that she had hallucinations of Edward every time she did something stupid, it's debatable whether she would have continued to spend so much time with Jacob. Jacob, on the other hand, sees that she is vulnerable and hopes that, because he's being so nice to her and "saving her" from her depression, she will fall in love with him and they will live happily ever after. Classic White Knight syndrome. Jacob doesn't help her because he honestly cares for her, he helps her because he wants something from her.
At the end of the book, Edward comes back (because HE was hurting, not because she was hurting) and he and Bella resume their dysfunctional, semi-abusive relationship.

Book 3: Bella can't make up her mind about Jacob and Edward, so she strings them both along. She wants Edward to make her a vampire. Edward takes advantage of this to force her to marry him, despite the fact that she is clearly uncomfortable with the idea. All of these plans are made without regard for Bella's family's feelings, who might be sad when it turns out that they never see her again. Bella kisses Jacob to get him to do what she wants, despite being engaged to Edward. Edward then lets Jacob overhear their nuptial plans in an overt attempt to hurt his feelings. Rather than be mad at Bella for toying with both of them, Edward and Jacob are angry at each other. Bella wants Jacob at her wedding, so she sends him an invite, completely ignoring his sensitive feelings about the matter.

Book 4: Edward and Bella get married. They then honeymoon, where Bella blackmails Edward into having sex with her. Edward knows that sex with him could kill or seriously injure her, but he bangs her repeatedly anyway. Bella gets knocked up. Edward, rather than asking Bella what she wants or even speaking to her about it, makes arrangements to procure a back-alley abortion from his doctor father. Bella, despite the fact that the fetus is literally killing her (which, again, would devastate her family, who don't know that she's not ever coming home), refuses. Bella insists upon having the death child, who later eats it's way out of her uterus, but she's unconscious for that part anyway. Bella becomes a vampire, because Edward panics and tries to make her immortal before the baby kills her. Jacob meets the baby, and immediately falls in love with her, despite the fact that she is a baby. He is then completely irrational and annoying about everything, and then tries to prevent the child's OWN PARENTS from holding or spending time with her. For some reason he doesn't realize that this child is not his, despite what his hormones may be telling him. Jacob tells Bella's father about Bella's new lifestyle choice purely to be vindictive, despite the fact that coming to her house puts CHARLIE in danger, not Bella. Then later some bad stuff happens, but everyone gets through it just fine.

At the end of the day, everyone gets exactly what they want. Edward and Bella are married with a healthy, happy immortal child. Jacob is over Bella (and in love with the happy, healthy immortal child). Bella and her parents can see each other regularly, and nothing bad ever happens again.

No sacrifice. No selflessness. No consequences. Just a bunch of morally wishy-washy people doing whatever they want to, and everything works out perfectly.

For some reason, I don't think that the themes of Twilight are quite on par with Harry Potter. Again, the characters of Harry Potter had flaws and weaknesses. The only flaws that the characters of Twilight had were shared senses of entitlement and delusion, and somehow, I don't think that was intentional on the part of the writer.

My point in all of this is that writing books now is not like writing books used to be. It used to be that books with compelling themes and interesting characters that were written in a novel or intriguing way became staples of literature. Now, it's the books that have the best PR team backing them and while some of them have some literary merit, many of them do not.


  1. I really don't understand why the Twilight series was/is so popular. Was it just marketed really well, or what? I read the first book in Russian, and enjoyed it, although that may have largely been out of a sense of accomplishment at being able to read a novel in a foreign language. Then I read the second book, and was completely floored. It was a terrible book! And yet people were going insane over it. I was very confused. Thankfully, a lot of people seem to have caught on to the fact that it's actually a terrible series.

  2. I don't necessarily think that it's a terrible series, per se. There are many novels out there that are far, far worse than Twilight. Twilight does have the advantage of being easy and somewhat enjoyable to read. I think the bigger question is "Does it deserve the induction it's received into literary fame?"

    Which then begs the question: in ten years, will people still be reading Twilight? In twenty years, will people still remember it as the shining literary gem it's alleged to be now?