Joanne MacGregor, A South African Young Adult author shares her perspective:
I’ve watched, over the years, as Stephanie Meyer has been targeted, in the most ugly, vitriolic and personal way for her books, and I’ve wondered about it lot.
Often the criticism comes from people she never wrote the book for – adult men, teen boys, literature professors, and way too often it comes from people who have never even read the books. Which counts as a sin in my world philosophy.
It’s become so bad that Twilight and Twihard-bashing has assumed a life of its own, independent of the books and any literary merit they may or may not possess. So Twilight has become dismissive, judgy shorthand for the opposite of “good”, or “thoughtful” or “adult” or “quality”.
Which is really strange and makes me uneasy.
The books never claimed to be literary or intended for an adult audience, they never claimed to be more than an engrossing love story for teens, and mostly teen girls since these are the typical readers of high-schoolers in love.
So where does all the hating stem from?
Partly, I think it’s pure jealousy and sour grapes. Stephanie Meyer didn’t “pay her dues”. She hadn’t written a bunch of books before she struck it big (ala Suzan Collins), or been a single, unemployed mother eking out a single coffee in a warm coffee shop (JK Rowling), and she hadn’t been sweating at it for years receiving hundreds of rejections (like most writers).
She just dreamed (literally) the essence of a story, wrote it down, and after a handle of rejections, landed a four-book, bum-in-the-butter deal.
Some writers, I sometimes think, want other writers to suffer – success shouldn’t come too easy.
I say, good for her! Lucky thing to dream of boy vampires sparkling in meadows – my nightly visions tend to be disappointingly mundane.
But it wasn’t just luck – she wrote and finished the book.
And then she conceptualised and finished another three. And there was something about them that hit a nerve with millions of readers across many cultures worldwide.
To say that the books are junk is to insult that massive group of readers – and I am just paranoid enough to say that’s part of the (unconscious) agenda here.
Just one in thousands of ways in which women and girls are put back into their (“stupid, superficial, ridiculous”) place.
Romance writing generally suffers from this prejudice.
Write a book where armies massacre aliens or blow up the world, or comic-book heroes do frankly ridiculous feats – you’re good. Write a book which celebrates romance, love and messy “female” feelings – you’re a light-weight, the book is automatically drivel and its audience is, by extension, lamentable.
I’m going to go on record saying the apparently unsayable and the definitely unpopular – the books are perfectly competently written.
They have a coherent plot, consistent voice and interesting characters. I have read scores and scores of books, traditionally published that are so much worse than Meyer’s fare.
They are badly edited, inadequately conceptualized, full of one-dimensional characters and story-wide plot-holes. And they have come in for none of the criticism directed at Meyer. Why?
Maybe because their authors made less money and thus provoked less envy.
Yes, her teenage protagonist raves on and on about her hot boyfriend.
Show me a teen who doesn’t admire, idolise and rave blindly about their crush.
That’s what it’s like for many teens, and it’s nothing new.
Back (wayyy back) when I was at school, we would procure our crush’s timetable and hang about outside his classrooms between periods hoping to catch a glimpse of him, we’d write his name on pencil cases, on desks, on school bags – some girls carved onto their arms with compasses so his name would be spelled out in scabs and scars!
We’d practise signing our first names with his surname, obsess with friends about what his look or comment or call might mean, wonder whether he knew we existed, pray that he would ask us to dance at the party.
We’d go moony-eyed when we day-dreamed about him, and endlessly chat to our friends about how handsome, gorgeous, amazing, talented, good he was.
From my interactions with modern teenagers, not that very much has changed in essence. Actually, there are neurological reasons why the brains of teens are over-developed in the areas of emotion and memory, and not yet fully-developed in the areas of logic, rationality, and self-control.
As adults, we might find this obsessive or funny, but it’s not stupid or deplorable or pitiful.
The world would be a better place if we held onto more of our adolescent love and idealism!
Meyer captures this experience well. Not everyone, perhaps was like this, or – more probably – remembers that they were. But she can’t be blamed for nailing down the emotional roller-coaster that millions of teens immediately recognised at first read.
She is condemned for not writing Life Orientation textbooks (what teenage girls should do when they are stalked) rather than a fantasy novel. It’s a strange double-standard that, again, other authors don’t come in for this criticism.
Has anyone tackled JR Rowling because her 11 year-old protagonist goes off in a boat for parts unknown with a large, male stranger who has broken his way into the place where the boy is with his family, threatened them with violence and left another young boy with a severe disfigurement?
No! Because it’s a story, not a how-to guide on dealing with stranger-danger.
She is condemned because her heroine isn’t “feminist enough” (as if there were some calibrated thermometer), though heaven help the writer whose heroines are “too feminist”!
I don’t know if the definition has changed, but last time I looked, being a feminist included such things as making your own choices, according to your values, and not succumbing to individual or societal pressure to conform to a set of “suitable” standards.
Bella does this.
She dates who she wants, though everyone else judges her. She trusts her own judgement. She refuses to exclude her male friend from her life when her boyfriend desires this, and refuses to drop her boyfriend when her male friend, his father, her father, the community, the mostly male “pack” demand it.
She insists on going to college. She holds out on marriage for years despite enormous pressure. She takes charge of her sexuality and pushes for a sexual relationship.
She isn’t scared to show her intelligence to her love-interest or to disagree with him. She makes her own decision about whether or not to keep her pregnancy, despite pressure from all quarters. She busts a gut trying to survive as both a mother and an individual.
She saves her partner and his family and hers on more than one occasion. I don’t know what else critics expect her to do – what they would do, I suspect, but this is not their story. It is hers.
If I bring my shrink brain to bear on trying to understand why else Meyer has come in for such ill-will and enmity, I come up with some other theories.
The books are not about traditional tropes, they have subverted many of them and made them much more to do about issues which are of deep concern to women.
Whether or not she did it consciously, Meyer has encapsulated, in mythical terms, a dilemma which, like it or not, faces every girl and woman.
The truth is, in real life you are more likely to be harmed, hurt, bruised and killed by your boyfriend or husband than any other person on the planet.
The danger is domestic, it’s here and now – stalking you in your bedroom, your kitchen, your school. It’s not some in some castle comfortably distant in Transylvania.
The person most likely to abuse or even murder you, is the very one you may love most deeply. How do we, as women, get our heads around that fact? How can women love men when men may be dangerous, how can we trust when we cannot be sure, how can we return even when we have been battered?
And how can the man who says he loves you with all his heart, sometimes, in some small or not-so-small piece of himself, maybe want you dead?
Specifically, in the books, Bella could die from sleeping with Edward. So can we all, if we make unwise choices in our sexual lives.
There have been some truly interesting analyses of the Twilight books in terms of AIDS, Edward being the outsider who never asked to be infected and who could himself spread the contagion to his beloved, how it seems it will stop him from having children in cause he passes the illness to his offspring, etc., and they are worth reading.
So Bella falls for someone who she thinks is fabulous, who says he loves and wants to protect her, especially from himself – because Edward recognises that he, himself, poses the biggest threat to her.
This is a fascinating theme, but not one that people are necessarily comfortable acknowledging or exploring, so they get very judgy about Edward hanging about in Bella’s room, watching her sleep.
Of course this is odd behaviour – in real life.
But this is not real-life – it’s a freaking story!
You don’t expect teens who read the Hunger Games to start killing each other, and teens who read Twilight will not find it unremarkable or un-creepy should they discover a man huddling in their curtains.
But on a deeper level, many young and older women we do have stalkers in their bedrooms – literally and metaphorically.
I have worked with women patients whose husbands/lovers follow them, check their phones, inspect their underwear, demand an accounting of time and money, plant tracking devices and apps in phones and cars, hire private investigators, and sometimes – yes, it happens – just stand and watch their female partners.
Girls and women want to be in love, to be loved AND to be safe. Edward offers this – he tries to have himself destroyed when he realizes how the intersection of his life with Bella’s endangers her.
In him you have the hero who loves you, who will protect you from all dangers, including and especially that posed from himself. No wonder he is such an appealing hero!
No, the books aren’t perfect – either in terms of their ideas or their writing.
But, many books aren’t.
Arguably, none are. Are they the best books ever written for young adults? Certainly not, in my opinion. Is Bella my favourite heroine of all time? No.
But she’s not my worst. Many books have much dodgier content (torture-porn anyone?) but don’t come in for the same vitriol, especially directed at the author personally.
We’re allowed to love or hate or be completely indifferent these books according to our own tastes,
We’re allowed not to be drawn to reading certain books or genres, but I think it’s damn unfair to criticise work you’ve never read, and it’s never acceptable to attack authors personally for not writing a story you approve of.
And it becomes sad and obnoxious to shame readers for reading and enjoying whatever pleases them.
Here’s what I have to say to the critics sitting so smugly on their moral high-horses: You want stories where the female protagonists are less passive active, more kick-ass, more outspoken, less blinded by love and more determined to change the world? Good! Go write them. (I did!)
When not writing books, Joanne Macgregor is a Counselling Psychologist in private practice in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she deals mainly with victims of crime and trauma. It’s tough work and her brain escapes by dreaming up stories when she’s not consulting.
Visit her website here.
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