Friday, June 4, 2010

I finally answer THE vampire author question

As an author of books about vampires, I get asked one question more than any other, at signings and conventions and neighborhood cookouts: "So, what do you think about Twilight?" It's become a litmus test of sorts.

So I thought I'd answer it here, for the record, in handy condensed form. What do I think of Twilight?

I haven't read Twilight. None of them. My wife read them, but I haven't. So I can't speak to Stephanie Meyer's skill (or alleged lack of) as a writer.

I have seen the first movie. I thought Kristin Stewart was too intelligent and powerful an actress to play such a passive role, and it appears her recent performance as Joan Jett has proven me right. I thought the high school scenes really felt like high school. I thought the Cullens, in their albino-ish glory, were ridiculous, and as a parent I was appalled at both the way Bella's mother treated her, and the way she treated her father. But I was clearly not the intended demographic. In fact, never in my life have I felt less like the target audience.


I understand the appeal. It's the same thing that lies behind the enduring presence of Dracula, and Lestat, and even Bill from True Blood. Whatever her other shortcomings as a writer, Meyer understands that vampires are at their best when they function as metaphors.

When Dracula was first published, the grim Count personified the fears of his time. Women were beginning to demand rights, including the right to enjoy sex, so rigid traditionalist Stoker demonstrated what happens to women who do so. London was inundated with immigrants, so Stoker showed the dangers of foreigners. I'm not saying he was right about either of these things, or even that he did this consciously. But Dracula stood in for the real-world terrors of its English readers in a way that his literary predecessors (Polidori's Lord Ruthven, Varney the Vampire, LeFanu's Carmilla) never did.

It was nearly a century before another literary vampire appeared who managed the same trick. Anne Rice's Lestat, in his loneliness and narcissism, perfectly captured the alienation of the "wide-open" Seventies when he appeared in 1976. Using vampires to address the AIDS crisis never really created a single unifying figure, but True Blood equates vampirism with the issues of homosexuals trying to fit into society, especially in the alternately embraced and ostracized Bill Compton.

And significantly, in none of these stories are the vampires our point-of-view characters. Dracula is told from many perspectives, but never from the Count's. We see Lestat through the eyes of his protege', Louis (I know this changes in later novels, but that's a different topic). True Blood's main character is psychic waitress Sookie Stackhouse.

Which brings us to Twilight.

It's beyond obvious that Edward Cullen represents Bella's desire for, and fear of, sexual intimacy. What gets missed in a lot of the "I hate Twilight" discussions is just how powerful a metaphor this is. It taps into a universal experience--well, universal for half the human race--and presents it in a way that allows the reader (and it's safe to say most of them are female) to identify with Bella on a fundamental level. We see Edward through her eyes, and if parts of the relationship seem a little squirrelly from our perspective (he's how old, and he's watching a teenage girl while she sleeps?), we understand why she feels like she does. Thus the criticism of her as a weak, passive character is really beside the point: this story couldn't happen to anyone else.

So at the risk of taking a beating, I'll make the statement that Twilight works for readers the same way Dracula, Interview with a Vampire and True Blood works. It personifies what they fear most in a way that lets them safely work through that fear.

There. And for reading this far, here's a little tune as a reward. My friend Fred Schepartz first alerted me to this.


Suzanne Johnson said...

Oh boy--that video is priceless! I did read Twilight after it was recommended by an otherwise intelligent friend. I bitched and moaned about the writing...and yet kept reading it. Because, in the end, Meyer managed to get me invested in the outcome of her characters--and I'm definitely not in her demographic either. Now I'm writing a vampire book myself and trying NOT to be too emo about it!

lda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pixie said...

I picked up the Sookie Stackhouse novels and I think they're working with the same issue, but intended for a more mature audience. The main character is a virgin because her psychic abilities render sex uncomfortable and awkward, and she has sexual trauma from childhood regarding abuse by a "funny uncle." Her sexual partner of choice is a vampire who is emotionally distance (or rather nonexistent) and who's mind she is unable to read, conferring an almost doll-like character. This makes me wonder if perhaps fear if sexual intimacy is common these days, and if so, why?