Thursday, December 1, 2011

Lessons Learned From Sub-par Stories

Brace yourself: A post about Twilight is coming.

More specifically, a post about the latest film in Stephanie Meyer's monstrously successful series is coming. See, over Thanksgiving weekend I did a gallant thing and took my wife to see Breaking Dawn – Part 1. Now, readers of this blog can probably guess that I'm not a huge fan of Twilight. I called the first novel "pleasant," and it was in a pulpy sort of way. But future installments added plot woes and highlighted absurdities -- coughsparklescough -- that the initial volume glossed over. Out of all those offending sequels, Breaking Dawn was the worst. So why did I go see it? Well, I love my wife. But that wasn't the only reason. I watched it in order to learn.

Surely you must be thinking, "Ah, I get it, you watched it to learn how not to write a story." Well, not really. I mean, it's good to avoid obvious potholes, such as making a muscled werewolf fall irrevocably in love with a near-matricidal infant moments after she emerges from the womb. But few stories do everything wrong, and I gleaned two things from the celluloid version of Breaking Dawn. Bella's wedding-night jitters showed how a dose of humor can lighten overly serious action. But the best part of the film was the infamous birthing scene, a scene so visceral that critics wondered how it could appear onscreen and the movie's PG-13 rating stay intact. How did director Bill Condon pull it off? Through fast cuts, oblique camera angles and grisly sound effects. The imagination can fill in a lot of holes.

I'm not saying you should intentionally expose yourself to bad stories in order to pick up writing tips. Yet should you find yourself stuck with an awful story, keep your compositional eyes peeling. You never know what lessons you might find.

(Picture: CC 2010 by toastforbrekkie)

18 comments:

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I assume I've pointed you to the Reasoning With Vampires site? There, a feminist rants about bad grammar in the Twilight series, with hilarious results.

My problem with Twilight is not its incompetence--it obviously succeeds at many things. It's with what it does teach people.

Moral 1: Being whiny, completely self-centered, and having no sense of morality, religion or personhood outside of your boyfriend is great.

Moral 2: Grammar, observation, and attempts at understanding are for other people.

Moral 3: If a guy stalks you, wants to kill you, and broods, he is probably The One.

Moral 4: Romantic relationships are based on the fact that girls are worthless without one, and on physical attractiveness, but not on common interests, mutual respect, heartfelt commitments, or anything else.

Moral 5: It's romantic for a guy to have a sense of sexual morality, but such sentiments are too complex for emotional girls to deal with. They should just follow their boyfriend's lead.

I could go on, but...it just disturbs me that girls are reading this. Most will probably realize it's fluff. For them, it will be a pleasant escape, and a breather between weightier stuff. Some will buy into the image of romance Meyers portrays. I can't imagine this ever having any sort of good effect on their future relationships.

I'm for shallow, superficial entertainment that ignores the complexities of life (in moderation.) But Twilight goes far beyond that.

If God blesses me with daughters, I look forwards to the day they can laugh uproariously at the stupidity of Twilight's romantic worldview--and then explain wisely and compassionately to their friends why they need to be wise and take responsibility for their own lives, instead of trusting blindly in society and its most superficially beautiful members.

Loren Eaton said...

Actually, I don't think you did point me there. I'll take a look at it.

Yes, I suppose the themes are a problem if taken to heart, although I'm so far away from the target audience that I never paid them much attention. (Truth be told, I actually read the novels while sick with the stomach flu.) From the little I remember, New Moon was the most problematic one as far as your points go. And, yeah, the idea that your life falls apart if your "soulmate" leaves isn't a good one.

But the series really does fail on a number of levels. The first book was the most coherent and showed the most promise, but Meyer really loses the thread as the series progresses.

Still, that birthing scene. Brrrrr.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Sickness seems to be a theme. My wife made a deal with her best friend to exchange readings of Twilight with McKinley's superlative antidote, Sunshine. No sooner had she picked them up, then she was hit with a horrible stomach flu. If nothing else, the books were addicting enough that she read more than one in the 5-hour drive home.

So I suppose I should be grateful for the ability they gave her to forget about her physical discomfort for a while.

Scattercat said...

If you can get past the formatting, this was one of the more insightful discussions of Twilight as a phenomenon that I've yet read.

Loren Eaton said...

CR,

The books really are pabulum, a good illustration of what "pulp" really means. Honestly, they were the perfect read while violently ill.

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

HULK, WHY YOU WRITE A WAR AND PEACE-LENGTH TREATISE ON TWILIGHT IN ALL CAPS?!

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Reading Hulk is like reading Chaucer. The first few pages give one a headache, then the mind adapts, and phrases like "Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / The droughte of Marche hath perced to the roote" begins to sound normal, and you wonder why the rest of us bother with artificial spellings.

That said, I think he's incredibly right, if slightly tone-deaf. It's obvious he doesn't grok Twilight, even a little bit. It's also obvious he knows (and respects) some girls who do, and has had long productive conversations with them about what is going on.

I wish he'd stop using the word "masturbatory" so much, as it feels unfair. I think he's hit the nail on the head, though, when he says that Twilight taps into a socially-conditioned feminine Id; the side of women's brains that has no morality, little rationality, and just strives to live up to the worst of the gender stereotypes society imposes on them (which has nothing to do with the faith of Sarah, Deborah, Mary Magdaline, or Paul's descriptions of women's moral responsibility.)

I also really appreciate the fact that he implicitly understands and accepts the wonder of real, mature relationships. I feel that, behind his words, is the fact that there should be a sort of poetry that urges responsibility. If Twilight functions as emotional pornography (and I know that comparison can be misleading and destructive even as it can be enlightening), his problem is that it does so while masquerading as love poetry. (This is why he can accept romance novels so easily--they don't pretend to be other than what they are.)

"SO HULK WOULD LIKE TO SUGGEST THAT TO LIKE THE TWILIGHT SAGA IS TOTALLY UNDERSTANDABLE AND OKAY ON THE LEVEL OF OUR MOST PRIMAL OF NATURE. IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH SPARKLY VAMPIRES. SUCCUMBING TO IT IS LIKE LAMENTING THE WAY PEOPLE EAT JUNK FOOD. SO WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT IS AWARENESS. YOU CAN'T EAT MACDONALD'S EVERY DAY THE SAME WAY TWILIGHT CAN'T BE ZOMG BEST THING EVER. TWILIGHT IS HARMFUL JUNK FOOD. OKAY, TO INDULGE IN, BUT THAT'S WHAT IT IS. EMPTY LITERARY AND CINEMATIC CALORIES. ALL YOU NEED TO DIGEST THEM PROPERLY IS AWARENESS.

BECAUSE AWARENESS IS EVERYTHING. AWARENESS OF THE RELATIVE TRAPPINGS OF EVERYTHING MAKES US LEAD BALANCED LIVES.

AWARENESS THAT THIS IS AN ABSTINENCE SERIES THAT HULK THINK HAS DONE LESS TO HELP ABSTINENCE OR ENCOURAGE A HEALTHY UNDERSTANDING OF SEXUALITY THAN VIRTUALLY ANYTHING ELSE THAT HULK CAN THING OF. AWARENESS THAT THIS A SERIES WITH CONTRADICTORY CHARACTERS AND CYCLICAL PLOTS THAT GO NOWHERE. AWARENESS THAT ITS TERRIBLY WRITTEN AND TERRIBLY CONCEIVED. AWARENESS THAT THE JOYS THE SERIES BRINGS ARE OKAY TO INDULGE IN, BUT NOT ALL THAT OKAY TO STAND BY.

Loren Eaton said...

HULK LIKE CHAUCER? HULK FINDS THIS COMPARISON APROPOS!

Seriously, though, while I agree with some of the analysis (not the abstinence porn, though, which I think served plot more than theme), I find the vehemence with which pundits attack Twilight to be amusing. Sure, it's problematic. But so is the fact that every adult save one in Harry Potter is an absolute imbecile and those brilliant, talented children had to break the rules to do right. So are any number of highly popular stories, and many infinitely more so than anything Meyer dreamed up. We should note the issues, but I find dwelling on them at length to be a bit confusing.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

"So are any number of highly popular stories, and many infinitely more so than anything Meyer dreamed up."

I don't (yet) agree. Could you give me some examples?

Most YA adventure stories (though this is changing) present some unrealistic view of reality, often one that pleases it young audience. Yes, HP problematically represents authority as weak and better averted (except when it doesn't, as in Dumbledorf. And then there are the times when Harry himself recognizes his potential to royally screw things up, or realizes he shares some tendencies with his bullying father, &c.) But most aren't so ceaselessly one-sided and manic.

The only adventure story that I've read that is as problematic as the Twilight series is H. Rider Haggard's She. But that's another discussion entirely.

Oh, wait. Better add Atlas Shrugged to that list. That thing often does stunt young teenage boys' emotional and political development horribly.

Oh, wait. The thankfully forgotten horrific movie Wanted had similarly bad male fantasies. I walked out of the theater feeling almost literally sick. But even that movie had Angelina Jolie's character, whose actual consideration of morality undercut what was otherwise a massively unhealthy encouragement of male fantasies of power and violence.

I think part of the paranoia about Twilight touches upon its relationship with adolescents (whose ability to royally screw up their lives is at a maximum) and female adolescents (who get more consideration under the remnants of chivalry.) When I read Harry Potter, I can imagine someone taking its worldview too seriously and getting into school suspension. When I watch Twilight, it is all too easy to imagine girls taking its worldview all too seriously and emulating Bella in :
A) Trying to kill themselves when their boyfriend breaks up with them because society says their prime worth is as a girlfriend
B) Relying on their boyfriend to set all values for the relationship, especially the degree of sexual restraint (if any),
C) Assuming that the world relies entirely around them.

The contrast with HP couldn't be more severe.

Point 1: HP may encourage some forms of disobedience, resulting in (at worst) suspension. Twilight encourages suicide, finding one's identity only in relation to romantic interests, and never insisting on one's own moral views.

Point 2: HP is actually rather exceptional (except that it isn't, since YA lit has gotten quite excellent and dark) at pointing out its hero's idiocies. Harry himself is a flawed, but praised, character--and Rowling goes out of her way at pointing out that his perception of the world is narrow, flawed, and colored by wishful thinking and emotion. The few intelligent adults often point this out. On the other hand, Twilight has no ironic distance. You can't say "oh, Bella is being stupid here" without breaking the spell. Nor (as Hulk points out) can you recognize in Bella the sort of three-dimensional human who you could pass judgments on. You are asked to become Bella, which is fine, except that she's so incredibly self destructive, and you're asked to become blind to those tendencies.

Summary of Point 2: Stories with real characters allow you to criticize them, rather than simply becoming them.

Again, I'm reminded of Atlas Shrugged, in terms of a universe that supports only one very unhealthy (and purely selfish) viewpoint. I am as loudly an opponent of Rand as I am of Meyer. I think that one circle of a literary version of Dante's Hell might very well consist of Rand and Meyer, locked in a room together.

Again I agree with Hulk that with awareness, Twilight can become fun, light, escapist entertainment. But I fear that it is something quite a bit less healthy for many girls.

Aidan Fritz said...

I'm not going to comment on the Twilight portion of this thread, since I've only seen the second movie. However, I was amused recently when I read a young adult book. The book was simpler than I prefer my stories; however, this meant that the plot and characterization were more exposed and I found it intriguing to see the bones so clearly exposed and then try to analyze why he was doing what he was doing and in particular orders. Often I find unraveling the structure much more difficult.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Upon further contemplation, there is one other answer for the rage about Twilight: its success.

Again, one can compare Twilight to Harry Potter. The latter was relatively respectful of the fantasy tropes it emerged out of (i.e. when Harry goes to the forest, it really feels not that different from someone in Tolkien visiting a magical and threatening forest.) It has correct grammar. It has this layer of self-critical consideration. It has distinctive characters who fit into, and then break out of, amusing, original stereotypes. It even has a rather interesting world which, as it turns out, has its own governments, economies, &c. to balance the giddy silliness with solid existence.

So while Rowling does make some severe first-author mistakes (repetitive plotting in the early books, quote attributions so awkward to make the books sound bizarre when read out loud, &c.), in many ways HP resembles a respected fantasy adventure. I wouldn't put it in the same quality category as, say, The Name of the Wind, but I honestly enjoyed the Harry Potter books much more than the middle volumes of the respected Wheel of Time Series.

In short, Rowling respected her original material and wrote mostly competently (according to traditional, adult expectations). So she might be forgiven for her extreme success, especially since her respect for fantasy means people who grow up on Harry Potter are likely to turn to classic authors like Tolkien, or contemporary authors like George R.R. Martin, with a greater likelihood of understanding what they read.

Try saying the same thing about Twilight and Dracula. Or even Twilight and Anne Rice. Or even Twilight or even Charlaine Harriss's paperback bodice-rippers with vampire characters. Twilight doesn't respect the genre traditions it inherited (see not just sparkling, but the fact that Ed Cullen doesn't have any memory of the momentous past he's experienced, whereas vampires always traditionally carry the weight of their elongated lives havily, &c.), and it doesn't have good grammar.

So honestly, whatever else may be wrong with it, those who are trying to write for a living aren't likely to leap over themselves to forgive her literary sins. Because above all else, Twilight sells, giving its author the success undreamed-of by most writers who labor day and night for their craft.

Loren Eaton said...

CR,

Okay, I'm a little late to the party here, and I'm going to be a little brief in my response for two reasons. First, I've got a stackload of work waiting for me despite having finally finished exams. (Huzzah!) Second, I really want to get Advent Ghosts rolling today.

Let's see if we can agree on a thematic axiom: Twilight, Harry Potter, and numerous other similar titles such as Louis Sachar's wonderful Holes and Carl Hiaasen's Hoot contain problematic themes that some readers latch on to with too much gusto. Obviously, that isn't true for every reader; most have enough discernment to calmly analyze and dispose of the bad stuff. Most, but not all.

So, if we accept that axiom, we should critique Twlight's romantic codependency. Maybe we should dwell on it a little longer because of the series' popularity. But understanding that both the reader and the author share some responsibility should temper our critique. Beholding the excesses of the field as a whole should likely do the same thing. Holes falls into (see what I did there?) the old adults-are-all-idiots trope, while Hoot praises eco-terrorism. And the romance field as a whole -- to which Twilight belongs -- is egregiously pornographic, in both a sexual and emotional sense. So let's ding Stephanie Meyer where she deserves it, but let's also keep our eyes open and not let dislike for her books turn us hyperbolic. There's plenty of blame to go around.

Loren Eaton said...

Aidan,

Thank you for not joining in the Twilight discussion! I think I'm ready for the series to ride off into the (wait for it) sunset.

I also enjoy reading children's and YA titles for their structure. There's something primal and stripped down about that sort of writing. I always feel as though I learn from it.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

" So let's ding Stephanie Meyer where she deserves it, but let's also keep our eyes open and not let dislike for her books turn us hyperbolic. "

Absolutely agreed on the first comment, I'll rescind that point. I'm fine with stopping discussion on the second.

I mainly comment here to notice that, while you have discussed some brilliant works here (too many to name), some that verge on the line between brilliance and really-fascinating-failure (the discussion of Brick comes to mind) ... one of your biggest discussions was about Twilight. Is this deserving of the Double Facepalm Award?

http://images.encyclopediadramatica.ch/5/52/Double-facepalm.jpg

Loren Eaton said...

... one of your biggest discussions was about Twilight. Is this deserving of the Double Facepalm Award?

Yes. Absolutely. I'll second that.

*smack*

(Of course, I'm secretly pleased that my Cthulhu/William Carlos Willams mashup still has more comments.)

Scattercat said...

I think the difference, for me, is that while the other books you mentioned have some problematic themes or undertones, "Twilight" is pretty much nothing but its all-consuming and deeply troubling theme. The "brilliant kids/dumb adults" stuff in the HP series, for instance (which is primarily in the earlier books; most adults end up quite sympathetic and sufficiently competent by the latter half of the series) is not the emotional core of the books. Nor is my personal beef with the HP books, to whit: Harry is a golden boy jock who thinks the rules don't apply to him and studying is too hard, and society falls all over itself to prove him right.

In contrast, "Twilight" as a series is an endlessly circling vortex that repeats over and over and over its central premise: Bella is nothing without Edward, even when he is abusive, controlling, deceptive, or downright physically dangerous. Bella's obsession with Edward is painted as not only appropriate but a prize to be sought, and the books have *no other point* to them. When they do have subtexts, those are ALSO rather troubling. (Women must subjugate their bodies to the needs of their children. Giving birth is the only purpose women have. Brown people aren't as good as pale, pale, beautiful sparkly people.)

I know adults, fully grown women, who swallow the Twilight series whole-heartedly and without the slightest hint of critical thought, most likely because the books do such a very good job of capturing the point of view of an emotionally immature and wildly self-centered teenager. (Smeyer's conduct in interviews has not reassured me that this was the product of an intelligent person's careful study of such people rather than an honest expression of the author's worldview.) If I could believe that most readers were taking the books as junk food, like the Hulk article suggested, I wouldn't care much other than to roll my eyes. I don't care much about the majority of crappy romance novels or crappy military SF, for instance. They aren't good, but they aren't any worse than, say, American Idol in terms of subtle corrosiveness. But for me, the Twilight phenomenon, the mind-boggling popularity of these badly written books, has illuminated some really uncomfortable things about modern society and how far we have to go in the battle against sexism and misogyny as ingrained cultural institutions.

Scattercat said...

If it's any consolation, I'm equally irritated at the popularity of "The Secret" and the Left Behind series, both of which have equally all-consuming and really kind of awful themes as their first and only raison d'etre.

Loren Eaton said...

Man, I'm really starting to regret even mentioning Twilight, because now I feel like I have to defend it somewhat, a task I'm not particularly interested in doing.

I don't care much about the majority of crappy romance novels or crappy military SF, for instance. They aren't good, but they aren't any worse than, say, American Idol in terms of subtle corrosiveness.

Honestly, though, if you've ever read a representative sample of the romance genre, I think you'd have a slightly different view of Twilight. Are Meyer's books thematically troublesome at points? Sure. But far less so than, say, Debbie Macomber or Sandra Brown. And these are A-list authors in their own right, every bit as successful as Meyer.

Perhaps we should draw a distinction between intepretation and application in this discussion. The former (if we focus on the author's intent) is more-or-less objective, while the latter can have as many iterations as readers. We should have cool heads when it comes to the former, but that doesn't mean we ignore the latter. I'm not going to rant about Meyer in a general review, but if I (someday) have a daughter who has picked up her books, I'm going to make darn sure she isn't using the text to internalize negative messages. And those messages can be something the author did or didn't intend.

tl;dr? Interpretation and application are two sides of the critical coin -- the first more objective, the second more subjective -- and both yield useful perspectives.

(I'm not even going to touch Left Behind. I have little interest in dispensationalism and couldn't finish the first installment in the series.)