Sunday, January 04, 2009

Power of the Every-Woman

I try to resist hype when it comes to books but I'm often driven by curiosity to see what all the hype is about. I waited about two years before I read "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and two years seems to be my limit since Stephanie Meyer's Twilight was published toward the end of 2006 and I finally succumbed to curiosity and picked it up. You have to hand it to Stephanie Meyer. I'm sure that she, like J.K. Rowling, didn't see herself as such a huge success when she wrote her first book, but her books seemed to have hit a similar chord in people. Her books currently hold the top 4 positions on Amazon's Best Seller list and the movie "Twilight," based on her first book, has pulled in almost $180 million so far. I wish I was her. But the really remarkable thing is, her book is just okay. Just. Okay. "Twilight" is easy and entertaining to read but is it something you could call special? I wouldn't. I'm not knocking the book--seriously-- I just don't think it rises above standard teenage fare into the 'exceptional' category. So why is it such a huge hit? I could take the easy way out and say that it appeals to teenage girls and pre-teens who have catapulted the series the same way Hannah Montana has made Miley Cyrus a household name. But I know better than that. Why? Because I know of far too many 30 (and 40)- something year old women who have read the books and gone and seen the movie. That's the whole reason I picked up the book. I figured the story would have to have some special qualities to it to appeal to an adult audience. Maybe I'm jaded. I've read a lot of vampire fiction and nothing in "Twilight" stands out to me. In fact, if you're looking for good vampire fiction I'd point you in several different directions. I'd say read Charlie Huston's Joe Pitt series or Let the Right One In (originally "Let Me In") by John Ajvide Lindqvist. At least those books don't take the conventionally romantic route when it comes to vampires. So I suppose there is the possibility that I too would love "Twilight" if I hadn't already been so exposed to vampire fiction. The reason I say this is because Meyer managed to do one important thing when she wrote her book-- she created a character that every girl, and woman, could imagine as herself. She tapped into the power of the everyman, or everywoman in this case. I don't need to tell you too much about "Twilight" to give you the basic idea. The main character, Isabella "Bella" Swan is the new girl in town. She moves to Washington from Arizona to a very small town and a school where everyone knows everyone's business. Bella's an ordinary girl, clumsy and maybe a little plain. She's smart, mature and every so slightly unconventional-- enough so to feel out of step with the other kids. The very first day she notices a group of kids at school who are different from the rest. They're unnaturally beautiful, pale and they don't associate with anyone outside their group-- until, predictably, Bella comes along and attracts the attention of Edward, this story's vampire hero-- and garners his vow of everlasting love. "Twilight" is in many ways like any other story where the ordinary girl gets the most desirable guy. This is a story that provides the backbone of most romance fiction I have ever read. When I was a teenager Molly Ringwald was the every-girl heroine of movies like "Sixteen Candles" and "Pretty in Pink." She was my generation's Bella Swan. And I think that's why "Twilight" is such a huge success. We like the character of the everyman, even if it's a woman. If you look at the most beloved actors of the last few generations it's men like Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks that we find really endearing. Oh sure, we like George Clooney and Cary Grant, but can we really imagine ourselves in their shoes? Not likely. That's the power of the everyman- and everywoman. The characters who are just like us, who get to live extraordinary lives-- lives that we can imagine ourselves living. If we're lucky enough.


daydream said...

I think that another reason for its astonishing success is the fact that Meyer went mainstream with the vampire thing. It's not the hardcore urban fantasy, cause she went soft on it and I mean she wrote the book based on a dream. What can you expect?

I have my own copy somewhere in the house... I won it out of a giveaway! We shall see.

Virginia Lady said...

I haven't read it yet. I saw the book when it first came out and even though I'm a big vampire reader I backed away from it since it was YA. I have enough authors in SF, Mystery, and Romance, I don't need to add YA books as well. But now that's it is so popular, I'm edging back towards reading it.

Maybe I will. Or maybe I'll end up waiting for it to come out on TV.

No, I'll read it. It's too big now not to. And I'm too much of a reader.

ediFanoB said...

My wife loves it and she will definitely watch the movie.
She likes the actor.

I will never read it because I'm not interested in.

Kayla said...

I like to say that reading the Twilight books is like eating an entire bag of potato chips. You know it's bad for you, but you just can't stop. Is it the best thing you've ever eaten? No way. But it's there, and it's easy to keep going.

Bella was probably one of the worst female characters in fantasy for me. Her only skill seems to be falling down a lot and smelling really good to vampires. But I read through all four Twilight books for some reason. And afterward, just like after eating a whole bag a chips, I didn't feel very good about it.

I do think that Meyer's "fantasy-lite" is part of the reason so many people read them -- the supernatural elements are just a small part of what is really a (very sappy) love story.

Charles Gramlich said...

I suspect you're right, and I imagine that's why I probably wouldn't get much out of it. I'm tempted to read it to see what all the fuss is about, though.

SQT said...


That's probably true-- at least as far as the age group she's trying to reach is concerned.

Virginia Lady

You probably don't have to worry about rushing to read it. It's pretty pedestrian.


I have to admit that it baffles me when grown women love this story. It's just so conventional.


I laughed out loud when I read your post. Chips are a good analogy. I feel the same way when I read the Black Dagger Brotherhood vampire series. It's more original than Meyer, but it's still bosom-heaving romance and I always feel a little silly after reading it.


I just can't see you getting much out of it if you did read. I suppose it's a good example of marketing, but that's about it.

Dotsblog said...

As a Twilight reader (of all four books), I have to say that at first I didn't find the story appealing, Bella was too plain and Edward too beautiful (had to vampire pheromones,too beautiful for real life.) But then I got sucked in, found myself reading through the books in one sitting. Bella is everywoman and we all wanted the attention of the beautiful crowd, which few could attain because you weren't rich enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, or just too you. Bella beats the beautiful crowd at their own game. As for Stephenie Meyer, I also read the Host, and it's true Scifi. It took awhile to get into the book (several chapters), but it turned out to be better the Twilight, still a little lite; really a likable read, probably won't appeal to Twilight readers :-)

Stewart Sternberg said...

I would argue that Twilight is the hit it is because the corporation wanted it to be. The NYTIMES bestseller list is a sham. These enormous publishers will manipulate distribution for marketing. Are you aware that for a book to be displayed in the front of Barnes and Noble that the publisher or distributor have to kick over a couple thousand dollars per store for the privilege? At least that is my most recent information.

Writing is about marketing and business. Twilight was a cold hearted ploy.

I have yet to read the books. I will probably break down and read Twilight. I've hestitated because too many people I respect have read this and shaken their heads.

SQT said...


That wouldn't surprise me one bit. The cynicism of it all bugs me, especially when writers who are so much more skilled are being ignored, but at this point, it's expected.

T.D. Newton said...

I couldn't agree more with the mediocrity of Twilight. It's not BAD, it's just not as amazing as everyone thinks it is. What I find most funny is that the biggest fans are people who don't normally read SF/F... those of us that read SF/F know better (or we prefer our vampire/werewolf battles to be more adult and exciting, like Underworld).

And yes, it is doubly perplexing to me that this is a YA book yet my almost-thirty wife (and her almost-thirty friends) go completely batshit for it.

I can see that to some people Bella represents an "outcast" entering the "cool crowd" but I definitely did not see that in the first book. And, even if that were thematic, that portion of the premise is even less believable than the existence of vampires and werewolves.

SQT said...


I'm baffled in the same way you are. I have a friend who is one of those music-snob types who turns her nose up at anything pop and she thinks "Twilight" is awesome. (?) I haven't even tried to explain to her that "Twilight" is the movie equivalent of say, Britney Spears. This whole phenomenon is completely boggling.

T.D. Newton said...

Ah, but to many of us, Britney is perplexingly popular as well. I guess it's just serendipity for Stephanie Meyer... a high-school vampire story was just the shot in the arm the pop market needed to avoid thinking about the financial downturn, or something.

SQT said...


That's why I used Britney as an example. This friend of mine wouldn't be caught dead listening to Spears but "Twilight" doesn't strike her as cheesy. I think it's like you said though. She doesn't typically read the genre so she doesn't know how ordinary "Twilight" really is. But I'm still a little baffled. Even if the book didn't have the vampire element, it wouldn't be more than an angsty teenage novel. It doesn't even go beyond that with the vampires and I guess I thought people who claim to have taste would see that.

Dotsblog said...

I don't think it hard to believe that you have to pay Barnes & Nobles to be put out front, don't care much for them, only go in as a last resort, big conglomerate bookstores. Publishing has become all about making money, it's getting harder and harder to find a publisher, no one takes unsolicited work anymore. Twilight is a phenom because of marketing, that I agree with.