Tuesday, February 2, 2010


People who make a living by writing fiction are as rare as rock stars. One study found that the average novelist in the United States makes less than $10,000 per year from his or her writing - and that’s before taxes, the cut his or her agent takes, the cost of doing business, etc. So kudos to Stephanie Meyer for selling cargo ships full of books and for making a fortune from the sweat of her creative brow. It’s not for me to begrudge her, personally, for writing something that millions and millions of people adore. I hope that, before it’s all over, she makes a hundred trillion dollars. I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity if I could. That’s right, faithful readers of Measure of Doubt, your noble author would sell out in a second, if he could. The trouble is that nobody wants him to.

It might have been different. Longtime friends can confirm the following facts. Aged 16, in the 11th grade, I wrote a full-blown novel: 120 single-spaced pages. A sequel followed that summer (90 single-spaced pages). I have retained a hard copy of them but have not looked at them in years. The first novel concerned a high school girl who discovers that she’s a wizard. Or whatever a female wizard is called. The geekiest guy in school turns out to be a great warrior (ahem) and the two of them set off to foil the plans of an evil Dark Lord who killed the girl’s ancestors and who has now returned for her. I kid you not. And there was a giant named Hagrid. Okay, now I’m kidding you. Anyway, the sequel involves the girl falling in love with a boy at school who turns out to be a vampire. I also kid you not. His name was Edward. I am still not kidding you. The main difference is that my Edward was evil, whereas Meyer’s is merely boring. In fact, you could have a more interesting time having a conversation with his plastic doppelganger, pictured above.

Yes, I actually read Twilight. I did. There it was, staring at me in the used bookstore and I decided that it was time. Bearing in mind, once again, that I would never begrudge Stephanie Meyer for her success, allow me to say the following: Twilight is a piece of crap. It is not so much a work of literature as it is a work of typing. The plot is unoriginal; the writing is banal; the dialogue never rises above cliche; the characters, even the vampires, are entirely uninteresting; and nothing happens. The book goes on and on and nothing happens. Chapter One: nothing. Chapter Two: nothing. Chapter Three: nothing. (I think you see where I'm going with this.) Even the climactic fight scene doesn’t happen, because the central character mercifully loses consciousness (I was tempted to myself, at that point), thus sparing everyone the agony of reading Meyer, who has probably never even hit a golf ball, trying to write action. And the most preposterous thing about the book is not that there are teenage vampires, but that these teenage vampires spend decade after decade in high school without ever once deciding that, that’s it, I can’t take this crap anymore, I’m sucking this place dry.

Why is it popular with certain audiences? Why have millions and millions of young people fallen in love with it? I’ve heard all kinds of psychological gobbledygook about this (e.g. “At this point in their lives blah blah blah when they are exploring their blah blah blah teenage girls especially need blah blah blah and to vicariously resolve the tension that blah blah blah” - thanks, doc, where did you mail order your PhD from?) but the bottom line is this: if you’ve only ever eaten at McDonald’s, you’ll hate the first real food you eat. In short, teens eat it up because they don’t know any better.

And this, in turn, leads me to the point that I want to make. Schooling is only part of a young person’s education, and is not, in the overall scheme of things, the most significant one. University professors argue about students today – whether the student body as a whole is getting better or getting worse and others arguing you can't compare apples to oranges. Whatever the case may be, it is demonstrably true that many university students in arts and social science programs today read less than they did in past generations. Nothing is more detrimental to their education than this, and, in all likelihood, it’s too late to do much about it once they’ve reached second or third year university. We create lifelong readers — and hence lifelong learners — from a young age or probably not at all.

I count myself as fortunate (and I know that at least one of my readers was similarly blessed), to have had parents who took the time to read to me, and later to encourage me to read by furnishing me with books by the likes of Roald Dahl and C.S. Forrester and Jules Verne. Some people say that Stephanie Meyer and her ilk are “at least getting kids to read” as if Twlight were some sort of gateway drug. Today, teenage vampires; tomorrow, Anna Karenina. Maybe. Or it might be that the opposite is true: that people raised on salt and grease and Coca Cola will just seek out more of the same and get fatter and lazier as life goes on.

Any professor will confirm that the most common criticism we receive from students is this one: “It’s boring.” The readings, the lectures, the discussions, the professor him or herself. Boring. No wonder. If Stephanie Meyer is the extent of your literary horizon; if your idea of a great film is anything starring Adam Sandler; if your musical tastes extend no further than Susan Boyle; if your most significant artistic experience to date was winning Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, it will be difficult to understand that many of the cultural experiences worth having in life are not always or immediately gratifying. On the contrary: they are supposed to difficult, they are supposed to demand something of us, and they are supposed to change us by destabilizing our worldview.

Oh, we all need diverting entertainment, of course. It helps, though, if the entertainment is actually diverting, as opposed to time-wasting. And my comparison between Twilight and McDonald’s was not entirely fair. McDonald’s serves reliable french-fries. Twilight has nothing to recommend it except to serve as a rare example of a case where the movie, dreadful though it was, was actually far better than the book.


Graham Broad said...

This early update brought to you by an impending deluge of marking!

David said...

Interesting post, Graham.

I don’t quite understand the fascination with Twilight either. What I’m curious to see is the lasting impact of popular novels like the Twilight series. If Harry Potter can be on the curriculum at universities, is it possible that Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer will also have such a profound impact? I haven’t read Twilight, but at least Dan Brown can write a good movie script despite his mediocre and corny (at best) prose. Is that fact that they are bestselling authors enough to keep them relevant? Looking at the classics of English literature, there are some that have stood the test of time despite leaving much to be desired. Moll Flanders comes to mind as a poorly told story with atrocious prose, but because of Defoe’s unique style it is still extensively read and studied. At least the style was unique. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was hailed as little more than pornography when it was published, but now it ranks, rightfully so, as one of the best books written. Even Shakespeare borrowed from the Greeks, but like South Park said about competing with The Simpsons – if they have an idea, chances are the Simpsons already did it.

I just wonder if years from now it will be the popular books that will stand the test of time. Will high school students educated on graphic novels go to university and study the Da Vinci Code and Twilight and complain about how difficult it is to understand?

I hope the answer is no. Maybe I am feeling particularly pessimistic, but if it is true that people, and particularly students, aren’t reading more than popular teen literature, then what hope does the future hold for writers like Milton, Chaucer, and Shakespeare?