Stephenie Meyers’s Twilight series, which features a star-crossed romance between a high-school girl (Bella) and a vampire (Edward), has sold a combined total of 60 million books, which makes Mrs. Meyer, a young Mormon writer, one of the bestselling authors of all time. What are we to make of her success?
It turns out that this is a much more complex issue than we at Salvo at first imagined. For our answer, we turned to John Granger, “the dean of Harry Potter scholars,” according to Time magazine, and the author of a forthcoming book on Twilight, tentatively titled Spotlight: A Close-Up Look at the Artistry and Meaning of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga. Before tackling the series itself, however, we asked Granger whether we should even care about bestselling fiction, given that it is so often dismissed as trash by the literati.
Are bestsellers deservedly maligned?
Instead of assuming that a book is poorly written if it tops mass-market paperback sales for weeks and months, isn’t it more likely that it is actually better written than other books? If an author’s intent is to convey meaning, even anti-meaning, to a reader or audience, it seems a rational gauge of success to ask if the meaning conveyed has in fact been received—and with enthusiasm. If I were a critic in the academy or the media, I would feel obliged to assume that it is the bestselling writers who most deserve my attention because they are obviously doing something right. Readers get and respond to what they’re saying. The real question that big-book sales prompt, especially in the case of over-the-top publishing phenomena such as Harry Potter and Twilight, is, “Why are these books so popular?” My own experience with such books has led me to three different answers to this question.
Let’s hear them.
Okay. The first is that C. S. Lewis was correct in saying that a book has to be something you love and want to revisit for it to be considered great. He had other standards as well, of course—it has to make you wiser and a better person, for example—but his baseline was that you must enjoy the experience of reading it. Lev Grossman, Time magazine’s book critic and an accomplished novelist himself, recently suggested the same thing in a Wall Street Journal essay. He dared to say to his fellow critics that the modern literary novel isn’t good for just being hard to read, and popular genre fiction isn’t necessarily bad for having an engaging plot. Grossman was eviscerated for this heresy, but his point is valid on Coleridgean grounds: If a story isn’t engaging enough, the reader will not enter into it sufficiently to suspend disbelief and have an experience outside the conscious mind or ego persona. One reason why bestselling books are such is that their plots create mythic experiences outside of ourselves.
Your second answer?
It’s the commonsense observation that, for a book to resonate with readers, it must reflect and confirm their core beliefs about the world and what it means to be human. When a book sells really well, I think it is reasonable to assume that it has provided an experience that says the way we think is the correct way. The funny thing about this idea—funny to me at least—is that it’s really not possible to entirely step outside the concerns and beliefs of your age. That is to say, everyone, highbrow and lowbrow alike, is advancing the core myth of society.
Our current postmodern core myth is (ironically and with no little contradiction) that all societal myths are bad because they both make it impossible for us to see things as they really are and create a necessary division of the world into good guys with power and “others” who are marginalized. Our core evil is thus prejudice resulting from unexamined belief; our core struggle is our inability to know anything for certain, blinded as we are by our beliefs; and our core good is the freedom resulting from a self-actualized choice that transcends our prejudices. I think you will find that all of the novels on the bestseller list reflect these themes and sell well as a result.
And your third answer?
Here I turn to Mircea Eliade’s claim in The Sacred and the Profane that secular cultural entertainments, but especially reading, serve a mythic or religious function. When God has been chased to the edge, past the public sphere, where can we find the spiritual and communal experiences for which anthropology and history tell us we are assigned? Well, we find them in books, movies, and collective identifications such as sports, schools, businesses, or partisan politics. We used to find them in religion, of course, but this has been deemed by the prevailing culture to be silly, feminine, or somehow anti-progressive.
If it is true that people read for religious experience, then those books that have authentic religious content, whether sentimental or profound, will be the most popular. Such content is sometimes explicit, but more often than not—due to our shared Enlightenment conviction that religion is the most dangerous vehicle of prejudice—it is implicit, symbolic, and woven into the story without the stained-glass windows. The reason that books such as Twilight and Harry Potter work is that they are postmodern epics about apotheosis or divinization through loving sacrifice. In other words, they are the secular equivalent of religious novels.
Let’s talk a bit about Twilight. Why should we care about this series? What is its target audience? Why do critics dismiss it?
We should care about these books because a ton of people are reading them. Like the Harry Potter books, they are becoming the real shared texts of our culture—more so even than the Bible, The New York Times, or Sex and the City. They are shaping the imaginations of at least two generations. As for their target audience, at least in the conception and drafts of the first and last books, they were intended only for the author and her sister. In this sense, they are pretty much the closest thing possible to an encouraging mirror reflection of the author. In short, Stephenie Meyer writes for Mormon moms.
But here’s the thing: Everyone is reading them. The near universal belief that only teenage and tween girls are reading these books is laughable. Talk to a librarian or bookstore owner. Young girls may show up for the Twilight proms, conventions, and media events, but there is no way that this segment of our population has purchased nigh on 60 million copies of these oversized books, setting records both at Amazon.com and on the USA Today bestseller lists. The reason critics dismiss them, despite this success, is because of what Pepperdine University’s James Thomas (a Harry Potter pundit) calls the “three Deathly Hallows” of book reception: A novel simply can’t be “too current, too popular, or too juvenile” and be good in the eyes of the literati.
So you’ve decided to devote a whole book to the series. Why would someone want to read a book about a book?
I think people read my books for two reasons. Perhaps most importantly, they pick them up because they want to know more about their favorite books. The attachment and profundity that mark their reading of these books are such that they want to know more about what caused this religious experience. Is it just them or the author’s artistry? The second reason they buy them is because I answer that need in them to know more. While there are more than 100 ancillary books about Harry Potter, for example, very few of them explain how the series works as literature, and this is what most of my readers seek to understand.
But why would someone just looking for a good story care about the deeper meaning? Don’t we just get out of books what we already bring to them?
I think people always care about the deeper meaning. They may not be able to explain it, but they know it when they have experienced it (this is why they reread such books repeatedly). C. S. Lewis once said that any book that doesn’t get beneath your conscious understanding hasn’t penetrated very deeply and doesn’t stand much of a chance of having an influence. To get at this sort of meaning—the allegorical, anagogical, or subliminal stuff beneath the surface—is why readers want exegetes such as me to write up explanations.
And no, I don’t believe that meaning resides entirely in the mind of the individual reader. That seems as prima facie silly as saying that the meaning resides entirely in the intentions of the author. The content of the text does not come from those receiving it or those generating it, but rather is the text itself. Readers are certainly free to misunderstand that content, just as writers are free to misrepresent, narrow, or exaggerate it, but serious readers take their cue only from the text. The author has a privileged voice in a conversation about his work, but only as a first voice among the equal voices of serious readers.
Let’s get to it, then. What do you, a serious reader of Twilight, think the books are really about? You have said that the series is a “Mormon woman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.” How so?
I mean that very literally because its inspiration came in the form of a dream that Stephenie Meyer, a cradle Latter Day Saint and BYU graduate, had on June 2, 2003. That dream—comprised of Edward and Bella’s time in a sunlit mountain meadow, which eventually became chapter 13 of the first book—is a snapshot of the allegorical meaning of the series: a Harlequin version of Mormon ideas about God and man. Harold Bloom of Yale University once wrote that Joseph Smith, Jr., the LDS prophet and author of The Book of Mormon, is America’s only religious genius. I agree.
Malcolm Muggeridge said that sex or eroticism is “the mysticism of the materialist,” and Mormonism is the spirituality of our times in this regard. It is no accident that Meyer wrote a book suffused with religious content within the romance genre (meaning a love story in this context) that includes a heroine’s apotheosis after marrying the image of Joseph Smith, Jr., and being transformed by childbirth into a super-powered near-immortal. Bella’s story is actually a mythic version of Mormon soteriology.
It is likewise no accident that Americans resonate with this message. Sex, after all, is by and large our religious faith and sole extra-personal experience—after reading and moviegoing, of course! In several ways, Mormonism, though a 19th-century anachronism, is America’s de facto religion in that it’s preoccupied with proper sexual relations. In this sense, Meyer has written the Aeneid for our naturalist, desire-driven culture.
Does this make the books dangerous? What would you say to someone who wants to read them?
That question makes me skittish, no doubt because of post-Potter pandemonium syndrome. It was the question that Harry haters asked about the witchcraft in J. K. Rowling’s books, and it caused them to miss the layer upon layer of Christian content and edifying meaning in Harry Potter that directly reflects the traditions of English fantasy literature.
How about rephrasing the question? If you were to ask me whether the books are edifying, for example, I would answer that they are. The God-man allegory told as a romance just plain works. Bella wants to love Edward like we should want to love God—to be so close to him that we can feel him in our hearts. There’s a real “Bride of Christ” thing happening in these books. I don’t anticipate many tween “TwiHard” readers running to a convent after reading the series, but the idea is there, however wrapped in sensuality it may be.
My 19- and 16-year-old daughters have read the entire series, and they both enjoyed it a lot. I’m letting my 13-year-old read one Twilight book a year. I don’t have any theological, literary, or moral qualms about letting my children read the books.
What are you hoping to accomplish with your book?
I’m just trying to demonstrate how good these books are, as well as how books should be read to reveal their worth. In the chapter on Mormonism, I explain why Northrop Frye argued that a romance is essentially the story of a wish-fulfillment dream, and I also explain how to read Meyer as a non-proselytizing Mormon artist, apostate, and apologist. I think this section will challenge conventional ways of reading books, and I hope that it will cause readers to reflect on how they understand not only books, but also themselves and the world. I get letters from readers who tell me that, because of my past books, they can now see beneath the surface of favorite texts. Such letters make the whole process of writing my books worthwhile. •
If you enjoy Salvo, please consider giving an online donation! Thanks for your continued support.