Twilight: an Honest Review

It is difficult to think of a work of fiction that seems to have more of a polarising effect on readers than Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. Ever since I read the books, this has puzzled me somewhat. I can understand - though I don't agree with - the reasons the books' target audience have for rating it so very highly. What I find more difficult to comprehend is why so many people seem to hate them so much. It's not that I can't imagine anyone disliking the series. There is not a book ever written that doesn't have some detractors. But Twilight seems to attract a virtually unparallelled level of vitriol. There are plenty of bad books - including bad books with large fanbases - that do not seem to be hated one-tenth as widely as the Twilight series.

Let me say before I go any further that I am not your typical Twilight fan, nor do I imagine myself to fall within the series' target audience. I am an eighteen-year-old heterosexual male, belonging to a demographic that I suspect would normally lead me to be  associated amongst the books' more rabid detractors. But, despite this, I fundamentally think Twilight is a good book. It is a very good book in fact, likely amongst the best published in recent years. New Moon is also a very good book. Eclipse and - especially - Breaking Dawn are perhaps not on the same level, but this is due to very specific flaws that I shall discuss later. Fundamentally, however, the series is not a bad one. I wouldn't personally argue any of the books to be an instant classic, but they are a long long way from deserving to be treated like the worst thing ever to happen to the world of fiction - which they commonly seem to be.

The arguments levelled against the series are manifold. Some of them, admittedly, are perfectly valid - though this does not necessarily mean they have to get in the way of the books being an enjoyable read. Many make valid sense at face value, although it is possible to come up with perfectly good counter-arguments to explain them away. Others, however, appear to be aimed purely at ridiculing the series without any recourse to logical argument. For example, one common criticism aimed against the books is that Meyer's vampires sparkle in the sunlight. This is often put forward as something unequivocally silly. I am tempted more towards the "So what?" response. Something like that is perfectly acceptable in a fantasy series. There's a valid in-story explanation for why that feature is introduced, as well. It doesn't help that Meyer's own description of the sparkling is genuinely well done - the problem likely lies more with the fact that just saying "vampires sparkle in the sun" sounds a bit silly than that there's anything wrong with the way Meyer actually writes it.

This perhaps highlights something I found when reading the books - that Stephenie Meyer is actually, in many respects, a good writer. Some of the less well constructed arguments about the series do hinge on it being "badly written", without much qualification as to what that actually means. Sometimes, though, they do go a bit further. They directly criticise Meyer's prose style. I find this one of the most problematic criticisms of the series. Meyer writes good if not excellent prose. It's possible to see any writing (and I really do mean any writing at all) as "bad" in this sense if that is what you are setting out to do. I personally like Meyer's prose - a lot. Millions of fans clearly don't dislike it enough to stop reading. The criticisms of Meyer's style come, I suspect, in three categories. First, there are those who dislike the series as a whole and are just trying to find whatever flaws they can - and pick prose style as an easy target. Secondly, we have those who (likely often overlapping with the first set) decide that Meyer's writing does not match up to an essentially arbitrary set of criteria defining "good prose" and therefore she is a bad writer. Finally, there are of course going to be those who genuinely, for whatever reason, just don't like it, but I suspect this is a much smaller proportion of readers than may at first appear to be the case.

If I had to pick one problem with Meyer's work, it is that she is not completely au fait with the craft (as opposed to the art) of writing. (Oddly, this is not a criticism that I have ever seen anyone else level at the series.) Meyer has a degree in English literature; she knows about writing as an artform. Twilight, however, has been publicised not only her first published novel, but the first story of any type she ever wrote. I believe that these things show in the book's execution, and in that of its sequels. Many of the artistic elements are there - they may not be terribly well done, but that is also the case in 99% of published fiction. It is mostly on the technical level that she falls down.

I should say here that, though I am not a published author, I have written fairly extensively on an amateur level, and believe I do know what I am talking about to an extent. On the other hand, most of Stephenie Meyer's experience with fiction prior to Twilight beyond that of the more casual reader seems to have come from her time as a literature student. Again, I should mention here that I have not studied English literature myself in any great depth, so this next section is based mainly on my not necessarily accurate impressions of the subject. Literary studies, as far as I can tell, seem to focus mostly on certain particular aspects of writing, and it is with regards to these aspects that Meyer has the most success. When literature students consider characterisation, they are likely to focus mostly on the most important characters, and as a character's importance decreases the chances of them ever becoming the subject of an essay also decrease, perhaps exponentially. This shows, I think, in Meyer's writing. Whatever people might say, I believe Bella and Edward - and, later, Jacob - are well-formed characters. I don't admit to knowing a great deal about teenage girls, but Bella Swan is for me the most believable teenage girl I have ever encountered in a work of fiction. The books' popularity with this demographic suggests real-life teenage girls find Bella easy to identify with. Myself, I identify well with both Edward and Jacob in different aspects, on a level that very few authors can rival. I could genuinely write essays about these characters. They are well done. I do not think they are the ideals that many people make them out to be - I would not want my sister or daughter going out with Edward Cullen; Bella is psychologically not quite right somewhere - but I do not think that need be a problem.

Lesser characters, however, are not generally so well created. There seems to be a sort of second tier of characters who are not exactly badly done but lack the detail and realism of the three leads, followed by a third tier who come across as flat, boring and unexceptional. Characters may move from the third to the second tier as the series progresses. Probably the prime examples of the second tier are Charlie and Alice, others may include Renée, the rest of the Cullens, and possibly some of the Quileutes and a few of the other vampires. The rest of the characters tend to fall into the third category - this includes Bella's classmates apart from Edward, and the less important werewolves and vampires. Though nominally quite important in some cases, these characters tend to be little more than a name and maybe the most basic of personalities.

This may be Meyer's clever way of showing how important various characters are to Bella - perhaps so many characters seem so flat because they are so far eclipsed by the importance of Edward. I think it more likely, however, that Meyer has simply been misled by the fact that minor characters are so much less likely to be covered in English literature essays into believing that they require so much less work - hardly any, in fact. I would personally argue that all characters of any real consequence at all require work to make them believable and at least in some way interesting, even if they don't get a great amount of "screen time" or have any major effect on the novel as a whole. There are no small parts in novel-writing.

Meyer's work bristles with other features that English literature students might pick on: features that may well be considered in some sense more "artistic". To repeat, they are not always terribly well done (in fact, they are in certain cases terribly done), but they are there. The prose feels more artistic and poetic than that of most similar novels. The setting is well described. There are themes, and symbolism - perhaps poorly handled, or at best not terribly interesting, but present nonetheless. (I will make specific mention here of the epigraphs to each book, particularly the quotation from the Book of Genesis that opens the first - and has only the most tenuous connection to the actual events of the story, even if it does allow for a stylish front cover. This is perhaps Meyer's most egregrious attempt to come across as a "literary" writer.)  

Accordingly, possibly the single biggest problem with the series comes with one of those things that is perhaps less likely to be studied in detail by a student of literature, but is nevertheless vastly important to the craft of writing: plot.  Young children are taught that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end, but Stephenie Meyer does not seem entirely clear about this. This is maybe explicable; this sort of thing is at the forefront of a professional author's mind but may not occur so much to someone with more experience in studying finished texts - particularly because, when done properly, it is often barely noticeable. We are more likely to criticise a work for being badly plotted than praise it for being plotted well. Twilight, for example, can be thought of almost as two stories: the first section, dealing with Bella and Edward's romance, and the second, dealing with the conflict with the evil vampires. These are connected with a section in which, because the first plot has already essentially been wrapped up (Edward and Bella are already happy together), there is virtually no suspense - it is just some vampires playing baseball. Instead of "beginning > middle > end", Twilight's structure might be more accurately schematised as "beginning > middle > end > filler > beginning > middle > end". (Melissa Rosenberg, the screenwriter for the book's film adaptation, kindly states, "You don't really see James and the other villains until to the last quarter of the book, which really won't work for a movie." The truth is it doesn't work terribly well in the book either. The villains would have best been introduced earlier on - if only a couple of chapters early - or else the whole "action" subplot omitted entirely.)

Meyer does not overcome this issue in the rest of the series, and plotting and pacing continues to be its biggest flaw. Reading Eclipse, I personally found myself slightly put out by the feeling that - as there was still one book left to come - I could basically expect the story to go up to an arbitrary point in Bella and Edward's relationship and then stop, which had essentially been the case in New Moon. Perhaps things would have been different if I hadn't already purchased Breaking Dawn at that point.

It is in the fourth book, though, that I think the problems become most apparent. Breaking Dawn has other issues, admittedly - mostly involving characterisation - but even these might be seen to stem from Meyer's biggest vice of an apparent inability to properly plot and pace her work. Breaking Dawn is, essentially, a long book in which not a great deal happens. The first section, dealing with a fundamentally uneventful wedding and a honeymoon notable only for implied sexual intercourse, is the worst offender, dragging on for chapters with almost no suspense whatsoever. The basic events would work as an epilogue - would even work in its current position if they were not dragged out so long - but they do not work as they appear in practice.

After this, things admittedly do get more exciting, but Meyer makes more mistakes. Presumably in a (laudable) attempt to get things moving quicker, she speeds up both Bella's pregnancy and Renesmee's rate of growth. However, this is a poor solution, as there is still very little actually happening. It would perhaps have been better for Renesmee to grow up at a normal rate, allowing time for interesting character development, than to rush things forward in the way she does - or else to use Renesmee's character in a different way, or to get rid of her altogether. Meyer also damages Bella's character badly with her unconvincingly high level of self-control after she is changed into a vampire. The reasons for this - the fact that had Bella reacted normally, this would necessarily have affected the storyline a great deal - are apparent enough, but this is little justification. Had the author not been too eager to get onto something vaguely resembling action (never the greatest draw of the series), we could have had a good deal of interesting psychological drama dealing with Bella's struggles with her new personality.

Even those who generally praise the Twilight series have sometimes accused it of having a "bad ending". This is not true. The series has a perfectly reasonable ending; it is the way it is handled which is problematic. The last book, and arguably the last two books, are paced all wrong - the biggest flaw of the first book is once more raising its ugly head. If I was tasked with redrafting the series whilst keeping broadly to the original plot, there is not a great deal I would change. I would keep most of Meyer's prose; I would not alter her characterisation except to make certain minor characters more vivid (or, possibly, to write them out altogether). But I would heavily rework the last two books, possibly collapsing them into one, and more likely than not getting rid of at least one major subplot. There is not exactly too much going on in Eclipse and Breaking Dawn per se, but there is definitely too much of not enough going on, and once that is removed, other subplots would have to follow to balance things out.

The last part of this essay will have come across as harsh, it is true. But I will say that I believe that the problem it deals with is possibly the only appreciable flaw to the series; that is, the only thing which I found really hampered my enjoyment of the series. As a result, I feel that much of the criticism levelled against the series is unjustified. I will say it again: in general, Twilight and its sequels are not bad books.

Copyright © James Baker 2009.