Sunday, March 7, 2010

First Thoughts

I'm starting to think Stephenie Meyer might be bipolar.

Wait, let me back up.

Going in to this project, I didn't hold high hopes for Twilight. The book and its author received less than flattering treatment in the circles I frequent. One person went so far as to say, "Only two things are required to write Twilight: a thesaurus and ovaries."

I made it clear when I set out on this endeavor that I intended to approach things with an open mind. That's true, but I won't deny that my expectations were low.

Thus far Stephenie Meyer has done exactly what I expected. But at the same time I've been very surprised. I didn't think this would happen, but I have to be honest: parts of this book are very, very good.

To understand my thoughts on Twilight and its author you need to know some terminology. When I look at a book I look at two things: writing and storytelling. These are separate though interconnected parts of a novel. The truly great works of literature excel at both.

By writing I mean the nitty gritty. I mean the minutiae of sentence construction. I mean the elements of style and the particulars of their execution. The goal here is simple: prose is meant to communicate something--a message, a story--and it's simply fact that certain combinations of words communicate more clearly and with more effect than others. Good writing hits you in the chest. Poor writing puts you to sleep.

By storytelling I mean characters, plot. I mean everything from the events that happen (Edward saves Bella from a car accident) to the people it happens to (Bella a clumsy 17 year-old). The three keys to great storytelling are imagery, tension and voice.

So how does Stephenie Meyer stack up so far?

In far too many ways this tends to be a lost art these days--even among published authors. I used to work as a book reviewer and one of the main reasons I stopped was the constant exasperation I endured at the hands of authors who had never learned to construct good sentences. I don't expect every writer to be Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese or Maxine Hong Kingston, and maybe it's just professional jealousy ("why are they published and I'm not?"), but I think the boring little details of writing still count for something.

Here I have to say that overall Stephenie Meyer does exactly what I expected her to do. Twilight reads like a book in need of an editor. There are moments of brightness. A well-employed fragment. There's occasional anaphora and every so often she hits us with a strong one-sentence paragraph at just the right moment.

Nothing Meyer does wrong is anything beyond the mistakes I would expect from a first-time writer. But again I have to ask: where was the editor?

Meyer's prose is far too passive. The only verb to be found in most of her sentences, was, leaves the reader entirely unsatisfied. Take the very first paragraph of the book:
My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt--sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka.
Meyer begins strong, active voice and concise imagery (more on that in a minute). The following three sentences, however, fail to compare. The voice shifts into a passive mode, and the repetition "I was wearing...I was wearing" is trying to be anaphora but ends up obtuse.

This is more or less the structure of the whole book (thus far). We have strong sentences swimming in a sea of poorly constructed, unimaginative refuse--vibrant and vital refugees suffocating in the hordes of the living dead.

To put an arbitrary number on it, Meyer gets a 5 out of 10 in the writing category. When she's on her game she produces great work. Problem is she's only occasionally on her game.

I said before that great storytelling is composed of three elements: imagery, tension and voice.

Because we are a visual species, imagery speaks to us in a way and to a degree that no other device can. Without fail a writer's attempts to describe an emotion, to paint out the details of what an experience feels like, will always fail to live up to a simple description of the event itself. As a professor once illustrated to me, "If you want to talk about how sad you were when you moved away from your first house, don't talk about how sad you were. Describe what it looked like when you looked out the back of the car as you were driving away."

Meyer does imagery fairly well. She's not spectacular, but she's far from terrible. For the most part she understands that less is more. I have a pretty good idea what Forks, Washington looks like. I can picture the various characters and I could do so even if there weren't a movie to help. Thus far the best imagery came when Bella awoke to find the world covered in snow and layers of ice. Meyer painted a wonderfully terrifying picture

Tension is the reason a reader keeps reading. It's the ticking time bomb in the background, the subtext of pain and betrayal when separated parents are trying to play nice for their kids. Whether overt or underplayed, tension is the lifeblood to any story. Without it characters, no matter how interesting or well designed, are basically over glorified furniture. They're just standing around.

I know more dramatic events are coming, but right now the prime tension in Twilight comes from Bella being the New Girl, and from the strangeness of Edward Cullen and his creepy family (if I didn't know they were vampires I would think they were some kind of inbred psychopaths a la The Hills Have Eyes or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Thus far Meyer has done a fair job of maintaining the tension. Whenever one element exhausts its potential, see introduces something new. For example, when Bella's newness has about run its course, she's almost hit by a car.

Voice takes a character, a construct made up of ink on paper, and turns it into a person. It's the lightning that animates the monster and makes us care about him. Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is one of the greatest novels ever to be written in the English language precisely because of its mastery of voice. Humbert Humbert is a vibrant, realized character, fully defined, complex, hateful, and impossible not to cheer for, even though you feel guilty for doing so.

From page one Stephenie Meyer has done voice well. While it's always easiest in first person, nevertheless I have never once not been able to believe that I'm reading the thoughts and actions of a teenage girl. Bella is a maddening character. She's petty and vain and dramatic to a ridiculous extent--exactly the way a 17 year-old should be. Bella tells the story of her life with honest appraisal, with her feelings laid bare, and with a bitting if sparingly employed wit that allows her to rise above the mold of just another confused adolescent. I can honestly say that here I am impressed with what Meyer achieves.

The best example of voice thus far:
Of course he wasn't interested in me, I thought angrily, my eyes stinging--a delayed reaction to the onions. I wasn't interesting. And he was. Interesting...and brilliant...and mysterious...and perfect...and beautiful...and possibly able to lift full-sized vans with one hand.
I would put this up there with J.D. Salinger. Seriously. Meyer isn't quite a master of stream-of-consciousness like James Joyce, but then again who is? Aside from "angrily," which should have been removed, this paragraph is damn good. We have Bella lying to herself (we all know her eyes aren't stinging from the onions) and we have the progression of her thoughts. We can tell how frustrated and conflicted she is. And the end is funny as hell to boot. I had to read this paragraph twice I was so impressed.

Again, the artificial number. 7 out of 10.

So at this point you're probably thinking that all things being equal, one should just average out the two scores, get 6, and be done with my thoughts on the first four chapters of Twilight. But wait, perceptive readers will say, he called Stephenie Meyer bipolar at the beginning of this post.

Here's the deal. I started reading Twilight expecting it to be bad. I'm waiting until I've finished the book to see the movie, but the bits I have seen have looked like trite, uninspired garbage--I expected the book to be more or less the same. And in plenty of ways Meyer has done what I thought she would. She has a long way to go before I would call her a great writer.

But here's what makes reading this book frustrating. Meyer isn't always bad. In fact, sometimes she's very, very good. In terms of storytelling she's mostly good, but not extraordinary, and as regards writing she's pretty consistently mediocre. But interspersed among that tapestry are these moments of greatness. And they're frequent enough that I don't think she's just getting lucky. They're also random, coming and going without discernible pattern. Sometimes key sections are sloppy and filler passages are master prose. And sometimes it's the reverse.

I think Stephenie Meyer is bipolar, but instead of getting euphoric or deeply depressed, she suddenly and briefly transforms into a great writer in a Cinderella-esque metamorphosis.

I just wish this carriage didn't spend most of its time as a pumpkin.

And for the record I still maintain that Robert Pattinson has terrible hair.


  1. Nice post, Josh. Was a great pleasure reading.

  2. Great reading! I like the fact you have went into this with an open mind. So many people give Steph a hard time - at least you give her credit where her credit is due :)

    I agree with the reapeating of the words 'I was wearing' - I belive - I was wearing my favorite shirt--sleeveless, white eyelet lace; (I was wearing it)<<>> as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka.

    I am re-reading Twilight again -can't get enough- but I don agree that some of the book is in need of an editor -However, I DO NOT agree that Rob has horrible hair - his hair is perfect :)

    Looking forward to more :)

    Oh and are you doing the whole saga?

  3. Good job! I agree when some things you posted. Like the repetitive verbs.

    I believe Steph is good with the descriptions. I don't know if that is cause I've read all the books but when I was reading them I can imagine every single thing she described. She's good at that.

    Robert hasn't terrible hair. His hair is perfect for Edward Cullen.

    Nice reading! I'll be waiting for more of your post ;)


  4. Ha Josh see someone agrees with me that Rob's hair is perfect lol :)

  5. Josh,
    This is great! I am so glad you are doing this! :) I just discovered this adventure of yours on facebook. Thanks for having an open mind and I look forward to more you have to say on this book. I will be in Chicago in April and I hope to see you! :)