Saturday, July 17, 2010

Michael D. O'Brien on Twilight

Twilight (The Twilight Saga)
I am officially sick and tired of hearing about Twilight.  I saw the first film and found it wretched.  I read the first novel at Lucky's behest and found it, if anything, even more wretched.  Somebody, somebody somewhere please, write a novel about a tortured beefcake who's actually interesting so the teen girls can go gaga over that instead and we won't have to keep hearing over and over again about a novel that sucks this bad.

Much as I dislike Twilight, I feel a certain duty to defend it when I see it being picked on for all the wrong reasons, such as when, for example, Michael D. O'Brien speculates wildly that the popularity of the franchise and the fact that Stephenie Meyer got the idea from a dream are evidence that the novels were actually conceived by Satan himself, as he does in his essay, "Twilight of the West."  Although an excellent writer and talented painter sometimes capable of making good points, O'Brien has a bad habit of basing his moral criticism on his emotions.  In the foreword to his new book on Harry Potter, for example, he informs us that he knows Harry Potter is evil because it causes him "spiritual nausea" and "spiritual disgust," which I can only assume are noticeably different from regular-type nausea and disgust, and because he had bad dreams while reading them.  He also claims the books give him "the sense of an oppressive presence that I had come to recognize over the years as the proximity of adverse spirits."  How does he know that?

He did the same thing all the way back in his book A Landscape with Dragons, where he promotes the idea, unique to him, that it is part of the Natural Law that all fictional reptiles are representations of Satan and must be depicted as unambiguously evil.  He defends this notion by describing a nightmare in which a dinosaur attacked him.

The problem with this is that personal experiences are just that--personal.  Even if O'Brien's dreams really have the supernatural relevance he attributes to them, they are personal revelations, not the least bit binding on anybody other than O'Brien himself.  The same goes for his "spiritual nausea" and his claim to be able to detect the presence of demons.

There are more mundane explanations for O'Brien's emotional experiences readily available.  In that same foreword on Harry Potter, he describes himself, shortly before reading the novels, in a kind of Gethsemane experience, wrestling with God and begging and pleading to be spared the horrible burden of reading a series of children's books.  After he's worked himself into such an emotional frenzy, it's no surprise that, "from the day I opened the first page and began to read, a cloud of darkness and dread descended..."  What is surprising is that, shortly after writing about wrestling with God and experiencing spiritual disgust, he can write, "I can say that I approached the series with no strong emotional bias, no irrational fear."  It certainly sounds as if he approached with a strong emotional bias, given the events he describes as leading up to the reading.

In his essay on Twilight, O'Brien relies on emotional button-mashing, vagueness, and wild speculation to convince his readers.  He also shows his habit of contradicting himself, of using different yardsticks for different authors, so that it's impossible to know what exactly he's demanding of the fantasy writers he critiques.  For example, he tells us to "remember...that when the 'good' [note the scare quotes] vampires catch a bad vampire, they rip off his head and tear his body into pieces with their hands and then burn the remains."  Of course, that's more-or-less the traditional way to deal with a vampire, so it's unclear why O'Brien finds it repulsive in Twilight specifically, since he shies away from giving a blanket condemnation to all vampire stories.  But though O'Brien apparently disapproves of gore in Twilight, this is his opinion on gore when he's dealing with stories he approves of:
Furthermore, a literary figure is not in fact a suffering person but an image in the mind.  And the dire image of a witch's death may suggest in the mind of a child that witchcraft is so absolutely a violation of their souls, of their personhood, that a dire punishment is warranted.  Even very young children realize that no one is going to make a witch dance herself to death in red-hot shoes....  [A Landscape With Dragons, p. 38]
So tearing vampires apart = bad and dancing witches to death in hot shoes = good.  Why the different yardsticks?  It's impossible to say for sure, but the sudden and unexpected reference to bodies being ripped apart looks like an attempt at an emotional yank.  He does the same thing further down when he admits that Edward Cullen's self-control arguably has some good points:  He writes, "Edward, we are led to believe, is outstandingly 'moral' [note the scare quotes], his self-denial resembling heroic chastity."  But then, instead of engaging with the story and going into the details that a real work of moral criticism would need, such as describing Edward's abusive behavior, or defining chastity and then noting that trying to develop willpower by spending lots of time around a person who incites perverse lust is a foolhardy rather than a chaste thing to do, O'Brien goes for button-mashing again:  "It is all so tender and touching until one recalls that this is a story about savage killers who have infected normal humans and brought them into their 'family' [note the scare quotes]."

O'Brien might possibly have a point there, but the point comes across only weakly because Twilight is a fantasy and the thing he's attacking is its central fantasy conceit.  Twilight can't really be said to promote savage killing any more than Jonny Quest can be said to promote child endangerment.  Vampires being real, or eleven-year-olds being heroes, are just the sort of thing you have to be willing to buy into if you're to enjoy this kind of entertainment.  Most people who read fantasy are actually eager to buy into such things.  Instead of simply recoiling in disgust (spiritual disgust, presumably), O'Brien would be better off explaining why the central fantasy conceit doesn't work--that is, why vampiric bloodlust makes a poor analogy for raging teen hormones.  If he did that instead of trying to yank his readers' emotions, he could explain why Twilight's fantasy conceit and attendant metaphor don't function the way the author intended, and why the novel in spite of its good intentions is an artistic and moral failure.

Much of O'Brien's essay consists of quotes from The SCP Journal and from Michael Jones's Monsters from the ID: The Rise of Horror in Fiction and Film.  I haven't had the chance to access either.  The quotes from both sources look dubious.  Jones speculates that vampire fiction became popular when syphilis was on the rise, and that the growth in the popularity of vampire fiction has accompanied the loss of sexual mores, which sounds like one of those inappropriate arguments from statistics in which someone claims that ice cream sales cause murder because both increase during the summer.  Worse, however, are the quotations from Steve Wohlberg's "Menace Behind Twilight" from The SCP Journal.  These quotations form the linchpin of O'Brien's own essay.  Wohlberg notes that Stephenie Meyer came up with her idea for her novels when she had a vivid dream about a hot boy, and that J. K. Rowling got her idea for Harry Potter in a flash of inspiration, and then speculates that both writers got their ideas straight from the devil, a notion O'Brien is eager to swallow:
Who was this “Edward”? Was it the author’s subconscious telling her that she was attempting to tame what cannot be tamed? Or was it an evil spirit manifesting through the image, urging her to give her readers less moralism and more blood?
In his foreword to his book on Harry Potter, O'Brien attempts to avoid blaming Rowling directly, stating, " is important to underline that J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, is almost certainly unaware of her work’s significance in the darkening of the times."  He's not so kind to Meyer.  He describes an interview in which Meyer states that she had a later dream about Edward Cullen, after the one that inspired her novel, in which she says, "I had gotten it wrong and he did drink blood like every other vampire...."  O'Brien jumps on this and asks,
Why did she not realize that the second dream was warning her about something? In her interviews she merely reported it without offering an assessment of what it might mean, then continued to write more of the same. Why did she respond to the first dream and not to the second? Was it because the first was extremely pleasurable and the second disturbing to the point of terror? Was it because pleasure had become her good and unhappy feelings a thing to be dismissed as bad?
Maybe.  Or maybe Meyer doesn't take dreams as seriously as O'Brien does.  I've had some involved and vivid dreams of my own, and once in my adult life I even had a nightmare, but I've never attributed any significance to it.  In this lengthy and exceptionally detailed nightmare, I was a woman, and my next-door neighbor, a postal worker, was trying to hunt me down and murder me with a kitchen knife because I had discovered that he added spice to his ennui-afflicted life by cross-dressing and dancing at an exotic night club, and in his attempt to get me, he slashed and hacked everyone else in his way.

Now, if I interpreted dreams the way O'Brien does, I would write a lengthy essay in which I would point out that the dream had the basic outline of a slasher film, which must be spiritually significant because I don't watch slashers.  I would mention that some details at the end of my dream came from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (they did!), which I was reading at the time.  To add veracity, I would be sure to explain that I don't usually have nightmares, and then I would conclude that my dream is proof that His Dark Materials, and slasher movies, and postal workers, are all demonic because they were mixed together in a dream that made me feel bad.

Of course, other explanations are available.  The dream was more vivid than my usual, true, but I was camping out at the time and I typically sleep more soundly while lying on the ground out-of-doors.  Some elements from the dream, like parts of the postal worker's dance club costume, came from a movie poster I'd glanced at earlier in the day.  And though it's true I don't watch slasher movies, I know the typical outline, which explains why I had to have a sex-change to be the protagonist, and it's typical for my dreams to play out like movies anyway.

Do I think this dream was "warning" me [note the scare quotes] about His Dark Materials?  No.  I think it was just a dream.  I am capable of evaluating Pullman's pro-child-fornication atheist screed posing as a fantasy epic without claiming any supernatural revelations, and O'Brien would probably be able to produce better, more convincing essays on fantasy if he also resisted making such claims.  The problem with his essay's conclusion is that it is speculation, open to neither proof nor rebuttal.  He insinuates that Rowling and Meyer were both inspired by the devil, and that this is evident in the suddenness of Rowling's idea and in the dream of Meyer, but this is not in fact evident at all.  I too have had story ideas from dreams, as have many writers or would-be writers, and O'Brien describes in that same foreword I've been referring to how he often has inspiration for his novels, complete with intricate details, come seemingly out of nowhere.  Does that indicate that O'Brien's own novels are demonic?  Of course not.  It only indicates that O'Brien is creative and talented.

Instead of making wild claims about other authors' contact with devils and his own heightened spiritual faculties, O'Brien would do better to examine the books he wants to criticize and critique them honestly, trying his best to use the same standards every time and avoid emotional appeals.  Moral criticism is hard work; I can't claim to be especially good at it, either, but all of us who attempt it should keep in mind that if we want to claim a book has moral failings, the burden of proof is on us to demonstrate it, and not on the author to justify his work.  By making cheap attacks, especially in wondering why Meyer doesn't heed certain dreams, O'Brien puts the burden on her, where it doesn't belong.

To end this essay, I want to refer to John Nolte of Big Hollywood, who discusses the Twilight phenomenon, specifically the movies.  I will be honest, I don't see in the novel or in the first movie what he sees.  I see more bad than good, but I do recognize that Meyer really was trying to write a chaste romance.  I respect what she attempted, though I think she missed the mark, and I question whether it's possible to do what she wanted in the context of vampire romance (it might be, but I question it).  I think Nolte can see, perhaps with vision clearer than mine, what Stephenie Meyer was actually attempting.  I mostly see the bad execution, but he sees the themes that are supposed to come out through that execution.  I will quote this contrary view at length and give Nolte the last word, which is, whether it is too generous or not, a good word:
From Disney Channel tarts to YouTube to MTV to their public school health education classes, young girls in this country are bombarded and constantly out-flanked with the toxic message that if they want to be "in" and "liberated" and "strong" they must become the useful and willing objects of sexual gratification manipulative men have always wanted them to be. Trust me, no one’s benefited more from left-wing feminism than shallow, sexist men who use, abuse, objectify and discard women like empty beer cans.

In our world of popular culture, the romance between Bella and Edward is unlike anything these young girls have ever been subjected to outside of Turner Classic Movies. Edward cherishes Bella, and he protects her, not only from physical harm but from his own appetites and desires that would strip away her dignity. His love for her is what love is supposed to be: completely selfless and understanding.

As weak as these films have been in the storytelling department, they’ve become money machines because a majority of young girls don’t want to be Lady Gaga, they don’t want to monologue about their vagina with Jane Fonda, and they simply don’t understand why the very same adults charged with protecting them use classroom time to roll Trojans on cucumbers.

Young girls confused and frustrated by the pop culture and media institutions constantly pressuring them into the counter-intuitive idea that the road to virtue is through the loss of their dignity — young girls who long to find their own Edward, a selfless, strong and tender man who will protect and cherish and love them, are told by “Twilight” that they’re not weird or alone. “Twilight” is a billion dollar film and publishing franchise because it serves a role more important than entertainment. The romance between Edward and Bella validates the better nature of millions of young souls yearning not to be lost.  [more...]
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