So, I’ve been hedging around this for a while. I’ve talked about it, I’ve mentioned it, but now I’m going to actually talk a little bit about it. Also, I felt that I honestly couldn’t end this Everything Wrong With series without talking about the reason why it was so popular.
Twilight’s popularity wasn’t something that anyone really expected. It wasn’t released to much fanfare, and it certainly didn’t get much in the way of publicity. Right when Twilight was coming out, YA was experiencing something of a slowdown. The Harry Potter books were still chugging along like no one’s business, but people were starting to realize that making knock-offs wasn’t going to sell well.
There were a lot of action books, and a lot of ‘real life issues’ books like before, but fantasy and sci-fi didn’t seem to know where it wanted to go. Did it want to go more in the epic direction, like Eragon and some of the repackaged ‘YA’ fantasy that had been moved over from the adult section were doing? Did they want to be humorous like The Wizard, the Witch and Two Girls from Jersey? Was it going to be wrapped up in real teen issues?
A lot of things were getting thrown at the wall, and one of them just happened to stick.
And ever now, no one is completely sure why.
Why Do People Love the Twilight Series?
I’ve made this blog on insulting this series. I’ve attacked the poor plotting, awful characters, confused planning, and questionable themes. Yet, for all of my, and others critique, this series was, in its heyday, ungodly popular.
And I’m going to take a look at the things that I think really appealed to fans to make a compelling enough read for them to keep wanting more.
Settings are extremely important in fiction. A ghost story set in the Southeastern U.S. is going to be very different than one set in the Southwestern U.S. and both will be completely different than one set in Japan. Not only do they have different histories and lore which should contribute to how their written, but they have a different feel. The Southeast brings to mind hanging Spanish moss, abandoned plantations, long family histories, and small towns that have existed since the country was founded and have a good share of morbid stories, the Southwest brings to mind ghost town, forgotten mines, mountaineers who disappeared, and violent ends of gamblers. Settings set tones, expectations, and get people in the mood for a story.
Forks was an amazing choice of a setting. The Pacific Northwest is a tragically underused area in fiction, and it lends itself so well to creepy stories. There are still a lot of areas where people just don’t live, so it’s one of the last big wilderness areas in the country, it’s often overcast, giving an aura of gloom and mystery to the whole thing, and it just sort of seems like, if there were strange things left in the world (or at least in the U.S.), it would be here.
The setting might have been chosen by Meyer purely because she wanted her sparkling vampires to remain hidden, but she also managed to choose one of the best settings if she wanted to give a feel for the mysterious. You see the eerie looking trees in the background, or the fog, and it feels like there’s something strange going on before anything even happens.
People like strange stuff. This shouldn’t be a surprise, but it always sort of is. Every time TV breaks from its reality TV/soap opera/sitcom and does something supernatural, everyone is all over it. Look at Supernatural, Stranger Things and even the first few seasons of Sleepy Hollow. People love the supernatural, and teenage girls are no different. It’s something that people don’t seem to understand, even now, but never seems to fail.
Teenage girls are no different. In fact, I can remember, as a teenager, actively looking for stories that involved a supernatural love interest, and even though the paranormal romance genre has died down, it still exists in some form or other.
The idea of the supernatural gives a feeling that what they’re reading is a fantasy, but also allows things that could have never happened to happen. It makes the story feel more epic, more important and more interesting. It adds to the atmosphere and gives a feeling like anything can happen, as well as adds new dimensions, such as theorizing.
The Powerful Powerless Plain Beautiful Protagonist
While I hate this trope, it’s a powerful one. Bella Swan is a perfect protagonist for a fantasy like this. She’s weak enough to that the reader can play out their rescue romance fantasies, but also grows to become the strongest vampire in the series. She plays out the reader’s insecurities on their looks and tells them that they really are beautiful.
More importantly though, while looking at Bella objectively, she’s a terrible person, she’s a character who was designed for the reader to insert themselves through. They can attribute motives and reasons to her actions that make sense to them. It is one of the reasons why, when you look at fanfic, you see so many different Bellas. You see ones who are snarky, ones who are kind, ones who are funny, clever, brave and so many things, that the reader wishes thatthey were.
Because that is what Bella is. She’s sort of like Barbie. She’s got an identity, but it’s not important. What’s important is that she plays a role for the reader to fantasize through.
What’s more, the idea of a normal person having to navigate the supernatural world with little more than a blocking ability is interesting, since she’s being forced to survive against much, much more dangerous creatures than herself. This is a perfect fantasy, and it’s not surprising that a lot of young women loved it.
The Man Who Saves and Is Saved
This is essentially the romance novel equivalent of having your cake and eating it too. Edward Cullen essentially fulfills the dream of both being saved like a princess by prince charming, but also being able to save him from the darkness in himself. While, in reality, he’s actually a pretty poor character who flips from the ‘bad boy’ to the moral savior and honestly, like most of Meyer’s character really is more of a fantasy than a person, it doesn’t matter.
No one here is really looking for a story or a real character. They’re looking for a dream, and Edward, while I can’t stand him, is that dream for many people, or at least he was. He was dark, tortured, yet also more than capable of supporting Bella when she needed him.
What was more, he was just ‘in love’ with her. She didn’t have to earn his love. They never had to meet, slowly come together, and fall for one another. Bella, and thus the reader, never had to work. The fantasy was just there, waiting to be enjoyed.
The Gothic Revival
All of my critiques have been given before to another genre. One that, during the Regency and Victorians era’s in England was discouraged for ladies of quality to read because people thought that it essentially ate your brain. It was filled with swooning women, dark and brooding men, mysterious and dark castles, hints of the supernatural, empty wilderness, and…well…vaguely uncomfortable depictions of either foreigners or Catholics, often both.
The original Gothic romance.
In essence, Twilight and all of the paranormal romances that have followed it are a revival of the Gothic, following the same themes, ideas and patterns that people wrote back in the eighteenth century. It follows similar themes, settings and even patterns as the original.
Forks is the perfect Gothic setting. Cloudy, isolated, with a hint of something strange, but enough that is normal to be uncanny. It remains mysterious, but also intriguing. It’s strange, but yet familiar enough for it to be an ideal setting that hints that there might be something wrong, but acts as a bridge between the real world and the magical. To the point that Meyer originally wanted to name her book Forks.
Bella Swan is the essential Gothic heroine, foolish, flat, and dull, but at the same time, at least according to the author, kind, pure, resourceful and filled with qualities that should be admired and rewarded. She exists for the reader to experience the drama through her, but also is rewarded, not for what she does, but for who she is, living out the wildest dreams and fantasies of the reader, but doing so in a way that always remains grounded in the idea that she is a good girl.
Edward Cullen is the Gothic hero, both Byronic in his tortured element, but also heroic and ‘safe’ for the reader to fantasize about. This is no Anne Rice vampire, even if Rice should be considered responsible for Edward’s creation. He exhibits contradictory traits, but all of them are what the reader wants at different times. When the reader wishes to be protected, he is the protector, but when she wishes to be the protector himself, he is both emotionally, and later physically, dependent on Bella as she transcends humanity.
Paranormal romance is the Gothic, repackaged and remade for the modern world. The themes remain the same, as to the critiques of it. This is true of all genres. They do not really die. They just repurpose themselves. Because the fundamentals that created the Gothic, young women with contradictory desires, entering the world of adulthood and the strange and unstable that that represents, and coming into a physical maturity that implies many changes, who want to both be protected and loved, but also to be respected and rewarded on their own merits, have not changed.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even if Twilight itself was a deeply flawed novel. Meyer made many mistakes but bubbling under the surface was the potential for a good book. Not only that, but the basic themes of the story, those of change, of trying to find a place in the world, of suddenly dealing with romance in a more long-lasting way, were all things that spoke to the readers, both the teenagers and the older women. Don’t get me wrong, I still think that the Twilight Saga is trash, and the obsessed fans of its heyday were both obnoxious and a little worrying, but, as I said, the aspects that appeal to people are still there, and they’re not going anywhere.
The Gothic, Paranormal Romance, whatever you want to call it, might be in a slump now, but all it’ll take is one decent writer to revitalize it, and the trend will start again. After all, what good is a supernatural story without death and rebirth?