Friday, February 5, 2010

Book Events: Spotlight on Twilight (Part 1)

While looking for something to do "out on the town" last night, I came across a press release for a Twilight event happening at a branch of the New York Public Library. I had nothing better to do, so I figured why not go waste an hour there? I actually read the first Twilight book back at the end of December, and I've spent the last month trying to figure out how to put my thoughts into a relevant blog post; this seemed like a perfect hook! Some guy yammering on about how Twilight actually has a deeper meaning, and then me saying "Nope, wrong!" and pulling apart the book! Slam dunk blog post.

Except, if you noticed the title, this blog post is just part one. I sat down at the beginning of the night thinking I'd recap the event and the book in one post. Then as things got interesting I thought one post to recap followed by my own Twilight thoughts. Then I went and bought his freaking book so now you get this recap post, a review of Spotlight followed finally by my own Twilight thoughts. My first blog series! I'm so excited.

So let's dive in, shall we?

First of all: once again, I was one of the youngest people in the room. Right before the event started a few girls who looked like they were probably still in college slipped in, but the vast majority of the audience looked like they were grandparents of Twilight fans. I find it really weird that I go to these events on children's and YA literature and where I suspect I should be the oldest and instead find myself feeling like a whippersnapper intruding on the grown ups' space.

John Granger has previously made a name for himself as the Hogwarts Professor - he was one of the first writing academically to defend the Harry Potter novels, and his approach to both HP and Twilight were very similar. He started out sure that he was going to hate both series, but quickly found himself fascinated by them and wanting to examine them more deeply.

He's also intrigued by the backlash these super popular books receive. Sales figures for both the Harry Potter and Twilight series are astronomical (he said the estimate is that by the time the second Deathly Hallows movie is released roughly one billion Harry Potter books will have been sold), yet many people claim they're trash and hardly worth reading and anyone who does read them is childish (a defensible stance if you're actually a child but not if you're a professional adult). So when Granger comes across a book as phenomenally successful as these ones have been, he has three questions he asks: Why is it so popular? Why do some people hate it? What is the author's takeaway message?

The answer to the first one is fairly simple: these books do what we want a book to do, ie tell a good story. Both Harry Potter and Twilight tell some very fundamental stories - neither JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer reinvented the wheel here. If we use the traditional methods of literary criticism, Twilight falls apart in seconds flat - the kindest thing you can say about Meyer's prose is it is pedestrian, with a vocabulary no higher than high school (almost exactly my original thoughts). But with over 70 million books sold, there really has to be more going on here then all of us losing our minds and finding pedestrian writing to actually be amazing.

So Granger uses iconological criticism, which dates back to medieval reading techniques, using four "senses" to break down a book: 1. Surface (what's the plot?) 2. Moral (who are the good guys, who are the bad? Still the surface, but with a little more texture) 3. Allegorical (going beneath the surface, seeing what else the text represents) 4. Anagogical (mythic elements). When a story can hit all four of these elements, then you come away with a story that speaks to part of the human experience and will draw a wide audience.

I don't want to give point by point details explaining everything about these four points, so I'll simply bullet point some highlights:

  • Narrative voice is one of the first choices and author makes - and if you don't like that choice you won't like the book. This is clearly a problem for a lot of people regarding Bella - to a lot of us she comes across as a terrible character so we simply don't want to be inside her head for a whole book, let alone four huge books.
  • The core moral resonates with us because it is explicitly the greater moral narrative of 21st century post-modernity (Confession: when this part of the lecture started, I zoned out and tweeted a shoutout to my college post-modernism professor who I couldn't freaking stand). That moral? The 21st century meta-narrative (those in power are good and right) is absolutely wrong and it's those that are discriminated against that are the true heroes (in this case, the Cullen-clan of vampires are misunderstood and persecuted by the vampire Powers That Be for their non-human-eating ways)
  • The principal allegory of the series is God's love for man and man's longing for an eternal relationship with him. Also? It's a blatant retelling of the Adam and Eve story from Genesis.
  • The anagogical level totally lost me. I think you'll have to wait for me to actually finish reading the book before I can fully explain this part. Spent a lot of time talking about some of the tenets of the LDS religion at this point and we were running short on time so my notes are a muddled mess.

Essentially, Granger's argument boils down to we can't understand Twilight without understanding Mormonism. I haven't studied Mormonism or finished reading Spotlight, so I can't speak on this as an expert, but he provided some credible examples. For instance, large parts of the Cullen-family story and Bella's story can be read as a whitewashed version of Mormon history. Meadows are frequently represented because when Meyer had her famous dream of Edward and Bella in a meadow, several books had just been published about the Mountain Meadows massacre where Mormons slaughtered over a hundred people emigrating to California. In Twilight, the Cullens are representative of the Mormon faith, and they are far from violent. In reality, the Mormon faith is an extremely evangelical one - yet when human-eating vampires visit Forks, Carlisle makes no attempt to win them over to his peaceful ways.

And, here's the part that blew my mind last night and piqued everyone's interest on Twitter and Facebook: Granger makes what is, at least on the surface, a credible argument for at least a small feminist plot point in the Twilight series.

In one of the novels, we learn Rosalie Hale's backstory: she lived in 1915 in Rochester, NY. She was attacked (presumably raped) by a man named Royce King II and left for dead. When Carlisle Cullen comes across her, he turns her into a vampire, at which time she goes on a roaring rampage of revenge against King and his buddies who attacked her.

Which just sounds like a dark and depressing back story, right? Until you know some Mormon history, for an Emma Hale was the wife of Joseph Smith Jr, the founder of the Mormon church. Meyer has spoken often of how carefully she chooses her names; there's no way a devout Mormon would have chosen a name like "Hale" without thinking of the association with Emma Hale. Additionally, when we disect the name of Royce King, "Royce" means King, King of course means King, and II is akin to being a "Jr." Joseph Smith Jr was crowned king of the world twice. And if you have a feminist bone in your body, you might understand why Emma Hale may have disliked the twice-crowned king of the world - when Smith received the revelation regarding polygamy, it allegedly included God scolding Emma Hale for talking bad about polygamy behind her husband's back. So the story of Rosalie Cullens' rape, death and revenge is actually a feminist wish-fulfillment fantasy where the wife of Joseph Smith Jr. seeks revenge for him speaking ill of her when looking for a way to get more wives.

Yeah, it blew my mind, too. I'm not saying Twilight is a feminist novel by any stretch of the imagination, and I don't think Granger wanted to imply that either, but it's a hell of an interesting way to look at a novel that is often considered actively anti-feminist.

Ultimately? I'm so glad that I stumbled across that press release and decided to go last night. John Granger was a fun speaker who definitely has a way of reading Twilight that is totally opposite from how I read it. He has a number of speaking engagements lined up over the next couple of months, discussing both Harry Potter and Twilight; if he's going to be near you I highly recommend going out to listen. Perhaps your mind will be blown as well. Also exciting for me: he's reading The Hunger Games! He claims they're lacking a little on the anagogical layer, which is why they aren't the runaway bestseller that HP & Twilight are. Hmph.

I'm hoping to finish reading Spotlight over the weekend, so part 2 of this series can go up next week!


Patti said...

This was absolutely fascinating! Thank you for writing about it. That part about Emma Hale was particularly interesting, although I don't think disliking polygamy necessary equates with being a feminist.

Can't wait to read part 2!

Sami said...

That was a mind blowing post. I'm totally linking it in my blog. What a fascinating way of looking at Twilight.

Angela Craft said...

Patti - disliking polygamy alone certainly doesn't make one a feminist, but polygamy as practiced at one point by the Mormon church (and as it continues to be practiced by fringe fundamentalist sects) is actively anti-feminist and misogynist (in contrast to polyamory, where all partners are equal and enter into the multiple relationships freely and women are as free to choose multiple partners as men). I don't know if this bit was intended as feminist, but it's certainly how Granger read it. I can, however, still do a feminist literary critique takedown of Twilight with one hand tied behind my back ;-)

Sami - It really was a fascinating talk, and this post didn't even encompass all of his talking points - there was just too much! The book is equally fascinating, though it's easier for me to reject some his arguments in writing because I can go through them at my own pace, rather than the breakneck speed we went at last night (it was scheduled to run 6:30-7:30; we got started a few minutes late because we were talking about Harry Potter until 6:40, but then the Twilight talk officially lasted until 7:45 and I stayed behind for almost 30 minutes more to chat with him and a few fans personally!). When I review the book next week I'm going to spend some time rebutting a few arguments, I think.

Rachel Stark said...

Huh. Well, I'm... fascinated.

::grumbles about Baltimore never being on tours for anything::

Jenn (Books At Midnight) said...

Great post! I definitely agree that a major problem about Twilight is the fact that so many people don't agree with who Bella IS. It's extremely hard for me to enjoy a series if I don't like the main character, and though I don't feel Bella is too annoyingly weak, I can definitely see how others can reach the conclusion. I only wish I could be at a book event like that! :P

Jettboy said...

Have you asked a Mormon what they think about Granger's work? He makes assumptions that living breathing Mormons would give the time of day to consider. Most of his ideas are based off non-believer's stereotypes.

Angela Craft said...

Jettboy - thanks for the link! I'll be sure to include it in my next post. I had not had a chance to look further into Mormon criticisms of Granger before I wrote this up, in part because I wanted this post to strictly reflect the event last night. Granger made it sound like the only Mormon criticism he's received has been more directed at Meyer, ie there was no way a woman could have put that much thought into this book.

Melissa said...

What a deep post! This was really incredible to read...thank you so much for visiting my blog today :)

Cate said...

Wow...thanks for such a refreshing post! Your take was incredibly interesting! :)

Christina T said...

I really liked John Granger's books about Harry Potter. I didn't know he wrote one about Twilight. I am not sure I would agree with him about Twilight but I guess I'll have to take a look at what he has to say about it. I am looking forward to hearing more about what you think regarding his book and the Twilight Saga in general. Do you plan to read the other books in the series?

Angela Craft said...

Christina - So far the biggest problem I have with Granger's writing is his position that this is absolutely what Meyer meant. I can't really poke holes in his theories (I'm half way through), but he's yet to provide enough proof for my tastes that this is the ultimate way to interpret Twilight. Maybe that'll change in the second half? (The second half is where he gets into more of the Mormon-specific imagery)

At this point I can't imagine reading the rest of the books. I was incredibly bothered by Edward's character (shallow teen girl I can handle; it's the abusive boyfriend I have trouble with) and there are so many other books I would much rather read!

John said...

Thank you for the kind words, Angela Craft. if you want to hear a podcast of an interview with me and Steven Walker, Stephenie Meyer's favorite English professor at BYU, for an idea of whether I get the LDS history and theology right, go to

Prof Walker endorsed 'Spotlight,' by the way, which immediately silenced the criticism from LDS mavens everywhere.

Thanks again for your kind words about the talk!

John Granger

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