Friday, February 12, 2010

Review: Spotlight by John Granger (Part 2)

I spent Wednesday's snowpocalypse laying in bed trying to get rid of my cold and reading up on criticism of Spotlight. I really felt like I was back in college! I majored in Language, Literature and Writing, and spent as much of my time as possible critiquing popular works (I took a whole class in Harry Potter, took a film & literature course where my final paper was on the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, and my senior thesis was on the Uglies series, just to name a few). I've considered getting my master's in comparative media studies so I can be like Henry Jenkins, or even John Granger, and make my living writing all academically about "silly" things.

All of that is simply meant to explain that I'm a huge dork and while I'm still not a Twilight fan (oops, spoiler alert for that eventual review!), I had a very geeky sort of fun going through this.

I'm going to first give my critique of the book and then, thanks to Jettboy's comment on my previous post, I'll include some of the online critiques of Granger's writing and my responses to those critiques.

Spotlight is divided into two halves: Part One is titled Taking Bella Seriously: Reading Twilight as Literature and Part Two is Twilight as an LDS Midsummer Night's Dream: Reading as Dream Interpretation. The first half uses a Jungian psychological theory to break down the text, focusing on why it appeals to so many readers, while the second half looks at the Mormon imagery in the text and how Meyer's religion may have influenced her.

Granger's chosen method of literary criticism is iconological criticism - I can't provide a link to further explanation of the subject because Granger seems to have coined that particular phrase. He links it back to Northrop Frye, but so far I haven't been able to find any non-Granger works that link the two. This is a habit of Granger's, apparently, because in order to delve into the fourth level of iconological criticism, the anagogical level that I said in my last post totally lost me originally, involves understanding literary alchemy. I eventually had to go to Facebook to ask my fellow lit major friends (some of whom have gone on to get their Masters in the subject) if they had ever heard of literary alchemy as an established theory. Again, Googling the term and related ones only brought me back to other pieces of Granger's work; he doesn't explain where this theory is grounded in Spotlight - he simply says he's discussed this more at length in his Harry Potter books. Eventually our collective research led us to the Wikipedia article on alchemy which explained the Jung connection. Granger simply asks us to "[p]retend as if you accept [literary alchemy] as gospel truth that English Literature from beginning to Twilight is frontloaded with alchemical devices and images" (113). Man, I wish I'd been able to get away with telling my college professors (or my speech judges!) that my model was correct and they just needed to go with it!

So while a lot of Granger's analysis seems to have merit on the surface, we are forced to simply accept his words as truth (unless we want to hunt down the original texts he cites - however I have a huge stack of non-academic books I want to read, so I'm going to take the easy way out and pass on that one).

As I said in the Spotlight event recap, iconological criticism has four levels: surface, moral, allegorical and anagogical. The first two levels are pretty self-explanatory: on the surface we have a love story with some action thrown in at the end of each book and the moral (from Granger's perspective) is the great post-modern moral of rejecting the dominant cultural narratives and embrace those who are discriminated against. We root for the underdog, in this case the misunderstood Cullens who just want to live in peace, against the Powers That Be, the Volturi and other human-eating vampires.

The next two levels, allegorical and anagogical, require a little more legwork. The primary allegory is the entire saga re-casting the story of the Garden of Eden. Edward represents God and Bella the human who wants to know him. There are additional allegories, such as the Cullen family as a positive allegory for Mormons, a zombie allegory in New Moon, and all of the vampires that appear at the end of Breaking Dawn are supposed to be allegories for religious and other groups that are seen as sympathetic towards Mormons (except for the Amazon feminists...even Granger acknowledges there's a gap there. I'll have more on that and other gaps later), but primarily we're looking at a Medieval-style morality play about the Fall of Man (and thus it's fitting that we use iconological criticism, which has its roots in how stories were interpreted in Medieval times. At least according to Granger). Why are these allegories so important? Because "the reason we and millions of other readers around the world respond to these stories is that their allegorical and anagogical meanings are about the central drama and relationship of human existence - our life with God - told in compelling, engaging fashion" (76).

And here's where I need to pause and give my first critique of Granger. I know he's a religious man and part of his interest in literary criticism is about representations of faith in texts, but I find it to be quite presumptuous that he believes all Twihards are searching for an engaging story about God. If that were true, the only Twilight-haters would be die hard atheists. Granger makes several similar comments throughout the book that clearly imply his own biases, which puts me off a lot. I find reading about religion fascinating, but that doesn't make me a believer of any particular one I'm reading about.

Okay, now that that first bit is out of the way, we can try to tackle this anagogical layer.

Granger never provides a cut-and-dried definition of what he means here. He says "the anagogical or sublime meaning of a text is that layer of artistry, almost always beneath our conscious experience on first and even after multiple readings, that corresponds with, stimulates, and fosters our spiritual orientation and transformation" (10). If we understand the surface level of a story as information or data, the anagogical layer is spiritual knowledge or wisdom (17). He also compares it to finally getting a proof in geometry, but since I don't think I ever did a proof correctly, that comparison is lost on me, too (100). Dictionary.Com tells me it means of or pertaining to anagoge, which is "a spiritual interpretation or application of words, as of Scriptures." And this is where he begins to pull in the literary alchemy, using ancient ideas of alchemy to break down a story into three stages: a black period of dissolution or darkness, a white period of purification, and finally the red period of "spiritual accomplishment or perfection" (115). In Harry Potter, the last three books are respectively the black, white and red periods of Harry's story. For Twilight, the black period begins with New Moon (which coincidentally stars Jacob Black), then Eclipse and Breaking Dawn are the white and red stages. Granger acknowledges that, at least while writing New Moon, Meyer probably didn't recognize she was writing an alchemical story, but she has said she based New Moon on Romeo and Juliet and Breaking Dawn was based on both A Midsummer Night's Dream and Merchant of Venice, "all Shakespeare alchemical dramas" and thus by the time she was starting Breaking Dawn surely she had to recognize what she was doing (120).

There's more alchemy stuff, but I need to stop right here for another critique. Granger claims the alchemical drama is a staple of English literature - and I'm not really going to argue with him there. However in his talk last week Granger mentioned that he was sure Meyer was aware of all of this alchemy stuff because she studied English at Brigham Young University. I'm not going to say Eastern Michigan University is as illustrious a school as BYU, but I can tell you right now that studying "English" is not necessarily comparable to studying "English literature." In comparisons with Harry Potter, JK Rowling has said in interviews that she studied alchemy to figure out how she wanted her magic to work (though nowhere that I've seen did she say she studied alchemical literary theory - it's a bit of a jump in my mind to go from "what did alchemists try to do" to "how can alchemy work as a metaphor for a story's structure"), plus her stories actually qualify as being English literature since she's British and all. So if alchemy is a great English literary tradition it probably rubbed off on her in some respect, research or no. Stephenie Meyer, however, could easily have gone through an American degree program in English without spending much time at all on great works of English literature (I certainly structured my degree that way!). So without more evidence, I'm calling shenanigans on any of this alchemy stuff actually being intentional on any level. That includes the black/white/red covers - Meyer apparently was unprecedentedly involved in designing the cover of Twilight, but didn't have as much influence on later ones (as per her New Moon FAQ) - which is when she would have figured out this alchemy stuff according to Granger. Most likely the covers are all black/white/red because the first one was and, as I learned on Saturday, in a series art directors like to go for some sense of visual continuity. Striking still lifes in a limited color palette would seem to do the trick if you ask me.

With the main part of his literary criticism out of the way, I have only one more note on the subject, which comes from the lists of 10 included at the end of the book (shamelessly riffing on the top ten lists at the end of the "Dummies" books). In the list of "Ten Things the Critics Got Wrong About Twilight," Granger includes:
Reading Mrs. Meyer's books as transparencies not of historical or supernatural referents but of sociological or economic meaning (via Marxist, feminist, and deconstructive exegesis) is to skip over why the books appeal to readers. Worse, it explains why they are popular because of readers' politically incorrect or immature understanding, even their sexist, racist and class driven beliefs. This neglects Eliade's thesis in favor of a bizarre, alternate understanding of why people read, say, that the herd reads in order to confirm their moral, political, and social misconceptions. Is that why you read? Me neither (242).


First of all, I found the continual use of "Mrs." and "Mr." throughout the book rather annoying - I get annoyed reading the New York Times, too - but that's just me. What really kind of irked me here is his dig at other types of literary criticism. While Granger is correct that those types of criticism aren't intended to delve into why a book is necessarily popular, I take exception to "Is that why you read? Me neither." Why isn't the point of these other criticisms - but how we engage with a text is. And quite frankly, Twilight does pander to some awful sexist stereotypes - there's no escaping that (more spoilers for my review!) I don't think the books are popular because of those tropes, but I find it extremely disconcerting that so many people can overlook them.

All of that is just the summary of the first half of the book. This is thick, academic-style stuff. Now for the religious half:

The second half has three major chapters, examining the series as the work of a Mormon artist, a Mormon apologist, and a Mormon apostate - or how her faith influenced the novels, what parts stand out as wish fulfillment style arguments against criticisms of her faith, and then where she actively criticizes her faith. This is where people tend to get up in arms about Granger's work.

From what I can tell, Granger did indeed do a great amount of research - there's an extensive bibliography at the end of the book. Some of what he read was written by Mormons, and some wasn't. What was written by Mormons he says had a pasteurized quality, following the principle of "progressive truth" where Mormon missionaries are to speak about the "more conventional elements of the faith" before more difficult tenets (155). This means that in a lot of online critiques, Granger is accused of harboring anti-Mormon sentiments because he is citing the works of non-Mormons (who may or may not have held an anti-Mormon grudge - I haven't done further research into these authors and while Granger certainly didn't sound anti-Mormon in his talk that doesn't mean his analysis is perfect or free from anti-Mormon bias given his research sources).

It is also in this section that some of those "gaps" I mentioned earlier come into more prominence. For example, the three Cullen couples are supposed to represent the Holy Trinity, or the mind, the body and the spirit in a slightly more secular sense. But then there's Edward who is God and/or Jesus (God when Bella is seeking religion, but Jesus in the sense that she can only seek salvation (being a vampire) through him). Of course, God and Jesus are usually part of the trinity, and Granger acknowledges this...but doesn't really resolve it. There's a similar gap when we come to Bella's transformation into a vampire and Renesmee's presence. Renesmee is the child of a god and a human and "saviour" who has "brought peace between the Quileutes and Cullens and revealed the Volturi for the evil they are" - yet it is Bella who has undergone a baptism by blood and a three day resurrection process and actively saves lives in that final confrontation (145). So who the hell is the Messianic figure - Edward, Bella or Renesmee? There's never a resolution.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post (it seems so long ago!), Jettboy linked me to criticism of Granger's work written by an actual Mormon. So far I haven't been able to find any criticism of Spotlight itself; Jettboy's link critiques one of Granger's blog posts, and another post critiques an article Granger published in the November/December 2009 edition of Touchstone, a Christian journal. So some of the specifics of both of those blog posts become a little outdated when it comes to reading the full book (for example: Tyler Chadwick in the first article wishes that Granger had read Saturday's Werewolf, which is in fact cited at length in Spotlight)

The biggest problem these self-identified Mormon's seem to have with Granger's work is it comes across as anti-Mormon to them. I have a whole bunch of notes where I try to rebut their criticisms in order to "prove" Granger isn't anti-Mormon, but about halfway through I realized that I am totally the wrong person to be making that argument - just like I as a white woman don't get to correct a black person about issues of racism and I don't appreciate men telling me something isn't actually sexist, as a non-Mormon myself I can't really say what is actually anti-Mormon. So there's little I can engage with on that level - except to say that I think calling Granger an anti-Mormon is needlessly combative, just like calling someone a racist or a sexist doesn't solve those arguments, either - it's much more productive to call out the specific offensive action or word.

However, some of what they call out as anti-Mormon I had problems with as well, though for a different reason. Granger has clearly done some extensive research into Mormon history - even if some of that history was written by people with less-than-positive views of the religion. However, some of these ideas (the Mountain Meadows Massacre inspiring a dream about a meadow, Mormonism actually having roots back in 17th century England where Carlisle just happens to live before becoming a vampire) are so esoteric that I question whether someone would know them without doing extensive research. Especially if these ideas are considered anti-Mormon by the faithful, would Stephenie Meyer, a devout Mormon but by no means a fanatic or a scholar, really have come across them? Would they have stuck with her enough to form such important parts of her story? That's where my skepticism really comes in.

So what's my final verdict on Spotlight? It definitely raises some interesting questions, and provides some objective history of the writing process of the books (for example, Meyer says that the inspiration for her vampires comes more from Marvel superheroes than from vampire mythology. In some ways that makes them much more palatable to me!). If you're a geek like I am an enjoy applying scholarly thinking to popular works, you'll definitely get some enjoyment out of this - provided you can look past the fact that you've probably never before heard of any of the tools Granger uses. I'm still not a Twilight fan, but I'm definitely thinking about the books in a new light now.

The next post in this series will finally address my review of Twilight!

Previous post in this series:

14 comments:

Kristin said...

Nice work, Angela. Based on what you've written, his literary theory seems a bit spotty to me, and I applaud you for pointing out that theory does not only work to explain WHY, but what IS. Now, maybe this has to do with Mr. Granger's undergraduate degree being obtained in 1983 in Classical Languages (which is not to say he hasn't read a great deal since then to get him up to speed on contemporary lit crit -- I couldn't say), but I'd think if lit crit's what one's going to engage in, it's to one's benefit to clearly understand the current theories and WHY we study them. Nobody picks up a book and says, "Gee, it's sexist! JUST LIKE ME!!!"

Also, assuming your review is correct (I haven't read his book), to suggest this is absolutely what an author means is neither truly possible, nor all that important, and promotes what academic literary critics learn is a no-no in their first semester of grad school (some earlier): "Intentional Fallacy." (Here's a wiki link in case Granger ever stumbles upon this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intentional_fallacy)

As far as the text as Mormon commentary, I can't argue there (mainly b/c I lack the background knowledge). I will say, regarding Part 1 of your post, the most interesting thing about some of Meyer's vampires are their backstories. Rosalie as feminist sort of makes sense now... of course the event seems to turn her the jealous Ice Queen thereafter.

Yep, I'd have to say I've yet to hear a convincing argument for why I SHOULD appreciate 'Twilight.' So far, it's been either that I can't understand a "complex psychological narrative," that it's just supposed to be a fun novel and I shouldn't read so much into it, and now we can add Granger's argument, that I'm just not seeing the deeper religious meaning or whatever... So far, none of these outweigh my assessment that it's just a badly written, piss-poor model of love that I'd never want my daughter (or any of my students, for that matter) to get involved in. Oh, and that was also among the least gratifying ending to a series/novel I've ever read.

Okay, I'm kinda mean, but really, what you've recounted of Granger's argument is a little insulting. So, that's my rant.

Tyler said...

Hi Angela:

"Actual Mormon" here. Somehow I surfed into your blog today and thought I'd drop a comment.

Very insightful critique of Granger's book and the critical methodology (or lack thereof) behind it. Embroiled as I am right now in research for my dissertation, I haven't had the chance to read it yet. But every time I read something about Twilight, especially about or coming from Granger, I think I need to get my hands on a copy. Your review may have prodded me from thinking to doing. Let's see if the grad school bank account can stand the hit right now...

Anyway, I wanted to respond to two things you bring up here:

1) You mention that Granger cites Eric Jepson's paper "Saturday's Werewolf" "at length" in Spotlight. I wonder: is this citation from the introduction (where Jepson's name is spelled wrong, no less, though that's really a minor thing; I know Eric got a kick out of it) the only place where the essay is cited? Or does Granger give it more treatment later in the book?

2) The biggest problem these self-identified Mormon's seem to have with Granger's work is it comes across as anti-Mormon to them.

Though I am a bit bewildered that (as it reads to me) Granger seems to be using Twilight as a means to perpetuate anti-Mormon rhetoric, my main problem (and it seems, to a degree, your main problem) with Granger's criticism is its irresponsibility. As I try to make clear in the comment I link to at the beginning of this paragraph, the most disturbing thing about Granger's interpretation tactic is the way his discussion disintegrates into a rhetorical free-for-all based on his interest in alchemy and his research into some obscure theory about the origins of Mormonism. In other words, he doesn't engage Meyer's understanding of Mormonism; just what he thinks her understanding of Mormonism should be (and that's the real danger posited by the intentional fallacy: imposing unjustifiable intentions on the author). And the understanding he imposes on her is just a repetition of the tired old anti-Mormon rhetoric of LDS equals: polygamy, Adam-God, Mountain Meadows, and just plain weird.

As a well-educated Mormon (I didn't attend BYU, but I'm certain BYU students don't engage the texts Granger thinks they do---see several of the comments from BYU grads in my blog post, for instance), I have to ask myself, "Really? He thinks Meyer built all that into the series?" By attributing such intentions to Meyer and her narrative without any logical or ethical thinking through of the issues (which would include doing his research on what Meyer and contemporary Mormons really believe, not simply what he thinks she/we believe) and by dismissing out-of-hand any believing Mormon responses to his work as polemically apologetic, he loses most---if not all---of his credibility in my book.

[Apparently my comment is too long. So I guess my response will come in two parts.]

Tyler said...

[Part two of long comment]

So, to reiterate: my main problem with Granger's work is his critical irresponsibility, a textually unethical act of imposition manifest in his reliance on texts (largely anti-Mormon ones) that have no certain bearing on Meyer's worldview. If he could justify the connections he makes through more than just mere inference based on the date she had her Edward dream, her religious affiliation, her place of education, etc., I might be swayed more by his interpretations.

But until then.

This doesn't mean that I don't plan on reading Spotlight. But I suspect, from what you've said in this review, that it doesn't represent much of a departure from his previous observations about Meyer's work. Of course, I might be pleasantly surprised.

And I'm perfectly fine with that.

John said...

Thank you for the long review of 'Spotlight,' which, if I am obliged to disagree with you on about every point, demonstrates that you did in fact read the book and consider, at least superficially, the argument I made in it.

About your LDS sources, though, you are being misled by the cadre of Mormon mavens online who have taken blood oaths to object to any comment on LDS subjects not made by someone without a Temple Recommend. Here is a better source about my use of LDS sources and my research into LDS history.

Mrs. Meyer has said:

"The professor who had the most influence on me was Steven Walker, mostly because he was just insanely brilliant. The way his mind worked was fascinating, and it helped me look at the literature we studied in so many new ways."

I hope we can accept this BYU English professor's thoughts on Spotlight as having more authority than 'Tyler' or 'JettBoy' or the Oxford student studying Aramaic (!) on the subject of Mormonism, literature, and Twilight.

Prof. Walker read Spotlight and wrote this note as his endorsement:

"John Granger’s Spotlight probes deeply into Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series by means of an Eliade lens: 'The reason people read is for some experience transcending their lives as egos.' The reason we read Meyer so passionately, the reason we enter so 'fully into her stories,' Granger shows us, is the compelling mythic implications of her narratives, the religious 'depths and heights' they share with some of the best English literature. Granger persuades me that Meyer’s religious thought is so crucial to her fiction that to read it without consideration of the theology is to miss much of the point. As a believing Mormon like Meyer, I can testify it’s no light matter to succeed as this critical view does in deepening a Christian’s reading of his own theology. If you’re interested in how much religion can matter in modern fiction, you’ll be interested in Spotlight."

Professor Steve Walker

Author of The Power of Tolkien’s Prose

Thanks again for your review, however dismissive, and for what consideration you have given Mrs. Meyer's books, however disdainful.

lyndalepress said...

Angela,

I came across this post via A Chair, A Fireplace...'s post on Sarah McCarry's Huffington article last Wednesday... I think. I've been poking around for a bit and may have lost my train :) Anyhow, I'm glad I found your blog and this post especially. I'm very interested in Twilight and read John Granger's blogs occasionally (with a BA and near-MA in English, I'd never heard of literary alchemy before either). Even with a particular interest in religion, I suspected I wouldn't be a big fan of "Spotlight" and I appreciate your thoughtful review.

As I've only just stumbled on your blog, perhaps you've mentioned this elsewhere -- but your "about" page says you're working at a book wholesaler. Are you still there, or have you ended up in a publishing house? We're around the same age and I have dreams of one day moving to NYC and becoming an editor.

Thanks again for this post!

Angela Craft said...

Lyndale - Glad you found the blog and stuck around (though I hope you find your train out of here eventually ;-)

I am still working at the wholesaler - I've had a series of interviews with one publishing house this year with no luck so far (unless you count perfecting my interview skills as good luck!). I got another call from them yesterday for another position, so I'm scheduling interview #4 today. If you'd like to talk more off-blog, you can e-mail me at angela.craft AT gmail DOT com

Rose said...

Looking at Granger's comment on this post, it could be summarized thusly: I had an Important Mormon endorse my book! All of the other Mormons are ganging up on me!

I think you got to the crux of the matter with this statement: However, some of these ideas (the Mountain Meadows Massacre inspiring a dream about a meadow, Mormonism actually having roots back in 17th century England where Carlisle just happens to live before becoming a vampire) are so esoteric that I question whether someone would know them without doing extensive research. Especially if these ideas are considered anti-Mormon by the faithful, would Stephenie Meyer, a devout Mormon but by no means a fanatic or a scholar, really have come across them?

All I can do is agree. (I'd go into great detail about what I, as a believing Mormon, know and don't know about those particular topics, but that's really not the point.)

Rose said...

Here's what I wish I had said before. (I finally clarified my own thoughts by commenting somewhere else, so I'm copying what I said there.)

So many of John Granger's comments mention Steven Walker. I’m wondering if Mr. Granger understands the level of egalitarianism that functions within the church. We send nineteen-year-old boys to preach about gospel principles, we ask ordinary people of all stripes to teach Gospel Doctrine classes… so why do I need to kotow to someone else’s understanding of the gospel just because he’s an English professor who taught Stephenie Meyer?

Not only that, Granger’s defenses smack of the “But my [insert minority here] friend said...” arguments.

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