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Don’t Knock Twilight

PUBLISHED: April 5, 2009

For what seems like forever, I’ve been avoiding the stacks of books with those distinctive covers at the front of every Borders and Barnes and Noble. I rolled my eyes at the hordes of giggling (mostly girls) waiting in line for the movie. And with the recent release of the DVD, I shared a moment with the guy behind the counter at my Blockbuster. “Can you believe this?” I asked, shaking my head and pointing at the glossy advance poster stuck to the wall. 

“I know,” he replied, in the tone of one who has had to stare at it all day, every day for far too long.

“Are you guys ripping on Twilight?” another employee asked.

“Yes,” we both said together with a shared smirk.


And with that, I realized something: I think I might be a bit of a book snob. Despite its world-wide popularity and the fact that Stephenie Meyer’s debut novel has sold 17 million copies, I just can’t help my tendency to, well, smirk. Literature is Shakespeare and Dickens and Tolstoy, I would think to myself, smug in the knowledge that my bookshelves at home hold the complete works of the former not to mention most of the novels of the latter two. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are writers, this train of thought continued. And everyone knows that new and compelling voices get reviews in some literary magazine somewhere, not Entertainment Weekly. That’s what defines real writing and good books. Isn’t it?

The funny thing is, the more I thought about it, the more I started to wonder. In his time, Dickens himself was extremely popular in periodical publications. In fact, the chapters of his novels often have such a cliff-hanger feel precisely because that’s how they were written: chapter by chapter for release to the serial magazines of the time. If there were grocery store checkout lines in Victorian England, would Dickens paperbacks have been stacked up nearby? When Stephen Crane released his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, it was universally panned by critics as being sentimental rubbish. Yet when The Red Badge of Courage was published a few years later, all of a sudden the first novel started to get a second look (and wound up on my high school English teacher’s reading list). And speaking of books that go on and on and on, is anything taken away from the complex brilliance of Les Miserables just because a re-working of Hugo’s novel is also the longest running musical in the history of the West End?

It is true that the brilliance of literary genius, the stories and poetry that stand the test of time from generation to generation, well, this kind of language does not come along every day. The writer who can pen the best of times and worst of times or to be or not to be is truly a master. Yet can’t the definition of a good book also mean more than great literature in the classic, Norton’s Anthology sense of the word?

After all, vampires and the swooning drama of high school love affairs might not be my thing, but I must admit: I am an unabashed Harry Potter fan. I don’t go for the movies or the stickers or the midnight press releases, but I absolutely love the novels. I own them all, I’ve read them more times than I care to disclose publicly, and I was one of those people who read the conclusion to the series (all 784 pages of it) in one sitting. On the day it was released. I just couldn’t help it. When you love to read and you find that most elusive of entities—a good book—sometimes you have to give in to the little voice that pleads, “Just one more page.”

And that’s the thing: any writer who can create a world so vivid and compelling that it pulls us away from reality and into a place created solely through words and imagination, well, then I think that’s what makes a good book.


Sanjeev's picture
You hit the nail on the head here: “any writer who can create a world so vivid and compelling that it pulls us away from reality and into a place created solely through words and imagination, well, then I think that’s what makes a good book.” I used to be a book/literary snob myself. Now I appreciate that the joy that great writing provides is only one of the many joys that books can provide. Genre fiction - be it scifi, mystery thrillers, or tales about wizards (;); I must be one of the few in this world who has neither seen a single Potter movie nor read any of the books) - has its place. I have come to appreciate that any book that succeeds in making the reader keep turning the pages is a good one. After all getting readers to reader - isn’t that the first mandate of success for a writer?
Laza's picture
Laza · 15 years ago
Ok, Twilight gets a lot of crap despite the fact that the books are wildly popular. I’ve read the first three, and although I absolutely DEVOURED them, after giving them a moments thought I realized that I can chalk that up to left-over teenage romanticism and a low reading level. The Twilight series, although very entertaining, does not compare AT ALL to the Harry Potter books, which actually have some depth to them and, you know, deal with real issues. Twilight deals with superficial high school feelings that most people grow out of. A book doesn’t have to be an everlasting piece of literature to be worth reading. And sometimes Garcia Marquez makes me want to tear my hair out. There, I said it. Sometimes great literature can be boring. I was a book snob until I fell in love with Harry Potter, and then I realized that there are plenty of books out there that are wonderful in ways that my high school lit teacher and college professors could never understand.
Waldo Jaquith's picture
I recently added “Harry Potter” to the “favorite books” portion of my Facebook page. None of the books in the series really qualify as my favorite books, or even come close, but I did enjoy them, and I think a confessional mention is called for. That changed them from a guilty pleasure to just a straight-up pleasure.
Mandy Redig's picture
It is fascinating to try and puzzle through what is literature, what is good writing, and what is a good book? And is there a connection between the three? Laza, I have to agree with you - in my mind, I do think that the Harry Potter novels, while definitely a ‘pleasure read’ in many ways, do nonetheless tap into some pretty big and universal themes. Plus, unlike some other popular books out there, the writing is a joy (at least it was for me, perhaps because I read so very much British literature at an impressionable age). But, the reason that I have to give Twilight a chance (or at least let other people enjoy it despite the critical reviews out there) is the fact that it is a written work of someone’s imagination that a lot of other people enjoy. One of my best friends and former roommates (and let’s hope she’s not reading this!) is almost done with a PhD in English literature in a prestigious program, and despite the fact that her life is books, somewhere along the way she stopped reading for fun, most of the time, anyway. When it’s all work and all analysis and all literary review, there’s no room left to just r-e-a-d, even if it is about wizards or vampires or international spies who always land on their feet. If nothing else, I appreciate the fact that there are authors out there who can remind us that yes, sometimes books are fun and enjoyable not because they will go down in the hall of literary fame but simply because they let us truly escape everything about reality.
Jake's picture
Jake · 15 years ago
Literature is whatever is good; the debate around what is or is not literature has little to do with what’s popular or not: sometimes great literature is popular and sometimes it isn’t. In a post chiefly about science fiction, I wrote the following (long) block:
To be sure, there is an element of opinion in virtually any form of art and criticism, and just as there is in some fields more scientific: in economics, should we value making the resource pie larger through public policy like lower tax rates and flatter tax rates, or should we try and distribute what we have more evenly? Nonetheless, some people simply know much more about the trade-offs involved, and by the same token, some know far more about books and literature than others. The closer you get to hard sciences that are describing rather than interpreting the world—math, physics, chemistry, and the like—the farther you get from pure opinion, but as soon as you reach the application phase, judgment calls arise again: what would be more useful to sell—product derived from X or from Y? What would be a more useful use of physicists during World War II: having them build mechanical calculators and the like, or having them work on the atomic bomb? Someone had to make those decisions, and they’re closer in some respects to artistic choices than to ones regarding proof and experimentation. In art and literature, there aren’t experiments, but taste exists. Not everyone’s is the same but not everyone’s is equal, either. Mine is well-developed enough to have some opinions of at least some validity, I hope, and I’m looking for others who can say the same, and who know something of science fiction—hence my appreciation of those who pointed out the Clarke Awards and made other suggestions. If I read through the Clarke books and decide I’m wrong, you’ll probably hear about it in a year or two. Although I’m not a scientist, I do have interest in all intellectually honest fields and all intellectually honest practitioners in those fields, and so I turn again to Feynman, who described what he wants to instill in Caltech grads and what they should inculcate in themselves: “It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.” Literary critics should hold themselves to the same standards, and I strive to. How well I succeed I will leave to others to argue.
Being a critic is about learning to to develop that taste, which can never be fully formed, but, rather, is always in a Hegelian process of “becoming” if the critic is to be any good. As for Twilight itself, a book and a half convinced me that the writing is crap. Paul Constant lays out some reasons why in The Stranger at more length than I care to. For, Twiglight isn’t bad because it’s popular; it’s bad because it’s bad. Very good (and popular) writers like Tolkien or Elmore Leonard aren’t affected by their popularity either. That to me is the major question and always has to be.
Anita's picture
The line between being a ‘snob’ and being able to debate the merit of any work is having read the work. So I read it. Twilight is brain candy. Not literature. Easier to digest and less nutritious than the paper it is printed on. Perhaps time will reveal its quality - will Twilight be on bookshelves next to Marquez in 100 years (assuming there are bookshelves)? That having been said, I don’t particularly care for Jane Austen. I can’t seem to get through all the girly giggling and love at first sight. I’d rather read about a Lyra, a Hermione, or a Sarene over a Bella (or any of the equally flat and forgettable Austen characters).
hfn's picture
hfn · 15 years ago
I totally approve of comparing the Harry Potter series to Dickens. The names for one–J.K. Rowling totally follows in the Dickensian tradition of outlandish yet fitting character names. But Twilight–ugh. I’m with Jake: “Twilight isn’t bad because it’s popular; it’s bad because it’s bad.” And to cite the ever-delightful Paul Constant again, even teenagers admit that wizards beat vampires:

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