Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Could "bad writing" be a sign of a very, very accomplished author?

While the fans of the TwiSaga, known as "Twilighters" or "Twi-Hards", may be overwhelmingly characterised by post comments such as OM*!!! Edward is so totally awesome! The anti-fans can be easily identified by the burgeoning number of WT*??? Edward is totally a stalker! comments on their sites. I would like to think that I have a slightly higher level of functional literacy skills than comments such as these require, so you won't read either of these statements again in this post. But I do want to posit that although Stephenie Meyer's use of adjectives in the TwiSaga books may legitimately be characterised as poor, Meyer is perhaps the most canny writer whose works I have ever read.

There is no shortage of people on the internet willing to claim that Meyer's writing is bad. Here's one, which says the writing is "arduous to read"; here's another, where most of the commenters seem to think the last book is an extreme Mary Sue story; and here's a third, from a Mormon source. So what are we to make of all this negative criticism?

Let me ask you, if you were dreaming of being an author,

1. Would you rather:
A) Be listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the top-selling author in the world? or
B) Have your unsold books remaindered after your death?

2. Would you rather:
A) Be earning $250 million from one book alone? or
B) Be writing semi-autobiographical novels based on your life in poverty?

So, would you rather be an "A-class" author, like prolific romance novel author Barbara Cartland and airport novel writer Dan Brown, or a "B-class" author, like Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte?

The truth is, critical responses decrying certain authors as "bad writers" are not necessarily a sign that the books themselves are not going to be popular, and well liked by their target audience. They just don't fit a literary ideal. Furthermore, books that are considered classics of literature and authorial gems nowadays were not necessarily well received initially.

Here's what Meyer has to say on the subject (at her website):
It's inevitable that the bigger your audience gets, the bigger the group who doesn't like what they're reading will be. Because no book is a good book for everyone. Every individual has their own personal taste and experience, and that's why there are such a great variety of books on the shelves. There are lots of very popular books that I don't enjoy at all. Conversely, there are books that I adore that no one else seems to care about. The surprise to me is that so many people do like my books. I wrote them for a very specific audience of one, and so there was no guarantee that any other person on the planet besides me would enjoy them. ... If I could go back in time, knowing everything I know right now, and write the whole series again, I would write exactly the same story. (The writing would be better, though—practice makes perfect.)

Stephenie Meyer has written books that probably fit closer into the "A-class" category above than the "B-class". In terms of sales, the four TwiSaga books took our four of the top ten book sales figures for 2008 in both the US and the UK, and she was the top selling author in the US last year as well. So despite originally writing Twilight for "an audience of one" (that is, for her own pleasure), and her own admission that the writing was less than sterling, Meyer's books obviously fit her reading audience's preferred writing style precisely, if not that of the literary critics.

Every time I read the word "gotten" in the books (it was there at least once in all of them), I cringed. But I have to admit, each time it was there, it was part of a conversation or internal monologue of a character whose age, education and maturity made the choice of word an application of the character's identity, rather than a reflection of the author's grammatical deficiencies. Here is the first such instance:

Charlie had really been fairly nice about the whole thing. He seemed genuinely pleased that I was coming to live with him for the first time with any degree of permanence. He'd already gotten me registered for high school and was going to help me get a car.

As I said, internal monologue. And this one example also provides an instance where Meyer has replicated such a monologue quite realistically. Bella is ruminating over the circumstances of her move. Her thoughts flow from considering her father Charlie's reaction to her imminent arrival under his roof, to recalling his actions that provided evidence for her interpretation of his emotions. I find this scenario completely believeable.

And to me, believability is the key to Meyer's success. Although she has written a fiction series that fits neatly into the fantasy genre, each of her books present completely believable characters. Bella's thoughts of Edward in Twilight surely held little appeal for those who criticised Bella as interminably whingy - but then, I imagine those same people would have very little patience were they to meet any real teenager in the middle of their first serious romantic crush. I remember my own teenage years quite clearly. I've also been a high school teacher. The little glimpses of teenage thoughts one gets from teaching are enough to tell me that this book captures perfectly the thoughts, experiences and actions of many a young girl falling in love for the first time. Yes, the early chapters Twilight at times read like a relationship anecdote from Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. But then, the disparity between the sexes and their miscommunication is a major cause for real-life teenage hormonally-driven melancholy. Perhaps some of what critics do not like in the novel is the same thing that attracts their target market: the perfect depiction of an average teenage girl's emotional experiences.

Interestingly, some critics find that the last book of the TwiSaga falls down in the believeability stakes. They complain that Breaking Dawn degenerates into "Mary Sue" writing, where Bella displays "overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws ... primarily functioning as [a] wish-fulfillment [for the] author" (according to Wikipedia's definition). Now, given that Meyer has repeatedly stated that she writes her books with her own enjoyment of the story in mind, not others, the suitability of the latter part of the definition was never in dispute. In response to the former part of the definition, I have to wonder whether any of the critics who commented on the post linked above have ever heard of the ancient classical rhetorical device called hyperbole. According to Wikipedia, hyperbole is "a figure of speech in which statements are exaggerated. It may be used to evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impression, but is rarely meant to be taken literally." Now, Meyer is writing fantasy fiction, so she can't be expected to produce writing that finishes with the sort of "that's too bad - that's life" ending of many (disturbingly popular) chick lit novels for adult women nowadays. I wonder if the women who read these novels do so in order to confirm to themselves that even in books the perfect ending isn't going to happen. Whatever their reason, this type of Byronic ennui is inappropriate for an author writing for young adults.

Furthermore, since, IMO, Meyer was writing a series that functions perfectly as a religious allegory and pre-evangelistic marketing tool for her religion (Mormonism), an idealistic ending for the newest members of the perfect Mormon family, as epitomised in the Cullen coven, is only to be expected.

One last question.

3. Would you like to be known as:
A) An author whose gently religious allegorical tales for children are enjoyed by millions (but not by your close friend), then made into movies that become a box office smash? or
B) A school teacher whose blatantly anti-Christian children's books are controversial (yet win awards), and are made into movies that bomb at the box office?

In case you didn't know, The A author above was CS Lewis, whose book The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (from the Chronicles of Narnia) is an allegory of the Christian gospel. It was made into a movie a few years ago and reached "the Top 25 of all films released to that time (by revenue)." [See figures here.]
The B author was Philip Pullman, whose trilogy His Dark Materials was apparently written as an atheistic rebuttal of Lewis's Narnia series. The movie of the first book grossed only a touch more domestically in its entire run than the Twilight Movie did in it's opening weekend.

Meyer's books have had a very mixed reception from those who share her religious faith. She has more in common with Lewis, whose friend JRR Tolkein "was not enthusiastic about the Narnia stories," than Pullman. What is certain, is that like both Pullman and Lewis, she has written a story with a strong religious message. I will explore the connections between the TwiSaga books and the LDS religion in another post.

And once again, to thank you for getting to the end of a very long post, here's something to amuse you. But be warned, it contains swearing (written, not spoken), so I have taken down the video. Apologies for the lack of warning previously, Amy.


Mrs. Edwards said...

Yikes, that video has profanity (written not spoken)! You might add a warning.

Great post, Sharon. I couldn't help thinking, "How fortunate that this woman is uncommonly beautiful, with perfectly arched eyebrows, and was able to get a book deal."

I just polished off a book proposal for my friend Renee, so she can send off her manuscript, so I have book proposal on the brain. I know, a pretty face won't sell a boring plot, but it has to help in the "tell me how you can market this" section of the literary proposal. Granted, Meyer had a fetching tale to tell as well as a fetching face.

But back to the main point: It is quite interesting to realize the debate that has ensued over whether or not these books are actually well written. I wonder if all the people fretting over serving up teenagers sub-par literature also feel bad about all the publisher-created marketer-driven "literature" that is peddled to children. It makes me crazy to see my children eyeing all the slickly packaged drivel that is produced by publishers rather than authors.

I find it worth something that Meyer actually had a story she wanted to tell, rather than some publisher asking her to write a book that leverages sales on the current trend in tweens or children (usually a licensed character).

Alison Lacey said...

Something similiar could be said for books/authors who win book prizes such as the Booker. In my old bookclub we orginally thought that reading books that had one prizes meant we would be reading great books many of us including myself found many of them extremelly hard to read for a range of factors including not being able to like/relate to the main character. Meyer in her style of writing has been able to make a connection with her audience (teenage girls predominately)through the language that she uses. Hope you understand what I'm trying to say am struggling to put my feelings/beliefs into words this morning

Sharon said...

I understood perfectly, and agree. I think her secondary audience of women who appreciate the fantasy element of re-living their first teenage crush has also influenced Meyer's sales figures positively.
I have been thinking the same about awards lately myself. It seems that what attracts the notice of the people who decide on awards is often an element of pushing the boundaries, linguistically or topic-wise. (Pullman's books are a good example of this.) These features are not necessarily the same things that make a book successful either in initial sales or in long term popularity, because neither of them address readability.

Sorry about the lack of warning on the lion_lamb video - I read through it first on the original site a while ago and didn't remember the profanity specifically from that source. I have been reading a lot of stuff on this topic lately from non-Christian sources, and a lot of it has swearing - which is frustrating, but also gives me another reason to provide a "clean" resource for people to consider the books. I have left a link, with a warning, but taken the video down now, so people won't stumble over it unawares. Thank you for letting me know straight away, I appreciate it.

~ Sharon

Mrs. Edwards said...

I hope you know I'm good-natured about that video...but I figured that you probably did forget about that language and might want to know!

I guess I don't have anything helpful to add to the discussion other than to say, "Bravo!" and I'm looking forward to reading about your take on the Mormon theology in the story.