Caitlin Flanagan on the Twilight series

I don’t necessarily look to Caitlin Flanagan to explain, well, much of anything*. But I do think her recent The Atlantic article about the Twilight series is worth mentioning for the simple reason that she notes that reviewers of the books always mention Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon-ness but never quite know what to do with that fact.** And because I think she possibly gets at the appeal for some (especially teenage) Mormon female readers.

Here’s the relevant excerpt:

The erotic relationship between Bella and Edward is what makes this book–and the series–so riveting to its female readers. There is no question about the exact nature of the physical act that looms over them. Either they will do it or they won’t, and afterward everything will change for Bella, although not for Edward. Nor is the act one that might result in an equal giving and receiving of pleasure. If Edward fails–even once–in his great exercise in restraint, he will do what the boys in the old pregnancy-scare books did to their girlfriends: he will ruin her. More exactly, he will destroy her, ripping her away from the world of the living and bringing her into the realm of the undead. If a novel of today were to sound these chords so explicitly but in a nonsupernatural context, it would be seen (rightly) as a book about “abstinence,” and it would be handed out with the tracts and bumper stickers at the kind of evangelical churches that advocate the practice as a reasonable solution to the age-old problem of horny young people. (Because it takes three and a half very long books before Edward and Bella get it on–during a vampiric frenzy in which she gets beaten to a pulp, and discovers her Total Woman–and because Edward has had so many decades to work on his moves, the books constitute a thousand-page treatise on the art of foreplay.) That the author is a practicing Mormon is a fact every reviewer has mentioned, although none knows what to do with it, and certainly none can relate it to the novel; even the supercreepy “compound” where the boring half of Big Love takes place doesn’t have any vampires. But the attitude toward female sexuality–and toward the role of marriage and childbearing–expressed in these novels is entirely consistent with the teachings of that church. In the course of the four books, Bella will be repeatedly tempted–to have sex outside of marriage, to have an abortion as a young married woman, to abandon the responsibilities of a good and faithful mother–and each time, she makes the “right” decision. The series does not deploy these themes didactically or even moralistically. Clearly Meyer was more concerned with questions of romance and supernatural beings than with instructing young readers how to lead their lives. What is interesting is how deeply fascinated young girls, some of them extremely bright and ambitious, are by the questions the book poses, and by the solutions their heroine chooses.

What’s interesting is that although technically Flanagan is correct about Bella making the “right” choices, there are also Mormons who are uncomfortable with some of the other choices she makes. In addition, I’m somewhat amused by all the people who have felt (or been) compelled (and that includes us here at AMV) to write about Twilight and how much our reactions betray our attitudes towards certain feminist issues as well as literary value and Mormonism.

* This is no knock on those who do. We all have varying tolerance levels for gadflies c.f. Camille Paglia, Ben Stein, Noam Chomsky, etc.

** It’ll be interesting to see if Reading Until Dawn can get us beyond some of the basic reactions that tend to come up repeatedly.

19 thoughts on “Caitlin Flanagan on the Twilight series”

  1. .


    Every one of these-type posts makes it harder for me to keep my toes out of the water.

    I guess come January I’ll have to finish the books and hop in the pool.

  2. I had mixed feelings about posting this when it came across the transom yesterday afternoon (I waited until today to give Patricia’s much more interesting post some room), but I find that I’m fascinated by the reactions to Twilight — especially those that make some sort of relation to Mormonism.

    I’ve only read the first novel. I too feel the pull to read the others.

  3. Romance Romance

    All this talk of Twilight has put me in mind of the whole romance genre in general, and I wanted to share a link to an episode of This American Life with everyone. The interviewer attends the Romance Writers of America national convention and learns some very interesting things about this monster publishing industry. Plus, the piece is just plain enjoyable, and perhaps it will suggest some ways for Mormon Artists to think about the mainstream.

    Sorry about dropping the whole url in, but I do not know how to make those nice links you all do so well.

  4. I too feel the pull to read the others.

    I have to admit that I don’t. Couldn’t tell you why, as I enjoyed Twilight for what it was.

    …perhaps it will suggest some ways for Mormon Artists to think about the mainstream.

    Funny. That’s kinda what I’m trying to do.

  5. Come on William! What’s not to love about Caitlin Flanagan? 😉 My Atlantic subscription has lapsed and now you’re making me wish I still had it.

    Oh, and read the other books already! It’ll take you a few hours and then you can be done with it 🙂 Having read all the books makes conversing with others (especially those who don’t consider themselves “readers”) so much more fun!

  6. Another way for Mormon writers to think about the mainstream. The other day at Walmart I flipped through Breaking Dawn (ironically featured in the “LDS Inspirational” section), and was immediately impressed by–the typesetting. I’m guessing that the font/leading was at least 12/16 or 17, text decorations were minimal, and line lengths were on the short side of short. There’s a lesson here to be learned about making books readable for reasons rarely discussed (alas, LS and CreateSpace make you pay by the page, not the word).

  7. There’s a lesson here to be learned about making books readable for reasons rarely discussed (alas, LS and CreateSpace make you pay by the page, not the word).

    In the typesetting book I used, it made a point of saying that text laid out using very wide margins and narrow text (think newspaper columns) is much easier and faster to read AND the comprehension goes up.

    I thumbed through Breaking Dawn, too, though and found that between the layout and the writing, it felt very much like a children’s book without pictures (as opposed to YA)–and it annoyed me because of it. Maybe it was the font.

  8. I liked the font size and the similarity to children’s books. Made it easier to read. I left it open on the counter and would read from distance while helping out the kiddos, doing dishes, and cooking. (Those were not my best meals.) It was a similar experience with OSC’s Saints. Big enough book that I could read from afar while bouncing a colicky infant. Oh, the hard back Harry Potters are good that way too. Nothing like large font to get you through a bad night with your baby 🙂


    1. It’s horrendously written. Though even many fans acknowledge this, I don’t understand why Meyers’ editors let her get away with such slop. Sure, it sells, but a better edited version would too and publishing a book in this state just lowers the bar for the quality of popular fiction.

    2. It’s a trashy romance novel dressed up as something else. My objection is not that this book is too smutty per se. I read literature that contains sexual content. I’m a grown-up and can handle it. However, I don’t read books whose sexual content has no purpose other than titillation (e.g. harlequin romances). Well, Twilight is a harlequin romance without the explicit sex. A harlequin romance for Mormons.

    To be clear: if the pages and pages of lusting and repressed sexuality functioned in an interesting or useful way in the novel, that would be one thing. But they don’t. And so on the one hand you’re left with a harlequin romance with all the spicy scenes deleted (who reads those for the stories?) and on the other, you’ve got a book that mainly serves to titillate in a more “chaste” or “PG” or “Mormon” way–in a way that is deemed acceptable by our culture, in other words. (Where “our culture” is composed of Mormons, 12-year-old girls, and self-respecting grown women everywhere.)

    3. The main character is a nobody. She’s completely and totally flat. For a good portion of the novel she’s so spineless that she almost doesn’t exist. The whole time I was reading it, I kept wondering how anyone, including Edward, could be attracted to such a girl, a girl with no personality to speak of. (Oh yeah–harlequins aren’t about personality.) But really, this is one of the most dangerous aspects of the novel in my mind. Who do the young girls drawn to this book see as its hero? A girl who apparently has no interests other than boys and who apparently has no self when she is without one of them. That’s a scary kind of person to have young girls looking up to. I’d pick a strong, smart Hermoine over a shadow like Bella any day for my daughter to emulate.

    4. The romantic relationship at the novel’s center is border-line abusive. Even without the very appropriate vampire trimmings, it’s a relationship based on consumption. And that’s never good.

    I realize that many of my arguments have a potentially problematic core–that art should be something we model our lives after. I don’t believe that’s true. But I do believe that in this case, it happens, especially to readers who due to age or inexperience lack sophistication. How else to explain the wild success that Twilight has seen?

    Its readers are in love with Edward. Or they’re in love with the idea of being in love. In either case, the “love” offered by Meyers is something to make those of us who share her alma mater and her religion a tad bit ashamed of.

    BTW, I’m willing to admit I’m wrong and that you have a good reason for liking Twilight. Just because I can’t think of one, doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist.

  10. .

    You’ll notice she didn’t capitalize. I don’t think she was referring to actual Harlequins necessary, but the concept of trashy soulless romance that ‘harlequin’ is often used as shorthand for.

    This is why people protect their brands with lawyers.

    I’ve had a kneejerk need to defend the Twilight books even though I don’t like them and a kneejerk need to hate on them as well. Basically, I have a need to disagree with everyone when it comes to these books. I really need to get some opinions of my own.

    First, with Rachel, I think too many of our people choose to let something like the MPAA or a byu-alum sticker do their thinking for them rather than consider whether something is very 13thy on its own merits. Better to let a label like G or R do our thinking for us. And I agree that people who call these books sexless are either so repressed they don’t know what sex is or simply cookoo. (I’m on a diplomatic roll here, aren’t I?)

    On the other hand, what real value do these books have? Are they more dangerous than entertaining? These are important questions. And if I had a 12yrold girl I’ld be asking them very seriously. As it is, I haven’t been able to work up enough caring yet.

    But, for a quick trip to Godwin’s Law, all it takes is for good people to do nothing, n’est ce pas?

  11. Wow, Theric, you *are* in a funk, aren’t you?

    Re Godwin’s Law. NOBODY said the n-word. Yet.

    I think Twilight is incredibly instructive. Dangerous, yes, definitely, with certain personality types, but isn’t everything? If my girl were 12, I would let her read it. (Well, I can’t throw stones; when I was twelve, I was reading–ah, never mind). Point is, nobody supervised my reading.

    This is prepubescent-girl-fantasy-land and it creeps me out that grown women are falling all over themselves because of it (and particularly, LDS women), but you know–women screamed at Elvis and the Beatles, too. Their silliness is on them. What, do we need to crack out a national “Read Responsibly” PSA campaign?

    I liked Twilight. It was a fun, easy read. It annoyed and disturbed the heck out of me on several levels (some of which Rachel mentioned), but that didn’t keep me from liking it.

    But was it soulless? Oh, I don’t know about that; it’s no more soulless than some of the LDS literature I’ve read in my life and, more particularly, lately. Flat characters, lifeless personalities, whatever. I’ve struggled to make it through to the last page of some LDS lit and some of the stuff I’ve bought recently hasn’t engaged me enough to get past chapter 2.

    On the other hand, I was zipping through Twilight, racing to get to the end.

  12. .

    Sorry, Moriah—I knew that was going to come out harsh: know I didn’t mean it that way.

    As for Godwin, I was trying be preemptive. 🙂

  13. No apologies necessary and certainly not to me!

    It was just not in your usual tone of calmness, and after your “funk” post the other day, I’ve been a wee bit concerned. That is all.

  14. .

    I think the takehome here is Theric needs a vacation.

    Anyone want to go to the zoo? We’ll be there next week. Do you prefer Oakland or San Francisco?

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