John Granger made his bones as a renegade academic writing about Harry Potter. Having exhausted the Rowling canon, he has now turned his formidable critical faculties on the Twilight series. His new book Spotlight: A Close-Up Look at the Artistry and Meaning of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga is the result.
The revelations it contains are truly fascinating, and only a rigorous and resourceful reader like Granger could have found them. [<--- Hermione Granger joke goes here]
We’ve talked to John before. We will talk to John again. Here he is now on the challenge and rewards of Studying Stephenie, and popular fiction in general. And the secret of the Mountain Meadow, and why the Cullens are the Holy Trinity (Edward being Jesus).
So how does Stephenie Meyer’s work require a different critical approach from Rowling’s? Or does it?
It doesn’t, Lev, not really. The different approach each does require, though, is an approach that takes an author’s work seriously as artistic works of merit. Rowling is pretty much over this critical hump but Meyer is still dismissed as a genre hack (by Stephen King no less; he ought to know a genre hack), terrible writer, and as a corrupter of children’s morals.
We’ve seen this before, right? Bloom said Harry Potter was “slop” and Safire that that boy wizard was “unworthy of adult attention.” Mrs. Meyer has sold well over 70 million copies of her Twilight books, a number I expect to double before the films are done, and she’s a bad writer unable to deliver meaning that satisfies what readers look for in a good read? The more obvious and logical response, I think, as it was with Rowling, is to assume that the writer who sells a gazillion books is doing something right and to look at these books as works with depths of meaning to which readers are responding.
Unfortunately, the postmodern critical tool box doesn’t come with the instruments necessary to plumb these depths. The “Three Literary Pigs” of the academy, if you will, of deconstruction, literary taxonomy, and aestheticism, only probe the surface words of the text-as-artifact and miss the “why” of people reading fiction and the “how” of writers meeting the human need that brings readers to novels. As you’ve written, plot today is only valued by readers, not critics.
In an analogy your tech-o-phile readers here might like, the critical tools used to dismiss popular fiction and genre writers, however successful these authors may be (and go ahead and tell me all the writers more successful than Rowling and Meyer…), are a little bit like insisting on judging a circuit board by its appearance or superficial elegance (aestheticism), the atomic weight of the metals used (deconstruction), or by what type of board it is supposed to be (genre hierarchy or taxonomy). A board’s real elegance or beauty, of course, is in how it works, which requires an understanding of the properties of the materials used, say, conductivity rather than specific Periodic Table identity, and the right alignment of these materials with other components on the board.
The prevalent critical tools take words as the critical meaning rather than story, which, to risk another tech analogy, is not unlike taking digital ‘ones’ and ‘zeros’ and reading them as signifiers of quantity rather than vehicles of meaning when taken all together. Hence the strangle-hold the of the “modern’ or psychological novel as the only genre writing which is just writing not to be dismissed as genre work. All of the story in these books is in the surface words and its value is in its aesthetic merits and in its implicit denial there is greater meaning to be had beneath the surface. This sort of story aligns with the implicitly nominalist beliefs of the critics and their tools, and, not surprisingly, gets high marks, if no one not writing for The New York Review of Books reads them.
What we need to understand Meyer and Rowling and all the writers, really, whose work resonates with readers, are the traditional tools, à la Ruskin and Northrop Frye. Frye’s spectrum of fiction is very helpful, I think, in getting at why Harry Potter and Twilight are the shared texts of the 21st Century. The spectrum, as Frye explains it in Anatomy of Criticism, is bound on its ends by supernatural Myth on one side — think of the Gods on Mt. Olympus in Bullfinch not Homer or Percy Jackson — and gritty literary realism or stream of consciousness on the other. Books at either end don’t do very well in the marketplace; story, just by being fictional, is a step away from reality as such, and myth is hard for hardened empiricists and rationalists to enter into by itself.
Most stories, consequently, are in the middle ground between Myth and Realism, what Frye calls “Romance.” These stories, when they work, are just realistic enough to draw us in and sufficiently engage our imaginations that we “suspend disbelief” and experience the mythic qualities lying beyond the story characters and events. We see through them as transparencies and translucencies to the transcendent. If Eliade was right when he wrote that popular entertainments serve a mythic or religious function in a secular culture, i.e., that people read to transcend individual ego and persona and experience a more real, mythic landscape, then Frye’s “Romance,” the story with just enough realism to draw us in and a boatload of archetypal and borderline explicit religious content, will be the best seller.
Forgive me for thinking that the popularity of the Forks and Hogwarts Sagas, stories meeting this formula exactly, mean we have much more to learn from Ruskin and Frye (or Dante and Spencer) about literary criticism than from Byatt, Derrida, or Bloom. To get at the mythic, archetypal, or transcendent meaning of, say the Cullen family, you need something greater than critical nominalism, because readers are experiencing in the Cullens allegorical and anagogical layers of meaning in these characters that aestheticism and deconstruction aren’t going to explain.
Back to your question. You don’t need a different approach for Rowling versus Meyer, you just need a critical approach that (a) takes each seriously as writers of worth and (b) has the tools to get at how they deliver the transcendent “wow” their stories are obviously packing. Frye’s iconological approach does just that while also revealing the significant differences in each writer’s choices and methods.
Okay, you mention the Cullens as a mythic family. At one point in Spotlight you suggest that the Cullens might correspond to the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Unpack that idea for us, if you would.
Fair enough. The Cullen Clan are a celestial family consisting of three couples and Edward. The three couples are the family’s mother and father, Carlisle and Esme, the mystical duo of Alice and Jasper, and the gorgeous hunks Rosalie and Emmett. More obvious than the Trinitarian symbolism of these story ciphers or archetypes is the simple body-mind-spirit triptych obvious in the relationships: Carlisle and Esme are the otherworldly spirit figures of love and self-control to whom the family defers, Alice and Jasper have powers to sense the mental and emotional fabric of the world and the people in it, and Emmett and Rosalie are, well, center-fold portrayals of the body. How they work, live, and get along together is, as with all soul triptychs of this kind since The Brothers Karamazov, a snapshot of the soul’s faculties in its proper hierarchy and harmony, with which image the reader identifies, and, like Bella, wants to join. (We see something very much like this in Rowling’s body-mind-spirit trio of Ron-Hermione-and-Harry.)
This triptych in couples can be seen as the Holy Trinity because the family members are gods in all but name — never eating food, never sleeping, not needing to breathe, pretty much indestructible — who live in something of a Temple. Becoming part of the life in this eternal home, that is, gaining membership in this Greater-than-Human family, becomes the focus of Bella Swan’s ugly-duckling-to-beautiful-Swan ambitions, her dreams of divinization and life with the divine Edward.
Edward, if his family are a Holy Trinity of sorts and his home the Kingdom of Heaven, is Christ to Bella’s allegorical “human seeker.” His love is her means to Cullen family membership and theosis, which possibility and transformation Edward, as God, is hesitant for her to embrace because it will mean her destruction. God respects the human person’s free will, right? In this God-Man love story played out against a Garden of Eden back drop — hence the apple on the cover, the Genesis epigraph, and Bella referring to herself as “Eve” at their first meeting — Bella must love Edward totally, sacrificially, and from the heart and Edward is obliged, again as God, to respect boundaries and love her just as she is.
The Cullens as Trinity or Divine Human Triptych are just background figures for this Eden drama which is the core allegory of the Forks Saga. Again, you cannot get at this if you’re fixated on the YA Harlequin genre, the borderline politically incorrect details of the allegory (Edward as Stalker), or the relatively pedestrian prose of the novels. Meyer’s millions of readers obviously enjoy the simple prose without aesthetic majesty or heights for the accessibility it provides to the greater meaning and experience they get from the story.
You — somewhat reluctantly, but very sportingly — examine the question of how Meyer’s Mormon faith gets worked out in her fiction. What influence does Mormonism have on Twilight?
You can read Meyer and love Twilight, obviously, without knowing anything about Mormonism. Relatively few of her readers understand the depth of the Latter-day Saint influence on her work (or, frankly, care to know about it), so its not the focus of Spotlight. But I had to explore it at some length, however indifferent her Gentile readers are to the subject and despite how prickly to the point of nasty Mormon readers have been in nay-saying that the books are LDS fantasy.
Reading Meyer’s work at any depth and neglecting her LDS world-view is as fruitful as closing your eyes to the Christian content of Lewis, Tolkien, or Rowling. Lewis said once that “to construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds’ you must draw upon the only real ‘other world’ we know, that of the spirit.” The only real “other world” Mrs. Meyer knows, of course, is that of her faith, the Mormon faith of her childhood — complete with rules governing her diet, dress, and dating — of her family life, of her education (BYU), and of the place where she lives. Her personal, family, community, and spiritual identities are all LDS. Her favorite author? Orson Scott Card. Most influential book? Book of Mormon.
It’s daft, then, to think her books can be understood without looking through Mormon seer stones. The mythic content of her stories which are the power of her writing and the real Romance of the books in Frye’s terms, come wrapped in an LDS cloak.
In the last part of Spotlight, consequently, I am obliged to look at Meyer as a Mormon writer. I do that by reviewing the way her books reflect core dogma as well as peripheral LDS beliefs, the ways her books act as apologetic “fantasy conquests” of controversial issues dividing Mormons and Gentiles, and in the several fun ways her books act as criticisms of the LDS world in which she lives, especially the prevalent misogyny. Taking the alliterative route, I think Meyer has to be understood as Mormon Artist, Apologist, and Apostate simultaneously and I try, even though I am not a Mormon, to begin this discussion.
I’ve been disappointed, if not especially surprised, by the Mormon maven response to my taking Meyer’s faith and works seriously. It’s very sad that they dismiss the possibility that she is writing at multiple levels and using traditional tools like literary alchemy and archetypal allegory just because she “isn’t that smart.” A good bit of her books’ criticism of Mormonism, as I said, is about individual and cultural misogyny, and that quality is hard to miss in the patronizing responses to her as a writer made by her faith community’s apologists.
Worse, though, is the online insistence by these Melchizedek priesthood types that there is no meaning in Meyer’s repeated use of Mountain Meadows as scenes of revelation and conflict, of Carlisle Cullen being a 17th century Christian from London, or that Meyer gives Rosalie, the raped and left-for-dead fiancee of Royce King II in Rochester, NY, the maiden name of Joseph Smith, Jr’s first and only legal wife. These religious readers and LDS gatekeepers are as nominalist as the academic deconstruction hard-liners and even more insistent that story only be read at its surface. It reminds me of the odd bed fellows that made up the Harry Haters back in the day: Ivory Tower eggheads and Christian fundamentalists, which groups despised each other as much as they shared a common enemy in Rowling’s literary magic.