Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On understanding true love: second of two - spoileriffic

Okay, so yesterday, I started my commentary on the terrible awfulness of Twilight. My objections, vis a vis that post, were largely to the crappy writing style and the wading-pool depth of character in the protagonist. Today I'll look somewhat beyond that, to the people with whom Bella Swan (ack. Still ack when I type that) surrounds herself - and to the scary things we learn as a result.

There are, in fact, other characters than Bella (to the extent that she can really be described as a "character"). There's Jessica, who prattles; we know this because all of her dialogue is tagged, "she prattled." She doesn't have a lot of dialogue, because whenever she starts prattling, her good friend Bella tunes her out to think about Edward. We do get to hear her prattling whenever it pertains to... Edward. There's also Angela, who, in contrast to Jessica, is sweet and shy; we know this because all of her dialogue is tagged, "she murmured shyly." There's also Lauren, who is blonde and a bitch and says bitchy things.

Then there are the guys. Mike is spiky-haired and has a crush on Bella, much to the consternation of Jessica, who has a prattling crush on him. Eric has a crush on Bella and sees Mike as a rival. Tyler has a crush on Bella, much to the consternation of Lauren, who has a crush on him. Jacob has a crush on Bella and is Native American. That's it. That's what we know about Bella's only friends in this podunk town, because she cuts out on them completely as soon as she makes contact with...

... Edward Cullen, local hottie and vampire babe. Edward has a crush on Bella and is a vampire. In the interest of character depth and future plot conflict, Stephenie Meyer has made him perfect. He's gorgeous - "like a Greek god" - perfect face, alabaster skin, rock-solid body, eyes that are black when he's mad and gold when he's happy, "unusual" reddish hair. He's smart - the only student, perhaps the only person in town, as smart as Bella. He's super-strong and super-fast and drives a reliable Swedish-made sex machine. Though a vampire, he doesn't even eat people; he's so ridiculously virtuous that he's a "vegetarian," which means he eats meat that isn't people. He doesn't have fangs, sleep in a coffin, or burst into flames when he comes out in the daytime, all of which would be major turnoffs. He maintains excellent dental hygiene. And he sparkles - literally fucking sparkles in the sun "like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface" of his skin. But he has flaws! He's very flawed! He wants desperately to drink Bella's blood, but he can't stay away. And he drives too fast.

Oh, he also stalks her and has been coming into her house and watching her sleep every night since she moved to Forks, which would seem like a flaw, but it's actually romantic, because... something. It's romantic. Don't question, accept.

I do not like it. I do not like it, Sam I Am. I don't like the idea that impressionable teenagers are internalizing this deeply creepy concept of stalking-and-possessiveness as love. Because it isn't, and there aren't enough Lifetime movies in the world to deprogram a girl once she's decided that he only hits her because he loves her so much.

That danger is inherent to the nature of the supernatural love story - the danger of the beast and the fantasy that my love, my love can be the one to tame it. And with that concept of true love as a shield, the scarier he gets, the more appealing he becomes - in that scene in the meadow, where he demonstrates precisely how he could lure her and chase her and trap her and beat the crap out of her, Bella exposits that he has become even more beautiful when he's vicious and potentially life-threatening. We all know that girl.

And after said display, it was all, "I'm sorry I scared you. I just love you so much, sometimes I can't control myself." We all know that guy, too.

And that's where the scary comes in. The scary in these books isn't the day-walking, "vegetarian" virtuous vampires - it's the real-life men these girls are going to someday encounter and the real-life women these girls are going to someday be.

Let me tell you a little love story. It's about a girl - depressingly servile but still fairly competent, self-sacrificing but still fairly sharp and clever - who moves to a small town and meets a boy. He's dark, broody, and mysterious, showing affection but always with an undertone of danger. He warns her that he has a violent streak that comes out whenever she's near - but he won't leave her alone. He loves her so much that he can barely control himself when she's around, so she'll have to do it instead.

Over time, she begins to isolate herself from her friends and family because they wouldn't understand. She lies to them about where she'll be. She skips school and school events if he won't be there. She folds to his will at the merest dazzling glance. He watches her constantly, all around school, at her house in the middle of the night. She tries her hardest to learn what sets him off - she learns not to move when he kisses her so as not to provoke him. And still, he constantly warns her that she isn't safe around him - that she'd do well to be afraid of him, that she should avoid him for her own safety, that she is putting herself in danger by being around him. And in the end, she's begging him to kill her to remove the temptation.

"I love you - now stay away from me, I'm dangerous." "Look at the way I hurt you. I love you so much, I can't help it - you should stay away from me." Putting all of the onus on her to stay away from him for her own safety, absolving him of the need to exert self-control. Making her change her behavior so as not to provoke him. Take away the supernatural vampirity of it all, and it becomes pretty clear - "Every time I'm near you, I want to beat you beyond recognition, I love you so much. You should stay away from me, despite the fact that I'm constantly following you around." But fill in the blanks with a venomous monster and a lemon-fresh circulatory system, and suddenly it's a romance for the ages.

I feel like these books need to come with a big, red sticker on the title page - "Disclaimer: Obsession isn't love. Possession isn't love. Wanting to hurt someone isn't love." If you're lying to your friends about where you're going just in case he happens to kill you while you're there, that's a bad sign. If you aren't allowed to move when a guy kisses you because he might snap and kill you, that's a bad sign. If you find yourself begging him to kill you so you'll never have to be apart, that's a bad sign.

And what's really scary about it is the responses from fans - "It's just a story. Vampires aren't real. We don't think it's real; we just read it for the love story." That misses the point that it's not a love story. It's a story of dominance, submission, control, and manipulation. And if that's what teenage girls are reading as a love story, if that's the Edward they're holding their hearts for, we're failing them. And if that's the romance that grown women are idealizing, we've done a lot of failing already.

On understanding true love: first of two - spoileriffic

Okay, so some of you who read my recent rant about crappy writing may have figured out precisely to which author I was referring and down which book I planned on taking. And I did; I read it. It took me probably six hours over the course of three days, but I read all the way through Twilight and can say, without reservation, that I will never get those six hours back.

Why did I subject myself to this? Many reasons. For one, I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. For another, I'd read so many deliciously brutal takedowns that I just had to, in my masochistic way, sit through it and share in their glorious pain.

The main reason, though, was a comment The Boy got from one of "the girls" at his dance school. (These "girls" were his fellow instructors, which puts them all in the late-thirties-to-early-forties range.) They had been going on and on and on and on about how wonderful the books were and how wonderful the movie was and how they were just going to have to read the books all over again after watching the movie to remind themselves of the wonderful. And then The Boy had to step in and wonder, in his Boy fashion, precisely what was so romantic about dating a guy who is constantly on the very cusp of murdering you and drinking your blood.

That's when he was informed that he just doesn't understand true love.

I tried not to take offense when I heard that. In fact, I took it to heart: If he didn't understand true love, that must mean that our love isn't true, in which case the obvious solution is to read the book and try to true things up a bit. So I did. And now I have. And if I now really do understand it, may I die lonely and unloved.

It's not just that the books are poorly written - and oh, they are. I mentioned Stephenie Meyer's addiction to fancy adverbs and dialogue tags and her allergy to the word "said." I could add to that the fact that everything we know about Meyer's entire universe can be - and trust me, has been - exposited by our protagonist, whose name is - wait for it - Isabella Swan. (I spent ten minutes trying to come up with something worse than Isabella Swan to put down as a snarky alternative, and I could find none. Well played, Meyer.) Bella (as she keeps insisting that people call her, because they just won't learn) saves readers the trouble of inferring context and backstory from the plot by just telling us flat-out in the first person.

What else do we know about Bella? We know that she's clumsy. Sooo clumsy. Clummy-clum-clumsy. You can hear "Yakety Sax" faintly in the background throughout the book. She falls down in the woods. She trips over her own feet at the beach. She trips over her own feet in class. She drops her books. She thwacks her classmates in the head with a volleyball. She thwacks herself in the head with a badminton racquet. She gets paper cuts. At one point, Meyer specifically describes her eating a bowl of cereal, "chewing each bite with care," as if a Lucky Charms-Mama Cass moment is an ever-looming threat. And in case you weren't able to pick up on it yourself, Bella is kind enough to tell you herself.
I'm absolutely ordinary - well, except for bad things like all the near-death experiences and being so clumsy that I'm almost disabled.

Oh, are you clumsy? I totes hadn't noticed.

Our love interest Edward also is unafraid of reminding Bella (and, by extension, us) of exactly how close she is to unintentionally self-inflicted death all the time, which is why he bodily carries her practically everywhere she goes (unless his brother, mother, or little sister is taking care of it). I have actually seen that once in real life. The kid was eight, and it got him an extreme home makeover from Ty Pennington. If there's one thing that Meyer will not let us forget about Bella, it's that she's fucking clumsy.

We also know that she's very plain - pale and brunette - but that, having gone from her fancy-pants big-city school in bustling metropolitan Phoenix to a podunk one-horser in Washington, she's somehow become the hot fish in the ugly pond (outside of the reigning hot blonde who is, conveniently, a bitch). We also know that she's super-duper smart - everything they're doing now she's already done back at her school in bustling metropolitan Phoenix, so she's deigning to do it all again just to have something to do. And she reads Jane Austen novels and Wuthering Heights for fun, but the Forks library is so shitty she has to travel all the way to Seattle for decent reading material. And she listens to Chopin and Debussy and nearly pisses herself in shock when someone else listens to it too. She's kind enough to correct the stupidity and unworldliness of the local doofi somehow without coming across as a total snatch. To them, I mean.

We also know that she hate-hate-hates rainy weather, because she won't fucking shut up about it.

We also know that her earlobes taste like Doritos and she lactates beer. Or something like that, because she is a scrawny, clumsy, whiny, pseudointellectual Gisele Bundchen to the boys at Forks High School for the Petulant and Stupid. They are all over her shit. She is beating them off with a stick, actually arranging relationships for them with other girls in school to turn them away from her honey-scented awesomeness. The only boy in the whole region - including the Indian reservation - who is actively hostile to her is Edward Cullen, but we later learn that his hostility is just a shield to hide the fact that, yeah, he's hot for that, because she smells like truffle oil and a child's happy tears, and not just a natural side-effect of her being completely obnoxious.

Now, some might speculate that this Bella Swan is merely a Mary Sue, that Meyer is living out her own bizarre vampire-love-story teenage fantasies through this girl. But, see, that can't possibly be, because traditionally, a Mary Sue is without flaws, and Bella Swan has flaws like whoa. Did you catch that? She's introverted! And plain! And what else... ooh, clumsy! And whatever, but she's totally not a cipher for Meyer's vampire romance fantasy fulfilment or, ultimately, a victim of a significantly twisted concept of drama and romance.

And yet dear Bella, despite all her flaws, still manages to be horny-teenager Spanish fly, the normal girl who, for no other apparent reason than that he's pretty and she smells like warm toffee and the meadow after a rain, finds true love with the beautiful creature of the night who must constantly refrain from killing her whenever she's around.

One sympathizes.

Think I'm done? I'm just getting warmed up. Tune in tomorrow (or whenever I get around to posting again) to hear more about Stephenie Meyer's "characters" and learn why I think this book is not only flat mediocre but a potentially dangerous read for 14-year-old girls and grown women disinclined to read critically.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

On what not to say

Or, That's What She Proclaimed
Or, That's Easy for You to Announce

Okay, so I know I haven't been too terribly shy in voicing my opinions on some of my pet peeves. (It helps, in all of the cases, that I'm unarguably right.) But I'm gonna have to out with another one, and this one's for any of my reader who has fantasies of and/or aspirations to a career in fiction.

I'm in the process of reading a book that I won't name right now, as I'm saving it for a brutal critique - er, a firm but gentle review - in a future post. And I've been trying to read it objectively. But one thing that keeps bugging the crap out of me - and pulling me entirely out of the story over and over again - is the fact that none of the characters ever says anything.

Which isn't to say there isn't dialogue. There's plenty. Characters lie, they insist, they urge, they announce, and prompt, and admit, and mumble, and that's just in the first chapter. But they don't say anything. The S section of the author's thesaurus must be dog-eared, pencil-marked, highlighted, and crinkled all to hell, because the one word she apparently can't bring herself to use is "said." And even when she does, it's always done gruffly, gently, formally, harshly, tenderly, or slowly.

Just say "said" already.

Seriously. Just go ahead and write "said." You know it's already there in your head; you've spent the past seven or eight minutes trying to come up with a word to say other than "said." Stop. Writing isn't supposed to be that hard, and your writing is going to be a hell of a lot better if you relax a little, let it flow, and stop anguishing over whether your character just murmured or muttered.

We have been subject to bad, bad advice in our creative writing classes. To make our writing more colorful, we're supposed to use more vividly descriptive words - we don't need to walk when we can stomp or stride or lope - and plenty of adjectives and adverbs. Especially adverbs. Especially adverbs modifying adjectives modifying nouns. And in some cases, it makes sense; whether a character walks or lumbers or whether the sun is shining dimly or brightly can really set the mood of a scene.

But when it comes to dialogue, you need to come to a full stop and examine your motives before your characters start affirming and opining and pronouncing and asserting and responding and reporting and, Jesus, God, disclosing. Is it really so important that we know she's confessing something rather than just saying it? Or is there any way you could show through context clues - her body language, her facial expression, maybe someone else's reaction to what she says and how she says it - that whatever she's saying is tearing her up just a bit? Is there any chance at all that you're uncertain about your own writing talents and feel the need to compensate with a thesaurusful of fancy words so people won't think you're dumb?

Put the Hummer in the garage, Ms. McCompensatey. Swallow your pride and work to improve your writing instead of your vocabulary. Work to thoroughly and vividly develop your characters, establish setting and context, and write realistic dialogue. Hell, maybe take a leap and leave out dialogue tags entirely (ooooh...). Be a better writer and your readers will be so engaged in what your characters are saying that they won't even care if maybe one of them should have just "quipped" instead. And if, after due consideration, you decide that maybe a character did actually sigh or laugh or cough a line of dialogue, it'll make your writing more colorful rather than more cumbersome. Remember that writing is about the story, not the words, and it's hard to get through a story if the writer keeps pimp-slapping you with a thesaurus.

Charles Dickens's characters say things. Elmore Leonard's characters say things. Alexandre Dumas's characters say things in French. In 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Harry Potter, the characters all say things. If "said" was good enough for them, it takes some balls to think it's not good enough for you, Steph - er, writer who shall remain nameless.