Explorations (**BD2 Movie Spoilers!**)

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Explorations (**BD2 Movie Spoilers!**)

Postby December » Sun Jan 31, 2010 11:00 am

Ok I'm opening this new thread to carry on our discussion of realism vs. myth (or whatever the right term is) from the Bella Cullen thread. I'm calling it "Explorations" rather than something more specific to leave room for the conversation to go where it leads us -- and maybe also to make a point: This is a thread for EXPLORING our different responses to Stephenie's story, NOT DEBATING them. Long experience has convinced me that the most interesting ideas get aired when people are genuinely interested in exchanging views, trying to explore and understand other people's starting point, rather than defending their own. So no fixed topic, but a few Ground Rules:

1. Courtesy is obligatory. Reread your post for tone before you hit the submit button: things often come out sharper than they sounded in your head. Go the extra mile to be conciliatory: it makes all the difference.

2. This includes courtesy to the author. Intelligent criticism of Stephenie's writing is welcome, and an essential part of the conversation; just be sure you put it nicely.

3. There are no right and wrong views here, just different perspectives. You don't get points for out-arguing other people. If someone else's reasoning doesn't make sense to you, ask them to explain their thinking to you -- don't attack their illogic. Keep an open mind. They may surprise you.

4. We're not here to change each other's views. We're here to understand them -- and explain our own. Please keep that in mind as you write. If we all agreed, think how boring it would be!

5. Respect each other. We all come here with different experience and expertise (whether formal or informal). Be appreciative of other people's and modest about your own. This can be especially important where the ideas of formal literary criticism are lurking at the edges of the conversation (ditto clinical psychology, another discipline with obvious bearing on many TW discussions). An academic perspective can be extremely illuminating, but it doesn't ipso facto trump all others.

6. Have fun! That's what we're here for.


So without further ado, let's get back to the discussion of Twilight, myth and realism.... How do YOU read the Twilight story? Fluffy romance or morality tale? Realist novel or fairy story?). Is it just a supernatural novel with the trappings of myth, or does it have a genuine mythic dimension?
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Re: Bella Swan Cullen #3

Postby December » Sun Jan 31, 2010 12:05 pm

Start of the conversation taken from the Bella thread:

*****
I have to say I take Knives’ point about how little Bella’s inner life, as we are shown it, resembles that of an ordinarily, lively, inquisitive, bookish girl....This isn’t a girl whose mind is filled with Milton, Shakespeare, Eliot and Dickens. This is a girl whose mind is filled with Edward Cullen. And you know, I wonder if this is in fact the point -- why Stephenie ISN’T showing us the lively, literary intellect we are asked to believe in....What we have here is the portrait of an obsession, of emotional and psychological possession so powerful it pretty much stuns Bella into a state of total preoccupation with Edward and Edward alone...

I should perhaps emphasize that in saying this, I’m not making a judgement about whether there’s something unhealthy about Bella’s preoccupation with Edward. The way I read this story, that isn't really the right question to ask in the first place -- any more than one should enquire into Snow White’s mental health. For me, Twilight is a fairy story. Realist considerations don’t apply.

And this is of course the other reason why artistically, there’s a point to leaving Bella’s inner life so stripped-down of the concrete particulars which would make a convincing portrait of a bright intellectual girl. Bella, as JG observes, is an archetypal heroine, deliberately under-specified to allow every girl to project herself into the character’s place. Not to say that readers don’t identify with fully-drawn characters in realist novels; but by her own account, that’s not what Stephenie set out to create. Bella was deliberately constructed as a placeholder, like a character from Arthurian legend or Greek myth. So I’m just not sure whether the standards of realist-novel characterization apply. Maybe we need to think of Bella’s bookishness more like Homeric epithet: Far-throwing Zeus or Brilliant Agamemnon. An attribute which sets up this mythic character in its place. We don't expect to be shown Agamemnon's brilliance though constant repartee -- it's not that kind of story. Perhaps the same goes for Bella?

Just a thought....
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Re: Bella Swan Cullen #3

Postby Jazz Girl » Sun Jan 31, 2010 2:39 pm

December~ And a thought with which I heartily agree. While I spend a great deal of time and words defending Bella and her thoughts and feelings, and even sometimes her actions, when it comes down to it, in a way, it's because I am defending myself, you, my sisters, my friends, every woman who has put herself in Bella's shoes and found that they could not only completely understand why Bella thinks as she does, feels as she does, reacts as she does, but that they would also think, feel and react in exactly the same way. Yes, this is a fairytale. I have made the argument so many times. When you are looking at, evaluating, critiquing these characters, one absolutely cannot fail to account for the supernatural circumstances woven throughout. I think it also often explains the...passion and....occasional defensiveness we see on the main character threads. In a way, when we see them attacked, we see ourselves attacked as well. And so, we defend, vehemently. Bella maybe a placeholder, the barest construction of a fascinating character. But, she is holding the place so many of us imagine ourselves occupying.
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Re: Bella Swan Cullen #3

Postby holdingoutforjacob » Sun Jan 31, 2010 4:14 pm

Beautifully put, December.

I agree with you both, but I'd like to add something. I think we see in Bella, or at least I do, our own weaknesses. This is why we feel a need to vehemently defend her, or sometimes, as I do, a real disgust with her. I can read Twilight in very small installments, because she just frustrates me so much. And I think the reason I can't really articulate my issue with her is precisely what December so accurately described - she's not real. She's trumped up as this "real" girl, this heroine. But why? Because she has weaknesses? Because she has great strengths, according to some? These qualities do not a real girl make. All she is are these weaknesses and strengths and Edward. There's nothing in between. Nothing about her that's not designed solely to carry the story forward. I've heard the Twilight Saga characterized as a "character story" many times, but that's definitely inaccurate. The main focus of this story is not the characters in their relationships, it's simply the relationships.

Also, while I agree that this is a fairy tale, and so we have to remember that, I think it's also interesting, since we live in the real world, to draw real world parallels, as long as we continue to acknowledge the difference. Like "it's cool that in the story Bella did this, but in the real world, I would do that."
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Re: Bella Swan Cullen #3

Postby December » Sun Jan 31, 2010 7:35 pm

hofj wrote:Also, while I agree that this is a fairy tale, and so we have to remember that, I think it's also interesting, since we live in the real world, to draw real world parallels, as long as we continue to acknowledge the difference. Like "it's cool that in the story Bella did this, but in the real world, I would do that."

I couldn't agree more . In truth, there are so many different conversations prompted by this story.... What we think about the real-world issues it raises (your example). How we make sense of the story in its own mythic terms (eg. is Jake a true second love interest, or better seen as the embodiment of the humanity Bella is sacrificing?). What we think Stephenie was trying to do in the story (is this fluffy romance or morality tale? realist novel or fairy story?). What conclusions we think she is asking us to draw from it -- not so much at the level of practical real-world lessons, but as a moral fable. (And most escape fiction works this way: we can admire pirate derring-do and courage without supposing that insane risks are a good recipe for ordinary life). Whether we think Stephenie has succeeded as a writer in what she set out to do.... All extremely interesting questions. The trick is just to be clear about which one we're talking about at any given moment!

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Re: Bella Swan Cullen #3

Postby Knives » Tue Feb 09, 2010 6:53 am

Sorry about the delay in my return, folks! It looks like I have a few things to respond to ^_^

Twilight as an Epic - I avoid the use of the term "Fairy Tale" due to deeply-rooted childhood convictions about what Fairy Tales actually are (the explanation is inappropriate both for the topic and the Lex; suffice to say that I grew up on bloody morality lessons rather than Victorian garbage). It's certainly an interesting way to interpret the series, and it closes several of the plot holes which Ms. Meyer inadvertantly opened simply because of the medium, as well as explaining the hyper-realized focus on Bella's lust for Edward. By removing the expectation of realism, the series enters the same arena as, say, the story of Tristan and Isoldt. I'm reluctant to put it there myself, however, because so much effort is expended to root the reader in the 'real world' in the beginning of the story and even throughought it; Bella doing house chores, her boredom with Forks, fixing up her car - if the series was, indeed, written as an epic romance, then Ms. Meyer has a few things to learn on setting up her reader's expectations. The other reason I'm reluctant to categorize it in such a manner is the sheer number of fans who choose to interpret it as a character story - and Ms. Meyer is, by self-admission, one of them. Its impact on our culture involves it being judged as a character story, so that is how I choose to judge it; in a sense, I must judge it that way, if I'm to understand how it'll shape the literary world in the decades to come (and it will, if only in the sense of what people will publish and buy after the astounding popularity of this series).
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Re: Bella Swan Cullen #3

Postby Jazz Girl » Tue Feb 09, 2010 12:57 pm

As to fairy tale vs epic romance vs character story...does it really only have to be one of the above? Can't it be a combination of any of those. You have to realize that even the most classical and definitional tales in each of those and any other category are often combinations of different elements of each. We choose to define them in one category or another, but they can fit into many. That's what makes them classical and definitional stories. They have a broad application and appeal. Is there a specific reason, other than a resistance to change, that you can't have a realistic fairy tale, one containing elements of real life? Much as she rewrote vampire legend and mythology, finding a new literary niche I think would certainly be within SM's possibilities.
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Re: Bella Swan Cullen #3

Postby December » Tue Feb 09, 2010 2:24 pm

Knives wrote:I avoid the use of the term "Fairy Tale" due to deeply-rooted childhood convictions about what Fairy Tales actually are (the explanation is inappropriate both for the topic and the Lex; suffice to say that I grew up on bloody morality lessons rather than Victorian garbage).

I think we actually are talking about the same thing: for me Twilight is nothing if not a bloody morality tale -- though one intriguingly tangled up with the rose-petals-and-romance sensibility which characterizes the modern fairy tale. Old Faëry and new Fairy somewhat uneasily co-habiting the same story. I think this is one of the things which makes it hard to get a satisfactory grip on what's going on in Stephenie's story: it's fluffy AND it's dark, though the darkness is shot through with an insistence on the possibility of joy. (Which brings it closer to Tolkien's notion of Faëry than to European fairytales or classical myth). I don't think this was necessarily conscious on the author's part but I do feel it's what is "going on" for me as a reader. (Though I certainly can't claim that's true for everyone!). To explain WHY (or how) I read the story this way would take us even more outside the scope of this discussion -- it's something I've written about at length long ago on the old Choices thread. But yes, I'd agree that medieval Romance (another term lost nowadays to its frilly pink connotations!) like Tristan and Isoldt comes closer to the mark than the modern realist novel.

The story's realist trappings don't significantly change this picture for me. Those random details Stephenie throws in about the lasagna Bella cooks or the Macbeth essay she's writing may be an artistic error, but for me it's a minor one. Maybe they're superfluous and a little lame -- but they don't in the least disrupt my response to the mythic shape of her story. My expectations remain unclouded: the myth comes through loud and clear. Not to be facetious, but it really does almost feel like incidental, epithet-like attributes: Red-Pickup-Driving Daphne, Piano-Playing Apollo....

To put it another way....I've often wondered whether as modern readers, steeped in a literature which is certainly oriented towards the novel rather than the Romance/Myth/FairyTale (*gestures unprofessionally at some kind of dichotomy*), we have trouble with the austerity of a truly minimalist, myth-like narrative. We want more help from the author in bringing the characters to life. Even if they are basically functioning as archetypes, we get bored if they don't sound like people. No depth, of course, but we want plenty of surface. (I think the characters in Harry Potter work much the same way, actually, but that really is another subject!). So I guess I don't see the fact that Bella and Edward, for all their thinness as characters, feel "real" to so many readers as presenting a problem of misdirection, because I have the feeling that modern "myth-making" actually depends on this kind of enrichment -- or maybe hybridizing -- of the genre. I'm talking through my hat here, really, but that's how it "feels" to me, if I try and examine my own response to these books. Does that make any sense to you?

The other reason I'm reluctant to categorize it in such a manner is the sheer number of fans who choose to interpret it as a character story - and Ms. Meyer is, by self-admission, one of them. Its impact on our culture involves it being judged as a character story, so that is how I choose to judge it; in a sense, I must judge it that way, if I'm to understand how it'll shape the literary world in the decades to come (and it will, if only in the sense of what people will publish and buy after the astounding popularity of this series).

Now that's another question. I don't myself mind what Stephenie herself thinks she's doing. For one thing, (as I was saying above) I'm not absolutely convinced this is a matter of either/or. No doubt it's true, as Stephenie often says, that these characters just presented themselves in her head, and wrote themselves out on paper; no doubt it's the vividness of their voices which makes them seem "real" to so many readers, even if they are terribly flat in other respects. So yes, in this respect, a character-story. But on the other hand, look... this story began with a dream. A stunningly potent, almost primal, image of love and danger entwined, balanced on a knife edge, which obviously grabbed Stephenie by the throat and impelled her to pursue this story. Notwithstanding all the other stuff that gets into the picture (parental divorce, sparkly vampire baseball, the social dynamics of the high school cafeteria), I think this is the story she in fact went on to tell, even if the means she uses are character-based. I don't myself think there's a contradiction there. And if you go on to look at the turn which the series takes in NM and EC, it seems to me that the bloody morality tale, in all its mythic force, only gathers strength. Even if the movie makers and the marketing men prefer to cast it as a cheap romantic tussle between the cold pale boy and the warm russet one....

As for how other people respond to the story.... Well it's an interesting question whether the passionate, almost seismic, impact Twilight has had on a mass readership is wholly rooted in a realist reading. Certainly it's the easiest aspect of the story for us to recognize, squee about, relate to, dissect, explore through fanfic etc. But does it explain why this series has bowled over half the reading population of the United States? I don't know. I think if I were as gripped as you are by Twilight's shortcomings as a character story, I'd be inclined to think there must be something more in play (unless you're happy to suppose that most of the reading public are simply idiots!). Ok, to be fair, the explanation I've offered -- that there's some pretty powerful myth-making at work here -- is only one of many. The books do a pretty good line in sheer escapist fantasy: not hard to see the appeal. The fantasy of lover as perfect guardian angel may not float your boat, still less the fantasy of a love which will kill you, but it works for some people. Spin them together into a single narrative thread....well, that's pretty heady stuff. Add the lure of immortality and you've got an extraordinarily combustible mix.

None of which actually addresses your critique of Twilight as a realist character-story. And I don't mean to suggest that critique isn't worth pursuing, or interesting in its own right. I guess I'm more trying to explain why I don't see it as necessarily decisive. That depends whether you're right that the series' success really does rest on its merits as a realist story. I suppose what I do think is that one can't rely blindly on readers' -- or indeed the author's -- own unreflective account of what makes Twilight work. That's the beauty of stories, after all: it's not like a math problem. You don't have to understand why it works for it to work. So the sheer number of fans who judge Twilight as a character story doesn't necessarily weigh with me.

In a way, I wonder whether we've come to opposite conclusions from a shared starting point (the series' shortcomings as realist fiction). You read these books, find yourself totally unmoved by them, and seeing good reason why (the characters & relationships are unrealistic) are baffled by the fandom's insistence that this love story feels real to them. Nevertheless, you take at face value their apparently realist response to the story. I, on the other hand, read these books, find myself unexpectedly bowled over by them, and seeing no good reason why, am driven to look deeper for a possible explanation. After all, the whole question becomes very much more urgent when it's one's own inexplicable response that needs accounting for! (*grin*)

And now, that's quite enough from me for today! Sorry to leave for now the other issues you raise; they're well worth thinking about as well....

ETA
Crossed posts with you JG. Going to post now because I'm out of time; apologies where I'm simply repeating what you already said!
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Re: Bella Swan Cullen #3

Postby Jazz Girl » Tue Feb 09, 2010 3:42 pm

December wrote:ETA
Crossed posts with you JG. Going to post now because I'm out of time; apologies where I'm simply repeating what you already said!


Ah, yes, but December, you said it so much more intelligently and specifically then I could ever hope to. I stand in awe. And, thank you.

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Re: Bella Swan Cullen #3

Postby December » Tue Feb 09, 2010 7:14 pm

Well, more long-windedly, certainly! (*blushes*).
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