December 07, 2009

Taking "Twilight" seriously

Having previous put Harry Potter under the literary microscope, John Granger has set out to discover academic substance in Twilight. And while I get the feeling he is uncovering subtlety where none was intended, and giving Meyer the benefit of doubts never demanded, and getting Mormon popular culture plain wrong, I heartily applaud the effort.

On that last point, non-Mormon critics who take on low-brow Mormon fiction really need to think much lower brow when it comes to the theology as well, especially when the subject of "predestined" marriage comes up. Quite coincidentally, while working on the sequel to The Path of Dreams, I recently wrote the following exchange:

     Elly said, "Can I ask you a dumb question?"
     "How dumb?"
     "Do you think people are made for each other?"
     "Like in Saturday's Warrior, you mean?"
     She grimaced at the comparison. "I suppose, minus the tacky and saccharine stuff."

That's the first reference any born and bred Mormon will seize upon. Incidentally, the most direct--and entertaining--access to popular Mormon culture can be had via Robert Kirby and Calvin Grondahl. Card's Saintspeak is worth a mention too.

But such obvious misses aside, popular fiction deserves defending, and Granger rises admirably to the task. Taking on a Washington Post story about educated women embarrassed to admit they like Twilight, he observes how stunned such readers are when,

having suspended disbelief and entered a "cheesy vampire romance" novel that by their arbitrary checklist of literary do's and don'ts is "trash," they have the mythic, borderline religious experience the best stories deliver. What is so stunning--and embarrassing?--is less the "out of nowhere" surprise of this experience (think Susan Boyle) than that their usual fare of reading, the right sort of books, is nowhere near as engaging, even transformative as Mrs. Meyer's "junk."

I think this gets to the heart of the "otaku" experience, devotees who muster far more passion for a particular "art form" than the urbane consumers of less "plebeian" fare. The problem, explains Granger, is that "the very well educated have a basic misunderstanding of what good writing is and isn't" [italics added].

Great story telling isn't elevated language or literary style. It isn't conformity to category standards or to genre formulae. And it isn't about "speaking truth to power" postmodern nihilism. Certainly great stories can have those qualities (except perhaps the last) and most do. But what a great story has to do, as C.S. Lewis noted in conversation with George Sayer, is make you answer "yes" to the questions: "Does it make you better, wiser, and happier? And do you like it?"

Stanley Fish makes a similar point in his review of Sarah Palin's autobiography (and the same thing could be said of Meyer):

Do I believe any of this? [Is this "great literature"?] It doesn't matter. What matters is that she does, and that her readers feel they are hearing an authentic voice. I find the voice undeniably authentic.

Granger also dings Stephen King (deservedly) for criticizing Meyer in "pot meets kettle" fashion, pointing out that it's usually King at the receiving end of such comments. And after dumping (deservedly) on Harold Bloom, he comes up with a great term to describe literary critics who can't see the forest for the trees: "Genre revulsion."

And he digs up a great King quote to boot:

If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.

That's the standard I'm literally living by these days.

Just as the transformational effects of a religion on a culture and society make the religion worthy of study regardless of whether one believes its transcendental claims, at the bare minimum, the effects of popular entertainment make it worthy of serious study, apart from the question of whether it's "good" or not.

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# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
12/07/2009 12:22 PM   
Here's what I wrote in my thesis:

"The need for a creative response to artistic works cannot be underestimated. Searching for political or social meaning, versus creative satisfaction, is not the best defense for the study of the arts. It makes such works susceptible to the changing political climate, lending novels, stories, plays, and poetry a sociopolitical purpose while undermining the belief that these works should be studied simply because they exist. If the humanities cannot defend the essence of its discipline, it will lose the ability to defend itself at all." I still believe this. If English Lit isn't about, you know, literature, why not just let the sociologists and historians handle it?

And here is what Camille Paglia says in her book Break, Burn and Blow (I footnote her in my thesis): "[A] result of this triumph of ideology over art is that, on the basis of their publications, few literature professors know how to 'read' anymore--and thus can scarcely be trusted to teach that skill to their students. Cultural studies, for example, despite its auspicious name, has been undone by its programmatic Marxism and is a morass of misreadings or overreadings. During the past quarter century, humanistic principles and honest practical criticism could more readily be found amongst low-paid adjuncts faithfully teaching service courses at community colleges than in the vain, showy professoriat of the
elite schools . . . I revere the artist and the poet, who are so ruthlessly 'exposed' by the sneering poststructuralists with their political agenda. There is no 'death of the author' (that Parisian cliché) in my worldview . . . The modernist doctrine of the work's self-reflexiveness once empowered art but has ended by strangling it in gimmickry."

She also writes, "English has evolved over the past century because of mass media and advertising, but the shadowy literary establishment in the United States, in and outside academe, has failed to adjust . . . I felt then, and still do, that the M&M peanut's jingle was a vivacious poem and that the creative team who produced that ad were folk artists, anonymous as the artisans of medieval cathedrals. My attentiveness to the American vernaculur--through commercials, screwball comedies, hit songs, and AM talk radio (which I listen to around the clock)--has made me restive with the current state of poetry. I find too much work by the most acclaimed poets labored, affected, and verbose, intended not to communicate with the general audience but to impress their fellow poets."

I love the part about low-paid adjuncts :)
# posted by Blogger WM
12/07/2009 1:42 PM   
# posted by Blogger Tyler
12/09/2009 10:38 AM   
I second William's "word." And the implication of Paglia's comment that "the general audience" matters and that if academia (which by and large includes many contemporary poets/poetics) can't grasp that, then what good can the humanities offer the world? (All things I think about daily, to one degree or another, as I try not to get sucked into academe's elitist undertow.)