Mary-Sue and the incandescent vampires

I’ve been aware of the existence of Twilight for a while now. First as a vampire book with shiny fruit on the cover, then as the Cedric Diggory movie, mostly (I suspect I am now middle-aged) as Something Teenagers Did. As a result I’ve been feeling rather guilty about not having read it, even after well wishers such as Roswitha (who described it as “a world of pain”) warned me against it. I read it anyway. There are many things I could say about this book; some of them are even vaguely complimentary. But then:

He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare.

Anyway. Some thoughts.

  • Good things first, since I’m nice. It was somewhat refreshing to know (in great detail) what the male protagonist of this book looked like and only have the haziest idea of what the female protagonist was like. I suppose not hearing too much about her looks was expected, since she was the narrator (and since Twilight is better than a lot of bad fanfiction, I’ll give it that) , but it’s just nice to have the girl being the one doing the looking and wanting. And having the uncontrollable sexual urges (though at some point in history this was the idea, right? Women couldn’t control their insane sexual desire?) and having the responsibility for stopping sex be on the man. Though I’m not sure how valid this is as praise for the book, since the negative consequences of sex (were it to happen) would be almost entirely to Bella.
  • Bint Alshamsha said over Twitter a few days ago that her daughter really loved seeing Native Americans portrayed as something other than drunks, killers, and the like. I am horrendously ignorant about most non-fantasy American YA literature, so she’s far more likely to be right about this. But while I haven’t read Meyer’s other books, plot summaries I have read have the NA characters doing some things that do cause a bit of a squick reaction. This whole “imprinting” thing, for those of you who have read the books. Still, I’m really pleased that in the movies these roles are going to be played by actual NA actors. Movies are sometimes awful about that sort of thing.
  • And on to less good things. For starters, this is an entire book about people not having sex. I’m not suggesting that not having sex is a bad thing. I myself often indulge in not having sex. But it really doesn’t make for a great plot. Scene One: Bella and Sparkles Edward are not having sex at school. Scene Two: Bella and Edward are not having sex in her house. Scene Three: Bella and Edward are not having sex in a forest. And so on. Around scene twelve another, less attractive vampire wants to kill Bella, but by scene fourteen everything is resolved and Bella and Edward are not having sex at the prom.
  • Edward the vampire cannot go out in bright daylight because he sparkles. When I first saw people talking about this book, I thought talking about Edward’s sparkliness was a mere metaphor for how fanficcish the characters in this book are. Nope, he actually sparkles.
  • Everyone is beautiful. Our narrator Bella thinks she’s unattractive, but she isn’t. She doesn’t even have a subtle, special beauty that only the hero can see. The minute she arrives at her new school, every male in sight asks her out. The vampire family all seem to have unearthly beauty as well, though we’re never told whether this is something they developed at birth or at conversion to vampiredom. The mere mortals at Bella’s school have bad hair (two of them, I think) or have pimples (geeky Asian boy who asks Bella out). One character pleased me by not caring if her boyfriend was shorter than her (and choosing to wear high heels anyway), and that was a positive moment. But obviously Edward had to be tall, or what would be the point?
  • Twilight has the most obvious Mary Sue I have ever read in a published work of fiction.
  • Actually, Niall at the Vector Editors blog pretty much sums up what I dislike most about Meyer’s writing in his review of The Host:
    The Host, you see, is a novel in which everything is special. It is not enough, for example, that humans be sufficiently willful that they are hard to subdue, and sufficiently emotionally intense that occupation be disorientating for the souls; they must be the most willful species the souls have ever encountered, and their emotional reactions must be the most emotionally intense the souls have ever encountered, such that Wanderer (the narrator) is driven to wonder how any soul could survive in a human host. (And this is not to mention humanity’s “physical drives”, the like of which the souls have never seen, although in fact Meyer does a very good job of not mentioning them for most of her book’s six hundred-plus pages.) Nor can the narrative simply be the story of a soul and a host wrestling for control of a body: it must be the story of an extraordinary soul, who has lived many lives on many worlds, and an equally extraordinary host, so secure in her identity that, one soul asserts, she would have “crushed” any soul other than Wanderer in days.

  • An observation: As I write this, a facebook group titled “Because I read Twilight I have unrealisteic expectations in men” (sic) has 59, 358 members. I’m sure some of the people on it do not in fact have unrealistic expectations in men (or possibly do expect men to behave in this way, see that it is horrific and are now celibate*. or have embraced political lesbianism.), but there’s still the possibility that 59,358 young women are currently fantasising about meeting a moody, obsessive stalker who is cold and clammy and intrusive, and who refuses to have sex with them. I find this alarming.
  • But seriously. What passes for a romantic relationship in Twilight is really very unpleasant. I suspect I was exactly the sort of kid who would have been receptive to some of the more warped ideas.
  • Bella’s clumsiness. I suspect this is meant to be endearing in the aww, look at Bella! She’s so smart and everyone loves her so much, but she can’t do anything without falling over! way. How it actually plays out is to make her too useless to rescue herself from any situation. (She cannot run away from men who plan to rape her because she will fall over). She is constantly being rescued. Edward’s scintillating arms lift her out of danger; his incandescent chest is hers to lean against. Plus (SPOILER, do not read if you care!) she ends the series a married teenage mother who has given her baby to her best friend. Said best friend has chosen this baby as his future mate. Charming.

For more (if you haven’t had enough or are actually interested), Cleolinda’s Twilight page is a morass of sparkly hilarity. Elizabeth Hand‘s WaPo review is also excellent.

* You’ve ruined sex for me!

16 Comments to “Mary-Sue and the incandescent vampires”

  1. Haven’t read Twilight; its incandescence scares me. I’m always a bit peeved that in fiction women are openly allowed to lust after only magical creatures like vampires or demigods. There’s some Average Joe love, but it usually comes off as condescending (“Yes, but I married you, baby!” — meh) or sets up some kind of shrill relationship where the man is constantly the butt of jokes due to his ineptitude.

    But getting back to the former type, it would seem that the woman always has to be a klutz (in a safe, cute way) so that the man can constantly be saving her. Oh wait, I’ve met tons of men in relationships like these — except there’s rarely anything safe or cute about their ladies’ problems, and they aren’t exactly gods incarnate.

    On the other hand, something like Scott Pilgrim where the guy is basically ‘DOES NOT COMPUTE’ and the girl is pretty okay strikes me as a bit unrealistic too.

  2. I HATE girls in movies/books who can’t save themselves. And those who stand at the sidelines screaming with terror while their adored men fight the villains. This part of the movie generally comes soon after the lovey-dovey scene in which the girl declares that “tumhare bina, main mar jaaoongee”.

    That’s why I like Georgette Heyer’s romance novels. The girls aren’t always pretty (though they are in some), they always have a personality, they rush in holding coats while the hero and the villain fence, and they set everything that goes wrong right.

    Is Twilight worth reading though? My little sister is after me to read it, and I don’t think I want to read the love story of a vampire and a girl. Especially one that has no sex.

    (Have I mentioned how much I love your blog, by the way?) :)

  3. Vishal – Heh, there’s no market for reasonably competent, human men. But Twilight is truly cracktastic, and I suspect that you might enjoy it.

    Sumedha – Georgette Heyer is excellent from most angles that I can think of, really.
    I wouldn’t recommend Twilight unless you have a very twisted sense of humour or think that “incandescent chest” is brilliant and evocative writing. ;)
    And thank you!

  4. Hey..I recently read Twilight and I, um, quite liked it. But you’ve made some interesting points here so I thought it was worth discussing :)
    The not having sex issue…well, the way I see it, doesn’t it show something uncommon (for want of a better word) about an uncommon relationship? The fact that they can’t have sex (yet) but despite that, there’s no reduction in the intensity of their feelings for each other?
    And I admit I did have problems with Bella’s “damsel in distress” portrayal, but I think this quality is more undesirable than it’s unrealistic-of course such people exist-but what’s important is that she isn’t happy with this side of her character. She doesn’t like being the one who constantly needs saving, and she does try to take things into her own hands in the end. [though of course Edward turns up and it doesnt exactly go the way she intended it to :)]

  5. And oh, the sparkling…wasn’t it supposed to be weird?

  6. Re:Twilight
    Oh, I have no doubt that I’ll enjoy it. The more unrealistic the better. But I’ve yet to delve into the veritable blood ocean of vampire fiction, except for a few comics here and there. This hasn’t stopped me from writing a bit of vampire fiction way back when, but as I recall none of them were particularly sexy (although one had fabulous hair). I was too busy being geeky and delving into their biology to make any of the stories interesting (still, great hair!).

    I’m sure one day I’ll do the proper sexy vampire tifecta of an Anne Rice, Laurell K Hamilton and a Twilight book (perhaps back-to-back).

    Re:Guys
    I’m sure there is a massive market for Average Joe gets the Average Girl fiction. Nick Hornby sort of fits, I suppose, as does a majority of noughties romcom movies, but it’s still alarming to, say, watch Star Trek TNG and realise that the same writers who can run rings around complex SF plots suffer complete meltdowns whenever romance rears its head.

    Anime and manga sometimes fares better (Harem stuff always ends that way) but rarely commits to it without crazy side characters. I suppose the problem is that most writers aren’t quite convinced that well-adjusted people can be interesting, and the exotic and dramatic are more attractive.

    But, but, but still… (gears turn in head)

  7. Kriti – (This will be a long reply) One, where in most Y/A or kids lit do you see sexual relationships in any case? Most intense relationships in literature for this age group (especially fantasy, which is the bit I know most about) are non-sexual. The only difference I can see is that in those books the characters have lives apart from their hormones – here, the main activity is not having sex.
    Two, you’re right, Bella takes matters into her own hands once and that ends up in disaster. Now apply the sort of analysis we’d use in an English lit class to this – when the book presents us with a heroine who gets into trouble the only time she uses any agency, what message are we to take from this?
    And while I’d love to believe that the sparkles were non serious sparkles (and it’s hard for me to believe that sparkly vampires can ever be meant to be taken seriously… incandescent chest is used unironically. So unless the book is deliberately making Bella’s p.o.v. out to be stupid (in which case it’s all very deep and subtle and I take my hat off to Meyer though I don’t quite see the point of the whole thing), I suspect these are Serious Sparkles.

    Vishal – The sexy vampire writer to start of with, of course, is Montague Summers. ;)

  8. Doesn’t the fact that the story is spread over 4 (long) books deserve some credit? Obviously everything couldn’t happen in Twilight.

    And I disagree about Bella, simply because she never gets into trouble because of her actions at any point. She’s simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Except the end part, where she walked into trouble with her eyes open; she knew what was going to happen.
    //Everyone is beautiful. Our narrator Bella thinks she’s unattractive, but she isn’t.//
    Not really. She’s asked out because she is, as she put it, a “novelty”. And Edward first notices her only because he can’t read her mind. And her scent, of course. In fact she is really not pretty; the Cullens are the only “beautiful” people here. I think that much is allowed, don’t you? And oh, when you have time, you should read Midnight Sun, it’ll maybe answer some of your questions, especially about Bella’s looks, her eye color, her hair color etc etc etc :)

  9. Doesn’t the fact that the story is spread over 4 (long) books deserve some credit?

    Um. Sure. Except that most writers don’t decide in advance to write a series of four long books and then scramble wildly for a plot to fill in all that space. If you have pacing problems, you edit. You rewrite. Bad pacing is bad writing.

    Most of the time Bella can’t get into troouble ‘because of her actions’ because she’s too passive to actually commit any actions. As I said, she does something on her own once and nearly gets everyone killed.

    I’m willing to accept that Edward asks Bella out because she’s a novelty and he can’t read her mind. I’m even willing to stretch my imagination enough to believe that her friend Mike, the guy who nearly runs her over, and the geeky guy who she would totally never go out with because he’s a nerd all ask her out only because she’s a novelty. I’m having a hard time imagining that every boy in school (according to Edward who can read their minds, remember?) is lusting after her because she is a novelty. Note that the only person in these books who ever says Bella isn’t pretty is…Bella. She could hardly say otherwise without sounding irritating and making fangirls reject her. But honestly, I’m reminded of nothing more than girls who look like super models whining about how fat they are.

    (Have I mentioned I really like your profile picture? It’s pretty.)

  10. Oh no, I’m sure she’d thought of the plot all along, she probably thought a long drawn-out story would entertain us (and fetch her big bucks). And it’s not like I think the series is perfect, I was just replying to some of the things you’d said :)
    But but but…Bella isn’t pretty, she CAN’T be! (okay, I know I’m losing it). Oh well.
    And thank you, I fell for that picture as soon as I saw it :)

  11. …which is what I’m saying; if you have enough plot for two books, choose to write four books and thus end up with a huge amount of padding to fill up all the empty space, you’re doing it wrong. It’s bad writing.

    As for Bella’s looks, considering we’re working entirely on the knowledge that she doesn’t think herself attractive (despite impressing upon us all that she has flawless skin) but every boy in town wants her…yeah. I think the odds are in favour of the boys being right.

  12. What an absolutely amazing post!!

    You have summed this up so intelligently.

    Thank you for putting all my thoughts into words!!

  13. 'I suspect these are Serious Sparkles.'

    I suspect I might love you XD

    Personally i read about 6 pages (from the middle-my bad?) and nearly screeched in horror at the way it was written before flinging it out of my bedroom window and frankly? I don't even think that was overly dramatic…

  14. I LOVE that I decided to google for "scintillating arms" — who writes things like that, anyway? — and landed up with your blog as the second result. Heh.

    Just abandoned Twilight halfway through. At a loss for words. Keep saying "scintillating arms" to myself. Also "traitor tears." And "dust MOATS." Wheee!

  15. For all fanfictioners….

    In my opinion there's no way of defining a 'Mary Sue'. If you automatically want to place yourself in the character's shoes then, you have fallen into the trap of a mary sue….because you are fantasicing.

    What I believe is a Mary Sue is when a character's appearance is over described. Giving her a cool, appearance, green eyes, red hair with purple streaks….and all that jazz. Kind of the opposite to what most people think; I believe a character that is too strong and cool for her own good, can come across as a mary sue.

    But I can agree with you that the whole klutz thing, and the character not knowing they're beautiful screams Mary Sue.

    Teen angst for me gets annoying, a back story's which has to be special by having a character a victim of domestic violence. Or worse an angry teenager who has no reason to be angry, because they have a breezy life.

    To me there's nothing wrong with a damsel distress, if you're up against creatures and you're a mortal, you have an excuse, but as long as they have a personality you can still love them.

    As long as they don't state themselves they are quirky, it's up to the people around them to decide that.
    Me for example, I'm as quirky as they come…and I have no tragic backstory!…Though I have a social disorder.

    P.S What's wrong with no sex…Are we trapped in a society where we have to prove our capabilities, have all relationships based on bumping uglies…..No. Which brings me to another tiresome point, there's 'Nothing' wrong with virgins, why is there a stigma, sure nowadays they're rare in real life, but why should we banish them from fiction.

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