A couple of months ago I wrote this. Readers of the Left of Cool column must think I spend a significant portion of my time thinking about the ethics around discussing Twilight. It is possible that they are right.
No one who has been anywhere near a bookshop over the last few years can have remained ignorant of the glut of vampire novels that those years have brought. The success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books led to a situation where, it seemed, the majority of books for teenagers involved the beautiful undead. Things seem to have died down for the present, though it’s worth noting that the bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey books seem to have started out as Twilight fanfiction.
Where there is a big literary trend there follows a series of widely recognised tropes. Obviously these tropes didn’t come out of nowhere; Meyer too was drawing on particular literary traditions. What the Twilight books gave us, then, were a popular set of widely recognised ideas about vampires for future writers to play with.
Writers like Sarah Rees Brennan and Justine Larbalestier, whose Team Human involves a high school romance between a vampire and a human girl. Except that Cathy, the girl in question, is not the protagonist here. The story is told from the perspective of her best friend Mel, who naturally has her doubts about this relationship. “Friends don’t let friends date vampires”, says the book’s caption, and it’s not hard to see Mel’s point.
Or is it? A big part of what makes Team Human interesting is an unspoken assumption that its readers have engaged with the debates around Twilight and feminism that have been so prominent in recent years. This is unsurprising –Larbalestier and Rees Brennan are both writers of young adult fiction who have consistently engaged with the politics (particularly of gender) around literature. So it’s taken for granted that we readers have heard jokes about why a vampire going to high school would be a stupid idea, and that we’ve had occasion to think about the problematic nature of a teenage girl deciding that she wants to, essentially, end her life based on her feelings for a high school boyfriend. Even the title is a reference to the “Team Edward”/ “Team Jacob” divide among Meyer’s fans. But the book also assumes that its readers have struggled with the issue of giving even lovestruck teenagers agency, and have come down on the side of letting people make their own mistakes.
Of course the Twilight books aren’t the only vampire novels that Team Human refers to. This is a world in which vampires are very much a recognised part of society, though they tend to live in particular parts of town and are avoided by humans. Unlike a lot of vampire novels, these creatures aren’t obviously superior to the humans around them – they may be better looking and immortal, but the inability to go out in the sunlight is a major disability. Worst of all, they are said to have no sense of humour. This is also a world in which they have historically faced persecution and Larbalestier and Rees Brennan use this setup to refer to various other forms of prejudice.
Team Human is, ultimately, “team Human”, in that it endorses Mel’s views over Cathy’s. But it also undercuts her constantly. We’re allowed to see that Mel is capable of both deliberate cruelty and unthinking prejudice, as are those around her. We’re even given reason to believe that some of the ‘facts’ about vampires that the book presents as true are not. There are no easy, obvious answers here.
Twilight and the whole sexy vampire phenomenon are easy targets for parody; even people who have read none of them feel entitled to dismiss them. It hasn’t always been easy to tell how much this dismissal of the works has been due to their inherent flaws, and how much of it is simply due to our culture’s disdain for anything made for or consumed by young women. Team Human manages to engage with these books critically but with respect.