Monday, August 31, 2009

The Real Trouble with Twilight

By Karen J. Ohlson for Talking Writing

Vampires, shmampires – let’s talk about bad boyfriends…

In three years of being in a mother-daughter book group, I’ve never seen our group of girls (now 12 and 13 years old) react as strongly to a book suggestion as they did to the idea of reading Twilight in our group.

“No way!” said one girl, all but holding up a garlic bulb to fend the book away.

Another argued we should read it, “so you can help me spread the word about why it sucks.”

“I actually thought it was pretty good,” a third girl protested.

No one really wanted to champion it, though; it’s the kind of book a sophisticated middle-school-age reader – or her Mom – might feel a bit self-conscious carrying around. But after my daughter finally agreed to read the copy pressed on her by an insistent friend (“You have to read it. You just have to!”), I decided it was time to crack the spine of Stephanie Meyer’s multi-million-selling vampire-thriller-swoonfest and find out for myself. Would I find it a guilty pleasure? Would I revert to my ten-year-old Harlequin-Romance-devouring self and yearn for hero Edward Cullen’s cold (but oh, so hot!) embrace?

The answer is no. I managed to get through all of Twilight, but the relationship between Bella and Edward was so claustrophobic that I was happy to close the book and make my escape. Even with Meyer bludgeoning me repeatedly with descriptions of Edward’s handsomeness (his face is “dazzling”… “stunning”… “glorious”… with “a set of perfect, ultrawhite teeth” through which he laughs his “soft, enchanting laugh”), I didn’t fall in love with Edward. In fact, I couldn’t stand him. Not for the obvious reason, but because of how he behaves in his relationship with Bella. He’s got some major Bad Boyfriend characteristics — ones I know I’d want my own daughter to see as warning signs.

Let’s take a moment to look at Dear Abby’s “15 Signs of an Abuser” and see how Edward stacks up in Twilight:

1) Pushes for Quick Involvement: Comes on strong, claiming, “I’ve never felt loved like this by anyone.” After trying for some weeks to resist the urge to get involved with Bella – because, as he tells her, “You are exactly my brand of heroin” – Edward can’t stay away: “You are the most important thing to me now. The most important thing to me ever.” And this is from a guy who’s been sentient for more than a hundred years.

2) Jealous: Excessively possessive; calls constantly or visits unexpectedly. How about, “listens in to thoughts of everyone who talks with you (taking advantage of a superpower he has), appears in your room without warning (thanks to his supernatural speed of movement), and watches over you even while you sleep (since he’s awake 24/7)”? Yes, all these are true of Edward’s involvement with Bella. Plus, here’s his reaction to another boy trying to cut in as he and Bella are dancing at the prom: “Edward snarled very quietly.”

3) Controlling. See above. Also, consider the dynamics of the book’s final episode, in which Edward hijacks the dance-hating Bella to the prom against her will: “You’re taking me to the prom!’ I yelled… He pressed his lips together and his eyes narrowed, ‘Don’t be difficult, Bella.”

4) Unrealistic Expectations. Does expecting Bella not to mind round-the-clock supervision count here? How about expecting their relationship to remain at a fever pitch of unconsummated physicality forever? When Bella inquires delicately about someday satisfying the human side of their desire for each other, Edward points out that, “if for one second I wasn’t paying enough attention, I could reach out, meaning to touch your face, and crush your skull by mistake.” Uh, okay. Suggestion withdrawn.

5) Isolation: Tries to cut you off from family and friends… may deprive you of a phone or car. Look at the way Edward whisks Bella away from Angela and Jessica for a private dinner in Port Angeles, the way he beckons her over to eat with him in a secluded corner of the lunchroom, and his insistence on chauffeuring her as often as possible, rather than letting her drive her truck. I know, he can’t be frank about who and what he is in front of other humans. And he needs to protect her, because she’s a “magnet for trouble.” But wait – she survived okay for all the years before she met him. Hmm…

Several of the remaining list items are less applicable – particularly #14 (Past Battering) and #10 ( “Playful” Use of Force During Sex), since Edward has no relationship history and won’t consummate his relationship with Bella until the end of the series. Three more items are worth highlighting, though:

9) Cruelty to Animals or Children. Sure, Edward resists his desire to prey on humans, but the wild animals in his vicinity don’t get off so easy. Here’s his response when Bella asks how a person hunts bears without weapons: “Oh, we have weapons.’ He flashed his bright teeth in a brief, threatening smile… ‘Just not the kind they consider when writing hunting laws.”

13) Sudden Mood Swings. Trying to track the mood swings in Bella’s and Edward’s initial interactions could make a person dizzy. The morning after he uses his superpowers to rescue her from a car accident, Edward greets her calmly, speaking in a “velvet, muted” voice. He responds with amusement to Bella’s persistent questions about what happened the day before, but then his “tawny eyes” flash with anger and he speaks coldly. Yet, moments later he’s chuckling, “seem[ing] to have recovered his good humor.” It’s no wonder Bella then asks, “Do you have a multiple personality disorder?”

15) Threats of Violence. Edward doesn’t try to get his way with Bella by threatening violence – he devotes himself to protecting her and trying to keep her out of harm’s way. But he does warn her constantly of how dangerous he is: “Sometimes I have a problem with my temper, Bella.” (He says this in a whisper, with “his eyes narrowed into slits.”)

Do I really think Edward is an abuser? No – mainly because he’s a fictional character (as I’m reminded all too often by the jarring, stagey words Meyer uses to describe his actions; I haven’t seen this many snickers, smirks, snarls, and chuckles since my days as a Nancy Drew reader). Meyer clearly intends him to be a romantic hero, so we know he’d never hurt Bella – not intentionally, anyway. And to me, this is the real trouble with Twilight: the glamorization, not of vampirism, but of stalking, controlling boyfriends with hair-trigger tempers.

Bella gets to have it both ways: she gets the thrill of a dangerously passionate boyfriend who’s obsessed with his overwhelming desire for her, combined with the security of fictional circumstances that compel Edward to restrain himself and protect her. I can see how this portrayal would be compelling to teenage and pre-teen readers entering the scary world of hormonal urges, as well as to teens and twenty-somethings disillusioned by a culture of casual hook-ups and “friends with benefits.” At least stalkers care.

Which is, of course, the type of thinking that begs for a reality check from Dear Abby.

Now that I think about it, Twilight is a perfect choice for a mother-daughter book group with girls of a certain age, where discussions of literary merit can easily veer into reminiscences of bad boyfriends. Meyer’s writing and her imagination provide plenty of fodder on both counts. My own book group may have vetoed the proposal (we’re nothing if not democratic), but feel free to co-opt the idea for yours – and to bring Dear Abby’s list along when you meet.

And in case you’re wondering whether book two, which introduces nice-guy teen werewolf Jacob as a competing love interest, offers any balance in perspective: hah! The New Moon movie trailer I saw in a theater gave Jacob only about three seconds of screen time, even though he’s in much more of the book than is the temporarily exiled Edward.

But Jacob does star in the most unexpected funny line in the book. It occurs after Bella whispers to Jacob, while “locked in Edward’s eyes,” that she will never give Edward up.

The line? “Jacob made a gagging sound.”

My sentiments exactly.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


By Judith Ross for Talking Writing

This week I am writing new copy for my organization’s Web site. In her book, Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works, Janice (Ginny) Redish suggests developing a persona for your users that, among other things, identifies their values, emotions, expertise, demographics, and the kind of language they use. Her advice has allowed me to feel as though I am writing one side of a conversation that will hopefully encourage users to ‘talk back’ by downloading a report or giving us a call. In this case, as when writing for almost any magazine or newsletter, the audience’s needs come first.

The role of audience is completely different, however, if we are trying to break boundaries and do something new. In that situation, having a ‘persona’ looking over your shoulder, forcing you to weigh every word, note, or brush stroke is more stifling than helpful.

My son Ben, a trumpet player, performs in a variety of settings. Last month I heard him play with one of his experimental projects, performing music that he and others in the band composed.

While Ben strives to give his listeners the best possible experience with this kind of music, he can’t let concerns about their likes and dislikes intrude on his creative process. He told me that if he starts to worry about the audience when he is improvising, the music can suffer.

“Worrying about what ‘others’ might think is only going to interfere,” he wrote in an email. “This attitude is not self indulgent because if you are doing it right, the art that you create will touch on universal truths that will resonate with others because of how well they resonate with you. Attempting to ‘calibrate’ what you do artistically to the perceived knowledge, needs and experience of your intended audience is doomed to failure, because presumably what art music audiences want is to be drawn into the artist's world either intellectually or emotionally. Great art transports people to a place that is outside of their normal existence.”

Kurt Vonnegut, whose books often take people to new places, once said that he wrote for an audience of one: his dead sister. Who do you listen to when you create? Who must you silence?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Can Blogs Be More Than Cute?

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

Here's what I'm resisting: That in my blog, I must turn my entire life into a story. That my family members are the cast of characters, complete with cute snapshots. That readers will be privy to all the details of my life--pictures of my foot surgery, my dog, my Uncle Fred--none of which exist, of course.

Actually, I think most bloggers are writing about their real lives, in both illuminating and eye-glazing ways. The relentless focus on reality is both the pleasure and pain of blogs, and I wonder where they're heading.

The Problem, #1
Keeping a diary has been around for eons. What's different is making that diary public--and making money (if you're lucky) from your nightly scribblings. Here's one of the latest from Heather Armstrong of, a six-figure professional blogger:

"And then five minutes later I feel another menstrual cramp. This goes on for, oh, seven hours? Eight? I can't remember, only that I was certain it meant that I was going to take an enormous crap. That's just my track record. During the last week that I was pregnant with Leta I thought I was going into labor three different times, and each time Jon would break out his watch and time the contractions, and we'd get all excited, like BABY BABY BABY, and then BOOM, I'd go take a poop and everything would stop."

So what's wrong with that? Nothing. Really. Writers need money. I need money. Except.... Heather Armstrong is a good writer, often funny. But most of the parenting blogs like this are too diary-like for me, too insufferably cute or self-conscious. I feel bad saying this, too, because as a feminist, I'm a believer in the power of quotidian details. I just don't want to see pictures of somebody's ultrasound.

I want a good, well-told story.

The Problem, #2
The gender flip on mom blogs is the often male-authored megaphone. It's an op-ed with Hunter Thompson's Disease. Here's a sample from John Batchelor of The Daily Beast:

"The sad-eyed Townhall Turfers now follow the saucer-eyed Birthers and the cranky Tea-Baggers as the latest political fad that the weakling Republicans not only cannot get away from but also cannot get enough of, like chocolate sauce on anything."

It's almost a zinger, almost so bad it's good. It did compel me to read farther, but after a post or two like this, even with great titles like "The GOP Freak Show," I feel exhausted. I become hypnotized by long strings of comments about Sarah Palin (for example), which alternate between wittily brilliant and Neanderthal. This is the blogosphere, and I'm still surprised that so many people type out their thoughts, anonymously, their ids run wild. Maybe it's the id-charge that keeps them doing it, like placing prank phone calls.

I want a good, well-told story.

Ode to Pleasure and Pain
There's something quaint about the proliferating lines of text with these comments, though. People love YouTube, but they love writing, too. They check in on each other's comments, they argue and quibble. They're engaged with each other's words. It's not about pictures, but text. And while I haven't figured out what's coming next for myself as a writer or whether I can turn my blog into a series of mini-stories--has anyone figured it out? have you?—I am writing, more than I have in a long time. In the shorthand of Dooce: It's cool.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Making the Transition from Print to Digital

By Judith Ross for Talking Writing

Just over two years ago I returned home after five days in the hospital to find a glossy paper life raft waiting for me. It was the January issue of House and Garden magazine. In my first week of recovery that issue provided many forms of entertainment. When I had the energy and focus to read, there was the always-delightful letter from the magazine’s editor, Dominique Browning, that paved the way for articles both short and long. When I was tired or sad and needed diversion, there were photographs of interesting interiors and gardens to peruse. When I was in the mood for both words and pictures there were photo captions and other details to take in.

That well-worn copy sits with about 24 others on a shelf in my home office, their colorful yet tasteful spines brightening the room. Sadly, there won’t be any more joining them. Like many of its kind, House and Garden is no more. Those of us who grew up knowing the excitement of finding a new National Geographic and/or New Yorker in the mailbox must adjust.

This weekend The New York Times ran a piece describing the launch party for Tina Brown’s Talk magazine The piece describes the party as the end of an era rather than the christening of a “new era of media fabulousness” as had been intended.

Here we are. As a reader, I am sad.

As a writer, I am sad but excited. Digital media seems like an intriguing new country to explore. There are different customs to learn and another language to master. Yet given the digital world's many comings and goings, one has to wonder: What will stick and what will go away?

In addition, there are many questions about what online publishing means for writers. A newsletter I have contributed to for several years transitioned from print to online this past spring. In the process it has halved what it pays freelancers.

So dear readers and writers, where do we go from here?