Review: Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women who Love It, Tanya Erzen

Beacon Press, publisher of Fanpire, says:

Why have the Twilight saga’s representations of romance and relationships enchanted millions of fans and generated millions in revenue, selling everything from Barbie-type dolls to blockbuster films? Tanya Erzen-herself no stranger to the allure of the series-explores the phenomenon of Twilight, books and films influenced by conservative Mormon religious ideas, by immersing herself in the vibrant and diverse subculture of “Twi-hards” to understand why so many love the series (sometimes in spite of themselves). She attends Edward-addiction groups, Twi-rock concerts, and fan conventions, and looks at the vast world of online fandom that Twilight has generated. Part journalistic investigation and part cultural analysis, Fanpire will appeal to obsessed fans and haters alike.

Oh a subculture. How I love a book where the author reports from the trenches (war metaphor not intended to suggest any negative connotation about any individual subculture). Subculture books must be tempting to write because I can imagine they would look easy to do: You just talk about all the things that build that subculture’s Normal; you interview people who are Just Like Us, and ta-da, you have a book! (Supposably.)

To an extent, this is right, and subculture books mostly will interest me at least three stars. But here are the things it’s very easy to forget about when you are writing your subculture book: 1) Contextualizing the subculture; and 2) being nice about the people in it.

On the second front, Erzen clearly succeeds. The people she interviews tend to be romantic in their views, but they are not a monolith, nor are they (uniformly) unaware of the problems with the series. The women (it’s mostly women) she interviews will say, hey yeah, Edward’s a stalker and this is just a fantasy, but what appeals to us is X. Maybe it’s that Bella thinks of herself as nothing special, yet to Edward she’s everything. Maybe it’s that Bella has near-perfect clarify about where she wants her life to go, while the rest of us are often, to say the least, struggling to find any kind of clarity at all. I liked seeing this stuff articulated by the fans.

(It made me think about my own feelings about Jane Eyre. I know Mr. Rochester is in some ways a huge prat who jerks Jane around, but I find his and Jane’s shared sense of humor so delightful that I root for them anyway. They’re funny! They have jokes together!  Jane Eyre is a better book, can we agree?, and yet still I can see the similarity between my excusing-Rochester-for-that-Blanche-Ingram business and the above-described mechanism by Twilight fans.)

It is fun to see, in short, all the ways that fans of a book interact with the text, even if it’s not a text I personally have any interest in except to stare in horror. Erzen shows us conventions, opening nights of movies, Twilight-themed tours of Forks, Twilight-themed bands, and more. She resists poking fun and instead focuses on what the books and the fandom have given to the fans, an escape or a new sense of community or a multimillion-dollar porny book trilogy if you happen to be EL James. (I kid. She mentions the fanfiction that Fifty Shades of Grey began its life as, but not the books themselves.) Which is just fine.

HOWEVER. (Y’all knew there was a however in the offing, right?) The book doesn’t make much effort to put any of this in any kind of context. There are nods to the fact that context exists, but none of that gets developed much. For instance, Erzen mentions that Twilight fans — a group that is overwhelmingly female — come in for plenty of media mockery in a way that, says, sports fans do not. This in spite of similar rhetoric (I’m talking now, not Etzen) by football fans — Twilight fans say OME (oh my Edward) for OMG; Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has the nickname “Purple Jesus.” Things are the same! Let’s wade into that! (But no.)

Or, this fandom versus a closer and more gender-balanced equivalent, Harry Potter fandom. Or Erzen mentions a red state / blue state divide in levels of affection for Twilight — more on that! Or more on the “destiny” theme and how it relates to choice and feminism for Bella and for her fans.  Or on attitudes to sexuality. Or gendered violence stuff! Or a million things! Erzen mentions them and then drops them instantly, and I wanted to know more. Context matters. Descriptions of kooky events can only take you so far.

In sum: Good in the way of subculture books, though I’d have liked this one to explore more deeply the relationship of Twilight fandom to the wider world in which it exists.

I received an e-galley of this book from the publisher for review.

Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

God knows I quote:

“Isabella.”  He pronounced my full name carefully, then playfully ruffled my hair with his free hand [when I think vampires, I think of playful hair-ruffling…you?].  A shock ran through my body at his casual touch.  [Of course it did.]  “Bella, I couldn’t live with myself if I ever hurt you.  You don’t know how it’s tortured me.”  He looked down, ashamed again.  “The thought of you, still, white, cold…to never see you blush scarlet again, to never see that flash of intuition in your eyes when you see through my pretenses [I love that he’s so full of shit that after hanging out with her for maybe three weeks tops he’s already fallen in love with the way she looks when she figures out he’s full of shit]…it would be unendurable.”  He lifted his glorious, agonized eyes to mine.  “You are the most important thing to me now.  The most important thing to me ever.”

But don’t worry.  He talks like that because he’s from the Olden Days.  That’s how they talked back then.

I’ve heard about this book from so many different places I can’t even remember them anymore. I knew it was going to be trashy when I checked it out. I could tell. Vampire books are not necessarily trashy, but they often are, and if fangs weren’t so sexy and if vampires weren’t so elegant, the whole vampire books thing would have ended ages ago because they are mostly so extremely trashy.

(Robin McKinley’s Sunshine being an exception. I loved Sunshine. Her best since Beauty, also not trashy.)

Well, anyway, it is very easy to see why Twilight is so popular. Youngish teenage girls love vampires. Fangs are sexy. Vampire dudes are elegant and dangerous. Stephenie Meyer is tapping into this in a big way. Edward Cullen, the vampire dude, is constantly being all “I love you more than my luggage, Bella dearest darling, but if you slip me any tongue while we’re kissing I will have to kill you and suck your blood”. And, you know, who wouldn’t want that?

(Vampires aren’t a very subtle metaphor for sex = death, are they?)

I’m kind of embarrassed by reading this book. When the sequels come in at the library, I’m going to have to check out several other quite-intellectual-looking books to keep the librarians from judging me, especially this one guy who always makes snide comments about everything I’m checking out but he can’t say anything if I have Twilight and then, like, War and Peace and And the Band Played On (not really, I own it) and What Fresh Hell Is This: A Biography of Dorothy Parker and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and…er, some other stuff that clever people might read.

It’s not awfully well-written, or awfully original. It’s just that people cannot resist that whole Will he kiss her or kill her thing. At all. Ever. Even if the guy is sort of creepy. And girls can’t resist vampires. Sexy. Dangerous. Elegant. (Especially elegant, in my case.) Even when they know as I do that these vampire books are silly and trashy, and Bella is ridiculous for being all, “Oh I love you so much and I’m so sure about it that I want to commit to you for all eternity even though I’m only seventeen and I’ve never had a boyfriend before”, and Edward is ridiculous for being all “If I truly loved you I would leave but I can’t because I’m so violently attracted to you and I’m so sexy that I make you faint merely by kissing you”, even then, people – and by people I mean me – cannot resist checking out both sequels as soon as possible.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a good book.

My mum always says this kind of thing – I felt vaguely the same about The Da Vinci Code, which is gripping but not that good a book – begs the question of what a “good book” is. Like, how is it a bad book if it intrigues you so much that you can’t put it down even though you know you want to go to bed early because tomorrow is your only day of the week to sleep late and your roommate is absolutely without question going to wake you up in the morning singing songs and talking on her cell phone? (says my mother) But I don’t think this is right because one only carries on reading out of curiosity about what will happen to the characters, which is the same reason people including her and me get hooked on soap operas, and if there is one thing we can say for sure it is that soap operas are rubbish and not quality television even though they are sometimes addictive.

So.

Edit to add: I just want to be clear here.  I can’t stand these damn books.  When I originally read Twilight, I had no idea of the mad culty Edward-is-perfect business going on across our great nation. The books are enjoyable (for how silly they are!) only insofar as nobody ever takes them seriously or thinks that Edward and Bella have anything approaching a functional relationship.  When people think that Edward and Bella have the perfect relationship, or thinking that Edward is perfect, then I have a problem.  A specific, angry problem with Stephenie Meyer writing a story about an emotionally abusive relationship and portraying it as romantic.  Like girls aren’t receiving that message enough.  He’s not romantic.  He’s a stalker.