Thursday, March 26, 2009

Teen Lit, Vampires and Wizards

Despite my *ahem* youthful appearance, my typist is perhaps more accurately described as middle-aged. (Definition: the age when one's middle makes its appearance.) I make no secret of this. It is also the case that my typist lacks direct offspring - is "child-free," in the parlance of a few years back. These two facts imply substantial separation from my days reading vast quantities of books aimed at teens - or "young adults," as the marketing folks insist, though, really, if one thinks about it, that would be someone over but near the age of 21 - and would make me a bad candidate to review teen lit, as my era involved Nancy Drew when she was still a little dowdy, and the controversy over Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. All true.

Nonetheless, I make the occasional effort to keep up with important trends. For example, I noticed some years back that a new style of music had arisen in which the performers routinely forgot the melody, and thus spoke, or "rapped," words, often of a violent and/or misogynistic sort, and almost always emphasizing the performer's lack of literary skills. Naturally, this form of music became both very popular and highly praised.

Somewhat more recently, a Miss J. K. Rowling became well-known for a series of books chronicling the adventures of a young wizard. After resisting the siren call of the series for the first few years, I purchased the first adventure and discovered that the book was witty, well-written, and explored themes that resonated with young people but were often of broader applicability. This induced me to contribute six more times to Miss Rowling's retirement fund, and I enjoyed at least 85% of the journey. (About half of book 7 really dragged, if you ask me.) (My uncle dismissed the whole series as "just another person writing about the awful English boarding school experience," which I suppose is true in a way, but seems awfully ungenerous.)

So it came to pass that another lady, Mrs. Stephenie Meyer, has written a series of popular books for teens. I saw the first volume, Twilight, on the shelves at my local lending library, and decided to see what all the fuss was about. A few months later, the next volume, New Moon, appeared in the same location, so I made the same mistake twice. I say "mistake," but these books are surely not without their charms. The problem is that their charms are too few, their pages too numerous.

I can see the appeal to young girls: the sassy, pretty teenager; the (usually) understanding Dad; the ennui of high school; and, of course, the unnaturally-hunky boyfriend who is rich, and caring, and romantic, and never pressures his girlfriend for any sexual act beyond kisses, which are always Fourth-of-July-fireworks amazing. The vampire business is just a hook; otherwise, it's Barbara Cartland for tweens. (Yes, I know, vampires are really all about sex - the biting, the blood, the need - fine, I'm with you critics, these books allow vicarious sexual thrills to little girls who are a ways away from having actual... Anyway, to focus on this misses the point.)

The problem is that the books are often so darn dull. How can that be, with the romance, the vampires and werewolves, the killings, the angst with the dad, the "will it be Edward or Jacob" tension, and the "will he make her a vampire or not" tension? For one thing, the writing is fairly wooden. (Pot, kettle, black. I know it, okay? I'm not the one making a killing - ha-ha - off the series.) That's not fatal by itself, but it doesn't help. Too many stock scenes: the boring high school class, the lunch hall segregated by friends, the boyfriend hanging out after hours, the earnest conversations. Gag. Too little humor, though every once in a while there's a laugh-out-loud line. Mostly, though, the series is predictable without providing insight.

A series is often predictable in certain ways. I read a lot of mysteries, and I know, for example, that when I started reading Sue Grafton's "T" is for Trespass I wasn't going to worry too much whether Kinsey Milhone was making it out of the book alive. In the end, the crime would be solved, Kinsey would still be poor, and she'd still be living on her 80-year-old landlord's property and eating Rosie's bad Hungarian food. But along the way, we readers learn, or are reminded of, some aspects of the human condition. People lie, and cheat, and even murder, for various reasons. There's good and bad out there. Cops can be compassionate or cold-blooded. And so on. The predictability of the series is just the framework for understanding the characters within.

Similarly, Harry Potter isn't going to die in the end. Sorry if that's a spoiler to anyone, but that was predictable in Book One, as was Professor Snape's true loyalty. Along the way, though, Harry and his friends get to grow up and learn things about themselves - and about human nature.

In the Twilight series, on the other hand, we know what will happen and we get no particular insight, no real character growth. (Spoiler alert. Well, sort of.) Bella's first crush turns out to be her soul-mate. Go figure. Dad never seems to accept that his girl is becoming a woman, the vampires and werewolves don't seem to learn to get along better, and bad vampires don't become good vampires. And predictable? Let's just say that I wouldn't take any bets as to whether Edward puts the bit on Bella in Book Four.

Actually, I decided to spare myself the trouble: figuring that Wikipedia had an entry on almost anything, so it would likely have a plot synopsis of the last two books, I cheated and looked at what happened. And what happened was that Book Four decided to be one big deus ex machina, a colossal cheat that apparently got all the loyal fans extremely upset and was dramatically unsatisfying as well. It reminded me of the discussion of the conclusion of Battlestar Galactica: fans thought it was overly long, lazily plotted, and a dramatic cop-out.

On the bright side, the books and movie provided several opportunities for little girls to dress up and be at a bookstore at midnight. And anything that gets them reading is not all bad.

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