Twilight: why even literary snobs are in the author’s debt

I did not want to read it.
I am not a fan of romance.
And I generally dislike the paranormal stuff.
I have a backlog of books I’d prefer to immerse myself in.
But the intrigue finally got to me.
I had to know how one book could could enrage so many writers and, at the same time, convert thousands, at least, of people who had not picked up a book in decades into passionate readers.
So when a friend offered me a copy of Twilight, I couldn’t resist.
And I was surprised.
Very surprised.
The answer to Stephenie Meyer’s success is simple, but it is also quite complicated.
It’s not the writing that makes Twilight a best seller. It is a combination of psychology, seductive descriptions, simple language and skilled storytelling. And that combination is too perfect to argue that Stephenie Meyer simply got lucky.
Let’s start with the psychology.
Like any good romance writer, Meyer’ chooses a girl who believes herself to be ordinary, who has never even had a date, who is so much like so many of us, especially when we were in high school.
She takes this girl and makes her the object of a highly desirable man’s obsession. She gives every ordinary girl or woman out there hope. She feeds her fantasies. She helps her feel good about herself and feel good about her potential self.
Next, she draws vivid and fascinating portraits of these vampires.
I want to watch them walk. I want to breath their scents. I want to experience their powerful arms, their speed, their bodies in sunlight. I want to watch them play baseball.
They are spectacular and original.
Somehow, Stephenie Meyers makes me want that.
Add to that the seduction. The way Edward touches Isabella is almost pornographic.
It’s hard to remember that they do nothing more than kiss. I want to find out what happens to them. Does it work? Does she become a vampire?
The plot and it’s pacing are enough to pull me through.
Otherwise, I have to admit, the writing is pretty lousy.
If I had to read that a character’s eyes, face or expression was “unreadable” one more time, I think I might have burned that book. I quickly grew tired of lengthy descriptions of Isabella’s every mundane move. Do I really need to watch her climb each and every stair? Brush her teeth? Pee?
Over and over again?
And how quickly her characters leap to rage. I could never be friends with these people. There is no warning, no build-up. One wrong word or move and they clench their fists, turn purple and refuse to speak to each other.
Seconds later, they are best buddies again, of course.
This lack of emotional transition is the mark of an impatient writer. Someone who is too lazy, too unobservant or too lacking in literary talent to get it right. I found it unforgivable. So unforgivable that, despite the awesome vampires, I could not like this novel.
But, I’m not her market.
I’m not important and that’s okay.
The elements of writing that I find annoying in Twilight are among those that make the language accessible for nonreaders or hurried readers. I don’t want to be told how someone feels. I want to be shown. I want to feel myself growing angry with the character, or calmer or happier.
More readers than not don’t want to work that hard.
From Twilight, they want two things: seduction and action.
The rest is irrelevant.
But, as a writer, there are two things I get from Twilight: more people who are turned onto books, people who might start off with Twilight, but then, later, become more sophisticated readers; and more money for the publishing industry, money that allows editors to take chances on novels like mine own.
So, how can I complain? How can any writer complain? How can anyone deny Stephenie Meyer the right to her success?
I felt it in the beginning, before I read Twilight, before I formed informed opinions of my own.
Her critics–the hard-core unyielding critics who accuse her of single-handedly triggering the demise of literature–are jealous.
Their complaints are, as I suspected, sour grapes.

Readers are the best critics

Originally posted Dec. 31, 2008

When I finally completed my novel, I took the next appropriate step. I sent copies of the manuscript to nine or ten willing readers and then paid an editor to review it for style, grammar and content.
The readers were great.
The editor was a mistake.
He did an excellent job copy editing and he gave me some useful advice, but I hired him because he was a friend. That is where I went wrong. I should have done my research first.
Now, I love criticism—brutally honest, constructive criticism. Those writers who can’t take and appreciate criticism shouldn’t attempt to make a career of writing for public consumption.
And the criticism I received from the readers was excellent. It resulted in the elimination of two characters, a few changes in the minor plots and many, many smoother transitions.
The editor’s criticism led to a faster pace in the earlier chapters and the correction of several errors that had slipped past me. But his content advice, his take on the novel as a whole, was problematic.
If I had not had 11 years of journalism experience and a master’s degree worth of workshop experience, I might have done one of two things: I might have cried and given up, or I might have taken all his recommendations to heart and ended up with a novel that was a Grisham rip-off.
As it turns out, he is a huge fan of Grisham and doesn’t much like literary fiction. My novel does move rather fast, especially through the courtroom scenes. But I am not Grisham and I don’t want to be (Well, I wouldn’t mind his paycheck.).
My style is what it is. The book is an historical novel that is primarily literary fiction, but with a bit of mystery and suspense.
In my years of workshopping and in my experience as a freelance editor, I have had to work with many genres that I find somewhat unappealing. I’ve had to get past my prejudices. I have had to edit or critique the work within its genre.
He couldn’t and, in fairness to him, I never asked.
So here is my point.
I was careful when I selected my readers. I should have been careful when I selected my editor. I should have hired someone who came recommended by other fiction writers and who reviewed the work primarily for copy errors.
I should have simply let the readers do the rest.
The reality is that the readers are the market. They are the people we should be writing for, not the editors, not the fellow writers. Teaching them to critique is easy. Simply give them a few questions to ask themselves when they are done and request that they mark places in the manuscript where they have either stumbled or flown through.
So hire a copy editor. But instead of hiring a content editor or a “book doctor,” contract with a book club. Offer to pay for lunch one day if they will agree to read your manuscript and fill out a questionnaire after.
That’s what I should have done.