Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The unreliable author: Why Stephenie Meyer is accidentally a great writer (sort of)

Many writers try to capture the voice of an adolescent protagonist. Few of them succeed. Most of them sound like what they are: adults trying to sound like teenagers, and failing. In a few cases, in the best first-person coming-of-age novels, the authors manage to capture an authentic teenage voice.

Besides this authentic voice, however, these great novels have another thing in common: their protagonists are unusually sensitive, idealistic, mature, and/or intelligent. Simply put, they're a lot smarter -- or rather, a lot deeper -- than the average teenager.

And I suspect there's a simple reason for that: their authors are also deeper in certain ways than the average person. One of the reasons those authors can write so well is that they have much more than the ordinary amount of insight into themselves and into other people. They understand human nature so well.

Thus, even when great writers capture an authentic adolescent voice, their protagonists understand the world around them far better than most adolescents do. Even so, they remain adolescents. They don't know everything; they still have things to learn. And great writers know this. They understand their protagonists completely. They know what their protagonists know, and perhaps even more importantly, they know what their protagonists don't know.

Of course, this seems like an obvious point, but it is crucial to understanding the success of Twilight and why Stephenie Meyer is a great writer, but only "sort of," and only accidentally at that.

Because where Meyer is indeed great is in the way she captures an authentic adolescent voice: Bella Swan. Bella's voice is as true as that of any teen or child in American literature. I say that without qualification. At least in Twilight (the only one of the books I've read so far), Bella is just as real as Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, Scout Finch, Josh Arnold, Reuven Malter, or any other protagonist in a great coming-of-age novel. She is completely authentic in her own way.

But this is not by Meyer's design. As I've said before (and as many other people have noted), in Twilight Meyer actually seems to believe she's telling a story about an intelligent, grounded, and mature girl whose self-esteem is a bit low, not a girl who is strikingly immature, melodramatic, shallow, and narcissistic. Bella constantly complains, blushes, stumbles, faints, gets tongue-tied around the opposite sex, feels embarrassed about being seen with her parents, freaks out when people look at her, and obsesses over a boy she hardly knows because he has bronze hair and golden eyes, yet every other character in the book seems to consider her mature and intelligent.

In other words, Meyer fails miserably at one of the things that the authors of truly great coming-of-age novels all do. She fails utterly at knowing her protagonist and especially at "knowing what her protagonist doesn't know." Nobody in the book realizes that Bella is immature, melodramatic, shallow, and narcissistic because Meyer doesn't realize it either.

Ironically, though, that is Twilight's greatest strength. Because think about what it's like to be an adolescent. I don't mean one of the unusually sensitive, idealistic, mature, and/or intelligent protagonists typical of a great coming-of-age novel, but just an ordinary, everyday teenager. To the extent one can generalize, "immature, melodramatic, shallow, and narcissistic" seems like a pretty reasonable description.

And lacking the unusually keen insight of truly great authors, Meyer doesn't realize that that's who Bella is. But that failure actually serves to make Bella's voice more authentic. Because typically immature, melodramatic, shallow, and narcissistic teens never realize that they are immature, melodramatic, shallow, and narcissistic. In fact, they always think that they are mature, deep, and intelligent. So Meyer's lack of insight actually causes her to accidentally capture that aspect of teenage psychology perfectly.

Indeed, almost everything that's bad about Meyer's writing makes Bella's voice more authentic. The one- and two-dimensional characters who can easily be summed up in short mocking descriptive phrases (e.g., Carlisle The Wise Leader, Esme The Motherly One, Alice The Nice One)? This reflects a typically narcissistic way of seeing the world that many teenagers have, in which people are defined solely by their roles relative to oneself: Parent, Teacher, Friend's Parent, etc. (Hence the disconcerted feeling that can arise when adolescents are somehow made to think of those people in different roles, the "Ewww!" at the thought of teachers having sex lives, for example.)

The purple prose, never having Bella "open the window and look out into the darkness" when she can have her "throw open the window and look into the night, her eyes scanning the darkness, the impenetrable shadows of the trees"? Adolescent love of melodrama.

And the odd values expressed in Twilight, the equating of beauty with goodness, and lack of beauty with badness or at least lack of any real importance, the extreme focus on romantic love as if it were the most valuable thing in the world, worth ignoring friends and deceiving family over, the viewing of unhealthy stalker-like behavior as proof of True Love? Well, how much more adolescent, how much more immature, melodramatic, shallow, and narcissistic can one get?

But Bella realizes none of this, of course. An "unreliable narrator" is

...a first-person narrator that for some reason has a compromised point-of-view. In all stories with a first-person narrator, the narrator serves as a filter for the events. What the narrator does not know or observe cannot be explained to the reader. Usually, however, the reader trusts that the narrator is knowledgeable and truthful enough to give them an accurate representation of the story. In the case of an unreliable narrator (sometimes called a fallible narrator), the reader has reason not to trust what the narrator is saying.

It's a fairly common literary device. Indeed, it's one that's been used in great American coming-of-age novels. Huck Finn (because of his age, his prejudices, and his good nature), Holden Caulfield (because of his idealism and his almost-craziness), and Scout Finch (because of her age) are all unreliable narrators to some degree.

But the use of an unreliable narrator as a literary device presupposes the author's intent. It presupposes, again, that the author knows what the narrator knows and what the narrator doesn't know. It presupposes that the author intentionally uses that knowledge to tell us something by letting us fill in the blanks in the narrator's knowledge.

But that is decidedly not the case with Stephenie Meyer and Twilight. Bella is indeed an unreliable narrator -- she doesn't see herself as she is -- but not because Meyer wants her to be. She's unreliable because Meyer doesn't see her as she is either. Meyer doesn't realize that there are any blanks to be filled in. Rather than creating a classic unreliable narrator, Stephenie Meyer has become an unreliable author.

And that's what makes her a great writer (sort of). Meyer captures an adolescent voice with a truly brilliant degree of authenticity, but she does it accidentally, with everything that makes her a truly bad writer making her even better at capturing that voice.

And that, I think, is the real reason Twilight has such deep appeal. The people who love the book so much are primarily immature, melodramatic, shallow, and narcissistic adolescent girls who recognize themselves in Bella's voice; women who have outgrown their own formerly immature, melodramatic, shallow, and narcissistic past selves and nostalgically recognize the voice of who they once were; and women who have never really outgrown those selves (including, one supposes, Meyer herself) and recognize a younger version of who they still are.


  1. Brilliant analysis. Thank you.

  2. I hadn't considered that angle to the writing. Simply Genius!!

    Now to try and figure out why I, a guy in his mid thirties with 5 kids would enjoy such a book...

  3. Deep.

    Nah. I'm in it only for the eye candy. I found the whole storyline and Steph's taking liberty on the "monsters" ridiculous. Sparkly vampires? Shapeshifters which you go and call werewolves? Puh-lease!

    Well, my analysis: http://www.oakmonster.com/2009/11/26/what-is-love/

  4. Thanks, Koda. I have no idea why a guy would like the book. lol

    Don't worry ;) the analysis applies only to the books, not the movies, and only to people who really love the books, the genuine twi-tards.

  5. Excellent insight!!

    It's true that a lot of novel-land universes suffer from the author's need to validate his/her POV. So if it's a first-person narrative from the (potentially unreliable) POV of an adolescent, it actually works...

  6. I agree that the essay is overly harsh on and stereotypes teens, something that jumps out at me now much more than it did when I wrote it. I regret that tone now.


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