Two times in the last week Mrs. Meyer has all but denied that her Twilight Saga has meaning worth exploring. Let’s take a quick look at what was reported about what she said before discussing what it might mean:
First, during a four and one half hour face-to-face interview with four of Twilight fandom’s busier web sites, Mrs. Meyer said the books weren’t written as stories with morals or themes. We don’t have a transcript from the question and answer session and the Imprint podCast won’t be made until after the movie release, but a summary was posted at TwilightLexicon.com which included this wrap-up:
Next, at last night’s movie premiere, Mrs. Meyer was asked about the meaning of her Twilight stories twice while walking down the red carpet. James at Twilight News Site described it this way:
I’m trying to catch some of the red carpet interviews for the Eclipse premiere tonight on TNS, and caught two separate interviews with Stephenie Meyer that were handled back-to-back. Both pressed her on the meaning of Twilight, suggesting that there was obviously moral (if not outright religious) underpinnings to the texts.
She had her typical answer ready for with the first MTV reporter, but seemed a little surprised (dismayed?) that it was a major question, what he really wanted to talk about.
So in the next interview a couple minutes later, there was a persistent AP reporter, who brought up the same question, and got the same answer. But then, the reporter kind of went “fan girl,” telling her that she was a mother of an 11-year-old daughter, thanking her profusely for the wholesome values in some detail and at length. Stephenie kind of buckled then.
Stephenie clarified her earlier response, saying that while she was actually writing the books, the meaning was the “furthest thing from her mind,” in effect acknowledging that it was there, and if people saw that and appreciated it, then she was gratified by that. Finally, she added something to the effect that I took as her saying she hadn’t put the meaning in intentionally.
We’ve been here before but it is worth reviewing, if only because the belief that Twilight is poorly written, that looking for meaning in Mrs. Meyer’s books is the literary equivalent of dumpster diving, is so prevalent that to neglect this point amounts to yielding the field. Here is what Mrs. Meyer said in an August 2008 MuggleCast interview about the meaning of her books:
MuggleCast: What is the overall message to the [Twilight Saga] story?
Mrs. Meyer: You know, my editor said that to me. (laughter) When I gave her the outline, she said, “What is the moral of the story?” and I said “There’s no moral of the story; the point is to have a good time. The message is, ‘Did you enjoy the ride?’ Hopefully, because that’s what it was about. It’s about having fun and entertainment and nothing beyond that was intentional.”
As I wrote at ForksHighSchool Professor last year, it’s a little confusing about where her answer to the editor ends here and where she begins responding to the question. But the idea driving this weBlog – that there are layers of meaning and artistry in the Forks Adventures that explain their popularity – is a laugher if the books have no message or moral. What do you make of comments like this that she made at TwilightMoms.com?
TM: Where did you come up with the idea for it to be 3 days for the change to a vampire to take place? This could actually be 2 different questions, one being all the nitty gritty about the details on how the change happens…how to make it shorter… but I think I’m asking more if there was anything interesting that sparked this in your brain. Like why not 24 hours… or a week… or 5 minutes?
Steph: Like 95% of the stuff in the book, I made this up in the moment. It just seemed about right–five minutes would not be much of a problem for anyone to handle. A week is so long it sounds boring. Three days seemed perfect–long enough that it was no joke, but short enough that it was endurable.
Since the books came out, I’ve seen speculation about religious meanings behind the time period, but that was not in my head when I wrote it.
TM: I am not LDS, but I have some friends who are (here and in real life!) and one of them pointed out to me that the Twilight vampires share some qualities with the LDS concept of the human body in the afterlife (bloodless, perfect, immortal) and with the LDS concept of Satan (beautiful, alluring, enticing, difficult to resist). Was this deliberate, or unintentional, or is the comparison just a bunch of rubbish altogether?!
Steph: Unintentional and rubbish No offense to your friend. It is possible to read TOO deep into a book. They’re just vampires
Right. “A cigar is just a cigar — when I’m smoking a cigar.”
First, let’s establish that if Mrs. Meyer is stating the truth pure and simple here then she was lying in almost every other interview she has given in almost all of which she talks about the books’ themes, morality, and her intentions as a writer. After that, we can come back to the MuggleCast interview and her comments this past week to guess why she said what she did.
Her other interviews reflect that (a) she does believe there is moral meaning to the stories and that (b) the evident artistry of the books reveal her deliberate attempts at allegorical and mythic meanings.
• She told an adult ABC reporter that the “themes are admittedly dark, but she says her books are about life, not death — love, not lust.”
• In her discussion with School Library Journal, she discusses the books’ themes of choice and free will.
• In Meridian Magazine, ‘The Place Where Latter-day Saints Gather,’ Ms. Meyer said “her [Mormon] faith informs her work and [she] hopes that the message comes through. She was looking to put a lot more light than darkness in the books.” We also learn that “her first book Twilight was loosely based on Pride and Prejudice; the second, New Moon was based on Romeo and Juliet; the third, Eclipse, was based on Wuthering Heights, and Breaking Dawn was a mix of many others including Midsummer’s Night Dream.”
• She denied explicit religious meaning in her books while talking with RTE Entertainment, but only in the sense of not being a proselytizing tract.
“I really don’t write about religion and my characters aren’t specifically religious in any way. I suppose it does influence me because I think about things like, ‘What comes next? Why am I here? What am I doing here? What is the purpose?’ And my characters think about those things. I think it’s important in a book that is about immortality to think about these things.” Here shape-changer laden vampire story isn’t horror or romance; “It’s all just the story about people being human.”
“I don’t know what that comes under, what the genre title is for that so it is hard to classify it. As regards horror, I was inspired to write about vampires because I had a dream about vampires which was odd for me because I’d had no interest in vampires before I started to write about them so why I was dreaming about them, I don’t know. But it was a great dream and it wasn’t about this character being a monster. It was about this character trying to be human and that was what fascinated me and that’s what made me want to write it down.”
• In her interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey Trachtenberg, we learn “the author, a Mormon, adds that her faith has influenced her work. In particular, she says, her characters tend to think more about where they came from, and where they are going, than might be typical. ‘Is there nothing if it all stops?’ she says. ‘They worry’.”
No themes? No message? “Just entertainment”?
Books drafting on Shakespeare, Bronte, and Austen that are about free will, choice, immortality, what it means to be human, and which are informed by the author’s LDS faith and which she hopes communicate this “message” are not books just for entertainment and without a moral.
So why did she tell the MuggleCast crew of adoring readers in 2008 and four fan sites’ leaders, not to mention the red carpet crowd this year something completely different? I think we’ve got at least four reasons that make sense.
(1) Tradition: Good writers — novelists, poets, and playwrights — as a rule don’t discuss the meaning of their work. To do so creates many more problems and issues than it can resolve. It invites, for example, endless interrogation with anyone and everyone with a theory about your work. Worse, it constricts the “canonical” definition to whatever layer of meaning the author happens to speak to, e.g., if Mrs. Meyer were to discuss the alchemical symbolism of the books or Bella as the Seeker’s Heart and Edward as the Divine Mind or even just the Genesis elements in Twilight‘s opening pages, that would restrict the conversation of what her stories mean to that one aspect of the books.
The best writers don’t discuss what their books, poems, and plays are about at any depth, some even denying that their work has specific meanings, I think because they understand consciously or unconsciously that literature is experienced as much as it is understood and perhaps even to the degree that it is not understood. To protect the identification necessary for cathartic experience and change, there needs to be an act of “poetic faith,” a “suspension of disbelief,” an act much less likely to happen if the reader believes the work in hand is a delivery system for a particular meaning.
Best to have readers believe the surface story is the meaning because all the other allegorical content — moral, symbolic, and anagogical — come through the story transparency. By focusing on it and encouraging readers to become more engaged with the narrative line, the more likely these readers are to enter into and experience that story’s depths.
(2) LDS Concerns: In the post I wrote last year I argued at some length that Mrs. Meyer’s denial of meaning was a function of her legitimate concerns as a believing Latter-day Saint that she would be pigeonholed as a proselytizing, moralizing Mormon if she even admitted that her books had an edifying message about love and chastity. My opinion hasn’t changed on this subject. As a student and admirer of Orson Scott Card, I think she understands — and if she doesn’t, her publishers certainly must — that having to carry the Cross for her faith is going to do for her future as a writer what it did to Mitt Romney’s Presidential aspirations in 2008.
(3) PoMo anti-didacticism: Mrs Meyer has a few friends. “I’ve met some authors in real life, and I just adore Shannon Hale. We get along like peanut butter and jelly–unbelievable how much we relate.” Shannon Hale and Stephenie Meyer are friends, fellow Mormons, and enormously successful writers (note that Bree Tanner is reading Hale’s work in Short Second Life; read this for more on the depth of their friendship). On her weBlog, Mrs. Hale recently surveyed her friends who are YA writers to ask them what they think about “the top[ic] of morals in literature.” Her beg-letter went like this:
“Frequently on my blog I get into the top[ic] of morals in literature. I have claimed that as an author, I cannot be the bearer of morals, cannot create morals in my books but can only be true to the story and allow the reader to create her/his own morals…Many of my readers push back, parents who believe that children’s and young adult writers have an obligation to have moral standards and create boundaries in their books so as not to expose children to issues/situations that are age inappropriate.” I invited those writers to respond to this issue any way they wanted, to agree or disagree.
I urge you to read the writers’ responses but it isn’t really necessary for this post. The two things that are relevant are that Mrs. Meyer’s response is not in the stack — and, y’know, I suspect her name is on Shannon Hale’s list of successful YA fiction writers — and that Hale’s take on the topic of morals in literature is exactly what Mrs. Meyer professes. I don’t think this is a “popular LDS woman writer” thing; I think it is the spirit of our century. The last thing a thoughtful postmodern person can want, because of our shared suspicion of any ideology except the ideology of skepticism and relativism, is to be a didactic and moralizing mouth-piece about how people should live their lives.
Oddly enough, I suspect as Mormon writers Hale and Meyer are more sensitive to being perceived this way, if their books are implicitly as moral as they are and inevitably didactic as all written work must be. They live in a stridently moral and moralizing culture; being perceived as missionaries for it and neglected as artists may be something they resist more ardently than postmoderns who aren’t LDS. (H/T to Jenna at TheHogsHead for this Hale blog post!)
(4) Intention: Look again at what Mrs. Meyer has said about Twilight’s conception:
To the fan sites’ leaders: “She didn’t write [Twilight] to have a specific theme or message.”
At the film premiere: “Stephenie clarified her earlier response, saying that while she was actually writing the books, the meaning was the “furthest thing from her mind,” in effect acknowledging that it was there, and if people saw that and appreciated it, then she was gratified by that. Finally, she added something to the effect that I took as her saying she hadn’t put the meaning in intentionally.”
On the MuggleCast interview: “There’s no moral of the story; the point is to have a good time. The message is, ‘Did you enjoy the ride?’ Hopefully, because that’s what it was about. It’s about having fun and entertainment and nothing beyond that was intentional.”
The denial of intention or original design in all these comments sounds very much like a denial that there is anything there, because, after all, if she didn’t put it into the pie, how could it wind up in the pie?
James hinted at the answer to this seeming problem with her interview comments in his notes when he writes “in effect acknowledging [the meaning] is there.” Mrs. Meyer made this comment in an online interview with TwilightMoms.com:
“All the symbolism and themes and archetypes are things I discover after the fact…. I didn’t think of any of those things until after the story was done.”
Note that she is saying there is substantial meaning in the stories – “symbolism and themes and archetypes” – but that she doesn’t plan them from the start. They come from her sub- or supra-conscious mind as inspiration and she “discovers” them “after the fact” of writing.
This is hardly peculiar to Mrs. Meyer. Jung called Moby-Dick the “greatest American novel” because of its psychological depth and allegorical content but it wasn’t written that way at the start:
In 1847 Melville married Elisabeth Shaw, daughter of the chief justice of Massachusetts. After three years in New York, he bought a farm, “Arrowhead”, near Nathaniel Hawthorne’s home at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and became friends with him for some time. Melville had almost completed Moby-Dick when Hawthorne encouraged him to change it from a story full of details about whaling, into an allegorical novel. [my emphasis]
J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, one of if not the greatest novel of the 20th Century, wrote flat out that it wasn’t conceived at the depths that the final work had:
“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” [Carpenter, Humphrey (1995). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-05699-8, Letter no. 142, page 172] (my emphasis)
Why does Mrs. Meyer not want to discuss the allegorical levels that are evident to serious readers of her Twilight Saga? I think it comes down to any and all of the following:
- humility — she knows she is not a great stylist and does not want to put on airs —
- economic calculation — she fears being pigeonholed and neglected as a Mormon writer —
- Postmodern beliefs — she resists the idea and label of didactic moralizer and true believer —
- artistic concerns — talking about “symbolism and themes and archetypes” she admits are in the stories will probably diminish rather than enrich reader experience of the series — and
- a mistaken understanding of how writing works, inspiration to publication.
Every story starts with an inspiration from a non-local place “where” all of our beliefs, experiences, and contact with the noumenal are stored. No one starts out with a meaning calculus and creates a story to meet those design specs (or no good story starts out that way). Mrs. Meyer seems to believe that if she uses a story scaffolding, say, Midsummer’s Night Dream, or if she was inspired by a dream, and then built a story following her characters where they take her, that this doesn’t constitute artistry, however she chooses to shape the telling of that story. It doesn’t have an intentional meaning.
And then there is the part, inevitable to this discussion, where I’m obliged to say the “denial” word. When she insists that seeing the Cullen Coven as a story transparency for LDS perfection is “rubbish” and any parallels are “unintentional” as she did at TwilightMoms (see above), the harshness, forgive me, suggests she really doesn’t want to ‘go there.’ Saying the connection is both “unintentional” and “rubbish,” after all, is a little bit like saying, when confronted by an authority, both that “I didn’t mean to do it!” and “I didn’t do it!” at the same time. Saying “I didn’t mean to do it” is to acknowledge that you have done it.
Why not ‘go there’ about the meaning, then? From TwilightMoms.com:
TM: Stephenie, if you could hold a live Q&A session with any of your favorite authors, who would it be?? What are your burning questions?
Steph: I’d love to talk to J.K. Rowling about secrecy and crazy antagonistic fans and her writing process and what her everyday life is like. I’d love to listen to Orson Scott Card talk about anything, but I wouldn’t be able to formulate questions, as I have learned from experience. I’d like to ask Jane Austen how much of herself is in her stories.
For your reflection, comment, and correction — and as a pointer to the thoughts I’ll be sharing soon about the meaning of Bree Tanner — I offer the possibility that Mrs. Meyer is a thoughtful woman capable of interpreting her own work and seeing “how much of herself is in her stories.” And the not very hard to see critiques of her faith in these stories and the community in which she lives may be something she is serious about not wanting to discuss with anyone but a fellow female romance writer who is long dead (and unlikely, being dead, to talk publicly about it).
I wrote all that and didn’t make a single plug for Spotlight. Shame on me. Please do buy a copy!