Bella Swan and Edward Cullen Go to University: The Scandal of Teaching Twilight as Literature

Last fall saw the first big surge of Colleges offering classes with Stephenie Meyer’s Forks Saga on the required reading list. Seven schools from Harvard to the University of South Carolina on the East Coast to Occidental on the Left Side and University of Iowa holding down the heartland offered courses about Twilight or with it as an important part of the course’s theme. Note that the reporter in the article makes clear, though, that this must be a function of school’s pandering to Generation Twi-hard:

So is academia responding to a cultural phenomenon or pandering to a powerful market group? That will depend on the course structure. But one thing is certain: the classes are totally going to sell out.

On my Deathly Hallows Speaking Tour last fall, I spoke to the class in South Carolina. Those students were right on board with trying to figure out the artistry and meaning that has caused Twi-mania. They admitted, of course, that it was almost consensus on campus that they couldn’t be serious. Which goes to show once again that what the herd thinks, especially the critical, media, and academic herds, is nearly guaranteed to be off base (and not a little lazy). But it gets better.

The Daily What featured a course being taught at OSU this Spring — horrors! an honors English Literature class — in which Twilight is required reading. Check out the shock and guffahs:

This is for an Honors — HONORS! — Intro to Fiction course at OSU. From the course description:

…While we read and discuss some important, influential narratives about the supernatural – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight as well a few minor works…

1818: “I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on.” 2005: “I sparkle like diamonds.”

This patronizing dismissal is positively charitable compared to the Group-Think on display in the comment boxes below the short article with its more than130 responses being variations on a one-note theme. Twilight is trash “unworthy of adult attention,” as William safire said about Harry Potter, and those who love it are as witless and brain-dead as the author.

If you checked, as I did, the course description link at Daily What, you learned that English 261H is an Introduction to Literature course that was first offered in the fall of 2009. The full description reveals it to be what the title says it is:

In this course, we will identify some of literary fiction’s defining characteristics, including its uses of narrative voices to tell stories, its manipulation of time to depict its subjects, and its emphasis on characters’ familial, sociopolitical, and erotic relationships.   While we read and discuss some important, influential narratives about the supernatural – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight as well a few minor works – we will also explore how these texts, like much other fiction, try to create particular reading experiences, as they push us to consider the nature and importance of literary imagination and the way fiction’s seductiveness is tied to other potentially dangerous attractions.   We will also cover some of English fiction’s history, which will allow us to consider the relationship between fiction and other imaginative forms, including poetry, television, and film, and fiction’s transformation from (around 1800) a low and somewhat marginal literary form to (today) our culture’s dominant literary mode.  Finally, we will define some principles and strategies for writing critically about fiction.

The scandal turns out to be using Stephenie Meyer’s work to discuss even just the rudiments of a surface reading of text, i.e., narrative voice, time structures, characterization, etc., and how to think and write “critically about fiction.” A phone book with a plot could be used for this exercise in thinking about how to think about reading text, of course, but the scandal remains for those riding the beat-up Twilight meme.

Liz Dwyer, Education editor at the Good web site, has decided that Twilight is not good, or at least not good enough for students to be reading in an honors class when critics are suggesting that higher education is a waste of money:

This is not the first instance of Twilight being offered at the college level—and certainly not the first time pop culture has made an appearance in a college class. But this is also a time when the practical payoff of an undergraduate education is being reevaluated. Multiple studies are questioning the value of college, employers complain that kids coming out of school aren’t prepared for the workforce, and student loan debt is through the roof. In that context, it’s worth asking whether students really need to be spending their time (and money) studying Twilight.

Umm — is it too snarky to suggest that the editor checked her critical reading skills, no doubt honed at an elite university, at the door when she entered the room to read the course description? If not snarky, it approaches in lack of charity what I sense in the author’s perspective, for which failing and hypocrisy I apologize.

You know my grief here. The common sense response to a series of four books that has sold more than 100 million copies, as Lev Grossman and others have said, is that the author is doing something right, which is to say, is delivering a reading experience that a remarkable number and diversity of readers wants and expects post Harry Potter (see Harry Potter is Pearl Harbor Thesis). The actual response, though, is that Mrs. Meyer is a poor writer and the tens of millions of people who enjoy her novels are morons, individually and collectively.

I have written a book, Spotlight: A Close-Up Look at the Artistry and Meaning of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, after carefully reading the series, in order to explain what the academic lemmings and blogging herd refuse to consider. The Forks novels sell as well as they do because of the choices Mrs. Meyer made in crafting her story and the symbolic and spiritual content that the series delivers though literary alchemy, soul triptychs, logos epistemology, and the heart’s apotheosis. Frankly, Spotlight in itself is an introduction to literature course that goes well beyond the surface and moral milk for the allegorical and anagogical meat.

And it’s cheap compared to even a week or two of a college course, less in fact than even a single meeting of the class. If you want resources to share with your friends to encourage them to buy a copy of Spotlight, here are a series of posts I wrote in 2009 about what the critics miss in both Twilight and Harry Potter and another this past year about the depth of Mrs. Meyer’s work (to include one on her as a Kate Chopin feminist).

Your comments and correction are coveted.


  1. Louise M. Freeman says

    Chiming in with some comments on our third favorite series here: I team-teach teach an Honors course with a professor from our philosophy/religion department. It is a three-hour seminar, so we take a brief break midway through the class. During the first few weeks I saw no fewer than three students carrying copies of Catching Fire with them and chatting about it during the break; by week three most of them had moved onto Mockingjay. Unfortunately I had to refrain from discussing it since I didn’t trust myself not to give away spoilers.

    Then, last week I was volunteering in my son’s 5th grade “gifted” classroom and spied a little girl reading Mockingjay. (She explained she “didn’t know it was a grown-up book) when she started it!)

    How many books are targeted by the brightest students at both the college and elementary level?

  2. Indeed, I often find my Harry, Twilight, and Hunger Games readers to be some of the sharpest students in my classes. When I teach Introduction to Literature course, I work to incorporate these texts into our studies to bring relevance and to validate my students as independent readers and thinkers. Just yesterday, as I was beginning to cover Point of View in a section for dual-enrolled high school seniors, I used Harry as an example of third-person limited perspective and the Twilight books to illustrate point of view switch (as in Breaking Dawn, Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, and Midnight Sun). In the course of the class, we also referenced Melville, Austen, and other “biggies” in addition to the authors of the stories we were studying (Faulkner and Porter).

    My students were also getting back their first essay, the vast majority of which were As (and the topics of which included Twilight, Hunger Games, and Lemony Snicket). These bright, promising young people love using the books they enjoy as well as the ones they view as “required reading,” and, in the process, seeing the line blur between those two categories.

    The sort of snobbery that elicits these negative reactions to the academic use of Twilight only further illustrates why so many students feel academia is irrelevant. Instead of complaining that they are paying for college to read Twilight (though Spotlight is a great route to go to really delve into the Saga without a test!), students are more likely to complain that classes are unconnected to real life, to the jobs they will do, and to the books people really read. Far more useful than trying to understand the obscure and approved literary darlings produced and loved in university lit departments is the practice of engaging with a variety of pieces of literature and understanding why we read what we read. While I would be the last person to argue for replacing the great books with our modern shared texts, I find that teaching them together is one of the most effective and engaging ways to help students learn skills both for the academy and for the larger world, while at the same time validating their reading experiences rather than denigrating them or implying that they are incapable of choosing a good read on their own.

    Just last week, I saw one of the most beautiful sights of my teaching career: a line of students sitting in the hall, all reading The Hunger Games. It is assigned in both my ENG 111 course and one of our Psychology classes, but these students were just so engaged with the book that they couldn’t put it down. Hooray!

  3. Lotzastitches says

    In many of the places I frequent Mrs. Meyer is dissed and, of course, the “masses who are too stupid to know any better” that read her books.
    I just read this C.S. Lewis essay below last night. Thought it tied in nicely with the critics that are crying that Meyer isn’t following the “rules”.

    From the essay entitled “Lilies That Fester” in the book _The World’s Last Night_ by C.S. Lewis

    Every boy or girl who is born is presented with the choice: “Read the poets whom we, the ‘cultured’, approve, and say the sort of things we say about them, or be a prole.” And this shows how Charientocracy can deal with the minority of pupils who have tastes of their own and are not pure Plasticine. They get low marks. You kick them off the educational ladder at a low rung and they disappear into the proletariat.

    Another advantage is that, besides providing poets with a conscript audience for the moment, you can make sure that the regnant literary dynasty will reign almost forever. For the deviationists whom you have kicked off the ladder will of course include all those troublesome types who, in earlier ages, were apt to start new schools and movements. If there had been a sound Charientocracy in their day, the young Chaucer, the young Donne, the young Wordsworth and Coleridge, could have been dealt with. And thus literary history, as we have known it in the past, may come to an end. Literary man, so long a wild animal, will have become a tame one.

  4. Catherine K. says

    Why not use Twilight to teach the rudiments of story and character structure?

    Because there are so many better books out there?

    100 million copies. I’m flashing back to ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ Gold casket. “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.”

    I won’t deny she’s hit on something that’s big with the current cultural zeitgeist. But I really don’t think that Twilight is misunderstood genius. As far as I can tell, it’s shallow and dumb and promotes an awful message to young girls, and I’m pretty sure that any artistry or meaning or connection to greater literary tradition is entirely unconscious on Meyer’s part, who prefers her connection to literary tradition to be outright stated (thus degrading actual works of genius such as ‘Wuthering Heights’ or ‘Pride and Prejudice.’)

    Yes, bashing Twilight is nowadays very common, a super-easy target, even I’m tired of it. But, sir, the scorn for Twilight far transcends that ever aimed at Harry Potter or His Dark Materials. I think the scorners have a point.

    However, the fans have a point too. To each their own; if it’s fun and encourages reading and writing, no problem.

    Just don’t bring it into the classroom, don’t, not when there are so many better books languishing on the shelves.

  5. “Genre Taxonomy Blinders”

    “Sarah Palin Syndrome”

    “Read my book”

    If you don’t know what I mean by the first two phrases, cut and paste either one into the site’s search engine. What more can I say that I haven’t already said here too often to the bizarre self-anointed literature mavens that can say blithely that “it’s shallow and dumb and promotes an awful message to young girls, and I’m pretty sure that any artistry or meaning or connection to greater literary tradition is entirely unconscious on Meyer’s part”? What can be said in response to someone so pellucid and enlightened that Mrs. Meyer’s skull and thoughts have become sufficiently transparent to her that she feels qualified to comment publicly on distinctions in the author’s conscious and unconscious mind?

    I think I can quote John Holt about the mind-set of professional, compulsory classroom educators who know best what students should be reading (and feel nothing but disdain for books their students are excited about, want to know more about). Like this Twilight basher so enamored of ‘better books’ none of her students are interested in reading, least of all in reading with her, these arbiters of ‘what people should be reading’ to learn-what they-need-to-know were precisely the folks Holt identified as the greatest obstacles to learning:

    I have many times talked to teachers who wanted to teach in alternative schools, or I’d meet some young guy who’d say, “I want to work with kids,” so I say, “Well, what do you know that is so interesting that kids of their own free will will come up to you to learn how to do it?” Usually they don’t have any answer at all. My reply is, you don’t want to work with kids, you want to work on kids, do things to them or make them do things that you think would be good for them.

    The place to start is with something that really interests you, and then make yourself available to help others get to really do it also. There’s a guy named John Payne in Boston, a very good jazz musician, plays sax, flute and clarinet, a very gifted jazz musician. Within the last few years he’s started a little school, and most of his pupils are adults. He says if you want to play a musical instrument, forget everything you ever heard about talent. He has organized his students into what he calls the John Payne Sax Choir and they play gigs in nightclubs in places around Boston.

    The routine when the choir is playing is that these 30 or 40 people – all odd shapes, sizes, men, women, the youngest kids will be down around 9 years old – work up these arrangements (with John Payne’s assistance) and they fix it so that somebody who’s just starting has got very easy notes to play and the more experienced players have the hard parts. They adjust the arrangements to the skill of the players, and he and his professional jazz quartet play behind them to provide the rhythm section.

    He also divides the students up into small ensemble groups when they get a little better, so they’re actually doing a solo. My office friend Pat Farenga has been a jazz pianist for a number of years, and this last year he decided he wanted to play the sax. He took it up, and he’d had only 5 weekly lessons before his first appearance with the choir performing in public in a place where people come in and buy a drink and pay money to hear him! It’s just marvelous.

    The philosopher wants to empower us while the expert wants to stand over us and make us dependent on him. A true teacher – and we’re all teachers, the human animal is as much a teacher as it is a learner – basically likes showing people who want to know, here, do this and do this. The essence of teaching is working yourself out of a job, getting a person to the point where they don’t need you.

    Do you get the feeling this Meyer Basher wants her students to get to the point where she won’t be the arbiter of their tastes? I don’t.

    You tell me if you think, outside of an institutional classroom you had to attend for a certificate of learning you felt you needed to have for a better job, if you would ever pay money to learn what someone as patronizing, self-important, and as condescending with respect to ‘what you like’ had to say. I know I wouldn’t.

    Back to where I began:

    “Genre Taxonomy Blinders”

    “Sarah Palin Syndrome”

    “Read my book”

    Twihards aren’t stupid. It’s those who say these readers and the books they love are stupid who reveal their own ignorance and arrogance in the ironic pose of an expert who knows-better.

    [For those of you curious if it is I who am striking the ironic pose in disdainfully dismissing a disdainful dismissal, I thank you for that charitable reading of my hypocrisy in falling to the fault I am condemning.]

  6. Lotzastitches says

    Yea, better books brought into the classroom. . . like Lord of the Flies.

  7. PellucidIndeed says

    “What can be said in response to someone so pellucid and enlightened that Mrs. Meyer’s skull and thoughts have become sufficiently transparent to her that she feels qualified to comment publicly on distinctions in the author’s conscious and unconscious mind?”

    Indeed — has Mrs. Meyer collaborated with you in your analysis of her work and the role her religion plays in it? Are you yourself qualified to comment on her unconscious?

  8. The important differences between my work in exploring the artistry and meaning of the Forks saga and the dismissive psycho-critique of academics are (a) I take Mrs. Meyer seriously as a person and a writer, to include how her beliefs qua Mormon inform her work, and (b) Latter-day saints as diverse as Meyer’s favorite English professor at BYU and an LDS feminist expelled by the Church have said my work is important and valuable.

    Mrs. Meyer does not need to collaborate with criticism of her work to validate said criticism any more than Shakespeare, Jane Austen, or T. S. Eliot must. The sophistry of your rhetorical question, not to mention the mean-spirited dismissal you want to make, probably does not merit a response, but I could not refrain. Forgive me, please the self-importance and the lack of charity in the above.

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