In 2005, the first book of Stephanie Meyer’s series Twilight was published. 15 years later, we’re still talking about it. More than the content of the novels, I’m interested in people’s reaction them.
Before I get too far in I want to be up front about my personal experience with the Twilight series. I’ve only read the first book of the series and a small portion of the second book but I’ve read summaries and seen plenty of example text from the other books. I’ve extensively read articles from every corner of the internet about this series. I try to approach topics like this from a charitable place by which I mean I want to understand and explain the reactions to Twilight instead of taking cheap shots at the text or fully condemning the books.
The books and reactions are especially interesting to me because when they were published, I was pretty much the target demographic for this series. I had read the first book before the biggest wave of popularity and my thoughts were largely “this is just not a good book”. Which isn’t a “real problem” as there are plenty of bad books out there in the world. Many YA books are are equally middling, or forgettable to such a fine point that this book isn’t actually notable among people who were already extensive reading through this genre. Instead nearly all of the problems people have with Twilight exist due to the sheer fame the series gained.
After all, it’s possible nothing brings more haters to the yard than fame.
But let’s put ourselves in those hater shoes and try to suss out what people don’t like about Twilight.
It’s possible that most people who “hate” Twilight have never read the books. They’re coasting on the wave of peer pressure where they hate a “popular thing” either due to hipster ambitions or the idea that pop art can never be “real art”. I can’t imagine investing that much energy in a book (or other media) but plenty of people who stake themselves against Twilight fall into this realm.
For people who have read it though, it’s just not a very good book. Meyer herself stated that she wrote it for herself and hadn’t really planned to publish it and that much is obvious from the text. It’s not particularly written well though I would argue the text isn’t worse than any average YA book. Therefore it’s more likely that the cardinal sin isn’t being a middlingly written book but that it gained a lot of fame despite this. People who consider themselves fairly good at writing, or avid readers of well constructed books might be mad at Twilight as books that are well written often largely go unloved and unread by the general public.
It’s hard to see a book filled with strange grammar, poor concepts, flimsy characters, odd language choices, bad dialogue, and a lack of solid theme or structure getting notice over books with a depth of meaning that contain good prose. Twilight reads like your average self-published piece of work: Edited just enough to make sense but not one inch further. Plot points get lost entirely, characters change personalities when needed, people have shaky motivations (if any at all), and the reading level is at the 5th grade level with a high percent of repetition of words and of plot points between the books. A YA book isn’t supposed to be Vonnegut or Proust but in terms of how it’s written or what it brings to the table in terms of complexity Twilight is still on the low side for a general YA book and its marketed audience which brings me to the next big argument against Twilight:
This series has many messages that are disagreeable to a large portion of people.
I understand that it’s possible for everyone to have their own social codes but the Twilight books present several relationships which are uniformly abusive and contain uneven power dynamics and then presents those as unflinchingly romantic and at many points, desirable.
A lot of people [myself included] do not like the messages and themes of the books. Children are very impressionable and many do not read prolifically meaning that this may be one of the few literary experiences where they see relationships modeled. While teaching young teens I had plenty of young girls tell me about how they wanted someone to stalk them “just like Edward!” and how romantic that is. The book is ostensibly about a man “grooming” a younger woman and has a themes about how desire is an unstoppable force on top of other mixed or downright harmful messages about relationships, consent, desire, and sex.
Obviously sex education isn’t going to be laid on the shoulders of a single book and there’s plenty of other media out there similarly failing at teaching children how to build or maintain healthy relationships but when a book is for teens and is #1 in the country while it purports these things, it might be a good time to examine how we got to a point in society that thinks this is a fine and downright marketable message. It’s certainly within someones right to find the series objectionable because of these themes.
Not that there can’t be media about abusive relationships or that this is some sort of taboo subject but plenty of adults I have talked over the years seemed to think there was nothing wrong with the relationship between Bella and Edward either which certainly limits my enjoyment of this book and books with these messages, even as “fantasy”. There are a lot of forces in society which shape our ideas about heteronormativity, age disparity in relationships, and women as objects / rewards and this book does nothing to combat or dismiss these problems and instead makes them normalized due to its nature as a beloved cultural icon.
There are plenty of other messages in the book that I find distressing as well but most people would cite the relationship between Bella and Edward as the main one. Even if it was not purposeful, Meyer ended up writing a primer on how to pretend that abuse is love and then, due to the series popularity and an uncritical public, people spent years praising how “fun” and “romantic” the relationship was exacerbating the problem.
Now we circle back to one of the biggest reasons that Twilight got as much hate as it did:
Teen girls really liked Twilight and society absolutely hates teen girls.
Though I have a sneaking suspicion that the majority of Twilight readers might have been far older than the YA demographic label, Twilight is by most accounts a “teen girl book” making it, in many people’s eyes, the absolute worst sort of cultural artifact.
When we talk about pop culture in a broad sense, we are almost never referring to anything associated with girls or women. Society is extremely male-centric and men control, generate, and consume nearly all of the wider dominant culture. I think we might be starting to see a shift in this slightly in the past decade but all the things I loved (and my sister loved) growing up in the 80s and 90s are not seen as “wider cultural icons”.
This is definitely the foundation for a lot of the hate directed at Twilight. When the average critic looks at Twilight they see a thing that a lot of girls and women like, a thing “not for boys” and not for them (since they are by and large male critics), therefore that thing is meaningless and lack the ability to be culture at best no matter how pervasive or beloved they are.
This sexism starts early and is enforced on every level so you can probably thank sexism for a decent portion of Twilight hate. I can still remember boys in my 2nd grade class thumbing their nose up at reading Matilda because it had a “girl protagonist” as if that was the sole determination of if the book was going to be good or not.
There’s plenty more arguments against Twilight but these are the ones that I’ve bumped into most often. Meyer has been very gracious and very open about why she wrote the book and been especially respectful of people enjoying or hating it in their own space. I don’t harbor ill will against her but I’m certainly in the camp of not enjoying the book but if it gets people to read and they go read other books too, I can only be so mad about it.
Of course this is only the beginning of why people hate Twilight. It’s likely that the poorly produced movies and E. L. James’ Twilight fanfiction turned series 50 Shades also contributed to both the longevity of the conversation surrounding Twilight hate as well as fueling hate for it though neither of those things can be directly blamed for the text and messages of the original books they are of course very connected in the public’s mind.
Hopefully this can help reframe the way you think about Twilight and maybe make you question your own reaction not just to this little vampire romance novel series but to any all consuming cultural trend. More than the text or the trend itself we’re influenced by the way our peers and society react to things and how we interact with objects whose values don’t line up with ours. So if you’re a die hard Twilight hater who has never read the books it might be worth it to take a moment and ask : Why do I hate this?