30 December, 2008

Why Are so Many of Us Obsessed with Twilight?, Or: Why People Read Books

Warning: This post comes as close to PG-13 as I've ever been. It's not explicit, but may be too frank for some.
Warning II: Twilight spoilers ahead (duh).


In order to discover why people (mostly women, but some men also) are so obsessed with Stephenie Meyer's best-selling series, we must first look at why people get obsessed with romances and books in general.

So what is it about a book, that can draw someone in? Even books that are not well written?

Remember these?

Basically, something intriguing happens, and attracts your attention. You begin reading (or watching, listening etc.) and tension builds, keeping your attention and engaging your mind and/or emotions. Finally, the tension is paramount, reaches a climax, and then everything winds down to the conclusion.

Now pretend for a moment, that you saw one of those charts up there for the first time (Gardner's for example). Pretend that it was free of words. Follow the line with your finger, inhaling with the upward motion, exhaling with the downward....

Remind you of something?

....Nothing? Really?

It seriously doesn't remind you of anything?

Maybe it's just me.

Think about it....something that, like a story, stems from initial attraction, builds until you thirst for more, climaxes at the best part, and then relaxes, leaving you satisfied but eager for another such encounter.


Just in case anyone is still not sure of my metaphor, let me spell it out. Incentive Moment = Attraction, Rising Action = Foreplay, Continuing Tension = sex, Climax = ....er....Climax, and Denouement (Falling Action) = Cuddling, Sleeping, or whatever (who knows, maybe even a sequel....).

For those of you who have never been obsessed with reading in general...perhaps now you understand how a bookworm is made. Basically....reading is like sex for your brain.

Now don't freak out on me! I'm not saying people like books for sexual reasons, I'm merely comparing two things that seem to follow a similar pattern.

I love books and consume them with an appetite. Everyone has their little pleasures. I imagine your enjoyment follows a similar pattern when you meet a deadline at work, teach a successful lesson, or help someone solve a problem.

For all of you who have done any of these things, you know what it's like to build up to something, enjoy the process, have the moment of achievement, and then the relaxing euphoria of a job well done.

However, we are human. Euphoria wears off. We have fond memories of accomplishments, but the feelings fade. Fortunately, there are plenty of books to read, problems to solve, people to help, and....well, you get the idea.

Writers have their little tricks to keep tension (and interest) high. Anne Perry, renowned for her Victorian mysteries, skips the Denouement. Almost as soon as the killer is revealed, the action completed, the book ends. There is no gracious explanation by the detective, no revelation on how "elementary" or "the 'leetle' gray cells" saved the day, and certainly no fluffy epilogue to explain which minor characters got married. Instead, you have to wait for the next book (which may or may not mention said minor characters), or figure it out yourself.

Romances, as a genre, have an especially difficult time following dramatic structure in a unique way. The purpose of a romance is (generally) to document a love affair. However, in order to build the proper tension, authors must include stumbling blocks to the two lovers. Many authors, through lack of creativity, ability, or mere interest utilize the same ones over and over again.

There are only so many detours on the path of "true love" : Misunderstanding, Shyness, Anger and Jealousy, Self-Doubt, and Mr. Wrong seem to be the most common.

Many creative, able, and deliberate authors choose to pad their romances with non-romantic plots, allowing those story-lines to incite the tension instead (or in addition). Of course this makes a case that such books are not actually romances, but some other genre. In truth, I find it hard to think of any romance I have enjoyed, that can not also be counted in some other category.

For example: Family Drama, Social Satire, Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Action Adventure, Horror and Mystery, Comedy etc.

The above genres can still be butchered, but they give the author more leeway. A specific example would be Jane Austen. While I would not consider her books to be romances, romance was a key aspect of her writing. However, instead of populating her stories with flat leads and completely unmemorable minor characters (like some stories I've wasted time on), Austen took time to develop her characters. We learn, not just of a hero and heroine, but of their families, friends, and neighbors. We know their quirks, foibles, and tastes. This allowed Austen to make subtle commentaries on society, politics, family dynamics etc. that kept her audience entertained while her main characters figured out how to be together.

So how do romantic stories (good and bad) affect the obsessive? Imagine the mental and emotional response you have to the building tension and climax of your favorite movie or book. Now, add the mental and emotional response you have to new love. Remember how exciting new love is?

Most people in the world are not currently experiencing this phenomenon. They are either seeking someone worthy of, and willing to receive, their attention, or they have committed themselves to someone, and are moving toward a deeper communion.

But does that mean they can't experience the exciting enticement of new love without cheating, or wasting time? It depends. If you are the sort of person who can be swept away by a good story, who can suspend disbelief, and enter a new world in every book, then perhaps, for you, vicarious new love will always be within reach.

(*Note: The Author is neither advocating, nor opposing the escapism implied in this concept, she merely sympathizes with you all, and reminds herself to remember the words of our Old Friend: "It does not do to dwell on dreams, and forget to live.")

This vicarious new love can be exciting, but it fades more quickly than a real (typical) infatuation. Some romances (the smutty ones), also try to vicariously induce other responses. These can be especially enticing to women, as it provides an emotional context for eroticism, that pornographic imagery often (I assume) lacks.

(*Note: The Author wishes to make it very clear, that she believes pornography in any form is detrimental to relationships, families, and individuals. Here she recommends strict self-control.)

Finally, we arrive at Twilight, a series that combines two genius tension builders.

First, Danger: One morning Stephenie Meyer awoke from a Dream involving a girl and a Vampire with two problems. One, they were in love, and two, her blood was (somehow) more enticing to him than any other. For those of you who have not read Twilight, Stephenie Meyer's Vampires do not merely enjoy drinking blood, it is a constant, raging, painful thirst. To deny themselves, as the Cullens do, is torture. In addition, it is occasionally possible for certain blood to attract certain Vampires (as is the case with Edward and Bella). Therefore, Bella is in constant danger from the Vampire's around her, and specifically from the one she has fallen for.

Second, Sexual Tension: While most modern romance novels (even many written for teens) contain sexual encounters, Twilight, and two of its sequels, do not. By making Edward chivalrous and a bit old fashioned, Stephenie Meyer was able to reconcile the modern romance with her own personal beliefs. Whether or not she also intended to draw out sexual tension, is unknown.

The Result
The combination of these tensions allow the author to break some of the rules of her genre, beginning by allowing the two main characters to be together. They immediately show interest in each other, and, after some initial ignoring, they spend all their time together. This is allowable because, where most romance series keep you asking, "When, when, when will they [hero and heroine] get together," Twilight makes you ask, "How, how, how will this ever work?"

Because we are constantly, morbidly curious to see if the hero will kill the heroine, there is no typical let down after the milestones in their relationship. Innocent moments like the first date, first touch, and first kiss become passion ridden, dangerously critical trials of endurance and love.

Edward explains that Bella would especially be in danger if they experimented sexually, and tries to keep them as far from that situation as possible. Eventually, it is also revealed that he wants to "wait" for marriage. By giving her characters a boundary that they must avoid as widely as possible, Meyer can have Bella and Edward flirt inch by dangerous inch along the path of their desire, exploring forms of affection (like cuddling) that the modern romance often completely ignores (They can't even french kiss, for fear of Bella cutting herself on Edward's sharp teeth). With each fractional increase, the danger intensifies, and Edward must find new depths of self-control!

Talk about tension!!!


So there's your answer: tension and euphoria. (And welcome to the Denouement of my post.) As humans, we've learned, the greater the tension, the greater the euphoria, right? I'm not going to tell you if Twilight payed off, you'll just have to read the books for yourself.

Also, I wanted to add that, while I have illustrated what might make the works of Stephenie Meyer attractive and popular, I do not mean this to be a review of their literary merit. I leave that up to professional and personal opinions.

Hopefully I've answered some questions, I certainly enjoyed trying.

The End

(Why do I suddenly feel like having a cigarette....?)


Nicole said...

So which do you prefer? Climax or Denoument? Oh wait..did I just say that? LOL...you did preface this post as PG-13...

Quixotic Healer said...

Ha, ha, ha!

I'm not sharing, lol.

TyroErudition said...

You know, what you are saying is exactly why the Victorians (well, it goes back further than that; the Romantics were concerned about this, too) had problems with a lot of the popular literature that was produced during the period. I recently wrote a paper on a book, Lady Audley's Secret (1861-2) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, which was extremely popular during its time, and the critics mostly disliked it because it was considered "sensation fiction" (in my paper I argue that it was actually trying to be realist). Sensation fiction was especially bad because it did exactly what you are describing (aroused the senses, hence "sensation" fiction), and the Victorians were especially conscious of sexual stimulus, especially for women (women, after all, are passionless and un-sexual).

Sorry for the rambling, but it's interesting how books like Twilight are still on the "not that great" end of literature but are really popular. I think it's interesting that the reasons we like literature (at least popularly) are based partly on what you point out.

I'm currently reading Twilight, by the way, and I honestly am not that impressed with it, though I can see why people like it. I don't think the characters are drawn particularly well (there are several inconsistencies that really bug me; Bella is especially annoying to me), and it is largely plot driven. I'd much rather have a character-driven story with a bad plot than a plot-driven story with bad characters.

I'd really recommend Lady Audley’s Secret. It's quite the page-turner.

Chiemi said...

WOW, you put a lot of thought into it. I can tell you why I am moderately obsessed with the series. It's because it appeals to my romantic sensibilities without going into R rated territory. That's pretty much it. I'm just not that complex. :)

Quixotic Healer said...

Cheimi, hahaha! I totally agree, such books are rare.

TE (Kay), I'll add Lady Audley to my book list! It's interesting, I just read a series of blogs about the importance of sexuality in LDS themed fiction. It was really interesting. It basically focused on the idea that if we are to write meaningfully, and REAListically, then we should probably highlight the eros in life. It insists that ignoring such things is unrealistic. He (The Author), instead of talking about lines for the author, says instead that the READER should know themselves and their own line, so they can avoid the things that will affect them negatively.

It definitely made me think, though I did not agree 100% with the article.

As for Twilight, I've always thought of it as a much more character, rather than plot, driven book. Let me know what you think as you continue. (and yes, Bella continues to be annoying, Edward's character is much more interesting, but I did relate to her on some levels)

Kellie said...

Mary, you are an intriguing writer! I enjoyed reading this! I love your little quips. I sure have some catching up to do on your posts!

Quixotic Healer said...

Kellie! Thanks :)

I have fun reading your blog too, and I especially love seeing your wonderful photographs.

Mr. Hall said...

Awesome! I've never read Twilight, and I never intend to either, but I enjoyed reading your post--it is truly an interesting theory and synopsis. I'm tempted to recommend to my students to read your post. . . if that doesn't get modern students excited to read then I don't know what will! :)

Quixotic Healer said...

Ha ha feel free, I could always use a few more readers (to make my head swell).

And I would NEVER encourage you to read Twilight, I know you have a few hundred books on your To Read list, so I'm not gonna add any unless they're classics or Harry Potter. (Last I heard you STILL haven't read those!)

Rich Sanders said...

Interestingly enough, as another dime-a-dozen aspiring would-be writer, my study of the fiction market shows that, more than anything else, romance novels dominate the market and sell the best. I will never write one, I lack both the skill and the interest, but it's rather revealing that humans, generally, crave companionship/sex/etc more than anything else.

And I think that's the beginnings of a famous quote: "Reading is like sex for your brain". Which is interesting because many people, as stated above, combine the two reading and sexual lust.

Again your analysis is flawless and your writing sublime. You should consider writing fiction, you have a good voice and a certain finesse with the language, and you understand the mechanics so well, better than I do.

Quixotic Healer said...

Words are the only things that I can seem to organize naturally, as they come. Everything else is in haphazard disarray, unless I really work at it....and even then, lol.

Unfortunately, I'm not creative enough to write novels. My characters are always better and/or worse versions of me or another author's characters. I also don't really think of good plots.

I am however, great in the think-tank, so maybe someday I'll collaborate with someone. I've helped develop characters for a few series, and really enjoyed that.

Quixotic Healer said...

And that's right people, you heard it here first! "Reading is like sex for your brain."

(I googled it! ONE hit baby, lol)

Rich Sanders said...


It's a shame you don't live closer, I have lots of work that needs a thorough reading by an experienced reader.

And I'm not using the term "experienced reader" lightly.

Quixotic Healer said...

Lol, I knew all those hours hiding from chores and homework would pay off. I am now Experienced.

I agree proximity is an issue....I'm usually terrible with the phone, and I'm not sure about email. Do you have my email? I'll send it to you on facebook. Who knows....it could work....

Rich Sanders said...

Well I shot off an e-mail, I guess we'll see.

Rich Sanders said...

what happened to the goal of blogging more?