Bad Writing, Good Reading

Last week, Justine Larbalestier posed the following question on her blog:

What do you think of the frequently mounted defence of Twilight and some other popular YA titles that no matter what you think of the writing style or content it’s intended for teens so that’s okay. Or at least it gets teens reading?

The awesome Tansy Raynor Roberts posted a lengthy response there and even lengthier one on her own website.  You really should go and read the whole thing — it’s a passionate, personal and very thoughtful essay on the joys and merits of reading, any kind of reading.  Tansy ends by summing up:

So I guess I am in the ‘it doesn’t matter how bad the book is, just be glad they’re reading’ camp after all. I’ll go one better. I support the re-reading of bad books. Maybe after the twelfth time reading the sparkly vampire epic, they’ll be ready to move on to the Holly Black of which you speak. Maybe they won’t. But I’m pretty sure that if that’s what they want to do, we should just get the hell out of their reading light.

While I disagree vehemently with the argument mentioned by Justine — that writing for kids and teens can be allowed to be “bad” simply because it is “only” for kids and teens and they don’t know any better — I found myself nodding along and smiling in recognition while reading Tansy’s entry. She describes devouring trashy romances and big fat fantasy books during her younger years (when “time was cheap”) with an almost indiscriminate hunger. I was much the same, except my poison was anything to do with horses or ponies during my childhood and early teens, and anything that promised to draw blood once I got a bit older. Oh, and there was that year when I was about 14 and all I wanted to read was trashy Sweet Dreams romances bought for 50c each at the local second hand bookshop. Hey, I was a teenage girl.

So I’m all for letting teenagers read whatever they want. The old “it gets them reading” argument holds a hell of a lot of water with me … as long as that is what’s happening.

I’m not so sure it’s the case with Twilight.  I remember talking with a children’s librarian years ago when Harry Potter mania was at its height, perhaps four or five books into the series. She didn’t much care for the young wizard and his adventures and had many of the same reservations as myself about the books (in terms of both writing and content).  “But at least it’s getting the kids reading,” I remember saying to her. “Especially young boys. Young boys have been falling down in the reading stats; this has gotten them back between the covers again.”

But she shook her head. From her experience, and from what other librarians had been telling her, Harry Potter wasn’t getting the kids reading — it was getting them HarryPottering. They were only interested in Harry Potter. They read and re-read each book countless times while waiting for the next installment. They obsessively collected the merchandise. They watched and re-watched all the films. My young cousin was one of those kids. Loved Harry Potter. Read and re-read the books over and over.  Devoured the movies. Now, in his mid-teens, he’s not a big reader. He didn’t move on to better and different books. Because he wasn’t actually “reading” in the first place? Because he was only “HarryPottering”?

I met two girls recently, aged about 12 and 15.  Twilight-obsessed. They regaled my beloved and me for a good hour about the books and the movie (which the older one had seen but the younger one hadn’t) and the gazillion times they’d read each of the volumes.  They had t-shirts. They loved Edward. They wanted to be Bella. And they were completely and utterly uninterested in any of the other books we suggested they might like.  It was as though they told us, “we went skateboarding and it was awesome”, and we responded by saying, “you should try drinking red cherry cordial because it’s yummy.” Suggesting they read other books because they enjoyed Twilight so much seemed just as great a non sequitur to them.  Because, I realised, they are not actually reading. They are Twilighting.

Now, I know this is not a blanket truism. A lot of the kids and teens who read Harry Potter and Twilight will go on to read other things and will develop life-long love of books.  But I reckon they were probably the kind of kids who would have gone down this path anyway. As for the rest of them, if they’re not reading, does it make the question posed by Justine invalid? Or does it make it even more important? If the experience of reading Twilight — or Harry Potter or the next tome in the teen-trend canon — isn’t balanced out by a greater and more varied diet, then shouldn’t we be more worried about the quality of the books? Or maybe we should stop looking at them as books at all, and simply view them as one particular manifestation of a pop-cultural product line, along with the movies and the merch. And critique them as such.

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2 Comments

  1. I have to say (as I have elsewhere) – I’m not a fan of Twilight. I think it’s a shame that if there was going to be one iconic women’s book of the latter half of the noughties, that it was this one.

    I enjoyed reading it, though, and only started becoming skeptical and analytical after the fact. I still feel vaguely ashamed that my critical faculty didn’t kick in until afterwards… but hey.

    The concept of ‘Harry Pottering’ and ‘Twilighting’ is kind of interesting. It’s absolutely true. It’s a cult activity of sorts. i got caught up in a HP RPG online once and only surfaced two years later…

    But is that really such a damaging thing? Falling in love with a book/world, immersing yourself so deeply in it, is a truly extraordinary experience. Absolutely we should be critiquing something that has such a hold over our teenagers, but, but, but…

    It’s no different to falling in love with a rock band, or a performer, and becoming obsessed with their output. (and however drippy Bella is, there are far worse gender relationships portrayed in most popular music) Delicious obsessions are also part of the teenage experience. Many of them *will* go from there into other works. No matter what that librarian thought, the knock on effect in publishing of the Harry Potter effect is still being felt. Books were reprinted, published and supported in ways they would never have done without Potter.

    I think you’re absolutely right that treating Harry Potter or Twilight as books is possibly less useful than as phenomena akin to Beatlemania…

    The spell has to wear off eventually, right? And as far as obsessive behaviours

    • I think “delicious obsessions”on the part of teenagers is one thing – but those “Twilight Moms” give me the creeps like nothing else. And that’s probably the real meat in the Twilight debate. The infantalisation of women, the passive sexuality, the tacit abuse in the name of romance — why these very damaging tropes still seem to have such a hold on the popular imagination and are so eagerly embraced by so many.

      The debate about YA books and whether or not “quality” counts is kind of side-stepping the issue. It’s absolutely insulting to say that YA doesn’t need to be held to account the way adult fiction is (and whether this is actually true is a subject for yet another discussion), but then talking about “Twilight” (or “Harry Potter” or any of the others) as though they are just YA books — or just any kind of books — derails the argument somewhat. I think my point — if there was one in there — is that we should not be so worried about critiquing Twilight as a book, and we certainly shouldn’t let the “at least they are reading” argument hold much sway. But we should definitely be critiquing it.


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