Friday, August 19, 2016

Writer Intent and Story Reception

I have a guilty pleasure. I enjoying reading one-star reviews on popular books, even if I like the book itself. They're hilarious. I'm guaranteed a good laugh every time. Amazon is nice, but Goodreads is becoming my new favorite place. They have a large collection of various "worst of" lists. Books Featuring the Worst Female Protagonist. Books that I Hated but Everyone Else Liked. Most Disappointing Books of All Time. Etc.

Two franchises dominate the top ten on each one of these lists: Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.

We can credit these two series for birthing a new type of "classic" work: Infamous. It's been nearly ten years since the first Twilight book came out, and five years since Fifty Shades began. And yet, people are still coming out with their thoughts and reviews in huge numbers.

The Harry Potter books got incredible publicity, and I never thought I'd see any work of fiction top the sensationalism the way these two have. Instead of talking about the books themselves, I want to discuss people's reactions to them and muse on what might have happened if things had been a little different.

Twilight has been derided as the worst pandering-to-girls fantasy of all time. When summarizing the franchise, Doug Walker ("The Nostalgia Critic") said, "If you sacrifice nothing, do nothing, play off your friends as boy toys, you can live happily ever after as the blood-sucking demon you are."

Stephanie Myer believed she was writing a compelling love story, and has defended her characters against critics. People have accused her everything from terrible writing, annoying characters, and promoting an abusing relationship with a controlling partner as a desirable life goal.

The sad fact is that many people in our society do live in fantasies, some even worse than Bella Swan's (they call it American Idol for a reason). I understand people's concerns about the books, especially after a number of sensational reports came out detailing how the more rabid members of the fan base would physically assault people who didn't like it (something Potter fans never did, to my knowledge).

Yet, I can't help but wonder how people might have reacted if Myer had stated from the get-go that writing a fantasy was her objective? In other words, what if she had said, "I see girls doing terrible things in their lives and wanted to write a story about a troubled teen who can't let go of her imagined world."

What if Bella Swan was emotionally disturbed, and created Edward, Jacob, and the others as a means of coping? We all do this to some extent. I had imaginary friends to talk to when I was alone or depressed...but only as a young child. Some people never grow out of it and react poorly when their behavior is challenged.

If Meyer had written the books this way, would Twilight have been praised as a work of genius or would people still hate it? We'll never know, but personally, I think that would have made it more interesting.

Fifty Shades surprised me, not only because it was inspired by Twilight, but because it became even more sensational. This one's been beaten to death as cheap, pornographic filth that also promotes a harmful message to women: if the sex is good, who cares if the relationship is broken?

The books opened a can of worms on American sexuality, something we want to do without restraints, but at the same time, with some restraints (even if we can't articulate them beyond "consenting adults behind closed doors"). It's one of our better paradoxes. Some praised it for bringing kink out into the open and even called it liberating, while others waved the bloody shirt of female chastity and said it would destroy the world.

But again, what if E.L. James did it on purpose? We know that's not true. Like the vampire novels that inspired it, Fifty Shades is supposed to be taken seriously as a love story. But, what if it was meant to be a case study? What if it was meant to show (in an over-the-top manner) how people can get into destructive relationships and how hard it is to get out? This would have been the case if the story ended with book one when Anastasia breaks her contract, but no...she marries the jerk in book three (I cheated and read the synopses).

If anything, these books are a product of their times. Our society made it possible for them to exist and enjoy runaway success. We still love to get wild and flustered about books that women and teens are reading, and it's hard to understand why because we believe so many contradictory things. Is it art? Technically. Is art subjective? Yes. Will it destroy the world? Probably not, but it's funny to watch people fight over it.

It's said that if people hate your work, you've done something right. I think we're still trying to figure out what that "right" is in both cases. There has to be a lesson for us somewhere.

Power to the pen!

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