As I write this, Stephenie Meyer has six of the top ten “bestsellers” in the Sydney Morning Herald list (supplied by Nielsen BookScan) published on Saturday 29th March 2008, in first, second, third, fourth, sixth and seventh places, with the book Twilight appearing twice (the “regular” edition in fourth place and the film tie-in in seventh place). This may not be unprecedented (the Harry Potter books often monopolised the top places in this list in their time), but this has been going on for quite some time and speaks to a significant cultural phenomenon that I am not certain we all understand. (Nielsen BookScan USA also lists Meyer’s books in fourth, fifth, sixth and ninth position. BookScan New Zealand lists them in first, second, third, fourth, fifth and eighth position.) The New York Times bestseller list, which appears to count things differently – there Meyer has her new The Host book in the hardcover list of fiction, none in the paperback trade fiction list, none in the paperback mass market list, but then grabs first place in the children’s “series” list – with 85 weeks and counting.
Caitlin Flanagan, a feature writer for The Atlantic, has come closest to explaining the powerful appeal of Meyer’s Twilight saga. In her article entitled “What Girls Want” (December 2008 issue, pp. 108-120), she provides one of the most interesting, nuanced, and beautifully written analyses of what teenage girls want – and get – from reading fiction, relating it to Judy Blume, Valley of the Dolls, Peyton Place, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Prep and Catcher in the Rye. Flanagan’s extensive review article draws from personal experience, self-knowledge and has a clarity of writing that is almost breath-taking at times. Some quotes:
The salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life—one that she slips into during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window while all of Modern European History, or the niceties of the passé composé, sluice past her. This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.
It’s a page-turner that pops out a lurching, frightening ending I never saw coming. It’s also the first book that seemed at long last to rekindle something of the girl-reader in me. In fact, there were times when the novel—no work of literature, to be sure, no school for style; hugged mainly to the slender chests of very young teenage girls, whose regard for it is on a par with the regard with which just yesterday they held Hannah Montana—stirred something in me so long forgotten that I felt embarrassed by it. Reading the book, I sometimes experienced … (a) slingshot back to a world of sensation that, through sheer force of will and dutiful acceptance of life’s fortunes, I thought I had subdued. The Twilight series is not based on a true story, of course, but within it is the true story, the original one. Twilight centers on a boy who loves a girl so much that he refuses to defile her, and on a girl who loves him so dearly that she is desperate for him to do just that, even if the wages of the act are expulsion from her family and from everything she has ever known. We haven’t seen that tale in a girls’ book in a very long time. And it’s selling through the roof.
Years and years ago, when I was a young girl pressing myself into novels and baking my mother pretty birthday cakes, and writing down the 10 reasons I should be allowed to purchase and wear to the eighth-grade dance a pair of L’eggs panty hose, I knew that password. But one night a few years after that dance, I walked into a bedroom at a party and saw something I shouldn’t have, and a couple of months after that I unwisely accepted a ride to the beach from a boy I hardly knew, and then I was a college girl carrying a copy of Hartt’s History of Renaissance Art across campus and wondering whether I should take out a loan and go to graduate school, and somewhere along the way—not precisely on the day I got my first prescription for birth control, and not exactly on the afternoon I realized I had fallen out of love with one boy and had every right to take up with another—somewhere along the way, I lost the code. One day I was an intelligent girl who could pick up almost any bit of mass-market fiction that shed light on the mysteries of love and sex, and the practicalities by which one could merge the two, and read it with a matchless absorption. Valley of the Dolls had been so crucial in my life not because of its word to the wise about the inadvisability of mixing Seconal and Scotch, but for the three sentences that explained how to go about getting undressed before the first time you have sex: go into the bathroom, take your clothes off, and reemerge with a towel wrapped around yourself. One day I was that girl, and one day I was not, and from then on, if you wanted to tempt me to read a bit of trash fiction, I was going to need more compelling information than that.
For other articles by Caitlin Flanagan in the The Atlantic, click here. For her New Yorker articles, click here.