Content Note: Depression, Social In-Fighting, Criticism of Writing Styles
Twilight Recap: Bella has arrived at the weekend beach get-away.
Twilight, Chapter 6: Scary Stories
We've theorized in the past that Bella Swan, as a character, is in some ways an almost perfect portrayal of depression, or (at the very least) a deeply sad and withdrawn young woman. Because of that theory, I haven't criticized her for many of her thoughts and actions, primarily because I do think that thoughts are generally private things and because her actions have for the most part been significantly less noteworthy than, say, Edward's. Today we're going to take a bit of a hiatus from that approach and I'm going to treat Bella Swan from a different angle -- one where she's not depressed because I don't think the author intended her to be so. How could Bella's thoughts and actions appear differently in such a light?
This is partly an attempt to keep things fresh and interesting, but mostly because I read some passages from Eclipse this week that made me very frustrated with the way I feel Bella is written as a character. As usual, feedback is welcome in the comments below. I hope this will be interesting and not offensive to anyone.
The food was already being passed around, and the boys hurried to claim a share while Eric introduced us as we each entered the driftwood circle. Angela and I were the last to arrive, and, as Eric said our names, I noticed a younger boy sitting on the stones near the fire glance up at me in interest. I sat down next to Angela, and Mike brought us sandwiches and an array of sodas to choose from, while a boy who looked to be the oldest of the visitors rattled off the names of the seven others with him. All I caught was that one of the girls was also named Jessica, and the boy who noticed me was named Jacob.
One of the things that frustrates me about Bella in particular and Twilight in general is that both the character and the writing seem anathema to detail. I do not recall a clear picture of how many Forksian teenagers were on the outing, except that they maybe all fit into a van or two. So that's... eighteen kids? Twenty? Now we have a group of Quileute teenagers joining the Forksians, and once again, we have no idea how many there are. One of the girls is named Jessica, which Bella presumably remembers because there is another Jessica in the group already. One of the boys is named Jacob, which Bella apparently remembers because he looked at her "in interest".
This style of writing has a lot of potential side-effects. One that we've already talked about is that it has the tendency to make Bella seem so intensely depressed that she is mired in a cloud of constant sadness through which new information cannot penetrate. But there are others. Another explanation is that the writing is deliberately vague because the author is only interested in the sparkly vampire bits and doesn't want to get bogged down in the logistics of how the Quileute teenagers were conjured from the ether like that, what their appearances might be besides NATIVE AMERICAN, and if they have any names or if we should just call them 'NATIVE AMERICAN'.
This is a valid writing style, in as much as any writing style is valid (and who am I to argue with eight gazillion sales worldwide?) but it can be very frustrating for the sort of reader who doesn't want to wander a fictional gray landscape of indeterminate details until a sparkly vampire pops into view. It feels like the literary equivalent of Riddick-o-Vision from "Pitch Black".
Another probably-unintended consequence of this vague No Details Need Apply writing style is that it makes Bella seem astonishingly self-involved. Because S. Meyer doesn't want to give us a bunch of names, we continually have Bella simply not noticing or even trying to remember people when they are introduced to her. When she does bother to notice a name, it's almost always because the name belongs to a boy who has made googly eyes at her. (Or because it's a girl named Jessica.) This makes a modicum of sense in a hub-and-spoke romance novel where every boy on earth is magnetically drawn to Bella by the force of the narrative, but without cleaner handling in the text, it makes Bella seem like she's so self-absorbed that she refuses to notice people who aren't equally taken with her.
It was relaxing to sit with Angela; she was a restful kind of person to be around -- she didn't feel the need to fill every silence with chatter. She left me free to think undisturbed while we ate. And I was thinking about how disjointedly time seemed to flow in Forks, passing in a blur at times, with single images standing out more clearly than others. And then, at other times, every second was significant, etched in my mind. I knew exactly what caused the difference, and it disturbed me.
When Bella does approve of the women around her, she approves of them on the basis of whether or not they demand any toll on her in exchange for her friendship. The ideal companion, Angela, is ideal because she sits silently nearby while Bella can tell the reader all about her growing obsession with Edward.
And bonus points for Bella snarking at her own vague, blurry narrative. However, this strikes me as passingly similar to the "Preemptive Strike" in How Not To Write a Novel where Howard and Sandra note:
Here the weary author, who can no longer deny the awfulness of what he has been writing, attempts to deflect criticism by acknowledging the glaring flaws in his novel. He will often go on to have the characters explain the problem away by pointing out that because it is real life, it is not subject to criticism…as it would be in a novel.
Of course, it is a novel, and nobody is fooled.
As in twelve-step programs, acknowledging the problem is only the first step. Readers will not accept your unbelievable coincidences or clichéd prose just because you acknowledge there’s a problem. You must go on to fix the problem.
"How Not To Write a Novel" is a piece of witticism wrapped up in snark and served with a side of teasing, but I think the underlying point is valid. It's not enough for Bella to say, "Huh! Isn't it odd that the reader has no concept of what day of the week I started school, how long ago that was, what month it is now, how many people I know, or what I do with myself during the day seeing as how I have no job, no friends, and the only homework I have is for remedial subjects that I can therefore finish quickly? It must be because I only care about Edward and don't notice anything else!" Yes, Bella, I imagine that is why I find your life a mystery wrapped in an enigma and buried at the bottom of a very dark well, but that's not something to brag about, it's a cry for stronger editing and maybe some sassy beta characters.
As they finished eating, people started to drift away in twos and threes. [...] Mike -- with Jessica shadowing him -- headed up to the one shop in the village. [...] By the time they all had scattered, I was sitting alone on my driftwood log, with Lauren and Tyler occupying themselves by the CD player someone had thought to bring, and three teenagers from the reservation perched around the circle, including the boy named Jacob and the oldest boy who had acted as spokesperson.
Bella Swan cannot focus on any detail in her day that doesn't revolve around Edward Cullen. She just told us that. She has described herself as 'obsessed' with the young man, and just today has sunk into an anxious depression at the idea that she might not see him until Monday. Or maybe not even then, if he's absent from school that day.
Jessica, on the other hand, is "shadowing" the lowly and unworthy Mike, because she's a pathetic puppy who can't bear to be separated from her crush for more than a few minutes.
For the most part, I've tried to give Bella a pass for the negative things she thinks. Thoughts are private; we probably shouldn't be judged by our innermost thoughts. (I have some doozies!) Thoughts are affected by depression, by hormones, by the very food that we eat. But Bella Swan -- for this post and this moment in time -- is not a person like you or I are persons. She is a character, and moreover she is a point of view character. Most importantly, she is a point of view character who is literally obsessed with a man who has done nothing but treat her badly and abusively while using not-so-subtle weasel words to criticize the women around her for being obsessed with men who do nothing but treat them badly and abusively.
I think that in S. Meyer's mind the difference is plain: Edward is bad to Bella because he loves Bella. Mike is bad to Jessica because he loves Bella. Therefore, Edward is faithful and worthy, whereas Mike is faithless and worthless.
But it doesn't work that way. Intent isn't magic, true, but beyond that Bella is not psychic. She should not know that Edward's bad behavior is motivated by True Love. (One could also make the case that she should not care, because Intent != Magic.) And it's simply not good enough to have Bella mentally note that, "Oh, well, I guess I'm kind of pathetic too," because (a) see above about fixing things instead of hand-waving them but also (b) Bella never explicitly compares her situation between Jessica and herself.
If Bella was openly saying "wow, Jessica seems pretty pathetic, but I guess that's what I look like when I moon after Edward despite his bad behavior", then we'd have a case of some subtlety. Some self-awareness. We could even have a novel that explores marginalization of women in our society and why some women don't have the luxury of a choice between Good and Bad men. Some women really only get to choose because Bad and Terrible men. Moreover, we could have an in-text discussion about the similarities between Mike and Edward, and the differences. We could perhaps have a story that is less about the Power of True Love and instead have a story about complex men and the pluses and minuses that Edward brings to the table.
We don't have those things, not in-text. What we have is the constant reassurance that Bella is 'pathetic' (her own words) but that it's understandable because Edward is so very perfect. Whereas Jessica is pathetic and needs to cut that out.
A few minutes after Angela left with the hikers, Jacob sauntered over to take her place by my side.
THERE MAY ONLY BE TWO CHARACTERS IN A SCENE. ANGELA, PLEASE VACATE THE SCENE IMMEDIATELY.
He looked fourteen, maybe fifteen, and had long, glossy black hair pulled back with a rubber band at the nape of his neck. His skin was beautiful, silky and russet-colored; his eyes were dark, set deep above the high planes of his cheekbones. He still had just a hint of childish roundness left around his chin. Altogether, a very pretty face. However, my positive opinion of his looks was damaged by the first words out of his mouth.
"You're Isabella Swan, aren't you?"
It was like the first day of school all over again.
And then there's this.
The whole Bella/Isabella thing is a thin contrivance to foreshadow Edward's telepathy (he knows her preferred name! he must have read everyone else's minds!) and to get her to sit up and take extra-special notice of him. But this contrivance is long past and is no longer necessary. For Bella to be upset that this pretty boy with the interested eyes has the audacity to know her by the wrong name seems utterly childish. I can only assume this is a case of Wrong Setting; it made sense for Bella to be exasperated to correct everyone on the first day of school because she was tired and overwhelmed and she'd made the same correction a dozen times already that day. Now, days or weeks or months later, it just makes her seem petty. I don't get snarky when people accidentally call me "Ann".
"Bella," I sighed.
"I'm Jacob Black." He held his hand out in a friendly gesture. "You bought my dad's truck."
"Oh," I said, relieved, shaking his sleek hand. "You're Billy's son. I probably should remember you."
"No, I'm the youngest of the family -- you would remember my older sisters."
"Rachel and Rebecca," I suddenly recalled. Charlie and Billy had thrown us together a lot during my visits, to keep us busy while they fished. We were all too shy to make much progress as friends. Of course, I'd kicked up enough tantrums to end the fishing trips by the time I was eleven.
I read somewhere that the Blacks (Such a subtle surname! I'm still sorry that between Bella Ugly-Duckling and Edward Cold-One, we missed the chance for a Whitey McMarbleThighs protagonist.) are named after members of S. Meyer's family, so the Jacob-Rachel-Rebecca-Leah* naming scheme probably isn't meant to denote a fundamentalist Christian movement within the Quileute community, but it gives me that impression nonetheless.
However, a glance at the Quileute Nation website tells me that English names seem to be common in the community, so I will instead just be grateful that Jacob isn't named "Man Who Walks the Earth But Only Sees the Sky".
* Yes, Leah isn't a Black. She is a Clear Water, which is slightly better than Girl Who Cries Tears Because The Author Hates Her.
"Are they here?" I examined the girls at the ocean's edge, wondering if I would recognize them now.
"No." Jacob shook his head. "Rachel got a scholarship to Washington State, and Rebecca married a Samoan surfer -- she lives in Hawaii now."
"Married. Wow." I was stunned. The twins were only a little over a year older than I was.
Don't worry, Bella! You'll be married in about a year yourself!
"So you build cars?" I asked, impressed. "When I have free time, and parts. You wouldn't happen to know where I could get my hands on a master cylinder for a 1986 Volkswagen Rabbit?" he added jokingly. He had a pleasant, husky voice.
"Sorry," I laughed, "I haven't seen any lately, but I'll keep my eyes open for you." As if I knew what that was. He was very easy to talk with.
He flashed a brilliant smile, looking at me appreciatively in a way I was learning to recognize. I wasn't the only one who noticed.
"You know Bella, Jacob?" Lauren asked -- in what I imagined was an insolent tone -- from across the fire.
Bella, being the irresistible force of nature that she is, has accidentally acquired another suitor in less the the time it takes to cook an egg. Lauren, evil blond that she is, has decided to needle Bella about being irresistible. HEY, BELLA, WHY YOU SO HOT? OH BURN!
Besides this being maybe not a winning strategy for Lauren, if her goal is to shame Bella for her massive hotness, I want to call shenanigans on Bella's description of the situation. Bella imagines that Lauren's tone is "insolent", and I have to wonder about the choice of wording there. "Insolent" can mean "rude", of course, but it often connotates a very specific kind of rudeness. That which is insolent is that which lacks appropriate respect for the subject matter. A child mouthing off to a teacher is insolent; an employee telling her employer where he can stick the yearly performance review is insolent. Lauren can really only be insolent to Bella if she is inferior in some socially-constructed way to Bella -- and if Bella acknowledges this to be so.
Beyond the word choice, though, a large chunk of this chapter feels like the dreaded Telling instead of Showing. Lauren's words alone -- "You know Bella, Jacob?" -- are not insolent. They could be merely curious. (Indeed, they indicate that Lauren has paid more attention to the visitors than Bella has, since she has remembered the name of a person not obviously interested in her. It's not a good thing when your Alpha Queen is less snobbish than the Plucky Protagonist.) So we've been given the first-person equivalent of a Tell: Bella can sense that Lauren's tone is insolent. We have to take her word for it.
This wouldn't bother me in another novel, I think, but Bella has proven so monumentally bad at reading people that it grates on me here. It's jarring to have to keep flip-flopping from "Gee, I guess Edward really does love me and I just imagined he was consumed with hatred for my existence" to "Jacob is in love with me and Lauren hates me for being beautiful and I can tell because I am so good at reading people." You can't have it both ways, unless you want to give the reader whiplash.
"We've sort of known each other since I was born," he laughed, smiling at me again.
"How nice." She didn't sound like she thought it was nice at all, and her pale, fishy eyes narrowed.
And then you have things like this. HEY, LAUREN, WHY YOU HAVE FISH EYES? OH SNAP!
Besides this very possibly being a shout-out to "Pride and Prejudice", it strikes me as both petty and contradictory. If we accept S. Meyer's world-building of objective beauty, Lauren isn't ugly. It's right there in the manual: she's beautiful and blond and all the boys in school have dated her and vied for her attention.
If the author turns that around and decides that, no, Lauren is totes ugly in this scene because she dares to needle the protagonist and if the narrative is first-person, this doesn't make Lauren seem ugly to the reader. It makes Bella seem rude and petty. Yes, Lauren is being a jerk. (I guess. Since Bella is "imagining" the insolence, it's hard to be sure.) But that doesn't make Bella seem like less of a jerk for drawing mental mustaches on Lauren so that she can then silently jeer at her for being a Stupid UglyFace. It just makes Bella seem snotty.