12 August 2008

Dawn Returns?

Publishers Weekly's reported on unusually heavy reader disappointment in Breaking Dawn, Stephenie Meyer's latest installment in her Twilight series last week. Other popular series have reached crucial turning-points without such a reaction.

Gail Gauthier has interesting comments on what readers should and shouldn't have expected from the Twilight books. Her description of the heroine's domesticization makes me think of Natasha at the end of War and Peace, or Jo March becoming a mother and surrogate mother in the sequels to Little Women. However, Meyer's description of the actual process of becoming a mother in Breaking Dawn seems, by all accounts, to be horribly off-putting.

Like Roger Sutton, I was struck by the fan movement to return read books for refunds, or at least store credit. That brought up some interesting issues on the nexus of literary tastes and ethics, as PW reported:

In one heavily trafficked thread entitled “Unhappy with Breaking Dawn? Don’t burn it--RETURN it!,” commenters debated whether returning the book was a valid way to express unhappiness with the book.

“Technically, reading a book and returning it is theft of knowledge,” read one post, while the original commenter, a former bookstore employee, wrote, “I don’t advocate making a habit of buying new books, reading them, and returning them. But once in a while... I do think mass returns are a useful form of consumer protest.”

Another poster recounted, anecdotally, returning the book at Borders: “They took back my book with no problem. Got into a discussion with the cashier about how I was the 15th (!!!) person to bring my book back today.”

Oren Teicher, COO of the American Booksellers Association, said that there is no official ABA policy governing book returns by customers. “I can tell you that it’s certainly my experience that most stores will absolutely accept returns provided the books are in good condition,” he said, adding that independent booksellers are more interested in preserving longterm relationships with their customers than quibbling over a return.

Regarding books returned because a customer was displeased with it, Teicher said he thought some independent booksellers would be receptive to accepting such a return if they had recommended the book to the customer, though he noted, “I believe there was not a lot of handselling going on Friday night.”
In other words, readers knew what sort of writing they were getting when they paid for it.

I ponder how this sort of reader response might play out in the future. What will happen to protest returns as books migrate toward a digital format, with more people downloading titles instead of buying hard copies? In that case, all we'll be buying, really, is the intellectual content. There would be no physical way to give that back, or ensure we don't secretly continue to enjoy it. Would publishers and booksellers still offer full refunds to keep their potential customers happy enough to buy someone else's book instead? Or should authors in a download age get the benefit of non-returnable sales?


Kelly said...

J.L.: In response to the Jo March and Natasha mentions...I think there's a BIG difference between all three:

1) Natasha: As a former colleague of mine (unfortunately passed away) always said, "What do you want? This is 19th century Russia! You want Natasha to go to law school?"

2) I was extremely disappointed by Jo at the end of Little Women. Not for becoming a great mother and a kick-ass teacher. No. I was disappointed she married an elderly, stuck-up guy who had the nerve to criticize the writing that PAID.

3) Bella. Haven't read these novels and don't plan to. I have no time for anti-Feminist novels in the 21st century.

I just love commenting on all these Twilight posts even though I haven't read the books :)

Anonymous said...

I am sensing a certain amount of shoe-is-on-the-other footism in the response to Stephanie Meyer. I think there are a lot of people who felt that anyone who couldn't appreciate say, Phillip Pullman or Harry Potter was just narrow-minded and ridiculous, but now that a Mormon has produced an absorbing captivating story replete with her own morality and world view, they don't like the message and they "worry about the children who read it."

It's bizarre, but instructive for me. I'm one of the people who don't like the Twilight books, and I try to remind myself to chill. And the next time I run into someone who rails about Pullman, I hope I remember what it felt like when the shoe was on my foot.

J. L. Bell said...

Are you referring to how some people perceive a strongly anti-abortion message in Breaking Dawn?

I've seen some comments on that, but that doesn't seem to have been part of the complaints from formerly pleased readers. The critics most likely to be offended by an anti-abortion theme were probably, I would think, already turned off by Bella's reported passivity in the previous two books.

I haven't read the trilogy, but I was struck by descriptions of how unattractively Breaking Dawn depicts its heroine's pregnancy and early motherhood. I know Bella is in a special situation, but I even wondered if Meyer was subconsciously expressing some ambivalence about that experience.

Kelly said...

I think anon's comment is very, very interesting. And I agree with her/him completely. My daughter has read the Twilight series and I've made no attempt to stop her. They are a cultural phenomenon, just as Pullman and Rowling's books are.

It is true that I'm in my 40s and, therefore, choose to NOT read something that I find, for lack of a better word, icky. (I've not read the "Left Behind" series, either, as an example.) But...I would never stop a child from investigating the world he or she lives in. Even my own child.

Gail Gauthier said...

I think there has been some subtle anti-Mormon sentiment regarding these books even before Breaking Dawn. That wouldn't have come from Meyer's big fans, though. One of the responses I've been seeing from what appear to have been serious fans is that they object to Bella getting everything. They object to her not having to suffer and sacrifice. Presumably, they wanted her to have to suffer and sacrifice for love.

Years and years ago, Betty Friedan said in The Feminine Mystique that women were believed to identify with suffering. That was why women's magazines carried what was known in the trade as "ordeal stories." (They carried them well into the 80s and may still do so.) Disease of the week movies on TV also played to that idea.

This particular response to Breaking Dawn makes me wonder if there isn't something to that. The childish treatment of Bella, the way the public loved it for so long, and the response from women readers now would make a great paper for a feminist academic. Camille Paglia? Are you listening?

As far as the pregnancy/childbirth material is concerned, I think that's just a misstep on Meyer's part, an indication that she didn't understand that she was supposed to be writing YA or what YA is. In my experience, pregnancy and childbirth stories are traded among mothers of young children--the grimmer the better. I wonder whether it's Meyer's adult or teen readers who find that section of the book unsettling. I really see that whole story line as being of interest to twenty and thirty something women with children rather than teenage girls.

Anonymous said...

My daughter (14) has loved all of the Twilight series and still really enjoyed the last book, although she said the bulk of the drama and dramatic climax came at the two-thirds point, rather than later, so that the last few chapters were a bit of a let-down. She had no problems with Bella "getting everything she wanted" without sacrifice, nor with the idea of marriage and motherhood so early in life, nor did she pick up on any didacticism about said life-style choices. In the end, for her it was a book about vampires and a gooey romance (too little Edward in the last book, she said). She has not been captivated by Meyer's new book The Host: it does look rather turgid in comparison.

I have read the first two Twilight books and will re-read and manage all four. I suspect people are taking the phenomenon of myriad girls adoring them, too seriously.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I wasn't aware of Twilight until yesterday when a boy (11?) came up to the Info Desk (his mother standing by to give him courage) and asked about it.

Naturally there are several books with the same title so it wasn't immediately easy to pin down which one he meant. Once I did we discovered there were 42 holds on the 8 copies owned by the Berkeley Public Library. Mom said she'd probably buy him a copy ...

J. L. Bell said...

With a movie adaptation on the way, I imagine Twilight's going to move quickly beyond its teenaged-girl base. It is, after all, a saga of vampires and werewolves.

I wonder what this young reader will make of the scenes in Breaking Dawn, should he get that far.

Anonymous said...

I am coming back late to this thread, but I have to say to Col that the didacticism that your fourteen year old doesn't pick up on is THE BEST KIND. At least, in terms of effectiveness, and this is why some people are disturbed by Twilight.

Underneath the vampires and werewolves story are some assumptions--that of course a girl should sacrifice anything (including her life) for her guy, that's what love IS. That if a guy both loves and wants to hurt you, you should trust him. As if there aren't real teenagers abused by real boyfriends who defend their abusers by saying, "but he loves me."

I quit with Twilight, so I can't respond to the anti-abortion position, but I suspect that I would see similar assumptions inherent in the later books. Bella makes hasty, life-changing decisions while young and in the throws of an obsessive relationship, and that's hunky-dory. While the adults in the story might try to put up road blocks, what the reader sees is that Bella is right.

I find these unstated assumptions far more insidious than any of the flagrant misbehavior of The Gossip Girls, for example. I don't however, think that any of them were included deliberately by Meyer, and I don't think she's consciously trying to change anyone's worldview. She's writing a captivating story, and this is just the way she rolls.

In end though, I have to believe that readers will sort all this out for themselves. If they can't, keeping them away from Twilight certainly won't save them. It's just that now I am in the position of "worrying about the children." And I hope I can use the knowledge of exactly how it feels to persuade others to let their kids read what the want.

anon 2:59

J. L. Bell said...

On 28 Aug 2008, Meyer announced on her website that she had abandoned the partial manuscript of a further Twilight book because it had been leaked on the internet.

I’d been under the impression that Breaking Dawn brought the story to a close. That’s what I get for not reading the books! So I revised the posting accordingly.

I can’t help but wonder if fan reaction to Breaking Dawn was a factor in Meyer’s rethinking of the unfinished book. Certainly the fan pressure on her is as great as on any author since J. K. Rowling.

Anonymous said...

The book she was working on was to be a re-write of her first book, with the story told from Edward the Vampire's point of view instead of Bella's. I think it is a shame that her work was posted without her consent. Anyone's first draft (except Mozart's, maybe) can be held up for ridicule, and I do think that fear of that, on top of the reaction to Breaking Dawn probably made her throw in the towel.

Meyer said that if she kept writing in her current mood, the Bad Vamps would win and all the good guys would die. I say, I'd love to read that book. Not just because I think Bella was a whiney twit, but because I don't think it has happened before. Do you know of anyone who has re-imagined one of their own stories-- same characters and major plot points--but rewritten to show the bad guys winning?

Rosa Guy re-writes the same story from different viewpoints, but that isn't what I mean. Any ideas?

J. L. Bell said...

I’m curious about how Meyer’s draft got out to the public—clearly someone betrayed her trust.

It’s also striking that Meyer feels she can’t tell her story—the same story that she’s already told, so she knows how it’s supposed to come out—without being in the right mood. That seems to reflect some of her other comments about how she writes, which just confirms that every writer’s process is different.

It also reflects some people’s comments about Breaking Dawn reading like fanfiction: changing how a story ends because it doesn’t suit your mood is the sort of thing some fanfiction writers like to try.

I can’t think of any novelist who’s rewritten a story “to show the bad guys winning,” but there are some examples of authors writing alternative endings to their tales. John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman is probably the best known. But at that level of literary experimentation, authors have usually discarded the notion of “bad guys” long before.

I described a strange, economically-motivated change to the endings of two of L. Frank Baum’s books here.