The Critique's Critique: Twilight

July 19th, 2010

The previous chapter was about Mein Kampf, and I suggest we now turn to the only book more hated than Hitler's manifesto of fascism: Stephenie Meyer's Twilight.

I have never read anything by her - except the following excerpt - and so I have no judgement (yes, I write it with an "e" after "g" because otherwise it sounds retarded; and I use UK spelling, so there) to make on her work in general. I will say, though, that any book being popular among people (young and less young) is a good thing. Maybe Meyer is not as good as Rowling, but a bad book is better than no book at all. I will say also that I have personally never encountered someone who loved Meyer's work. Maybe I don't go out enough, and maybe Meyer's readers prefer to keep their appreciation a secret. Given the circumstances, if I enjoyed her work and didn't care to fight for my opinion, I would keep quiet about it too.

So, since I tend to defend the few against the many when it isn't clear who is right or wrong, I decided I'd look around the Internet to see if I could find some analysis of Meyer's actual writing and see if it was as bad as everyone says. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Zach Kastens' "A Passage from Twilight (as Critiqued by a First Year Creative Writing Student)":

[1] This one is among the good remarks. If you read creative writing books or take lessons, this one will invariably come up. The idea is that using an adverb will weaken the verb if both mean the same thing: "He smiled happily." You could spare the "happily" and it would sound better: "He smiled." We know why people smile, and, if there are no other indications, we can assume that he smiled in a happy way. Adverbs are the typical enemy of the "creative writer" since Hemingway, on whose prose most creative writing books seem to be based. Consider the following: "He cried." Now consider this: "He cried sadly." I assume you get the idea. I dumbed down my examples to the maximum, to be clear.

[2] Our critic makes no bone of "awhile", but I do. It's not wrong, per se, but I am against it with a passion. It should be "a while". Just like it is never "alot" but "a lot". It's the same deal. According to the dictionary, you can write "awhile" when it is used as an adverb: "You can stay here awhile." Except the dictionary is wrong. This is no adverb! A "while" is a noun! It's like saying "You can stay here a second." Would you ever say "You can stay here asecond"? No! Of course not!

[3] There we are. "Show, don't tell," is something you will always come across too when it comes to creative writing. That and adverbs. It's the basics of creative writing. Consider the following: "He felt very saddened that his wife had left him and the thought of it made him want to die." And compare with this: "He hung up. He stared down, his mouth not quite closed, and clenched his fists." The first example tells, the second shows. Of course, for the second you'll need a context to understand, but in a novel or a short story, you have a context (which I don't have space for here). Now, in this precise example, should Meyer have erased the words our critic put in red? If you're Hemingway, yes. If you're Meyer, using Bella as a narrator, probably not. Our critic never addresses the identity of the narrator. It's not Meyer telling the story, it's Bella. Is Bella a creative writing student? Is she trying to modernise prose the way Hemingway did? I am not saying Meyer would write better if her narrator was different (although that's not impossible - Salinger could write very differently from Holden Caulfield, as proven by his second book, Nine Stories); I'm merely saying that I am pretty sure Bella's style fits her character and the way she narrates her own story. Yes, it could be just a coincidence, and likely Meyer would write the same way with a different narrator. Whichever way it is, I cannot say since I haven't read Meyer's books.

[4] Well that one pisses me off. Eyes can't be watchful? Our critic never fails to spot a "cliché", and this does sound like one to me, so why not redden this as such? Eyes can be watchful if the text says so. Of course, what's really watchful here isn't the eyes per se, but the person who uses them. That's called a metonymy and it's very common in literature and daily conversation. It's like saying "The crown will not agree with this," in which "the crown" is the king. The same thing happens when you ask for "a glass" in a bar: you don't ask for an empty glass, there'll be something in it. And if you read "A hand switched the light on," you will not assume that hand is alone, you will assume someone switched the light on. It's the very same thing here, so this piece of criticism from Zach is not pertinent. You can find dozens of similar examples in any poem by any classic author. When the part stands for the whole, it's called a synecdoche, which is a subtype of metonymy, which is itself a subtype of metaphor. Criticism like this discredits the critic. It's just ridiculous. The only thing you could say about "watchful eyes" is that it looks like a cliché, but Zach says nothing on that issue.

[5] There should be a period at the end of that sentence. Sentence? Yes, sentence. There is only one word, but that's still a sentence. A sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a period (except for instances like Mrs. and Mr. and such). Just because the sentence is short doesn't mean you can take its period (or capital first letter) away. Heed it well, cartoonists.

[6] Same.

[7] Same. I don't know who is to blame for this - Meyer or Kastens - but if it's the author herself, then Kastens failed to notice the flaw there, which is just as bad for one who proposes to spot all writing mistakes. Punctuation is a pretty big deal in creative writing.

[8] How is it peculiar? If someone says a chair is red, you can also ask "How is it red?" Maybe Meyer should have depicted that tone as something other than "peculiar", but still, this strikes me far, far less than the phrase: "a peculiar tone entered his voice." How does a tone enter a voice? To me, that's the biggie here, not the use of an adjective. Without a tone, there is no voice; these two things aren't apart, just like a word can't exist without letters. That's what I find very awkward and poorly worded. "A peculiar tone of voice" would have been fine with me. Moreover, Kastens again tells Meyer to "show, don't tell" and yet what he suggests Meyer do is to tell us how exactly is that tone peculiar. Wouldn't that be telling rather than showing? Sometimes words describe things that cannot be imagined, ask Lovecraft, and this is one of the assets of literature that other media don't have: you can remain abstract, you can write things like "The triangle had four corners" and it's grammatically correct, yet makes no sense if we try to adapt that to our reality. Grammar, I remind you, has nothing to do with meaning, as Chomsky's "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" proves.

[9] A period is missing.

[10] Maybe so, but more importantly: is it something Bella would say? I would imagine so. It doesn't strike me as such a cliché, I must admit. "Let it sink in" is more familiar to me, and sometimes you just have to use the words that fit, no matter how cliché they might be. Clichés don't become clichés by accident, there's a reason, and not using a phrase simply because it has been used before is not a good way to choose your words. I'd still avoid clichés (the very obvious ones), but there's a limit.

[11] This where is the "No Adverbs Allowed" policy fails. This is a typical example of what I fear about general rules and tips: some people fail to understand what the rule/tip is about, and apply it without consideration. Using an adverb that means the same as the verb it qualifies creates redundancy and weakens said verb, yes, but in this case, it does not mean the same at all! "His voice, nearly inaudible," does not at all mean "his voice, inaudible"! Between "nearly inaudible" and "inaudible", there's a huge difference! Between "He smiled happily." and "He smiled." the difference is redundancy, that's the case in which you take out the adverb. "Nearly inaudible" is not that case. Besides, the adverb here does not qualify a verb, it qualifies an adjective, which makes it that less likely to be redundant with the verb. Hemingway used adverbs too, not often, but still. What he would do was to place the adverb in such a way that it would sound like a thing in itself, and not an add-on you place after verbs, which is exactly what Meyer did here. You can't take a general rule and not understand what it's all about. Our critic refuses any and all adverbs! This is just ridiculous. You can't do away with adverbs entirely, you just have to know when and how to use them. Proof that you can't get rid of adverbs? Our critic, who would kill them all, uses five of them in his first paragraph! And I don't blame him, adverbs aren't lepers and they serve their purpose; if they didn't, they would not exist. Plain and simple.

[12] Seriously, "wistful" never was and never will be an adverb: it's an adjective. Our critic applies the "No Adverbs" policy so blindly that he even attacks words that aren't adverbs at all. Will he force all adverbs to wear a yellow star? Will you have to wear one too if you merely come after a verb? Time will tell but I won't be there to listen because this critic has no credibility.

[13] Cliché again? Yes, likely. The question is: if your character actually lost her train of thought, what will you write? The same meaning with different words? Should we abolish all clichés from our vocabulary? I wouldn't be in favour of that. It's ok that it's not new if it serves its purpose as it should. Hating clichés is based on the idea that "new" is automatically "good"; I disagree with this. It's good if it works and does what we want it to do. "Old" can be good too. Cliché is just a word to mean "tradition" in a negative way. My take on them is that they're best avoided, but expressions aren't clichés. You can't say something is a cliché because it's an idiom, that's ridiculous.

[14] Now I can barely believe this one. Does our critic truly think Meyer means his eyes are cold as in they have a low temperature? I guess our critic was never given a "cold stare" and was never talked to in a "cold manner". It's called a metaphor, and it's pretty big a deal in literature and common conversation too. How a "First Year Creative Writing Student" fails to see a metaphor is beyond me. I recommend taking a different class, or a different teacher. This is the most vulgar literary criticism I have ever encountered, far worse than T.S. Eliot saying John Milton wrote bad poetry because he was blind. Meyer obviously means Edward's gaze is cold, not its literal first sense of having a low temperature. I hope everyone understands this, because I didn't think anyone could mistake Meyer's words to mean what our critic thinks she meant. That's stupidity beyond repair.

[15] How is that lazy? Not enough words? Maybe she should have added an adverb in there? Obviously, our critic makes arrows of any wood. If there is an adverb, it's bad. If there is none, it's bad too. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. This is why I give very little value to people analysing passages this way: any sentence can be criticised for this or that, but if you give it an "honest critical look", to use our critic's own words, you realise that you can make things go either way. Hemingway wrote tons of short sentences, that's not being lazy, that's having a general overview, a plan, and sticking to it. This isn't what Meyer is doing, but a short sentence can be powerful. The main flaw of beginning writers is to think that "complicated is good", which usually leads many to resort to adverbs far too often (causing the No Adverbs policy in creative writing lessons and books). James Joyce is the author of a short sentence: "She was sad." Lazy writing? No. It's to the point. It's true. It's efficient. Would our critic have criticised Joyce for being lazy about this sentence? No. But only because Joyce's name isn't Meyer.

And that's it for my notes on his notes. Sure, Meyer's prose could benefit from some editing (although not as much as our critic wants to think), but you could say that about any and all authors. The problem of prose is that it's made of rules and liberties, and not everyone is quite aware of what the rules are. Some think adverbs should not exist at all. Some think "clichés" aren't such an abomination. The rules exist because they have a reason to exist. You must understand these reasons, not simply learn the rules by heart and use them blindly. You're bound to do stupid mistakes if you follow a rule without understanding where that rule is going. For instance, repetition. Our critic uses the adverb (shock and horror) "poorly" no less than three times in the same sentence. Is that wrong? No! It's not wrong because the repetition here has a meaning and together, those three "poorly" have an effect. That's why it's not "wrong". It would be if they had no connection to each other, but as it is, it's a figure of speech, a unit. It is a writing rule that you shouldn't repeat words. This is another common mistake. It's not a grammar mistake, absolutely not, but style-wise it's not very good. Yet, as we have just seen, you can use repetition in a figure of speech. That means the "rule" has exceptions, but you can only know of such exceptions if you understand what the rule is about. Our critic doesn't understand the rule behind the No Adverbs policy, therefore he is unable to see when an adverb should die and when it should stay.

The point of this chapter was to demonstrate that you can't blindly follow rules you don't understand. And that you should only criticise something you understand. Writers against metonymies? Writers against metaphors? Writers against words? Good writing isn't about a literal interpretation of the meaning of words; anyone can sound smart by saying "Eyes can't be cold, they're at body temperature" but in the end it's not that smart. Any given metaphor can be the subject of this criticism. It's like writing "You are the sun of my life" (yes, it's a cliché, a dead metaphor, but only because you can't peel off the clichéness of it and see what it actually means) and then having the person respond, "No, because I am not a giant fireball in space." No shit, Sherlock. The only way you can annihilate metaphors is by assuming everyone is dumb and only capable of literal interpretation. This is what our critic does. Sure enough, he assumes Meyer is stupid. But his critique is assuming everyone else is too. I wouldn't give anyone lessons if I mistook an adjective for an adverb, if I failed to recognise a metaphor, if I proclaimed that metonymies should be banned along with adverbs. That is not to say Meyer is a great author, or not. It is my belief - for having seen it often - that any author can be criticised thusly (adverb!) and nobody would come out intact. It all depends on your critic. Naturally, the critic with the most rigid rules (in which rigidity means blindness to the source of those rules) will find the most flaws. And as we have seen, if mistake A isn't there, it's always an occasion to find mistake B. If there's an adverb, it's bad; if there isn't, it's lazy. There are too many words, there aren't enough. A sentence can't be two ways at once, so it's either A or B, and you can always criticise A for not being B, but that's the point. A short sentence is short because it's not a long sentence. That way you can always find something wrong with anything.

Conclusion: I find the critique worse than the actual passage. I don't disagree with everything Zach wrote, I just find it dangerous to obey rules blindly like that without a thought or any understanding of what they're about. Not everyone can challenge the rules by finding better rules, and it's poisonous when lesser rules are worshipped like golden calves. So I wanted to discuss these basic rules on a case which I thought was the perfect example of rules learned by heart rather than digested. There are other examples of this which I may discuss in future, such as the "passive" form, which is yet another thing creative writing manuals hate. That being said, I do value those rules/tips a lot; I think they're very helpful for beginning writers and confirmed writers as well. But beyond using them, you should understand them. If you can't say why something is wrong, then you don't understand your rule. Our critic couldn't have explained why "nearly inaudible" was wrong, because it isn't. He says adverbs always weaken the narrative, this isn't true. In this case it doesn't because "nearly" and "inaudible" don't have the same meaning at all, therefore there is no redundancy in the pair, and taking the adverb out would give the sentence a completely opposite meaning. Why did our critic not understand this? Because he didn't think it through. He only remembers from class that adverbs are evil and should die in a fire, but he doesn't know why. Not all adverbs should die in a fire, only the ones which add the same meaning to the verb they qualify, only the ones you can take out without changing the meaning of the phrase or sentence. If the adverb adds something of its own, then it's an important part of the structure and cannot be taken out without changing the structure.

I'll finish on commenting that our critic can't write titles; you don't capitalise "A" or "By" if it's in the middle of the title and not at the beginning. Actually no, I'll finish on something else: reading badly written books may be just as good, perhaps even better, as well written books, because flaws and mistakes jump out at you more obviously (adverb of doom!) than good sentences. I'm talking actual mistakes, not debatable clichés. I use tons of adverbs in my non-fiction because you can do all sorts of funny things with them; and redundancy can be used for humorous and ironic purposes as well. Adverbs aren't evil in themselves, it's what you do with them that counts.