July 24, 2012

Turns out that Stephenie Meyer 'can write worth a darn'

Posted: July 24, 2012

The story is well known by now: stay-at-home mom from Arizona writes books at night while her husband and children sleep. Her books sell wildly, and soon she is the top selling author in the world. Yes, the world.

Her books are made into movies, and she becomes wealthy. Her characters enter the lexicon of everyday language: Bella and Edward become as well known as the Scarecrow and Tin Man.

How can this happen to someone who was just “writing for fun”? Will she ever be able to repeat her success? What happens to an average woman who suddenly finds herself wealthy beyond her dreams?

And, why are Bella and Edward and their family and friends so popular?

This is story of Stephenie Meyer, of course, author of “Twilight,” “New Moon,” ”Eclipse” and “Breaking Dawn,” which tell the vampire love story of teenage Bella and ages-old Edward, who appears in the books as a high school student.

And, it is, indeed, a fascinating one, with many questions to be asked and answered. And it’s a particularly relevant Arizona State University story since Meyer was a student at ASU, albeit briefly, and once readily agreed to speak to a class taught by James Blasingame, associate professor of English at ASU.

To answer all of these questions, and many more, Blasingame, who specializes in young adult literature, decided to write a book about Meyer and the “Twilight” phenomena.

For various reasons it turned out to be a “rush job,” so he recruited two of his former doctoral students, Kathleen Deakin and Laura A. Walsh, to help him write the book.

Blasingame had put in a proposal for the book, and Scarecrow Press had accepted it. But before he could write the book he suffered a mild heart attack, and then had a burst appendix while he was hunting on the Kaibab Plateau, on the Grand Canyon North Rim.

“I received a note from the publisher saying, ‘We have to have this book – the last movie is about to come out. Can you get some help?’”

Blasingame turned to Deakin and Walsh and they divided the work. “Kathy and Laura split up the books and movies and I did everything else,” Blasingame said. “We finished it in three months.”

The book, “Stephenie Meyer: In the Twilight,” opens with a chapter on “How a Young Phoenix Housewife Became the World’s Most Celebrated Author in Her Spare Time,” and includes a critical analysis of the “Twilight” Series; a look at the characters, setting, theme, style, conflict and motif of each of the four “Twilight” books, plus two other books and a short story by Meyer: “”The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner,” Midnight Sun,” and “Hell on Earth”; and a brief discussion of the “Twilight” movies. The book concludes with an examination of Meyer’s life in the public sphere.

“Stephenie Meyer” also covers criticism of the books, such as that offered by fantasy writer Stephen King – whose own books had been roundly mocked by literary critic Harold Bloom.

“As her books rose to the top of the New York Times best seller list, they were coming under the obligatory scrutiny of the critics, some of whom were making disparaging remarks about the literary value of her books,” Blasingame wrote.

Meyer countered, according to Blasingame, “Don’t they understand these books are just for fun, just for entertainment, and not intended as literary novels?”

Blasingame notes that Meyer did, in essence, have the last laugh. “Perhaps King evoked some bad karma with his rant (“Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn…”) because Meyer passed him in total sales the very next year, in which the No. 1 moneymaker among authors was James Patterson, followed by Stephenie Meyer as No. 2 and Stephen King as No. 3.”

Laura Walsh, now an assistant professor at State University of New York at Potsdam, said she had read Meyer’s “Twilight” series before writing her chapters of the book, but had not read the author’s other fictional works.

She said she was aware of the criticism of Meyer’s books as she began doing her research. “In fact, I had my own issues with her books before I began the project. However, working on this project forced me to look beyond those judgments and see her writing from a new perspective. That was a great learning experience for me.”

Walsh said one of the things she found surprising about the books was “the way she utilized such literacy devices as dashes, ellipses and fragments to help create a sense of urgency or tension or to help the reader delve deeper into a character's thoughts. I think it was the English teacher in me that found joy in these discoveries. I never would have looked so deeply at the texts had it not been for this project, so I am incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity.”

Co-author Kathleen Deakin, now an assistant professor of English education at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said she also knew of the criticisms. “I was well aware that the literary world was critical of her books, but I think the allure of the series is the simplicity and accessibility of the characters and the plot,” she said. “’Twilight’ is a story of hope. Bella is the ordinary girl thrust into an extraordinary set of circumstances.

“While teaching high school, I spent a great deal of time trying to help my students sift through complex literature that wasn’t written for them and often lacked relevance to their lives. Meyer, I feel, wrote these books for them. And the number of readers speaks much louder than the number of critics.”

So what has drawn so many fans, particularly teenage girls, to the “Twilight” series?

First, according to Blasingame, Meyer’s skill at “conjuring caring and intertwining between her protagonist, Bella, and young women readers is undeniable.” She also has been successful because she writes with detailed description, Blasingame said.

“She avoids passive voice and opens sentences with what she wants the reader to see and know first, getting right to the action of the sentence.”

Blasingame added, “In every sentence, Meyer leads with the picture that she wants in the reader’s mind and then moves on to the sentence’s action, described by verbs that are spot-on accurate for conveying exactly what she wants the reader to experience through Bella.”

Blasingame used a computer program to analyze the language usage Meyer’s writing, choosing three random but consecutive pages from the first and last books in the series.

He found that Meyer’s writing style/voice “is remarkably consistent, almost mechanically so. One of the most difficult things for authors of novels, especially new writers of long novels, is to sustain voice and style. This author’s statistics, however, change not a whit from the first book to the last.”

He also found that Meyer’s writing style is “simple and uncomplicated but also clear, coherent, and never ambiguous,” the readability is high, and that she consistently uses participial phrases to end sentences.

“Stephenie is a master at giving you a reward for going to the next page,” Blasingame said. “She builds suspense well with very selective prose. She has quite an imagination. It touches something in the unconscious mind.”

Blasingame’s first encounter with Meyer came about when a student in one of his graduate classes told him that the author, whom he had not heard about, was visiting a local school.

“I figured, why not try to contact her and see if she would be interested in appearing in my class on young adult literature (for free) while she was on tour with her latest book (whatever that was). I found her e-mail quickly and easily online and invited her to come at her convenience while she was in town.”

Blasingame then learned that Meyer lived in the Phoenix area and was not on tour with her new book, and that she would be happy to visit his class. She came by herself, talked to the students, then hurried home to her three children.

After Meyer spoke to his class, Blasingame, other members of the Arizona English Teachers Association and Tempe’s Changing Hands Bookstore helped put on the Eclipse Prom, which brought together many of Meyer’s fans, and then fame began to put Meyer out of reach.

Will Meyer keep writing blockbuster books? Will Bella and Edward reappear to live out another chapter in their lives?

“I understand that Stephenie has a new book that takes place on another planet,” Blasingame said. “She apparently has not exhausted her line of stories.”

The writer’s lifestyle obviously has changed, since she has moved from a modest home in the Arrowhead neighborhood of Glendale to Cave Creek, and is now producing a film for her writer friend Shannon Hale. And her e-mail is not readily available anymore, Blasingame said.

Though Meyer may have her critics, she achieved her success “the old-fashioned way – with honest hard work and perseverance,” Blasingame said.

Deakin, who had read “Twilight” before beginning her chapters, said she visited Meyer‘s website during her research “to see what her readers found interesting (facts, questions, etc). I really admired how humble she was about her success.

“I imagined, when asked to do this project, that an author that has reached this level of super-stardom would adopt an air of superiority. Stephenie Meyer, however, was very normal, very humble, and very accessible. It’s not surprising she is adored by her fans.”

Judith Smith, jps@asu.edu
Media Relations