Twilight, Not Shakespeare

Or “what we still need to research”.

There comes a time in the lives of academics (or pre-academics) when it becomes necessary to take a long, hard look at some of our cherished personal beliefs and let them go. We must admit we are wrong.

So here’s my moment: the study of books such as Twilight does belong in literary studies.

Now, hear me out, before you all jump down my throat (or sink your fangs into it). Most of the work I’ve been doing so far has been centered around the question of why we respond to books the way that we do. There’s a lot going on in academia these days and one finds oneself drawn to certain aspects of it. I am interested in neuroaesthetics, also described as understanding the appeal of art, literature in particular, by looking at the human brain — its evolutionary history, its development, its neurological functioning — and trying to say something meaningful in the end. (For those of you following along, it’s that last bit I’m stuck on in my paper at the moment. Which is why I’m writing a blog post, not a paper.) What makes this so interesting is that so much of the research happens at the intersection of literary studies and psychology, which is somewhere I quite like living.

It also means that I end up reading quite a few books about neuroscience, psychoanalysis (which, as long as we’re on the subject of long-held beliefs I’m recanting, has a ton of interesting things to say by people who, like me, disagree with a certain Sigmund), and evolutionary biology. The most recent book I finished is entitled Consilience by Edward O. Wilson and is a manifesto for using evolutionary psychology to think about the social sciences and the humanities. Well, what it really is is a plea against treating evolutionary explanations for human phenomenon as restrictive, reductive or irrelevant. I can get behind that — psychology, though still a baby science, is teaching us a lot about how people think and most of what we’re learning is that we don’t think the way we thought we thought. (Go on, parse that sentence. I’ll wait.) Human beings are irrational, we work by heuristic rather than by logic and, this is particularly important for all you economists out there, we’re really bad at assessing a situation and making the  best choice, that is the choice that will benefit us the most. (For more information, start throwing darts at the table of contents in the past month’s NYTimes book review. You should hit a book about this within the first five or so throws) Without getting too deeply into evolution, we did not evolve to live in the 21st century and a fair amount of our mental algorithms responsible for keeping us alive fail in our current environment.

Now, what in the name of Hamlet does this have to do with the arts? Simple — Wilson thinks that the evolutionary explanation for why we “art” is that art becomes a way for people to convey complicated ideas, especially emotions, in a way that is not possible through plain language and that would take too much time if we had to experience them all on their own. The human lifetime is too short to learn through experience, so we learn through art.

Fine. I don’t entirely agree with him, but fine. How does this help me? Because while I love the idea of understanding art by the effect it has on its audience, I can’t help but think that Wilson’s approach emphasizes the problem with being overly reductive; you can no longer say anything interesting. Literary criticism should not be limited to “and what can we learn from this text?” Understanding how a text operates, what its underlying assumptions are, what the author is trying to say and how the reader feels can certainly be informed by evolutionary psychology, but should not be limited to it. Understanding what the text might be trying to teach is the beginning of analysis, not the end. And, of course, what is most interesting (err, to me) is not the what, but the how.

I suppose, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I’m currently writing about how two certain medieval authors are trying to make their readers feel better through their books and isn’t it fascinating that you can DO that, that books can heal? The two authors are, of course, Maimonides and Rabbi Judah Halevi.

Anyway, so now that I’ve made it pretty clear what my stake in this is, I’ll return to Wilson. And here’s my other problem with him. In some ways, I’m less interested in why Shakespeare survives and catches humanity’s attention than why Twilight does. If you’re basing your theory of art on the idea that, through its style, it can convey necessary information and affect, and educate us, you need to explain two things.

1) Why do we study Joyce?

2) Why do we read Twilight?

Joyce is my example of an author who is almost entirely unaccessible to the vast majority of the population. He’s not the only one, possibly not even the worst, but certainly a good example. If he is unreadable, how does he teach anything (except to the few, lone scholars who take the time to understand him)? Which is really the point — for art to be useful (I’m sure someone reading this has thought utile et dulce by this point – congratulations, you’re as overeducated as I am) it must be accessible. So how does an evolutionary based theory of art explain the entire 20th century?

And, following that, how does it explain the popular forms that sweep through society? Why does a vast majority of the population that has no truck with Joyce think Stephanie Meyer is great? It it’s not art, why is it that we respond to it the way we do to art?

Look, the easiest question for neuroaesthetics to answer is the appeal of Jane Austen. That’s where we begin. Any author for whom the answers end with why we like good art is not someone I’m interested in reading. I want to know why we like bad art and, furthermore, I want to know why so much of what is considered good art is disliked by the vast majority of humanity.

I will concede, yes, that the main reason not to study Twilight is that one has to read it in order to do so, but I think that anyone who says they* made it through academia without ever having read a single book they did not like is a bald-faced liar.


*If I haven’t mentioned this before, I will do so now. They is perfectly acceptable as a third-person singular pronoun. It has been for centuries and, as no one has provided a decent alternative when it was declared, unilaterally, to be unacceptable, I shall continue to use it as such. If you must think I am wrong to do so, you should at least be aware that I am deliberately being wrong. (That is, I would rather you, dear reader, think me stubborn than ignorant.)



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12 responses to “Twilight, Not Shakespeare

  1. I thought you gave up on Twilight halfway through the first book. Or am I imagining things?

  2. No, I forced my through it on one of many Boltbus rides up to New York. I did stop after the first one, because I couldn’t think of a single good reason to continue. It was getting such a bad rep, I wanted to make sure it was as bad as everyone said it was before I joined in on the hating.
    It was.
    This, by the way, is the best reason to pursue digital humanities–make the computer read Twilight and then use its data to explain why the book is awful, yet strangely magnetic.

    • Oh that’s easy, just add a parameter for “sparkle.” Most girls like shiny things. Like diamonds. Or sparkly Robert Pattinsons. Either one.

      • I’m not sure if a simple parameter for “ooh, shiny” would work. I mean, there’s more to a romance novel than sparkle. There’s got to be a tall, dark and obnoxious parameter as well (which has the merit of including both Twilight and Pride and Prejudice under its rather disturbing umbrella.)

  3. Yael

    If we only read “good” literature or enjoyed “good” art, life would be problematic. Take the last Muppet movie for example, yes go ahead take it. It was terrible but people love it. How can that be? I am sure they saw the same movie I did- no plot, no wit, no cache. Why do people like it? I think it appeals to their childhood memories of muppets and times being easy because you had no responsibility – yes you were a child and those muppets were funny and entertaining and they made you feel good.
    Now, what that has to do with Twilight, I don’t know, but I think it’s an example of a kind of neurosaesthics – people liking something because it reminds them of something else that they once liked.

  4. Erachet

    Wow, I really miss studying literature. I’m not sure I agree with Wilson that art is about feeling or about being useful. I was always of the understanding that art engages the mind while other things engage the emotions (though some art can do both), and that the more something plays just to your emotions, the less likely that thing is really high art.

    Also, hear hear on “they.”

    • I keep thinking that this split between rational thoughts and emotions is something we (well, the Enlightenment) invented. Thinking dispassionately is something we (okay, I, but we is such a useful term) do after emoting. We fall in love and then list the reasons shy, we get angry and then try and work out why such a little thing upset us. We read a great book, feel that sigh of “ahh, this was amazing” and then go back to it and wonder “why is this book different from all other books?”
      So I don’t really think about art as the difference between affective and cognitive responses, though, I suppose, one could argue that great art makes you THINK and FEEL, bad art makes you FEEL and good craft makes you THINK…but that feels reductive. Wilson would love it, then.

      • Erachet

        I don’t know. There’s been literature I’ve read that is considered “art” that don’t really cause me to feel anything in particular afterward, but I do appreciate the literary genius either. I guess what I feel is more, “Wow, that was well done” as opposed to “Wow, I love those characters!” or “I’m thinking about life in a whole new way!” or something.

      • Erachet

        (By “I do appreciate the literary genius either,” I meant “I do appreciate the literary genius anyway.”)

    • “… and that the more something plays just to your emotions, the less likely that thing is really high art.”

      I have to disagree. The idea that emotional appeal is somehow a hallmark of “low” art is a conceit that first appeared in the late 19th or early 20th century, and which is contradicted by pretty much everything called “art” from the previous several millenia. More to the point, the concept of art that is foremost an intellectual pursuit and only incidentally concerned with emotion—and let me say that I’m with Liz on the distinction between those two—is a modern phenomenon, and one that has probably done a great deal of damage to art appreciation by general audiences. (I can elucidate in some detail if you want, though I’m better equipped to talk about my own field [music] than about literature.)

  5. I often have a lot of insecurity with things I like vs things most people my age like, vs things that are considered ‘good’ or ‘sophisticated’. For example, Jack tried to share Onegin with me, and it only make me upset and depressed and confused. I didn’t understand the appeal of the story at all, and I was upset with myself for not ‘being able to appreciate’ this story, that is seen by all as ‘good literature’.

    Similarly, unlike most of my peers, I do not care for Joss Whedon, nor do I think he is some kind of genius. There is, in fact, a hell of a lot of ‘geek stuff’ that I actively dislike or find either stupid or demeaning, or just a one-trick pony.

    On the other hand, usually things that I like–Disney is a big one–are universally mocked and ridiculed by not only my peers but society generally, and I have a lot of conviction that they are ‘baby’ things to like, even though I see in them a great deal of complexity, meaning, and inspiration.

  6. Yael Shayne

    I sort of disagree with the idea that the higher or greater the art is, the less we emote or get a viceral response. I think art/literature/music appeals to us on many levels and to separate the cognitive or intellectual from the emotional doesn’t work for me. I mean, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and Springsteen’s Born to Run both move me and I appreciate the composers’ ability to create the work and to make the statement that they feel is important enough to impart to me. Can we argue that Beethoven is better than Bruce? Maybe, but why should we? They both move me in significant ways and that is why I listen to music. I think we can make the same arguement for literature. I told Liz I cried at the end of (recently read) “The Mill on the Floss” and “Brideshead Revisited”. Does that make Elliot and Waugh less worthy or good than say Camus? I just finished “The Fall” and it didn’t make me cry. All three made me think and appealed to my desire to understand the nature of man. Just because two caused me to emote and one did not, I’m not sure I would judge quality or worth based on emotion.
    P.S. I love Disney

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