IT IS NOT POSSIBLE to write an unrealistic novel. I give up. No matter how peculiar your invention, reality inevitably sprints past you, cackling. I thought I was conjuring something nicely absurd for my YA heroine, Arabella, when I gave her a mother with academic expertise in the mating habits of vampire bats. This was only a few years ago. Milrose Munce and the Den of Professional Help came out in 2007. At that time I’m fairly sure that academics devoted to vampires were thin on the ground. By the end of this decade, I suspect it will be hard to find an academic who doesn’t specialize in vampires.
Vampire science is already poaching some of the best. The woman who teaches vampires at Harvard is a serious scholar of Romantic English literature. Now, Lord Byron did in fact invoke the undead in “The Giaour,” one of his wildly popular longer poems; he also wrote an aborted vampire novel, “The Burial: A Fragment.” But don’t kid yourself: it’s still a huge and weird notional leap to go from Byron Studies to Vampire Studies. Swimming the Hellespont with a club foot is life-altering and disorienting, no doubt; but you still don’t expect to be handed your towel in Transylvania.
Blame Bella. You know: the lip-biter who gets thigh-bitten. Bella Swan, despite her famed awkwardness, has seduced not simply a hot emo dead guy who sparkles when topless; not simply every teenager on Team Either Dude; not simply the guy who plays the stripped sparkler in real life; but also, apparently, some of the world’s leading scholars.
Professor Sue Schopf’s course in vampire literature treads a careful critical line. She is aware that her subject matter is not entirely of the highest literary merit. Yes, a tiny handful of vampire narratives are rightly considered classics. But they are outnumbered. Big time. It is in fact like the traditional zombie plot, in which only three people in the known universe are undrooling humans, and everyone else is just a bit less impressive. So this course requires her to teach novels that are not really on the same level as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In. These writers have no illusions about their own mortality. Since deathless is out of the question, their prose errs on the side of deadly. This prof, however, refuses to look down her nose, even at the least elegant material. (Say, a book featuring masochistic vampire groupies: “fang bangers.”) She’s besotted with all of it.
An unabashed cheerleader for Team Edward, Prof. Schopf has made a running joke of accidentally interrupting slide shows with images of Robert Pattinson. “How did that get in there?” You’ll never see her wince or sneer. Her course is a celebration: It’s all good. The student with the highest mark in the class wins a truly ace Twilight umbrella.
My girlfriend was gunning for the umbrella, but she missed a quiz, so it’s not likely she’ll come in first. In general, she likes to make a point of outperforming her classmates, because it curbs their attitude. My girlfriend, you see, is pursuing an ultra-cheap Harvard degree over the Internet, via the venerable Harvard Extension program, and some of the people paying $47,000 a year to attend the bricks-and-mortar version of the university get a bit snotty about this.
Classes are streamed over the Internet; distance students interact with the professor via chatroom software. You get pretty much the entire experience for peanuts. All of the classes are open enrollment (hence the condescension); you’re accepted into the degree program, however, only after you’ve taken courses and proved that you can perform at the Harvard level. Technically, a student has to spend only one semester on campus, but to complete the rest of the undergraduate degree as a distance student is monstrously difficult: The self-discipline required is beyond most people, and the attrition rate is gruesome.
To get her money’s worth, my girlfriend tries to make a point of taking only classes that are taught at Harvard College, by full Harvard faculty. This vampire class is an exception — it is being offered by the Extension School. Still, it is by no means a gut course: The workload is considerably heavier than, say, her class in Egyptology at the College.
An admission here: Unlike Prof. Schopf, I’m kind of insufferable. If a book is poorly written, I won’t finish it. If a film is truly dire, I’ll walk. Hence you should value my opinion. I’m not like your average Ivy League professor. I’m more like Little Mikey, the kid in the Life cereal commercial: I’m discerning.
Now that I’ve established my stratospheric standards, it’s time for another admission. You may have heard of this film, Breaking Dawn, Part 1, that has been clogging cinemas around the world with morbid lovesick munchkins. It pains me to have to say this. This absurdly popular film, dismissed by critics, is actually good. No, really: It’s much better than it has any right to be. I felt that way about the first film in the Twilight series as well. Even New Moon wasn’t fully dreadful. If you want to make a bad film, don’t cast Kristen Stewart.
Stewart is a master of the minor emotional crisis. This is helpful in a vampire flick, where most crises are Not Minor. The tooth-brushing sequence, for instance: generally, to get this kind of drama out of a bathroom scene, you have to butcher someone in the shower. Whereas Kristen? She brushes her teeth. Harrowing. (The leg-shaving is pretty involving as well.)
True, with the exception of this one performance, you’re not dealing with refined cinema. Taylor Lautner does not pack a subtle talent behind that supraorbital ridge; the vampire makeup is still comically inept; and I could do without werewolves conversing in dubbed canine ESP. In fact, you have to forgive a fair bit of risible kitsch.
This is not a deal breaker, however. It tends to be true of most opera as well: If you can love Verdi, you can love Twilight. Nothing here requires the same suspension of disbelief as, say, the plot of Il Trovatore, or a 300-pound soprano trying to convince you that she’s wasting away.
I was determined to hate this stuff. I’m one of the last holdouts when it comes to Harry Potter — it disturbs me that even sane adults can’t see the abyss that separates J.K. Rowling from the genuinely important children’s writers: Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Philip Pullman. I made a real effort to find Hogwarts charming, or at least entertaining. Or anything but annoying. You want the world to go ape for something of genuine value, but the world occasionally chooses Lady Di. Or Harry Potter. The films are no better than the books: incoherent, derivative and trite.
Now, I haven’t actually read Stephenie Meyer, but every indication is that she’s in a different league from J.K. Rowling: The plotting in Breaking Dawn is not simply coherent, but breathtaking. I don’t know the genre nearly well enough to say whether Twilight is unique, but it certainly isn’t the orgy of barely competent theft that you encounter in Harry Potter, which seems to be stolen not so much from Tolkien, as from sword-and-sorcery hacks who themselves stole from a Reader’s Digest version of Tolkien. (I told you I was insufferable.)
I may even have to read Stephenie Meyer. This is unexpected. My girlfriend was required to read the first book for class, and was dreading the prospect, but ended up devouring the entire series. The prose is indeed wretched, she explained, but the books are “seriously engrossing.” This from a woman who’s even less tolerant of creaking wizard pulp than I am.
(She almost wrote a paper on Twilight. I wish she had. It was going to address Christian vs. Mormon subtext in postmodern vampire pulp, but she never got past the title: “God Hates Fangs.”)
Meanwhile, no need for concern: Harvard remains an earnest university. You will still find people there studying weighty matters, in sober ways. My girlfriend took a rigorous course in Mayan glyphs, for instance. Very much what you would associate with a dignified academic institution. What she learned in that esoteric course, surprisingly enough, is of central importance to our ordinary lives: you’ll be happy to know that no respectable Mayanist believes that the ancient Maya prophesied the end of the world in 2012. Not one.
Surely you feel, as I do, a great relief to hear this from the experts. These rumors of Armageddon are based on a gross misinterpretation of the evidence, say the pale scholars at Harvard, who’ve gone eyeball-to-eyeball with the glyphs for longer than you’ve been alive.
Relax: we’re all going to be around for the release of Breaking Dawn, Part II.