Review: Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women who Love It, Tanya Erzen

Beacon Press, publisher of Fanpire, says:

Why have the Twilight saga’s representations of romance and relationships enchanted millions of fans and generated millions in revenue, selling everything from Barbie-type dolls to blockbuster films? Tanya Erzen-herself no stranger to the allure of the series-explores the phenomenon of Twilight, books and films influenced by conservative Mormon religious ideas, by immersing herself in the vibrant and diverse subculture of “Twi-hards” to understand why so many love the series (sometimes in spite of themselves). She attends Edward-addiction groups, Twi-rock concerts, and fan conventions, and looks at the vast world of online fandom that Twilight has generated. Part journalistic investigation and part cultural analysis, Fanpire will appeal to obsessed fans and haters alike.

Oh a subculture. How I love a book where the author reports from the trenches (war metaphor not intended to suggest any negative connotation about any individual subculture). Subculture books must be tempting to write because I can imagine they would look easy to do: You just talk about all the things that build that subculture’s Normal; you interview people who are Just Like Us, and ta-da, you have a book! (Supposably.)

To an extent, this is right, and subculture books mostly will interest me at least three stars. But here are the things it’s very easy to forget about when you are writing your subculture book: 1) Contextualizing the subculture; and 2) being nice about the people in it.

On the second front, Erzen clearly succeeds. The people she interviews tend to be romantic in their views, but they are not a monolith, nor are they (uniformly) unaware of the problems with the series. The women (it’s mostly women) she interviews will say, hey yeah, Edward’s a stalker and this is just a fantasy, but what appeals to us is X. Maybe it’s that Bella thinks of herself as nothing special, yet to Edward she’s everything. Maybe it’s that Bella has near-perfect clarify about where she wants her life to go, while the rest of us are often, to say the least, struggling to find any kind of clarity at all. I liked seeing this stuff articulated by the fans.

(It made me think about my own feelings about Jane Eyre. I know Mr. Rochester is in some ways a huge prat who jerks Jane around, but I find his and Jane’s shared sense of humor so delightful that I root for them anyway. They’re funny! They have jokes together!  Jane Eyre is a better book, can we agree?, and yet still I can see the similarity between my excusing-Rochester-for-that-Blanche-Ingram business and the above-described mechanism by Twilight fans.)

It is fun to see, in short, all the ways that fans of a book interact with the text, even if it’s not a text I personally have any interest in except to stare in horror. Erzen shows us conventions, opening nights of movies, Twilight-themed tours of Forks, Twilight-themed bands, and more. She resists poking fun and instead focuses on what the books and the fandom have given to the fans, an escape or a new sense of community or a multimillion-dollar porny book trilogy if you happen to be EL James. (I kid. She mentions the fanfiction that Fifty Shades of Grey began its life as, but not the books themselves.) Which is just fine.

HOWEVER. (Y’all knew there was a however in the offing, right?) The book doesn’t make much effort to put any of this in any kind of context. There are nods to the fact that context exists, but none of that gets developed much. For instance, Erzen mentions that Twilight fans — a group that is overwhelmingly female — come in for plenty of media mockery in a way that, says, sports fans do not. This in spite of similar rhetoric (I’m talking now, not Etzen) by football fans — Twilight fans say OME (oh my Edward) for OMG; Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has the nickname “Purple Jesus.” Things are the same! Let’s wade into that! (But no.)

Or, this fandom versus a closer and more gender-balanced equivalent, Harry Potter fandom. Or Erzen mentions a red state / blue state divide in levels of affection for Twilight — more on that! Or more on the “destiny” theme and how it relates to choice and feminism for Bella and for her fans.  Or on attitudes to sexuality. Or gendered violence stuff! Or a million things! Erzen mentions them and then drops them instantly, and I wanted to know more. Context matters. Descriptions of kooky events can only take you so far.

In sum: Good in the way of subculture books, though I’d have liked this one to explore more deeply the relationship of Twilight fandom to the wider world in which it exists.

I received an e-galley of this book from the publisher for review.