I’m fascinated by literary blockbusters, books that sell in the millions worldwide and create their own language and cultures, like Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code and Twilight. These books owe their success to more than just their easy reading and vividly imagined stories. They tap into something deep within their readers; they express the zeitgeist, the collective unconscious, they are signs of the times.
So what can the two literary blockbusters of the noughties The Da Vinci Code and the Twilight saga tell us about our times, at the end of a decade that closes with the Copenhagen accord?
Da vinci code I think the phenomenal success of The Da Vinci Code is due largely to its introduction of a powerful, generative woman to the overwhelmingly male Christian story and speaks to our need for a strong feminine mythos. Regardless of whether or not we espouse Christianity, its story of a male sky god and his crucified redeemer son born of a human virgin has shaped the western world for two thousand years and is deeply embedded in our culture. Apart from the virgin mother, the only other significant woman in the New Testament is Mary Magdelene and in The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown put MMs non-virginal womb at the centre of the Christian story and took the world by storm.
His novel focuses on one of Christianitys great icons, the Holy Grail, said to be the chalice from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper and for which the knights of King Arthurs round table quested. The Da Vinci Code radically revises this reading of the Holy Grail. Its protagonist discovers the grail is not the vessel that held the red wine drunk by Christ at the Last Supper instead it is the vessel that held the blood of Jesus and Mary Magdelene. In this reading the Holy Grail sought by medieval knights was not a cup, but the progeny of Jesus and MM and the sacred chalice was a womb (Mary Magdelenes, pregnant with her child with Jesus).
The success of The Da Vinci Code suggests to me that we long for a big accessible story that honours the creative energy of the feminine. By chance, we already have such a story in the making the one about saving our domestic sphere, the earth. Conveniently for this story, the British scientist James Lovelock has even named the complex system that manages the health of our planet after an ancient Greek goddess Gaia, goddess of the earth. As the Copenhagen climate summit made clear, most of us now know that our future on this planet is in question. Not the future of the earth itself, but its fitness for human habitation. On a global scale, we are trashing our house.
The change required for us to stop trashing our house is massive. It will demand that we reduce our consumption and production of endless things, that we exercise restraint.
Twilight Interestingly, the Twilight saga owes its page-turning success to this very thing: restraint, a quality otherwise unheard of in contemporary popular culture. The restraint required by its teenage lovers Bella Swan and Edward Cullen and which makes Twilight such compelling reading derives from the fact that Edward Cullen is a vampire. Edward is a lover so dangerous that if he and Bella respond to their physical desires he will kill her.
So Edward must exercise the most extreme restraint, at first concealing his love for Bella and later, when it is revealed, resisting his overwhelming physical passion. Only when he becomes accustomed to the intoxicating scent of Bellas blood can he allow himself to kiss her. And Edward isn’t the only vampire in Twilight who must curb his desires. His whole vampire clan practises a restraint hitherto unknown among vampires: the Cullens drink no human blood, they are vegetarian vampires. We must learn a similar restraint: as consumers and producers addicted to endless economic growth we must stop and understand that perpetual growth cannot be accommodated on a finite planet, as George Monbiot so definitively puts it.
I think these blockbusters point the way to a new story. One about a planet governed by Gaia and tended by people whose focus is on the earth beneath our feet, not on the afterlife, and who have the power of restraint, the power to say no to the delusion of endless economic growth.
23 Dec 09 at 20:58
May I suggest that marketing also has a lot to do with The Da Vinci Code’s success? See Cosuming Books – The Marketing and Consumption of Literature, edited by Stephen Brown, Ch 5 Culture Club: Marketing and Consuming The Da Vinci Code by Kent Drummon.
24 Dec 09 at 11:14
Very interesting post and yes I’d have to agree that it’s worth considering exactly why these ‘blockbusters’ are so successful rather than just bemoaning them. For me, I’d have to put a large part of it down to the hype and marketing (everyone wants to read what everyone is reading type of thing).
With regards to the Da Vinci Code, I’m lost as to why it’s been such a hit. But the appeal of Twilight is something that interests me, particularly from a YA perspective. The books are obviously badly written, poorly edited and rife with clichés, yet they are a cultural phenomenon in their own right. They top the bestseller lists every week and are always mentioned at least once at every literary gathering. Why? To draw on discussions I’ve had with peeps smarter than myself – I think that what Meyer has managed to capture, in a manner as shameless as any Harlequin romance, is the nature of obsession. Other articles have likened this to celebrity mania, but I think obsessive teenage love is more accurate – the type of all-consuming, selfish, 24/7 first crush type love that is, whether genuine or not, often a rite of passage for many schoolkids. Another savvy editor also pointed out to me that Meyer manages to do this while also capturing the ambivalent push-pull many teenage girls (or boys) may feel when it comes to sex. The desire to appear sexually confident and knowing often clashes with a real vulnerability and nervousness – Meyer gives her readers the perfect answer in the form of Edward. While he wants Bella (and she him), he cannot have her and so, despite her advances, takes it upon himself to exercise ‘restraint’. Thus Bella can both desire and be desired without any of the awkwardness, pain and doubt that often comes with early relationships.
24 Dec 09 at 13:18
Genre novels are commonly derided as badly written, just as “literary” novels are routinely regarded as boring, snobbish and elitist by some readers. I feel the situation is unfair and akin to a Porsche enthusiast proclaiming the Tarago as a badly designed car or asking a father of six if he thinks the Spyder is a good car for his family. No one sets out to write or edit a novel that is “badly written, poorly edited and rife with clichés”, just as no thriller writer would write a novel that doesn’t give the readers a emotional ride, no romance writer would write a novel that doesn’t make the readers believe love is possible and worth fighting for. The Da Vinci Code, Twilight and Harlequin romance are extremely popular because, inter alia, they do their jobs really well and satisfy a need in readers, which is something, I think, most writers would like to do. I certainly do not believe Dan Brown or Meyer or any Harlequin romance reader/writer have anything to be ashamed of. And if I may be bold and forward here, I would like to gently suggest that anyone who is surprised or thinks Brown/Meyer/romance writers don’t deserve their success because they are “bad” writers or they should be ashamed of their work/success may consider getting down off their high horse.
24 Dec 09 at 13:25
Simon, I don’t think those writers have anything to be ashamed of – but I do think that Dan Brown is a much worse writer than most, commercial or otherwise. I think genre fiction can be extremely well written and it’s perfectly reasonable for a reader of genre fiction (as I am) to make comments on the quality of the writing in the book, alongside any comments on the plotting of said book.
24 Dec 09 at 13:38
Dan Brown is a pretty terrible writer but is he any worse than our own Bryce Courtenay whose books are extremely successful mainly due to the fact the man has branded himself over the years and his publisher puts a lot of effort into the marketing – take the recent television commercial with the author’s voiceover as an example. These books are written for the masses who couldn’t give a stuff about, and perhaps wouldn’t even know, whether the writing is good or not, they just want a damn good story and these guys know how to give it to them.
24 Dec 09 at 13:40
I agree with you, Sophie. I guess what I find unreasonable is when someone judges a genre novel with criteria other than that particular genre’s.
24 Dec 09 at 13:44
And to follow up on Leia’s comment: I think what is bad writing in a non-genre novel can be very good writing in a genre novel. For example: cliches can be excellent because they don’t slow me down in finding out what happens next.
24 Dec 09 at 17:26
Simon – I agree that both books do what they do well, hence their immeasurable success, and I’m sorry if you saw my comment as being offensive (it wasn’t intended as such). What I was trying to discuss here was the reason why Twilight especially speaks to so many readers, regardless of its literary ‘merit’. The question of how a literary phenomenon comes about is an interesting one and Meyer’s case, I think this has much to do with her ability to tap into sexual frustration and the many cross-currents that exist in young relationships.
24 Dec 09 at 17:49
No offense taken, Jess, all in the spirit of a lively discussion. Merry Christmas and a prosperous 2010 to you and everyone at Meanjin, I look forward to reading this blog and your novel next year.
26 Dec 09 at 10:14
Excellent – hope you had a lovely christmas too!
28 Dec 09 at 19:30
Interesting discussion prompted by Simon and Jess.
I agree with you that ‘The Da Vinci Code’ owes much of its success to marketing (and I think to our abiding fascination with codes, symbols and arcane knowledge) and the Twilight saga to the life-death enormity of teen passion (and I’d say all great sexual passion) and the invincibility/vulnerability that characterises early (and I’d say all) sexual experience. I suppose I was trying to go beyond the more surface appeal of these books to question what might lie beneath, to explore what might have skyrocketed these two in particular, of all the bestsellers of the last decade, to the top of the charts for months and years, what makes them such common currency that people who’ve never even read them talk heatedly about them years after their initial publication. Hence my use of the perhaps spurious term ‘collective unconscious’ and the more acceptable ‘zeitgeist’, and the extremely speculative nature of my postulations.
07 Mar 10 at 9:38
i love you twilight and new moon
21 Oct 10 at 3:10
i think there should be some more twilight books. i also have to say what the fuck is wrong with herr she should be making more twilight books by now she knows how much people LOVE them.