The New Twihards

May 13, 2010

Call it "Cullen's Law": If it exists, there is a Twilight spin on it. No exceptions -- and that includes academe.

Yes, though it may run counter to the prevalent stereotype of Twilight's audience (14 years old, misguided, breathless), a growing number of scholars are eager to offer their perspectives on the hugely popular novels and the cultural phenomenon they've engendered.

Early out of the publishing gate was Wiley, which last fall released the volume Twilight and Philosophy as part of the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series. Now the company has followed that up with Twilight and History, which marks the start of a new series on popular culture and history. Nor are Wiley's books an exception to the rule about academe and the vampire bandwagon; when it comes to scholarly work on Stephenie Meyer, it looks like the trend is only getting started.

So what's got academics falling prey to a craze more commonly (and often derogatorily) associated with the hoi polloi?

Well, it's not just the allure of the iridescent Cullens, according to J. Jeremy Wisnewski, co-editor of Twilight and Philosophy. "My own view is that you can raise philosophical questions about anything," says Wisnewski, who is assistant professor of philosophy at Hartwick College. (He then illustrates this idea by riffing on the philosophical implications of bubblegum.) His own tastes aren't the point: "If you asked me to list my ten favorite novels, I'm afraid Twilight wouldn't be among them… it wouldn't even be in the top 50!"

What is important, Wisnewski says, is that so many other people would count Twilight among their favorite books. That makes it an ideal partner for philosophy, which has "had a bad public relations problem… for 2500 years" (a sentiment he credits to series editor William Irwin). "There's this temptation to think of philosophy as navel gazing in an ivory tower by old white guys with beards," Wisnewski adds. So applying it to Twilight, or any artifact of popular culture -- Wisnewski has also edited or co-edited similar volumes on "Family Guy," "The Office," and "X-Men" -- is a way to show "why [philosophy] matters, why it's relevant."

Which isn't to say that the novels' thematic content is inconsequential. Twilight, Wisnewski says, is "particularly conducive" to discussion of a rich variety of topics in philosophy, and therefore to making these issues accessible to a large and diverse audience. "When something like Twilight hits ... it's a huge opportunity, because there's all sorts of questions about death, relationships, what it means to be human, what it means to be moral...."

And philosophers aren't the only scholars finding that the series speaks to their disciplinary interests. Janice Liedl, an associate professor of history at Laurentian University, in Ontario, and contributor to Twilight and History, says that in reading the novels, she "was struck not so much by the love story as by the world-building. I loved the Volturi's hints of an ancient past and Carlisle's references to the time on the continent in the 17th century, or stories of Jasper's trials during the Civil War."

This world-building, according to Twilight and History's editor, Nancy Reagin, is what makes Twilight -- as well as other works of fantasy or science fiction -- an ideal way for historians to connect with a broader audience. "Serious fans," she says, "have a hunger to discuss, parse, and learn more about the fictional worlds that really engage them." Twilight and History, she explains, is intended to provide fans with a "back history" that "will give them new ways to understand the characters and story world: it's a new way into the text."

Simply indulging Twihards, however, isn't the only goal. "Like most history professors," says Reagin -- who is professor of history and women's and gender studies at Pace University -- "I've sometimes been frustrated by the ways that popular understandings of history are shaped by popular culture rather than by scholarly research." And, like Wisnewski, Reagin hopes that offering a scholarly approach to a popular subject will give readers a better understanding of her academic discipline -- not just of the Twilight series. "I think that if people are enjoying themselves, then they'll retain more of what you're offering them."

But will readers bite? One could be forgiven for questioning how much the average non-academic Twilight fan really cares about the history or philosophy underlying Meyer's works. In this case, however, the doubters might be wrong: according to Wisnewski and his co-editor Rebecca Housel -- a former lecturer in English at the Rochester Institute of Technology and now full-time author and editor -- less than a year after its release, Twilight and Philosophy has already been published in six additional languages, and is now also available as an audiobook. "I've heard from fans as far away as Dubai, as well as Australia and all over the US," says Housel. Call it intellectual curiosity or just rabid fandom: either way, Wiley's strategy seems to be working.

Of course, the approach is hardly unique to Twilight: the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series, some three and a half years in, now features over 20 titles, and doesn't appear to be done yet. Meanwhile, Reagin notes that the next book in the Wiley History and Pop Culture Series -- which will focus on Harry Potter -- is scheduled for release next year, and additional titles on The Hobbit, "True Blood," and "Star Trek" are in the planning stages.

It's easy to see why, now more than ever, academics might be particularly eager to show that their fields are topical, approachable, even hip. But one might also wonder whether there is something trivializing and possibly embarrassing in the notion of the ivory tower's brightest minds embracing some of the more frivolous ephemera of popular culture (two words: sparkly vampires).

On the contrary, says Wisnewski: "The idea of doing philosophy as popular writing is as old as philosophy itself." Plato's writings, he points out, were intended for a mass audience -- not, he hastens to add, that Twilight and Philosophy is comparable to Plato, "but it's the same sort of general idea: get people to see the relevance, the importance, the wonder of philosophical thinking."

"I recognize that Stephenie Meyer wasn't trying to raise anything deeply philosophical, but in a way that doesn't matter. The writing is the writing. The issues are the issues."

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