Friday, March 23, 2012

The Empty Vessel

One of the most common complaints readers have about Twilight is that the characters are weak, boring, and average. If you read the one-star reviews of the book on Amazon they all say the same thing:

And my personal favorite…

Well fine. They are shallow. I agree. But you know what other well-loved genre of text has shallow characters? Erotica. That’s the point of it. There is only one reason people read erotica (well, one reason unless you’re reading it for research for an entry on your blog about Twilight) and that reason is masturbatory. You crack open your copy of “Cumming and Going,” light a few candles, and lock the door.

Erotica is used as a masturbation tool because the characters are empty, which allows the reader to place herself into the main character of the story. The pleasure of erotica does not stem from beautiful prose and complicated relationships, but instead from the vicarious pleasure that the reader gets from pretending that she is the main character. That’s why erotica is often titled in specific and uncreative ways. If you look up “Erotica Books” on Amazon the top eight results are:

  1.  Do Not Disturb: Hotel Sex Stories
  2.  Lovers and Beloveds: An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom
  3. Caught Looking: Erotic Tales Of Voyeurs And Exhibitionists
  4. Best Bondage Erotica 2
  5. Carnal Machines: Steampunk Erotica
  6. Best of Best Women’s Erotica 2
  7. She’s On Top: Erotic Stories Of Female Dominance And Male Submission
  8. Can’t Help The Way I Feel: Sultry Stories Of African American Love Lus, and Fantasy

A reader can look at the title of an erotica book and know immediately whether or not she would enjoy the erotica contained inside. And, I do not know this for a fact, but I would assume that people read erotica that mirror their own sexual preferences. Heterosexual women probably read erotica where the narrator is heterosexual female. Homosexual men probably read erotica where the narrator is a homosexual male. (That being said, it would be interesting to interview erotica readers and see if this is actually true. If anyone knows any studies let me know!)

Since the pleasure of erotica lies in placing oneself into the character within the story, it is the job of the erotica writer to make that as easy as possible for the reader to do. As such, characters in erotica stories are often unnamed and even more often not described in any detail. In the book “Best Of Women’s Erotica 2011” we get 19 stories by 19 different authors and only in 9 of those stories do the narrators get names. In the 10 stories that do give the main character a name, usually they are only said once or twice, and often they are very common and unambiguously feminine like Anne, Cassie, Miranda, and Wendy. The men in the stories, interestingly, are usually given a name, but they are also very standard and unambiguously male like Joe, Gus, Sean, Mark, Luke, etc, but these names, like the names of the women, are not repeated very often. 

(Possible future blog post: statistics about the names of characters in erotica. Number of times mentioned for men, number of times for women, syllables in names, etc... stay tuned!)

What is more is that the characters in the erotica stories are rarely described using any specific adjectives. There is a prevalence of words like “toned,” “hot,” “sexy,” “gorgeous,” and other words that mean “attractive” without providing any sort of concrete visual. In the story “Changing My Tune” by Louisa Harte, Luke, the man who the main character (Cassie) has sex with, is described like this:

“It’s another builder, only this one is different—he’s gorgeous. Like a hot builder from an advert on TV, he has these sexy gray eyes, gorgeous red lips and a rocking body that looks great packed into his T-shirt and shorts.”

There is literally no one who cannot be projected into this person. The adjectives here are “hot,” “sexy,” “gorgeous,” “rocking,” and “great.” He is wearing a T-shirt and shorts and his lips are red. Aren’t most lips red? Isn’t that how lips work?

This is a pattern that crops up in many of the more fantastical erotica stories. I have noticed that there are two general categories of erotica. One that seems to be pure fantasy (example, a woman gets a massage and two hot masseurs come to her hotel room and have to compete for their tip. About three pages in they all start to have sex with each other) and one that seems to be more memoir-esque (example, a girl and her boyfriend watch porn together on Friday nights. Multiple orgasms are had by all.)

But almost unanimously, the more fantasy-like stories use meaningless adjectives and fewer (and more generic) names than the ones that are more realistic. This implies that there is something intrinsic to the fantasy text that requires an emptiness of characters. And it makes sense in the case of erotica. Erotica expects the reader to project her ideal form of beauty onto the men in the story in addition to projecting herself into the women. Erotica works because of the emptiness of the characters.

Twilight works in the same way. Bella is simple and, in many ways, the envy of the average teenage girl. As a former teenage girl, I understand the trials and tribulations of the average one. There is a pull to fit in and to be the same as everybody else, yet, at the same time there is a desire to stand out and be different. And here is Bella Swan (speaking of names...), as average as they come, somehow managing to fit in at a new school remarkably well. She is the object of everyone’s love and envy within days of coming to Forks. In fact, within the first 120 pages, a total of five, yes, five boys fall in love. 

And yet, in spite of all this fitting in, she manages to be special. Here is an interaction between Bella and Edward on page 50:

Bella: “My face is so easy to read—my mother always calls me her open book”
Edward: “On the contrary, I find you very difficult to read.”
Bella: “You must be a good reader then.”
Edward: “Usually”

And then on page 90, we see this interaction:

Edward: “Your boyfriend seems to think I’m being unpleasant to you—he’s debating whether or not to come break up our fight.”
Bella: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. But I’m sure your wrong, anyway.”
Edward: “I’m not. I told you, most people are easy to read.”
Bella: “Except me, of course.”
Edward: “Yes. Except for you… I wonder why that is.”

In these two brief interactions the average teenage girl has a whole lot to wish for. Edward Cullen has been described as “perfect” more times than I could count, and suddenly he is engaging Bella in a flirty conversation in which she is separated from her peers. She is different. She is the only one that Edward can’t read. And isn’t this exactly what so many teenage girls want? They want to fit in but they want to be different. They want a beautiful mysterious stranger to fall madly in love with them, to choose them and only them from a crowd of sheep.

So maybe Bella and Edward are shallow characters. Perhaps Bella’s name literally means “beautiful” and she isn’t described physically until page 10, where she spends two pages basically calling herself pale and brunette (which describes, like, two-thirds of the readership of this book). And maybe the Cullens are described as “devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful [with] faces you never expected to see except perhaps on the airbrushed pages of a fashion magazine. Or painted by an old master as the face of an angel (18).” (BTW: doesn’t this remind you of the description of Luke in “Changing My Tune”?)

But that shallowness of the characters allows for a more fun reading experience. Because Bella is an empty vessel, we can place ourselves inside of her. And because Edward is only ever described as “perfect” and “gorgeous” and “beautiful” we can project our ideal form of beauty into him. Maybe that is why readers around the world adore (and, in fact, obsess over) Edward Cullen as though he were their own boyfriend. Perhaps in some way readers see him as their own boyfriend because during the course of reading Twilight they have projected their ideals and fantasies into him.


  1. Wait, that page 50 excerpt makes NO sense. He finds her hard to read, and she concludes from that that he must be a good reader?

  2. I'm with you. Conversation should make sense! Perhaps this is why I can't flirt!

  3. Aimee, flirting in this fashion is just as empty as the conversation that it contains. If I have to use empty words like "sexy", "gorgeous", or "hot" to describe someone, then that person needs to work on personality more. I'd rather get to know someone as a person than get to know their body as a shell.

  4. Insightful! Their popularity makes much more sense when you consider them as erotica rather than young adult literature.