Twilight Reimagined: Life and Death took us all by surprise, but it might be a sign of things to come in major series.
I don’t use the term “doing a Beyonce” lightly, but that is undoubtedly what Twilight author Stephenie Meyer managed this week when she dropped a brand new Twilight novel without a hint of warning. Released to celebrate the Twilight 10th anniversary, Twilight Reimagined: Life and Death is a full-length novel that reimagines Bella and Edward’s love story by gender swapping every single character in the book (the only exceptions being Bella’s parents). Bella becomes Beau, Edward becomes Edythe, and the world became enraptured and enraged. But now that we have had time to take a breath, what does this all mean for the future of publishing?
Meyer’s justification for writing Life and Death was partly to challenge the notion that Twilight was sexist. I’m going to sidestep the gender issue for the purpose of
not losing my mind writing this particular article. Needless to say, you can’t use the gender-swapping of characters in a totally different book to create a totally different story as proof that Twilight wasn’t sexist. If Meyer wanted us to see Bella as more than a “damsel in distress,” she should have written her as more than that in the original books.
Meanwhile, the first reviews of Life and Death indicate that this reimagining actually goes further to establish the gender roles prevalent in Meyer’s work, by removing Bella’s particularly ‘feminine’ traits and replacing them with more acceptable ‘masculine’ traits for Beau. Case in point:
— alexis dreadd (@alexisthenedd) October 6, 2015
But like I said, we’re ignoring all of that for now.
From ‘Midnight Sun’ to ‘Life and Death’: The Stephenie Meyer effect
Life and Death is not the first time Meyer has tried a reinterpretation of her bestselling series. Back in 2008, Meyer halted work on Midnight Sun, an intended Twilight companion novel that retold the story from Edward’s perspective (you can still read the draft online). Meyer used the Life and Death foreword to apologize to Twilight fans, who would be disappointed that the bonus content wasn’t Midnight Sun.
Of course, where Stephenie Meyer goes, E.L. James is not far behind. James famously (or infamously) made millions from converting her erotic Twilight fanfiction into Fifty Shades of Grey. After publishing the Fifty Shades trilogy, James seemingly decided to take the Midnight Sun route and in June 2015 she released Grey, which retells the first book in her series from the perspective of Christian Grey. Reviewers noted the book’s “flagrant air of desperation” and “feeble sex scenes and poor writing,” but Grey still sold 1.1 million copies in its first week so I can’t imagine James was especially perturbed. Surely we will hear of Christian’s story being expanded into a trilogy any day now.
The question about all of these reimaginings and retellings is, what do they actually add to the original work? In the case of both Midnight Sun and Grey, the only people asking for these books were big fans of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey respectively. Neither the general public nor critics were clamoring for more of Edward or Christian.
Is it just fan service then? A common trope of fanfiction has long been to write a story from a different character’s perspective. There is no doubt that fans will continue to buy these various point of view companion books. Imagine how quickly we would hit the pre-order button if J.K. Rowling announced she was writing Harry Potter from Hermione’s perspective, or Suzanne Collins was going to give us Peeta’s side of the story.
But such eagerness to repurchase the same story from a different perspective indicates that James and Meyer might have a more practical goal than simply trying to please their fans. Let’s not forget, the Fifty Shades trilogy made James a cool $95m in 2013, making her the highest-earning author of the year. And Meyer is certain to see a dramatically higher number of sales for Life and Death than she would have had the Twilight 10th anniversary edition simply included standard bonus material like a new foreword and interview with the author.
The business of YA fiction: Sequels, prequels and novellas, oh my!
These new releases with the same old information plus a twist are a calculated move, and one other publishers may adopt moving forward. We are already living in the age of remakes, reboots, and unnecessary sequels in all forms of media. Each week we see another announcement that an old property is being remade, that a new property is being rebooted, or that we are getting yet another sequel anyway.
Executives in film and television are milking the properties they own for all they can. We feel like we are constantly watching the same film and TV show over and over again because, in some way, we are.
This phenomenon manifests differently in literature. For many years now, standalone Young Adult books have been few and far between. Certainly, if a Young Adult book fits into the paranormal, fantasy or science-fiction genres, you can almost guarantee that it will be a series. And not only one, often more. Authors like Rick Riordan, Richelle Mead, and Cassandra Clare have built careers out of writing companion or sequel series, all set in the same universe and often featuring crossover characters.
But not every book series has the potential for sequels. Perhaps that is why we are seeing an increasing number of companion books, set either during or before the original books, that focus on minor characters. These companions are often novellas; rather than aspiring to Midnight Sun or Grey levels of retelling, authors are cleverly choosing specific scenes to write an alternative perspective of, instead of rehashing an entire book.
Author Keira Cass has written an entire book’s worth of accompanying novellas for her Selection series, Divergent author Veronica Roth gave us Four’s perspective in a prequel collection, and Cassandra Clare wrote many missing scenes for fan favorite The Mortal Instruments character Magnus Bane.
Then there’s the unique case of Rainbow Rowell. In Fangirl, Rowell’s character Cath was an avid writer of fanfiction about the fictional Simon Snow series. This year, Rowell has released Carry On, a book about the Simon Snow characters themselves; essentially, she has written her own fanfiction about a fictional book she created for her character to write fanfiction about. And I don’t blame you if you didn’t follow all of that.
And that’s not forgetting the enhanced versions. If I want to shell out for another version of the Harry Potter story I already own, I can buy the newly released Harry Potter Illustrated Edition.
On top of all of that, if E.L. James continues her very profitable approach of ripping off each one of Stephenie Meyer’s ideas the minute the words leave her mouth, then surely we can expect a gender-swapped Fifty Shades trilogy once she has wrapped up her work on Grey. And then, I guess she’ll write the alternative perspective version of that. And then there will be the movie adaptations. Oh, what a time to be alive.
Not a matter of ‘Life and Death’: Does it matter?
Different editions, sequels, companions, prequels, alternative perspectives, and now reimaginings. How many times do we need to read the same story? Sure, I would like to read Hermione Granger’s version of the Harry Potter series as much as the next person. But do I need to?
is this the new 'unnecessary sequel'? are we doomed to reading the same story over and over from every possible perspective? #lifeanddeath
— Marama Whyte (@maramawhyte) October 6, 2015
It is easy to understand why authors like to return to the same characters and worlds: they miss writing about characters who were with them for years. All of the authors listed in this article surely return to the same characters because they genuinely enjoy writing about them, and there is no harm in that. And fans, similarly, are rarely going to say no to finding out more about every aspect of a series that they love (see Pottermore, for example).
But let’s not pretend like this isn’t a highly lucrative exercise for authors and publishers. By giving us the missing moments, or rewriting from a different perspective, they are tapping into an already existing fanbase who are eager for more and are willing to pay for it. And, in the case of Meyer and James, they are likely picking up even more sales from prospective hate-readers, or the general public who simply want to know what was the fuss is about.
But with every rewrite and reimagining comes the risk of taking away from the original. Unnecessary sequels take what we love about an original film and dilute it to the point of it no longer being enjoyable. How many times do we need to read the same story before it stops being interesting and starts to be both an obvious money-grab, and a bad look for the original series that we loved?
Not to mention that all the time these authors spend rewriting the same story over and over for us is time they could have spent writing something new for readers to enjoy.
Stephenie Meyer has had a huge impact on the publishing landscape. She inspired a decade-long infatuation with all things paranormal with Twilight, she made alternative perspective stories suddenly viable, and now (in what I like to imagine is a challenge to E.L. James) she has essentially sold fanfiction of her own series.
If Meyer does spark a trend with her surprise new novel, is it a good or a bad one? I think that authors should leave the fanfiction writing to their fans, rather than attempting to use it to retcon problematic aspects of their own stories (as Meyer is apparently trying to do with Life and Death). Or maybe if an author wants to indulge their own fanfiction writing skills, they shouldn’t expect fans to pay for it as if it is a new story that took more skill than wielding the ‘find and replace’ function.
But as in all things, time will tell. It isn’t really a matter of life and death, after all.