Reconstruction Vol. 11, No. 3

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Pamela, Twilight, and the "Mary-Sue" in Literature: Patterns of Popular Criticism / Ashley Barner

“Mary-Sue” is a term describing a kind of idealized character frequently utilized—and criticized—in fan fiction. These idealized female characters are often perceived as the result of absorbed writing and as an invitation for women to engage in absorbed reading. By applying the “Mary-Sue” label to characters as widely separated temporally as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, 1741) and Stephenie Meyer’s Bella Swan (Twilight, 2005), this article demonstrates the extraordinary longevity this trope has had in women’s popular literature. Similarly long-lived are the criticisms of such “Mary-Sue stories” and their encouragement of female absorbed reading—criticisms that remain surprisingly consistent from at least the mid-eighteenth century to the early twenty-first. Studying the “Mary-Sue” trope helps us to understand the emotional, imaginative, interactive reading and writing practices of many women, both in the present and the past, and the close relationships between writer, character, and reader that often occur in women’s popular literature. It also demonstrates how these close relationships have been stigmatized over the centuries, contributing to the negative reputation of much of women’s popular literature.

<1> Recently, the Twilight series and its accompanying film adaptations have provoked a polarized response from the public: great enthusiasm from fans, and a significant backlash from those who find the vampire romances distasteful. Critics have even expressed fears that the female readers of the novels, becoming imaginatively absorbed in the main character, would become sexually tainted or lose their grip on reality. This controversy over literature written for women is not at all a new phenomenon; it has existed in some form since at least the sixteenth century, often in terms similar to those employed in the responses to Twilight, if not always with such vehemence. Another prominent example of this literary phenomenon occurred in 1740, with the publication of Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded. Pamela also caused a commotion amongst its readers, who were deeply divided on the merits of the main character. Pamela Andrews is described as young, beautiful, clever, steadfast in her virtue, and almost universally beloved by her fellow characters. She was adored as a role model by fans of the book, known as “Pamelists,” and reviled as a dishonest, scheming, and ambitious hussy by “anti-Pamelists” [1]. The similarity between Pamela and Twilight is that, despite being written and received centuries apart in very different historical circumstances, both are what are known in fan fiction parlance as “Mary-Sue stories,” in which the main female character functions both as an avatar of the author and as a fictional placeholder for the absorbed female reader. Both texts are also loci of criticism, where centuries-old fears about the effects of women’s absorbed reading and writing can be clearly seen. The attraction of these stories for female readers is the same as their perceived threat: the invitation they present to women to write or read absorbedly, to insert themselves into the “Mary-Sue” character and thus vicariously experience her adventures.

<2> A study of Pamela and Twilight, as well as a comparison of the contemporary criticisms of these two works, demonstrates the extraordinary longevity of the “Mary-Sue” trope in literature. By studying this trope, we can see that not only are a surprising number of the characteristics of some current popular literature shared with popular literature written as early as the eighteenth century, but many of the criticisms of women’s reading of these novels are consistent with criticisms today.

“Mary-Sue”: Older than Advertised

<3> Though the term “Mary-Sue” has not yet transferred from fandom to literary criticism, the characteristics of the trope provide a fruitful framework for scholarly analysis of the similarities between works of popular literature in widely divergent periods. Though this approach may initially appear presentist, a close examination proves that the characteristics of this modern trope apply quite well, not only to current works like Twilight, but also to much older novels, such as Pamela. The specific criticisms of “Mary-Sue stories” are also repeated in the criticisms of both Pamela and Twilight, demonstrating that fears about women’s reading in the eighteenth century are still alive and well in the twenty-first century. By applying the “Mary-Sue” label to Pamela, we can see that the “Mary-Sue story” is not an instance of innovation in the present moment, but a surprising historical continuity in our gendered literary responses to certain texts.

<4> The Mary-Sue is a kind of character which was identified early on in fan culture and which often generates polarized reactions in readers (Bacon-Smith 95-102). A stereotypical Mary-Sue is an idealized version of the (generally female) fan fiction writer herself, inserted into the story for the purposes of wish fulfillment (“Mary Sue” TV Tropes) [2]. In Enterprising Women, an in-depth look at the (largely female) Star Trek fandom, Camille Bacon-Smith writes that Mary-Sue “represents the … woman’s ideal of perfection: she is young and desirable, competent and moral. Her intellectual and physical attributes not only meet the writer’s standards for the perfect woman, but the people she admires appreciate her value as well” (97). This kind of “classic Mary-Sue” is identified by her obvious perfections: she is beautiful, widely adored, and the love interest of a male “canon” character [3]. She may also be oppressed by other characters or have a tragic past. Mary-Sue stories often end with the character either getting her man, saving the day, and/or dying tragically. The trope is commonly associated in the fan fiction community with bad writing, poor characterization, and simplistic wish fulfillment.

<5> The term “Mary-Sue” comes from a story published by Paula Smith in 1974, itself a parody of the trope which Smith saw emerging in the Star Trek fandom (Bacon-Smith 94). The ten-paragraph parody tells the tale of Mary Sue, a half-Vulcan who is “the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet—only fifteen and half years old.” She is propositioned by Captain Kirk and turns him down, displaying her virtue and self-respect. Spock also openly admires her “flawlessly logical” mind. When Mary Sue, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Mr. Scott are captured by green androids, she frees herself and her comrades from prison. She later captains the ship, wins awards, and dies tragically, deeply mourned by the canon characters (Bacon-Smith 94-96). The term Mary-Sue has moved beyond the Star Trek fandom and is now used in various fandoms across the Internet [4]. One characteristic of the trope that did not appear in Paula Smith’s story but that has come to be strongly associated with the Mary-Sue is oppression: the idealized female character often has a tragic past or is oppressed—anything from being made fun of to physically tortured—over the course of the story (Falstaff and Grayswandir). The Mary-Sue trope is used widely, often unconsciously, in fan fiction; Bacon-Smith observes that “new fans almost invariably stumble upon the [Mary-Sue] genre as their first writing effort, often before they know that a community exists at all, and this is as true for the writers of commercially published Mary Sue novels as it is for their amateur counterparts” (99).

<6> Members of fan culture have now begun to use the term “Mary-Sue” in online commentary, not only to describe fan fiction, but also to describe original works: many characters and plotlines in original novels, television shows and films easily fit the trope (Bacon-Smith 97, “Canon Sue”). Despite the many fan and original works that fit the Mary-Sue label, the trope itself has not been studied by scholars except very briefly in a few sociological works on fan culture (such as Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women or Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers), and has not yet been studied by literary scholars. Both popular and controversial, Mary-Sue stories often generate both enthusiasm and disgust from different readers. Both Pamela and the Twilight series have produced these polarized reactions. An examination of the characteristics of the trope side-by-side with the characteristics of Richardson’s novel demonstrates that Pamela, despite being an eighteenth-century work, can accurately be called a “classic Mary-Sue” story, due to the idealization of the character of Pamela, the oppression that she experiences, and her romance with Mr. B.

<7> Richardson’s novel takes the form of a collection of letters written primarily by fifteen-year-old lady’s maid Pamela Andrews to her parents. Pamela’s mistress has recently died, and her mistress’ son, known only as Mr B., is Pamela’s new master. Drawn to her beauty, Mr B. makes dishonorable amorous advances toward her, which she rejects, prizing her virtue above all else. Mr B. attempts to seduce and even rape her, but is always prevented. He resorts to kidnapping Pamela and holding her by force in his Lincolnshire house.

<8> Pamela continues to defend her virtue strenuously in her captivity. She even considers suicide rather than capitulating. Ultimately, Mr B. is so moved by Pamela’s steadfast virtue that he offers her honorable marriage, which she accepts. The second half of the novel describes the plans for their marriage, as well as Pamela’s acquaintanceship with Mr B.’s vicious sister, Lady Danvers, and the upper-class members of the neighborhood. Pamela is a story about a highly virtuous young woman who is beautiful, clever, and adored, but cruelly oppressed. It is also a romance that ends with the main character’s successful marriage to a man above her class.

<9> All of these characteristics might well lead a reader familiar with fan fiction terminology to label this novel a “Mary-Sue story.” To explore these similarities, I have applied Mary-Sue “litmus tests,” lists of Mary-Sue characteristics posted on the internet in order to help fan- or original fiction writers to avoid the Mary-Sue trope [5]. In this analysis, I will be quoting from two of the most famous tests, compiled by fans “Merlin Missy” and “Falstaff and Grayswandir.” Like a Mary-Sue, the character Pamela is the ideal woman, a characterization which is most obvious in her extreme physical attractiveness. The litmus tests always include a section on “appearance.” According to these tests, a Mary-Sue is often in her teens or early twenties (Merlin Missy). She is “highly attractive without having to work at it,” and receives “a disproportionate amount of physical description compared to the rest of the characters.” She is sometimes “described as ‘thin enough to be anorexic,’ where this is intended as a compliment” (Falstaff and Grayswandir). Her clothing and jewelry are often described in detail—a Mary-Sue may dress “in a manner [the author finds] particularly attractive, sexy, or cool -- Even though it's illogical for the character to dress this way (for monetary reasons, or because it interferes with her/his job)” (Falstaff and Grayswandir). In view of the Mary-Sue’s physical beauty, “one or more of the [canon] characters [is] attracted to [her]” (Falstaff and Grayswandir). Finally, the Mary-Sue is often known by a fanciful name (Falstaff and Grayswandir, Merlin Missy).

<10> Pamela accords directly with these Mary-Sue litmus tests. The fifteen-year-old heroine is consistently characterized as “beautiful.” The text is obsessed with Pamela’s appearance; even on the title page of the first edition, the work is described as “A Series Of Letters From A Beautiful Young Damsel To Her Parents” (“File”). The ladies of the neighborhood know Pamela by reputation to be “the greatest beauty in the county” (82). Richardson also characterizes Pamela as shapely and thin—thin enough to slip between the bars on her window in one attempt to escape. Upon meeting Pamela, one of the ladies of the neighborhood exclaims, “‘See that shape! I never saw such a face and shape in mylife’” (86). Pamela is also very conscious of her clothes; she catalogues them faithfully in her letters [6]. She even has a fanciful name: SirPhilip Sidney coined the name “Pamela” in Arcadia as the name of a princess, and though it was used by a number of poets, it was not in common use in the eighteenth century outside of poetry (Keymer and Sabor Pamela in the Marketplace 7-8).

<11> Like a Mary-Sue, Pamela is almost universally beloved, enjoying great social success (Falstaff and Grayswandir, Merlin Missy). It is stated repeatedly that “all her fellow-servants love her,” and the male servants in particular are smitten by her (82). Even the upper-class women of Mr B.’s neighborhood, rather than being shocked that Mr. B plans to marry his servant girl, declare that Pamela will always be “valued as an honour to our sex, and as a pattern for all the young ladies in the county” (322). The parallel to Paula Smith’s original “Mary Sue,” who immediately wins over the canon characters and is even commended by Spock as being “flawlessly logical” (possibly his highest compliment) is compelling (Bacon-Smith 95).

<12> Pamela’s merits, like Mary-Sue’s, are more than skin-deep. She is clever and unusually educated for her class; unlike a common eighteenth-century serving maid, she enjoys reading and writing. Like “Mary-Sues,” Pamela is “unusually accomplished for her … age” and “educated despite living in a time or place where education is not widespread” (Falstaff and Grayswandir). Though young and inexperienced, Pamela matches Mr B.’s machinations shrewdly, answering his advances wisely (and “saucily”) and scheming to hide her writing and escape her captor’s clutches. Paula Smith’s Mary Sue springs herself and part of the crew of the Enterprise from prison; Richardson’s Pamela escapes Mr B.’s house by squeezing between the bars of a window.

<13> A final consideration in establishing a classic Mary-Sue’s “perfection” is her virtue, which Pamela has in spades (“Mary Sue Classic”). Pamela was advertised as an example of good behavior: the novel was subtitled “Now first Published In order to cultivate the Principles of VIRTUE and RELIGION in the Minds of the YOUTH of BOTH SEXES” (“File”). The protection of Pamela’s virtue is her constant concern. On the occasion of Mr B.’s first sexual assault on her in the summerhouse, Pamela declares, “I am honest, though poor: And if you were a prince, I would not be otherwise than honest”—her battle cry throughout the book (55).

<14> The perfection of Pamela’s character might be almost enough in itself to label her a Mary-Sue. However, parallels with the trope are even stronger when we consider the plot of the story, particularly in the oppression of the female lead and the romantic nature of the work. In order to gain the reader’s sympathy and assert the main character’s perfections, Mary-Sues are often attacked or oppressed by villains. Mary-Sue litmus tests include such criteria as the character displaying angst, being abducted, being born or raised in severe poverty, suffering physical or emotional abuse or rape (Falstaff and Grayswandir), or being a “member of a ‘despised’ class/race” (Missy Merlin). Pamela, the despised servant girl and daughter of a poor couple, is repeatedly subjected to Mr B.’s unwanted sexual advances and is the victim of a near-rape. She is abducted and basically imprisoned under the care of a vulgar and occasionally cruel housekeeper. When she rejects Mr B. she is subjected to upsetting verbal abuse and suffers minor physical abuse when she angers the housekeeper. Mr B.’s constant attempts on her virtue and Pamela’s entrapment in his Lincolnshire house lend a sense of intense oppression to the story.

<15> Finally, the Mary-Sue trope is most often associated with romance. The writers of these stories are seen as inserting themselves into a “canon” story as Mary-Sues in order to form vicarious romantic relationships with their favorite canon characters. The litmus tests specify, “Does the character fall in (reciprocated) love with, or have sex with, a character you would like to fall in love with or have sex with?” (Falstaff and Grayswandir) and, “Does the story end with the character's wedding?” (Missy Merlin). They also point out that a Mary-Sue sometimes “reform[s] a villainous character” or “effect[s] a major change in her … love interest in order to make said love interest a more appropriate partner” (Falstaff and Grayswandir). Pamela’s good example is enough to reform Mr B. into an appropriate love interest, and they marry. In this case, Pamela’s conquest is even greater when we consider that she is a servant marrying her wealthy master.

<16> According to the criteria of the litmus tests, Pamela is clearly a “Mary-Sue story.” Pamela has all of the characteristics—physical attraction, social success, mental ability, moral strength—considered desirable in a woman. Those characteristics she does not possess—money and social position—only serve to make her easier to identify with and to showcase her moral superiority. Her highly emotionally-charged love story reveals her reforming the villain into an appropriate partner, one who treats her with great respect. Pamela the Mary-Sue is the ideal woman, living an ideal romance. The trope’s possible application is thus obviously much older than the term “Mary-Sue” itself.

Criticism of the “Suethor”

<17> Pamela was a best-seller of its time. In The Pleasures of the Imagination, John Brewer writes,

Within a year of its appearance [Pamela] had gone through five editions, been pirated and parodied, notably in Henry Fielding’s Shamela, dramatized on the London stage by Henry Giffard and put into verse by George Bennett ... North American editions appeared in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. The novel swept Europe, being translated into French, Italian, Dutch, German, Swedish, Russian, Spanish and Portguese. (127)
Pamela inspired three unofficial sequels by other authors, two stage versions of the story in English, a third in Italian, and an opera (Kreissman 5-6). The story and the character of Pamela apparently appealed to a great many mid-eighteenth-century readers, just as Twilight and other “Mary-Sue stories” appeal to many modern readers.

<18> Yet “Mary-Sues,” both today and in the eighteenth century, have had many detractors. As mentioned earlier, the term “Mary-Sue” is itself considered derogatory in fan culture. To tell a writer that her original character is a Mary-Sue is an insult, implying that her writing is unoriginal, poorly executed, and in bad taste. In Enterprising Women, Camille Bacon-Smith observes that while Mary-Sue stories are excessively popular with writers and readers alike (99-100), the “Mary Sue” is “the most universally denigrated genre in the entire canon of fan fiction” (94). In some segments of fan culture [7], the anti-Mary-Sue genre, which challenges the Mary-Sue trope through attack or parody, is hugely popular [8].

<19> Literary critics in the eighteenth century were no more polite and kind than today’s authors of anti-Mary-Sues. While Pamela was extremely popular, commercially successful, and widely imitated, the book had its own virulent detractors, quite a number of whom expressed their disapprobation in print. The anti-Pamela writings included burlesques on the novel, pamphlets lambasting it, and derisive poems. The anger in anti-Pamelist writings is similar to that directed against modern Mary-Sues and their authors, who are written about in much the same manner as Fielding wrote about Pamela. Beyond basic disparagement of the triteness of plot and characterization, objections to a “Mary-Sue story” such as Twilight or Pamela can be broken down into two major categories: (1) criticisms of the author of the story, known as the “Suethor”; and, (2) criticisms of the fans of the story.

<20> The first major criticism of Mary-Sue characters is that they are seen as encroaching authorial self-insertions. The “Suethor” is seen as depicting an idealized version of herself, a stand-in for her personal fantasy, in order to enter the original text of which she is a fan and to twist it to her own egotistical or romantic ends (“Mary Sue” TV Tropes). The Suethor, it is held, either imagines herself the heroine of her favorite book, movie, or TV show, and/or fantasizes about a relationship with a male character from that text. Henry Jenkins notes in Textual Poachers that “so strong is the fan taboo against such crude personalization that original female characters are often scrutinized for any signs of autobiographical intent” (Jenkins 171-173).

<21> The Twilight novels are an example of the way the concept of the Suethor contributes to some readers’ disgust at Mary-Sue stories. Accusations of self-insertion on the part of Stephenie Meyer have been one of the biggest factors in the allegations of Mary-Sueism in the Twilight series. Although Twilight’s heroine Bella Swan is not a “classic” Mary-Sue, in that she is not represented as nearly perfect, many readers suspect that Bella is a fictional avatar of Meyer herself [9]. Meyer’s inspiration for the books was a dream she had of a key scene (Grossman)—an admission that often puts anti-Mary-Sue readers of fan fiction on high alert, as it implies the lack of “critical distance” (Bury 104) observed in Suethors who are “sitting too close” (Bury 103) to the character or story. Based on this belief in Meyer’s self-insertion, some critics of the Twilight books criticize Stephenie Meyer for publishing what they see as a private romantic/sexual fantasy. Robert Pattinson, the actor who plays Edward Cullen in the film adaptations of the books, expressed this kind of distaste in an interview with E! Channel. This interview has been quoted with delight by critics of Twilight who strongly agree with Pattinson’s diagnosis of the “sickness” of Meyers for publishing the novels:

When I read it, it seemed like (grimaces) I was convinced that ... Stephenie was ... convinced that she was Bella, and … it was like it was a book that wasn't supposed to be published, like reading her ... her sort of sexual fantasy about some—especially when she says that it was based on a dream, and it's like, "Oh, then I had a dream about this really sexy guy" and she just writes this book about it, and there's some things about Edward that are just so specific that it's like, I was just convinced that, that this woman is mad, she's completely mad, and she's in love with her own fictional creation and I—sometimes you, like, feel uncomfortable reading this thing, and I think a lot of people feel the same way, that it's kind of voyeuristic, ah, and it creates this sick pleasure in a lot of ways. (qtd in Missteddy16)
As with many fan fiction Mary-Sues, some critics, like Pattinson, feel that publishing such a “private fantasy” is transgressive. The idea of “sitting too close” to the material is also translated into “madness” as the critic construes implied affection for a fictional character as belief in the character’s objective reality. In this reading, Meyer is a transgressive Suethor, writing a private fantasy as a published work of fiction with a fictionalized avatar of herself as the heroine.

<22> The accusation of some kind of self-insertion on the part of the author is also an aspect of criticism of Pamela, despite the fact that the protagonist of the novel is female and the author male. Tassie Gwilliam writes that “The [modern] anti-Pamela literature sees the relation of Richardson to his heroine … as an obvious but perverse self-reflection” (27). One of these modern anti-Pamelists, Bernard Kreissman, wrote in 1960, “Richardson in telling the story of Pamela unwittingly has given us a self-portrait. He is a Pygmalion whose Galatea is modeled on what he perceives in the mirror of his own vanity; he invests her with his complete repertoire of virtues, she is his own reflection, his alter ego. The result is not only the portrait of Pamela but also of the man” (28-29). Another modern anti-Pamelist, Aurelien Digeon, believes that the accuracy of Richardson’s “portrait of a little eighteenth-century waiting-maid” is undone by “the author’s devout admiration for her.” He writes, “One feels that his view of the world is the same as hers, narrow and conventional. In painting her he has laid bare the secret of his own soul” (51). Here, Pamela is a Mary-Sue because Richardson characterizes Pamela as a female version of himself. He compliments his female avatar through other characters and rewards his own ideal of virtue with an advantageous marriage. However, through Richardson’s use of the first-person narrator in the epistolary form, there is another possible candidate for the role of Suethor: Pamela herself.

<23> Eighteenth-century criticisms of Pamela focused, not as much on Richardson’s guilt for writing the story, but on Pamela’s [10]. Pamela is the first-person narrator throughout most of the book, representing herself and her life to her parents through letters. She is thus in a sense the author of her own story. It is the character of Pamela herself who repeats the compliments paid to her beauty, and who depicts at length the battles of wits she engages in with her employer. It is partly this idealized self-representation that disgusted some readers. As with anti-Mary-Sue critics who dislike the ways authors compliment themselves by complimenting their self-representing characters, anger directed toward the self-representing Pamela mirrors the anger directed against both the Mary-Sue and the Suethor.

<24> We can see that eighteenth-century readers saw Pamela as occupying the role of a Suethor when we examine the charges leveled against the character by her early detractors. In Henry Fielding’s Shamela, the first and most important parody of Pamela, Fielding’s character Parson Oliver asserts that Pamela is “a Misrepresentation of Facts … a Perversion of Truth” (7). Oliver claims to know the truth about the girl Pamela—whose true name, he says, is Shamela. He states that Shamela has instructed the “Author of the Narrative” to write a more flattering version of her story (6). The “true” letters of Shamela comprise most of the rest of the book. Fielding’s Shamela only appears to be virtuous. She has already given birth to an illegitimate child before the action begins, and she really wants Squire Booby (Fielding’s Mr B.) to “take advantage” of her (Donovan 378). She pretends to be angry at his advances in order to entice him, and when he takes her at her word and leaves her alone, she is upset. Her mother advises her to “take care to be well paid before-hand” (Fielding 12), so Shamela craftily holds out on him until he marries her, after which she continues to see her lover Parson Williams on the side. Fielding’s character Parson Tickletext, after learning the “true” account of Shamela, writes, “I am equally angry with the pert Jade herself, and with the Author of her life: For I scarce know yet to whom I chiefly owe [the] imposition” (55). In Fielding’s reading, Shamela has drawn the wool over the eyes of Squire Booby, and the Suethor Richardson has done the same to the novel’s vast readership by depicting Pamela as virtuous. Thus, both in the eighteenth century and in the twenty-first, criticisms of “Mary-Sue stories” include criticisms of the supposedly egotistical, lying Suethor.

The Absorbed Reader

<25> A second aspect of criticisms of Mary-Sues is that these texts in particular invite absorbed reading. Not only, critics claim, does the Suethor write herself into the story in the form of the Mary-Sue, but the female readers of the text also vicariously experience the Mary-Sue’s adventures by “reading themselves into” the character. Through creating an idealized avatar of herself, a character through which she can experience the story, the Suethor also makes the character available to other readers who wish to do the same. Criticisms of Mary-Sue stories such as Pamela or Twilight often fixate on the self-insertion of female readers, criticizing female readers who closely associate themselves with the Mary-Sue character.

<26> The kind of absorbed reading that Mary-Sue stories invite has long been the subject of criticism. In “Reading Like a Woman,” Anne Berggren discusses two different reading practices: absorbed reading, which our culture genders as feminine, and critical reading, which is gendered masculine. In critical reading, the reader is always “aware of [him]self as outside the text, looking on, ready to judge” it (172). Absorbed readers, however, become emotionally “caught up” in the text, perhaps feeling as if they have entered the fictional world or are experiencing the story as if they were the protagonist. They feel, at least temporarily, as if the fiction and the characters are real, and an extension of their own lives.

<27> In the case of Twilight, Meyer does not disguise the possibility that female readers of the books can inhabit the main character of this story; on her website, Meyer writes, “I left out a detailed description of Bella in the book so that the reader could more easily step into her shoes” (Meyers). It is easy and tempting for young female readers to identify closely with Bella. Bella does not consider her beauty to be above average, yet the boys at her new school fall all over themselves to ask her to the prom, and she is almost instantly attractive to the near-perfect teenage vampire, Edward Cullen. Despite her abiding normalcy, Bella is caught up in a highly passionate and dramatic romance with Edward, eventually marrying him and becoming a vampire herself—causing her to become as beautiful as a supermodel and as powerful as a comic book superhero. Bella is in many ways an average teenage girl, which makes her easy to identify with. In other ways, she is far from average, and the prospect of experiencing her fantastic adventures is very attractive. The text thus invites absorbed reading by women. The series’ bestselling status demonstrates the attractions of the story and characters: as of March 30, 2010, the Twilight saga had sold over 100 million copies (Sellers). The fourth and last book, Breaking Dawn, sold 1.3 million copies on the first day alone (Memmott). It seems that almost all the fans of the books are women, and though the stereotypical Twilight fans are teenage girls, the series is also quite popular with older women, who also seem to enjoy vicariously experiencing Bella’s story.

<28> Likewise, both the style of Pamela and the contemporary criticisms leveled against it imply that the possibility of readerly self-insertion was one of the attractions of Richardson’s novel for eighteenth-century readers. Margaret Ann Doody observes that the novel set a new precedent for realism, which gave it greater affective power than most of its predecessors. Before Pamela, Doody writes, “two major elements of the novel, detailed characterization and emotional suspense in a vivid situation, are not found in conjunction” in epistolary novels: “The more credible the character, the less immediate and tense is the work” (23). In Richardson’s novel, readers found an exciting and emotional story with a detailed main character, inviting them to identify with her and vicariously experience her adventure and romantic triumph. Like Meyer, who intentionally wrote the character of Bella so that she would be available for absorbed readers to imaginatively “inhabit,” Jacqueline Pearson writes that Richardson conceived the reader as active, “every one putting him and herself into the character they read” (27). This was easily done with the female first-person narrator Pamela. Pearson observes that Richardson’s novels “issued ‘the compelling invitation … to read as a woman’, and gave women opportunities for extraordinary readerly power … Women identified with Richardsonian characters, compared their friends to them, or judged acquaintances by their response to them” (Pearson 29). Richardson, writing his Mary-Sue character of Pamela, invited female readers to step into her shoes, an invitation which they appear to have accepted.

<29> Criticisms of characters available for this purpose and female readers who take advantage of such characters are part of a long tradition of criticism of women’s absorbed reading, a tradition perpetuated by anti-Mary-Sue literature. As Berggren points out, many centuries-old fears about women’s reading are predicated on the assumption that women are reading in this absorbed fashion. Kate Flint gives an overview of these fears in The Woman Reader: 1837-1914. Flint observes that the late sixteenth century saw the writing of the first books specifically written for women readers: romances about love and courtship rather than adventure (22). Commentators in this period worried that because women (as it was believed) were “peculiarly susceptible to emotionally provocative material” (22), that they would be tainted by “wanton” or “undecent” books because they could “lead [them] sexually astray, either in imagination or reality” (23). Through the seventeenth century, it was also feared that “romances … could instill false expectations … in their unwary readers” (24). In the eighteenth century, where we begin to find more direct evidence of women’s reading, Flint observes that “one encounters the familiar fear that young women will be corrupted by what they read, and, becoming preoccupied with the importance of romance, will seek perpetually for excitement” (24). Variations on all these fears have been repeated, by both men and women [11], throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the fear that women readers will “confuse the fictional world with the real” (26) because of their absorbed reading of these texts (28).

<30> Genres that encourage this kind of emotional, absorbed reading, such as romantic, sentimental, or gothic literature, were/are believed to weaken the female mind and make it unable to resist the passions presented in the text (Flint 28). “Mary-Sue stories” like Pamela and Twilight are likewise considered to be overly emotional, sentimental, or erotic texts. Thus, when readers are absorbed into these particularly “emotional” texts, they are believed to be in great danger of their passions being enflamed and leading them astray mentally (through the inability to tell the difference between fiction and reality), emotionally (in the perpetual desire for adventure and romance), or sexually.

<31> This possibility of absorbed female reading was a point of contention in the eighteenth-century debates surrounding Pamela just as it is for contemporary Mary-Sue stories like Twilight. For example, Fielding’s Parson Oliver worries that readers may imbibe false ideas about romance from this book. The novel, which combines an obviously fictional love story with great realism of detail, might cause readers to take it as an accurate representation of relationships between servant girls and their masters. Parson Oliver comments, “The Instruction which it conveys to Servant-Maids, is, I think, very plainly this, To look out for their Masters as sharp as they can. The Consequences of which will be … that if the Master is not a Fool, they will be debauched by him; and if he is a Fool, they will marry him. Neither of which, I apprehend, … we desire should be the Case of our Sons” (6). “I shall,” he states, therefore “…stand excused from delivering it, either into the hands of my Daughter, or my Servant-Maid” (6). Not only could confusing the way the fictional world works with the way the real world works ruin the lives of these servant girls, but critics feared that readers would be sexually inflamed by the book through their absorbed reading. The author of Pamela Censured, 1741, writes: “The Advances are regular, and the amorous Conflicts so agreeably and warmly depicted, that … the Modest Young Lady can never read the Description of Naked Breasts being run over with the Hand, and Kisses given with such Eagerness that they cling to the Lips; but her own soft Breasts must heave at the Idea and secretly sigh for the same Pressure” (qtd in Keymer and Sabor, The Pamela Controversy 37).

<32> It may not be surprising that some eighteenth-century critics, writing far before either first- or second-wave feminism made their appearance, expressed fears that women’s chastity or grasp of reality might be damaged by the “feminine” practice of absorbed reading. However, examples of these same sorts of criticisms are also rife in the current reception of Twilight. There is a public perception that teenage Twilight fans can easily confuse real life with the experiences of Bella Swan, even to the extent where they confuse themselves with the character. In a sketch on Saturday Night Live, a teenage Twilight fan, inserting herself into the character of Bella, says, “In the moment I heard Edward say, ‘I don’t have the strength to stay away from you anymore,’ I knew we’d be together.” A puzzled onlooker asks, “I’m sorry: does she think she’s gonna end up with the fictional vampire from Twilight?” The fan replies, “Not think: know” (Season 35, Episode 9). Similarly, critics have also expressed fears that young female readers will imbibe false masculine ideals from the character of Edward Cullen, ideals which real men will never compare to, thus further setting themselves up for disappointment because of their inability to tell the difference between fiction and reality. One commentator, unintentionally echoing “Parson Oliver,” writes,

That this book appeals to certain people isn’t a surprise: it ably captures our youthful perceptions of what first love is like. What it doesn’t capture is the reality of love, and I believe our daughters deserve better than that. While I would not seek to keep this book out of anybody’s hands, I would be, frankly, disturbed if my daughters were to take it up. Unless, of course, it was their intent to point at it and laugh. (Bow)
This blogger fears the effects Twilight may have on the minds of young female readers, believing that their only protection is to create an emotional distance between themselves and the Mary-Sue character by taking up the text with the stated intention of mocking it. Criticisms of the Twilight novels even include the centuries-old fears about women indulging in inappropriate sexual fantasies by reading them. “Twimoms,” or older female fans of Twilight, have even been characterized as nymphomaniacs, pedophiles, or sex offenders because of their enjoyment of the series (Beck, “Comments”, Lukipela).

<33> Even though Pamela and Twilight are separated by two and a half centuries of developments and changes in our culture’s perceptions of women, they participate in the same trope of the “Mary-Sue story.” Not only so, but their critics express very similar distaste for the self-representation of “Suethors” in their texts, and similar fears for absorbed (female) readers who imaginatively insert themselves into these idealized characters and plots.


<34> The advantage of using the “Mary-Sue” trope as a critical lens is the way in which it brings various dialogues together: a discussion of “Mary-Sues” involves a discussion of not only the characteristics of the text itself, but also the imaginative interaction between the reader and the text as well as the writer and the text. While some modern critics like Janice Radway (in Reading the Romance) have studied both the absorbed reader’s responses and the text itself in an attempt to understand the dynamics of popular literature, there has been little recent scholarship on the connection of the absorbed writer with the text, or the connection of the absorbed writer with the absorbed readers of the text [12]. Studying popular works with the various aspects of the “Mary-Sue” in mind helps us to remember that many readers see a strong connection between the writer and his or her work, and that therefore this aspect of the text cannot be ignored in our analysis of its reception.

<35> Discussing literature in terms of “Mary-Sues” also draws together a number of genres and styles over the centuries. Various attributes of “classic Mary-Sue stories” can be found as easily in sentimental and gothic literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they can in romances of the twentieth and twenty-first. Studying the shared characteristics of popular Mary-Sues across time periods may help us to identify and analyze the characteristics large numbers of readers have found most desirable in women throughout the last few centuries. Studying these characters along with their plots may also help us to discover what kinds of stories and identities into which these readers have found most pleasurable to be absorbed, and also help us to analyze the relationship of absorbed reading and writing to “feminine” genres that invite this emotional, absorbed reading. The criticisms that characterize “anti-Mary-Sue” literature today likewise span centuries and genres. Knowledge of the long tradition of criticisms of absorbed reading, embodied in anti-Mary-Sue literature, can enrich our understanding of not only Twilight and Pamela, but also many other works, as well.

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