Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Stumbling across Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl via cover artist’s Noelle Stevenson’s tumblr filled me with trepidation. It’s an instinctive response for any fan—we’ve spent so much of our history working in the shadows due to antagonistic relationships between creators and fandom that we can’t help but side-eye the modern tumblrina for tweeting Jeff Davis about Sterek. (Tumblrina: noun. Anyone on tumblr who makes me feel old.) But this wasn’t just about visibility. The copy for the book explains the protagonist’s status as a Big Name Fan and then asks, “Is she ready to start living her own life? Writing her own stories? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?”
Groan. As I’ve said before, writing original fiction is not the logical progression of writing fanfiction. They are different, although related, impulses. Ana shared my concerns, but she got to the book first. She assured me that this wasn’t a story about a girl growing up by leaving “childish” fandom behind, although there were a few spots that might trouble me, the woman who wrote her undergraduate thesis on fanfiction as the ultimate form of a particular school of literary criticism. Despite the assurances, I still approached Fangirl tentatively.
Fangirl follows Cath, the very shy author of what is considered the eighth-year Simon Snow fic, Carry On, Simon, as she and her twin, Wren, face their first year of college. While Wren and Cath have been partners-in-crime, Wren has decided to embrace college life to the hilt, leaving Cath alone with an older roommate, said roommate’s very friendly male friend, and her debilitating anxiety disorder. As she tries to navigate college, boys, her father’s mental illness, and trying to finish Carry On, Simon before the release of the eighth Simon Snow book, she also finds herself reevaluating herself as a writer.
As a fan and as someone who suffers from an acute but unspecified anxiety disorder, Cath is a representational double whammy in young adult fiction. (Normally, I wouldn’t diagnose a character, but Cath references her own “diagnosable anxieties,” which keep her from eating alone in public and mildly malnourished for half of the book, and communicates her disinterest in taking any medication for it, so I feel comfortable doing so here.) Fanfiction, as Cath herself states over and over again, is her coping mechanism for her anxiety disorder, a way that she can disappear from her own life and trick herself into forgetting her constant worrying. Late in the book, Cath finds herself so anxious about her relationship with her roommate’s friend Levi that they decide to have her read her own fanfiction out loud to him to calm her down. I found it difficult to connect with Cath because she’s on the defensive all the time, but this does make her a very human and engaging character to read about.
Unfortunately, because there’s no other representations of young female fans in mainstream media, Fangirl, despite having a well-written, if distant, fan protagonist, might just reaffirm to people that fans are lonely escapists. Towards the end of the novel, in fact, Cath states that “[t]o really be a nerd, she’d decided, you had to prefer fictional worlds to the real one” (280). The only wrong way to be a fan is to believe that there’s only one way to be a fan, but this particularly irked me. If only we’d actually heard from Cath’s online friends, whom she references early in the novel and who never appear, seen Wren be a fan for more than five seconds, seen Cath connect with a Carry On, Simon fan she meets at school, or otherwise seen fandom as a community to give us a broader picture of what it means to be a fan. (The 2011-2012 of Fangirl has only a thinly veiled version of Fanfiction.net; there’s no LiveJournal, Dreamwidth, or tumblr analogues for a community to be visible on.) But somebody has to be first, and at least Rowell has stepped up to the plate in a way that’s meant to be affirming to fans. While Cath butts heads with a creative writing professor who believes fanfiction is “stillborn” (since you can’t make money off of it), her boyfriend encourages her to think of herself as an artist of adaptation and the novel ends with Cath and Wren reunited in their love for Simon Snow.
While I found it difficult to connect with Cath, Rowell’s talent for engaging, well-rounded characters is obvious. My particular favorites were Levi, Cath’s intellectually curious, super-nice, and very extroverted farmhand of a boyfriend, and Reagan, Cath’s roommate. I can perhaps only explain Reagan as a unstoppable and terrifying hard femme Adele doppelgänger willing to help out Cath even if she doesn’t exactly grok fandom. (Although it’s subtly implied that Reagan has seen Twilight or at least has Kristen Stewart in her look book.) Naturally, I swooned, and I would read an entire novel about Reagan and Levi in high school.
I usually find young adult novels very breezy reading. Fangirl lacks this—it’s readable, but you push through because it’s so engaging, not because you’ve suddenly run out of pages. Subplots include Cath dealing with her father’s bipolar disorder now that his daughters are out of the class, the return of her estranged mother, Wren’s drinking, and a boy from her writing class taking advantage of her writing skills to write barf-inducing Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasies. It’s a packed but realistic year of college, finding Cath learning to stand up to people in her own ways. I’m tempted to apologize for the meta that dominates this review, but I think Cath, who has probably written a ship manifesto or two about Simon and Baz, would agree with me that meta is love.
Bottom line: As the only highly visible representation of young female fans in young adult fiction, Fangirl has its work cut out for it, and giving us only one fan might give some people the wrong impression. But Rowell has a gift for writing engaging characters and the plotting is realistic and gripping. Worth a look.
This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.
Fangirl will be released on September 10th—tomorrow!