Here’s a book I bought on a whim. It’s something I never do, but there I was confronted on the shelves of Waterstones with a light green paperback: entitled Fangirl.
I’ve usually heard of the novel before I ever see it. Most books I read come from something. Reading The Fault in Our Stars came about after having watched John’s YouTube content; reading Boy Meets Boy and David Levithan’s other novels then came about from reading 2(WG); or am introduced to an author or a novel from English Lit. classes, or based on a friend’s recommendation; I even read The Diary of Anne Frank because of TFIOS. (Maybe I’ll do the same with this novel for The Outsiders?)
There’s security in that. And here I am faced with this book I’ve never heard of, written by this writer with an obviously pseudonymous name that sounds right out of MLP.
But two things appealed to me: firstly, the cover. I find reasons to reject a book immediately, whether it makes sense to or not. The cover is depicts a Photoshopped model. The cover is bright pink. The font size is too big. The typeface is Comic Sans. Because my pile is large and eternally growing. One wants to avoid adding to it, at least not until another on that pile is read through, but that is in itself impossible.
This book is something different. Two stylised figures, one with a laptop; the other with in a plaid flannel shirt: Girl and Boy, hanging about on the words of the cover. Then the interior cover: the front, a cartoon dramatis personae; the back, a two-panel comic strip of page 287 (spoilers.) I’ve always been a little bit obsessed with graphic design, but this was something just perfect.
The concept of the novel itself is something to timely, so contemporary that people will look at it in a few years and think “that is so 2013.” There are two types of novels: it is either overwhelmingly timeless or overwhelmingly current. Like, here’s the destruction of the Twin Towers compared against the hero’s journey to defeat any danger in the way and rescue the princess. Here’s a book which defines the present day, and that in itself is incredibly interesting.
It’s said “don’t judge a book my its cover”, and I did exactly that. And what a brilliant decision that was.
Like basically every single YA novel, it’s a bildungsroman story. But it’s an incredibly good one at that.
Cath is a college freshman. Since the age of 16, she’s been working on a piece of fanfiction, Carry On, Simon, about an 11 year old boy from England who faces his ultimate nemesis at a supernatural wizarding school (sound familiar?), to thousands of hits and even a “Keep Calm...” shirt on Etsy. The analogy is obvious: the boy Simon Snow is the Mage’s Heir, doesn’t have parents and then meets a girl, Penelope Bunce and his evil roommate, Tyrannus Basilton Pitch, or ‘Baz.’ It’s a world where every name is odd and melodramatic, and every teacher is quirky and eccentric, written by a female writer whose name exists in three parts. That other series exists in this world (Cath references it a few times), and one would expect characters to be raving about the final film, and for the Simon Snow series to have been dismissed as plagiarism years ago. So let’s look at this as a different world where Philosopher’s Stone didn’t become a bestseller, but sold moderately and in its place Simon Snow filled its gap in satiating millions of young readers.
That book series has never really been my thing (although, much to Cath’s annoyance, I’ve only seen the films.) But it’s a great focus to wrap the novel around, because it is such a vast thing which has influenced so many people.
In many ways it’s a book about the end of childhood, as one perceives it. Arbitrarily, one assigns adulthood from the age of 18 onwards. (Of course, in small ways, the same is done from 16, and 21, etc.) Cath is now 18 and is expected to grow up in the ‘real world’ of independence, jobs, boyfriends and, uh, frat parties.
Cath’s life has been guided, if not defined, by the Simon Snow book series. Told in eight parts since the first paperback in 2001 (sounds familiar – there’s even a 3 year gap between books 3 and 4), it’s been adapted into films (of which there are at least 4), and it’s so popular that it gets Time magazine articles, midnight releases and legions of fic writers who ship characters together, including the Sazzy pairing of Baz and Simon, the focus of Cath’s work. Now she’s studying fiction-writing at university, and she has to find her own characters and different inspirations.
Along with Cath’s childhood, Simon Snow is ending too. The last book, the Eighth Dance is to be released within months. At the same time, she’s trying to complete her epic project before the book draws a close to the series. That ending is not arbitrary; it’s a set in stone date of release because of the prose’s completion; the date is not a ‘because.’
Cath’s got an indentical twin sister, too. Identical twins aren’t something I appreciate. There’s a pair of twin sisters at school, and there’s been times where I’ve addressed one thinking them to be the other. Their hairstyles are the same, their friend groups identical, and their clothing styles probably from the same wardrobe. Wren serves as a mirror of her character: she’s not the socially awkward, emotional glasses person that Cath is (neither is she adorned with glasses), but she has strings of boyfriends, hosts parties and drinks a fair bit. Cath’s relationships are sparse, are entered with uncertainty and a lot of time. Her alcohol is Starbucks, and she spends a lot of time asking if and when she wants to lose her virginity to the boy she eventually ends up dating within the book’s 450 pages. There’s a line which stands out to me: with first times, “one only gets graded on attendance.”
Maybe it’s a little too obvious to give us identical but opposite twins, but it serves the novel well. It’s good to see her family amongst what is very much the end of the family dynamic that has served her since birth. They have a single father who works in advertising, and he has to adjust to not having the twins at home. The two attend the same university, Nebraska-Lincoln, and Cath very much feels they should maintain that same sisterly relationship and look out for each other; only Cath finds they need each other less and less.
But this book is not about fanfiction. This book is about the fundamental question of what role fiction serves, and the writing process; the real provenance of works and how one can accredit ideas to a specific person, or source. Cath’s writing becomes a simulation of her own life. She has written romance and sex (“with the wrong parts”), and now she is experiencing what she has written. That simulation is her expectation, and she notes when the kisses are different, that the love is not in the heart and that it’s just different.
There’s also identity, too. In one scene Cath talks to a girl IRL, who’s a fan of Carry On, Simon. Cath presents herself as a fan, and not the writer, because she is hidden behind a guise, a username which is also her penname. Does it stretch credibility that the girl doesn’t realise they are one and the same? Maybe, but then with usernames it all blends together; it becomes monosyllabic and not polysyllabic. Usernames are really names someone doesn’t understand until someone clearly explains it to them. Their own life is hidden behind a shield, written in ambiguity and allusions but never clarity. It’s something ‘other’, which Cath tries to keep as something ‘other’ from the start of the novel, hiding it from others, only to find others know about it.
Young adult fiction is a funny thing. Even at this age it seems a little odd to me to be going right to the teenage section, as if it’s something lesser to the adult. Of course, it ranges from 13-19. But one associates it with the 13 side of things, not the 19 side of things. But I’ve grown up. At 16 I could relate to the 16-year-old Holden Caufield and the 16-year-old Hazel struggling to deal with life, and now at 17 I’m approaching the age where I will be moving onto the ‘next step’, leaving home behind for university libraries. I can relate to Cath and her fan fiction. The derivative is what introduced me to the skills of writing and filmmaking; I spent my childhood writing Doctor Who fanfic (non-sexual, not knowing what sexual was; although having said that I have unknowingly written gay Who-fic), and then my teen years editing Doctor Who fan videos; now I’m moving from that over to more original, ‘mature’ stuff. Heck, my introduction to reading was with spin-off novels for Doctor Who and Star Wars. The conflict between writing what school wants you to and writing what you actually care about is something that, like Cath, I relate to, and probably everyone does. Determining when it is right to take off my pants and entrap myself in a boy’s bed is a pretty big issue right now too. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, how I should pace myself (ourselves) and when ‘everyone else’ is doing as such (as seen here by Wren and other characters), and whether to be mindless or meaningful. The question of whether to turn a situation from just sitting on one’s lap, or just kissing has also been brought with me to the bedroom. But Rowell (like Cath) makes the love cute, and not erotic.
I’m probably outside the book’s target audience. Fundamentally it’s ‘chick lit’, and that’s what mum referred to it as when she noticed what I was reading. But I refuse to call it that.
With the word ‘girl’ taking up over half the title, the book written by a female author, duh, it’s for girls. I’m sure someone will be quick to dispute this, but I kind of feel as a gay guy I’m more open to reading books ‘meant’ for the ‘fairer sex’ (an archaic term I hate, btw.) Keeping up a heterosexual masculinity isn’t something I particularly concern myself about, so I’m all for reading about someone who clearly isn’t myself so far as sex is concerned, although I too, like Cath, care for finding the perfect guy. Like, my comics pull-list consists of Black Widow and She-Hulk, and I would totally add Storm to that list if I had more money. But when it’s a really good story (and, I guess, when it’s not a story which concerns itself with first periods or boob size, unlike the likes of Angus, Thongs...), it transcends gender to just be a really good story. There can be a self consciousness as to "oh, this is clearly not for me." As a kid, I felt bad about reading Tracy Beaker, having love love loved the TV series, when Jacquelince Wilson is clearly writing for young girls, not boys, basing it around a female protagonist. I returned the book to the library unfinished. More mainstream YA books like TFIOS or The Hunger Games seems to cross that barrier a little more, and I'd probably put that down to being more mainstream in the public consciousness. Both female protagonists, but they find a wider reach. Could it be down to the subject matter? We could speculate about this all day.
Rowell’s other YA novel, Eleanor and Park, doesn’t reflect on the present, but reflects on Rowell’s own past as a teenager in the 1980s (yes, I was surprised to learn she’s not a young writer starting out in her 20s, but double that.) One shouldn’t judge a book until they’ve read it as a whole either, but when I was halfway through this I picked that up too, in its nice new yellow edition with earbuds and all (John Green’s recommendation of it during the TFIOS livestream earlier this year helped, too.) It should be an interesting read, because a) I love the 80s so much and b) I read so much about the present, or the present as written, that a change of pace will be interesting. I’ve just read the comic Deadly Class, so it’ll be an interesting contrast to that. (Rowell has two adult novels in her bibliography too, which I may come to at some point.) It’s another romance, but I’m sure it will be good.
Oh, and she also has a Tumblr, where she posts images of Benedict Cumberbatch.