Notes from the Keeper Shelf: Fangirl

Remember back when I said I was going to talk books more, and then I never did? Good times.

I wrote a lot of words in the late spring, but then the summer doldrums hit. I’m now ready for cooler weather and more sanity in the world, but in lieu of either, let’s talk about a book: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

Rowell’s big breakthrough was the 1980s-set young adult romance Eleanor & Park, but without getting into the weeds, while I liked E&P, there were a number of speed-bumps for me related to the representations of poverty and Park’s mother and some of how Eleanor sees/describes Park. I haven’t reread it because I’m afraid those issues would loom even larger a second time.

Fangirl is another story. It was probably my favorite book of 2013, and it’s held up for me on countless rereads.

At first glance, it’s a fairly typical New Adult set-up: Cather Avery (Cath) is off for college with her twin sister Wren. They’re close, and much of their relationship involves their participation in the Simon Snow fandom. (Essentially Harry Potter.)

But whereas Wren wants to use college to redefine herself, assert her independence, and leave Simon Snow behind, Cath isn’t ready to do that. She has a roommate she’s wary of (Reagan), a snooty composition instructor (Professor Piper), and an epic slash retelling of Simon Snow to finish writing. Along the way she has to navigate a serious crush (Levi) and navigate her relationship with her sister and their shy, socially awkward father.

(SPOILERS AHEAD!)

I want to touch on a few things quickly and then discuss what the text has to say about gender and authorship at some length.

  • Fangirl is set in Nebraska, and it has a strong sense of place. I understand why Jane Austen wrote stories set in ____shire. The lack of specificity added to the mystique, the events could be real, Darcy could be that man you saw on the street, etc. But when I see generic settings in contemporary romance–either because the place isn’t named or the setting is merely downplayed–I feel frustrated as a reader. It should matter if your story takes place in Boise, Idaho, vs. Mobile, Alabama. Geography affects weather, culture, food, language, fashion, music, etc. I sometimes wonder if in attempt to make texts broadly relatable or “timeless,” writers make them generic instead. I’d rather have my book be specific, even if it will eventually/inevitably be dated and niche, than colorless. But Fangirl admirably resists this trend. The University of Nebraska campus, the landscape, the clothing, the spring blizzard that Cath and Levi drive through: these are all thick with specificity. I’m not from Nebraska, so I can’t say if it’s accurate, but it had truthiness.
  • Fangirl exists inter-textually with the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Cath and Levi’s romance implots a number of elements from Laura and Almanzo’s: Levi is aware of Cath’s shyness and protects her in public; he drives her home to see her ill father in a snow storm in a parallel to similar to events in The Long Winter; and he resembles Almanzo both physically and in terms of personality. (Though Cath sees Levi kiss another girl after he’s begun pursuing her, which Almanzo would never, ever do.) I also wondered if Cath’s name was a play on Willa Cather. While almost everyone else uses her nickname, Levi calls her Cather throughout; he sees and never doubts her identity as a writer even when others do. But I digress.
  • Levi has difficulty reading. The text never names his learning disability, but it appears to be related to dyslexia. The ways in which books, literacy, and stories come to symbolize their intimacy and growing love are wonderful.
  • Cath is shy and socially awkward in ways I found completely relatable. She struggles to understand social codes and mores; early in the school year, she chooses to eat granola bars in her room because she finds the cafeteria intimidating. She is unapologetically an introvert and even as her friendships with Reagan and Levi blossom, she still needs time alone. There are some social charades that, even when she comes to understand them, she simply rejects. This isn’t a book, in other words, where a shy character comes out of her shell, at least not in the ways the trope normally plays out.
  • Throughout the text, excerpts from Cath’s Simon Snow fanfic appear. (Rowell did go on to publish Carry On, which tells a similar story to Cath’s.) Usually when writers invent a text and put it in their novels, the excerpts comment thematically on the “main” story somehow. But here, it’s about the importance of Cath’s voice and her fandom. It’s about letting her tell us a story without Rowell’s intervention, and thus it contributes to the meta-ness of the text.

Which leads to the aspect of Fangirl I find most compelling.

In addition to the excerpts from her fan fiction, the other primary way that Fangirl comments on itself and fiction more broadly is in the strand of the plot related to Cath’s experiences in a fiction-writing class. On the first day, the students list reasons for writing, and it’s all the typical ones: love of language, to be immortal, etc. Cath’s reason: “To disappear” (p. 24, Kindle Edition). The monologues when Cath describes her writing are wonderful: “Sometimes writing is running downhill, your fingers jerking behind you on the keyboard the way your legs do when they can’t quite keep up with gravity” (p. 426, Kindle Edition). The image here is potent, and my best experiences of writing have been like that. As if the words are something outside of myself. As if I’ve expressed secret truths by turning the volume all the way down on my own voice.

But unfortunately for Cath, her professor doesn’t want her to “disappear.” When Cath turns in her fan fiction for an assignment on unreliable narrators, her professor calls it “plagiarism” saying, “these characters, this whole world belongs to someone else” (p. 107, Kindle Edition). Cath defends herself, describing her work as “Borrowing…Repurposing. Remixing. Sampling” and arguing that since she doesn’t profit from her fanfic, it’s fair use (p. 107, Kindle Edition).

The professor wants Cath to write and submit an entirely new story in order to pass the class, but Cath initially refuses to saying, “I care about Simon Snow. And I know he’s not mine, but that doesn’t matter to me. I’d rather pour myself into a world I love and understand than try to make something up out of nothing” (p. 261, Kindle Edition). She defends the artistic quality her work, going so far as to suggest it might be superior to the the original: “when I’m writing Gemma T. Leslie’s characters, sometimes, in some ways, I am better than her” (p. 262, Kindle Edition).

What Cath is doing, it seems to me, is saying that fandom and the revisions it can entail are of equal and perhaps greater artistic value than the works that inspired them. She’s challenging the author function, to steal Foucault’s term, by saying that the first articulation of Simon Snow isn’t necessarily the last or the best. By rejecting the artistic marketplace and locating the work’s primary value in the joy the writing brings her, Cath upends Professor Piper’s artistic values and declares intellectual independence.

(We never do find out if Cath submits a new story to Professor Piper, but the last excerpt is attributed to “‘Left’ by Cather Avery, winner of the Underclassmen Prize, Prairie Schooner, Fall 2012” (p. 436, Kindle Edition), so I suspect she does.)

This incident contrasts with Cath’s experience with another student in the fiction-writing class, Nick. He’s good looking and talented, and Professor Piper thinks the work they produce together is of high quality.

But for his end of semester project, he submits a story he and Cath worked on together as his:

Cath snapped her mouth shut again. “It’s … it’s just that…” She looked down at the table, where the notebook usually sat. “We worked on it together.”

“Cath…,” he said. Like he was disappointed in her. “What are you trying to say?”

“Well, you’re calling it your story.”

“You call it that,” he said, cutting her off. “You’re always saying that you feel more like an editor than a cowriter.”

“I was teasing you.”

“Are you teasing me now? I can’t tell. …Can we just be honest?” he asked. He didn’t wait for her to answer. “This story was my idea. I started it. I’m the only one who works on it outside the library. I appreciate all of your help—you’re a genius editor, and you’ve got tons of potential—but do you really think it’s your story?”

“No,” Cath said. “Of course not.” She felt her voice shrink into a whine. “But we were writing together. Like Lennon–McCartney—”

“John Lennon and Paul McCartney have been quoted multiple times saying they wrote their songs separately, then showed them to each other. Do you really think John Lennon wrote half of ‘Yesterday’? Do you think Paul McCartney wrote ‘Revolution’? Don’t be naïve.”

Rowell, Rainbow. Fangirl: A Novel (p. 209). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

Nick not only doesn’t feel guilty about claiming ownership of something co-created, he turns on Cath and accuses her of not understanding how art comes into being. (Which is ridiculous when you consider how much more she’s written then he has and how large the following for her fanfic is. While those aren’t the reasons Cath writes, she is quite successful.)

Professor Piper, to her credit, realizes what Nick has done and insists that if he is going to publish the story in a prestigious campus literary journal, he must list Cath as his co-writer. She refuses, effectively denying him the opportunity: “I don’t want any credit. You were right all along. It’s your story” (p. 404, Kindle Edition). Nick’s actions poison the story for Cath. I didn’t see her as doing this to be cruel; she means exactly what she says: it has become wholly his, even if that also means it’s unpublishable.

Fangirl suggests that men and women in create art in different ways and that the academic establishment and the literary marketplace code them differently. Specifically, the types of art men tend to create are seen as valuable while women’s writing is dismissed. Men are writers, women fans. It matters, I think, that Cath’s Simon Snow fanfic is a queer romance with (presumably) a happy ever after while Nick’s stolen story is an “anti-love story” (p. 197, Kindle Edition). They have similar themes, but he thinks by leeching the happy ending out, he’ll elevate his efforts.

I don’t want to push this too far and essentialize the dynamic. Professor Piper and Gemma Leslie (the invented author of Simon Snow) write books that the establishment likes or at least buys, so it’s not that the text is saying art by women could never be coded as worthwhile by an academic audience. But in the novel is clearly arguing for the value of Cath’s stories and fan-revised narratives.

(END SPOILERS)

Fangirl is melancholy and joyful by turns. It’s a wonderfully specific YA meditation on art, gender, and independence, and I truly loved it.

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