One of the good things about not being in school anymore is having the time to read for fun. Not that all of the books I read in school were bad, but… Middlemarch (I will always cite this book as one I was assigned to read and loathed).
Anyway, my most recent post-grad reading was the recently released Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. After discovering the author at LeakyCon in June (I volunteered at a multi-author signing and half of the line just wanted to see Rowell), I read her earlier YA novel Eleanor & Park in a day (seriously, that book is beautiful). I’ve been waiting since then to read her latest, though her adult novel Attachments in waiting on my shelf (YA always comes first).
Fangirl is the story of new college freshman Cath Avery in Nebraska in 2011. Cath and her twin sister are life-long fans of an insanely popular book series (and its film adaptations) called Simon Snow, a purposely thinly veiled Harry Potter stand-in. The two are “fangirls” of the series, meaning they are more involved with the text and its appreciation than the average person who enjoyed the books. Cath is a very popular fanfiction writer, meaning that she writes stories using the character of Simon Snow and his frenemy Baz, who she (and apparently thousands of other fangirls) see as being in love. To anyone familiar with the world of fandom, all of this makes sense. If you have no idea what most of these words mean, then you’re likely unfamiliar with the world of fandom, fangirls and fanboys, fanfic, and shipping. But I’ll get to that later. Cath’s first year at school is tough, with family drama and boy problems and the kind of sometimes crippling social anxiety that can come with that sort of major life change.
Writing this summary, I can practically feel people going, “ugh, another teen girl with boy drama. Who cares?” That would be the wrong response. Because I’ll tell you who cares: anyone who reads this book. Rowell is a master of the English language. She paints a compelling picture, using a flawed but endearing character that you cannot help but care about. Her descriptions of even the most simple moments are a thing of beauty. And, just as in Eleanor & Park, she writes first love like a work of art. The book is also interspersed with excerpts from the Simon Snow books and Cath’s fanfiction, making a layered story and creating a deeper connection with Cath.
When I finished Fangirl, I said something to a friend along the lines of, “this book feels like it’s talking about my life, but I also feel like it changed my life.” Meaning: as a self-described fangirl, I can relate so much to Cath and her life. But the way it is written and what Cath learns make the book feel… important. I think that’s the best word. I want to make people read it in order to understand me better, to understand my peers and friends and Millennials and the Internet and life.
So fandom. If you have no idea what any of that “fan” junk is, I almost feel like you’ve missed out. Fandom is a place (not physically, obviously) for fans to come together to consume, discuss, and create texts. For Cath, this means reading and re-reading all of the Simon Snow books, watching the films, talking with other fans on online forums, sharing this with her sister, buying Simon Snow merchandise to cover her room, and writing tons of fanfiction using the world of Simon Snow or the characters. Fanfiction is a way to explore worlds and characters that the writer loves but has no ownership of. It is done for love, not for profit (except in the rare 50 Shades of Gray case. And also contrary to 50 Shades, it is not always porn). Slash fiction, like Cath writes, means putting two characters together, often of the same gender, who are not in a relationship in the original text (or canon). Cath “ships” (meaning wants a pair to be a couple) Simon and Baz, a similar pair to the popular Harry Potter/Draco Malfoy ship (I never shipped “Drarry,” but I found myself enjoying Simon/Baz). If shipping sounds weird to you, just know that it’s been happening for decades. Kirk/Spock shippers have existed in the Star Trek fandom since the 60s. Before the Internet they would write fic and mail it to each other. Seriously, look it up. Not to mention the obsessive fandom around the Sherlock Holmes stories when they were first published. They wore black arm bands when Doyle killed Sherlock, and then pushed the author until he brought him back years later. Fandom has always existed, they’re just louder and more accessible now with the Internet.
Fandom is incredibly important to Cath, and this is probably the most important paragraph of this review (which has gotten a bit out of hand. whoops?). Cath and her sister originally used the Simon Snow series as a form of escapism when things at home get hard. As the years go by, Cath’s connection to the story is her safe haven. Simon and Baz are sacred to her, their love representing something solid and constant that she can turn to in times of trouble. Fans have an emotional investment in texts. I speak from experience when I say that immersing in fiction, with understandable limits and a compelling world, can heal the soul. Like Cath, I have found solace and comfort in texts. And I have made friendships through fandom. I see people looking at fans, particularly teenage female fans, and belittling them as “crazy” (the treatment of boy band fans comes to mind). That is an unfair and unrealistic characterization. Just as die-hard sports fans involve themselves in fantasy teams, going to games, wearing gear or even painting their faces, fangirls and fanboys enact their love of texts in a similar way. All of this is for not only love of the canon, but love of what it stands for, and what it means specifically to each fan. Fandom, like any community, has its drama or stress, but in its very essence fandom is love. Love of the source and what comes from it.
I love being a fangirl. I’m never bored or alone when I’m actively involved. I’ve made some of my best friends, people who are there for me in hard times as well as in “omg did you see the latest news?!” times. And I have dabbled in fanfiction, both reading and writing. To me, it is a way for consumers to take control of things they love and become producers. It’s empowering and downright fun, not to mention a great writing exercise (I urge you to look into what others have said on the subject, generally articulated better than I can, from scholars like Henry Jenkins to popular authors familiar with fandom likeJohn Green [that’s two links for John]).
Fandom can even change the world. Just look at organizations like the Harry Potter Alliance, which uses the ideals of Harry and his friends to make strides in equal rights across the globe. That’s only one example of how love of a text translates into not only a better life for the fan, but for their community.
Well, this review has gotten a bit out of hand. Needless to say, Fangirl was great. If you identify as a fangirl or fanboy, you should absolutely check it out. If you don’t, but think that any of the fandom things I’ve mentioned seem interesting, then check the book out to learn more. If you don’t care at all about fandom, read the book anyway. I promise, it’s great.
Now if only those Simon Snow books were real so I could read those. Or at least the fanfiction for it…