I’d heard about this book from, well, pretty much everyone — being friends with a lot of nerds meant that when it came out, there was a lot of speculation about how well it would portray fandom and that aspect of fan culture, you know? But I never actually got around to reading it. I glanced over the first chapter, but the emphasis on romance according to the blurb meant I didn’t actually buy it.
After reading Eleanor & Park a little while ago and enjoying it, I decided to give Fangirl a go too. There were two copies in the library where I work, so I nabbed one and gave it a read. To my surprise, I actually really liked it.
I identified with Cath. Like, a lot. She’s an awkward introvert trying to adjust to being at college when she’s not actually very good at making friends, or leaving her room or eating or any of that stuff. So she turns to the internet and to writing for solace.
I saw a couple of reviews that criticised this, saying that fangirls aren’t actually this dysfunctional, but I think those people missed the point: Cath IS neurotic. She knows she is. Her dad’s been hospitalised for mental health reasons more than once, and she’s scared she’s going to end up like him.
Incidentally, her sister Wren is also a fangirl (even if to some extent she’s grown out of it more than Cath has, it’s still a part of who she is) and she’s a totally functional extroverted human being. Rowell isn’t trying to say fangirls are neurotic, just that Cath is.
“No,” Cath said, “Seriously. Look at you. You’ve got your shit together, you’re not scared of anything. I’m scared of everything. And I’m crazy. Like maybe you think I’m a little crazy, but I only ever let people see the tip of my crazy iceberg. Underneath this veneer of slightly crazy and socially inept, I’m a complete disaster.”
And as someone who found my first year at university a pretty tough transition, I liked that it was a book about college where the character didn’t immediately make the best friends of her life and have wonderful experiences, because as a result it was a whole lot closer to my own experience.
The fan culture side of it was also, for me, plenty recognisable. I haven’t particularly been involved in fan fic except as a reader, and even then not a particularly committed one, but Rowell’s portrayal seemed accurate enough. FanFixx.net was clearly a stand-in for the real-world “fanfiction.net”, and while most people refer to Simon Snow as a fictional representation of Harry Potter, I’d say it’s more accurate to describe it as HP meets Percy Jackson.
Also, is it bad that all I could think for a while was, ‘I would totally read Simon Snow if it was real?’ Because honestly, I would.
Anyway. So Cath writes these fics as a way of expressing herself because she doesn’t feel able to create her own characters, but she also thinks in order to write ‘original fiction’, she’d have to leave fanfic behind entirely. Meanwhile she’s trying to make sense of all those eighteen-year-old issues like boys and twin sisters and college assignments.
There was one thing that bugged me, though, which is that Cath is obsessive about writing gay fanfic (to the point where she also makes her assignments for Fiction Writing about gay characters), but none of the main characters in the book are gay, at all, or queer. There’s like, one background character who is mentioned in passing, I think? Other than that, it’s just a bunch of straight people.
For me, that seemed a bit… off. Even though I don’t think there’s anything wrong with straight people writing gay fanfic, the fact that Cath seemed to exclusively write about gay men while being a straight girl without any gay dudes as friends seemed a bit weird, like she was fetishizing it. Which I don’t think she was, but it just seemed odd.
This book was remarkably not-annoying, though. I thought it might be really patronising or something, but it was funny, inventive and well-written, and it didn’t portray fanfic just as a weird quirk or overemphasise Cath’s nerdiness. Plus, it dealt with issues like mental health (her dad), divorce (her mum turning up) and alcohol abuse (her sister), but not in a laboured Issue Book kind of way.
A relatable quote:
“There are other people on the Internet. It’s awesome. You get all the benefits of ‘other people’ without the body odor and the eye contact.”
So overall, I enjoyed it.