BWW Review: FANGIRL by Rainbow Rowell
"To really be a nerd, she'd decided, you had to prefer fictional worlds to the real one."
~Rainbow Rowell, FANGIRL
FANGIRL took me longer to get into than ELEANOR & PARK, which I reviewed here at BWW last week. It has a slower start before it gets moving and makes readers become attached to the characters. It's also a longer book, so it took me longer than the day it did to read ELEANOR & PARK. But in some ways, I can relate more to FANGIRL because I've experienced several of the same things that Cath goes through. In ELEANOR & PARK, it's easy to slip into Eleanor's shoes and feel her embarrassment and live her life. With FANGIRL, the audience is more secular. I've heard a lot of people complain that FANGIRL seems improbable, that freshmen at college aren't like this, that the scenario is off. ...And yet, Cath is a lot like I was my first year of college. Don't brush off Cath's experience just because it wasn't yours, because it was someone else's.
Cather and her twin sister, Wren, are both freshmen in college. After rooming together all their lives, Wren has decided she wants a new roommate and Cath is on her own. Wren is more social and outgoing; Cath is more of a homebody, content to stay home and write while her sister is out partying. This is a line that begins dividing the sisters as they change and grow in opposite directions. Cath loves writing fanfiction about her two favorite characters from the best-selling Simon Snow series, and while Wren used to write right alongside her, she now thinks it to be babyish and lame.The two girls fell into the world of Simon Snow after their mother left them on 9/11. Yes, that 9/11. They've grown up trying not to care about the abandonment. After all, their mother only had energy to name one child: Catherine. When she found out she was having twins, she just split the name: Cather and Wren. Who does that? They're fine with their lovable dad...but will he be fine on his own in an empty nest? FANGIRL combines the ups and downs of experiencing college for the first time with the meaning of family, and the way we associate with one another.
I liked the inside look at the world of fanfiction. I think that Rainbow Rowell must have come from a background that involved fanfiction. I know I did. In high school, I read a lot of it, wanting more romance/story centered around my favorite couple from a show I enjoyed. I also wrote it a little in high school, but moreso in college. While I haven't written fanfiction in a few years, I love what it gave me. I found life-long friends that I still talk to as time allows. I became a better writer. In fanfiction, you learn to grow a stronger skin fast when it comes to criticism. I truly embrace constructive criticism, even now.
At least two of the fanfiction "greats" I grew up with have become published within the last couple of years, and I'm sure more are on the way (I'm beta-ing for one such friend now as time allows). I had friends who enjoyed writing slash fiction the way Cath does (When two males or females fall in love against the hetero-romance in the actual piece of work). While I always stuck to canon pairings and never saw the appeal of finding other romantic interests because the canon couple was so right for one another, it was great to see Rowell address this sect of fanfiction, and the fans that are out there writing from other perspectives. For them, especially, fanfiction is the only place to embrace and see the couples they love being in love with one another.
At the same time, there has also been a lot of controversy recently about fanfiction, and whether or not it's plagiarism. This finger-pointing has come more intensely ever since the publication of the wildly popular Fifty Shades of Gray Trilogy by E.L. James. Originally fanfiction, the author cleaned up her story, changed character names, removed all mentions of vampires/werewolves/etc., and submitted it professionally. With it being so successful, many other Twilight fandom authors did the same thing. Before Fifty Shades, Cassandra Clare cleaned up and repackaged her Harry Potter fanfiction as THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS for at least the first book in her bestselling series.
Where do we draw the line? I strongly believe that fanfiction should be free, and never something used for profit. You may have your own unique, highly-developed world and idea that are far away from the original story, but you're still using someone else's characters. The way they interact with one another, their family history, their looks...it isn't yours. You are profiting off of someone else's blood, sweat, and tears, and this is always a sore spot for me. I personally can't read authors who aren't bothered by this.
Rowell sums up my thoughts best in this scene between Cath and her Professor. Both are right. When writing for fun and not profit, Cath is right. But when you start to sell fanfiction and claim it as an original work because you changed character names (and may or may not have changed hair color and location), you're still stealing:
Bad or good isn't the point." Professor Piper shook her head, and her long, wild hair swayed from side to side. "This is plagiarism."
"No," Cath said. "I wrote it myself."
"You wrote it yourself? You're the author of Simon Snow and the Mage's Heir?"
"Of course not."
Why was Professor Piper saying this?
"These characters, this whole world belongs to someone else."
"But the story is mine."
"The characters and the world make the story," the older woman said, like she was pleading with Cath to understand.
"Not necessarily . . ." Cath could feel how red her face was. Her voice was breaking.
"Yes," Professor Piper said. "Necessarily. If you're asked to write something original, you can't just steal someone else's story and rearrange the characters."
"It's not stealing."
"What would you call it?"
"Borrowing," Cath said, hating that she was arguing with Professor Piper, not ever wanting to make Professor Piper's face look this cold and closed, but not able ot stop. "Repurposing. Remixing. Sampling."
"It's not illegal." All the arguments came easily to Cath; they were the justification for all fanfiction. "I don't own the characters, but I'm not trying to sell them, either."
(pgs. 107-108, US hardcover edition)
Sorry for going off on a small tangent, but FANGIRL raised a lot of emotions in me. So did the fact that some people were saying that the novel was impractical. I was that girl who would rather write than go out partying with her roommate (Alas, no hot friend/possible love interest like Levi hanging around my room to snag!). I was never a power writer like Cath, though. She wrote so much and had the most well-known fanfic in her fandom. Everyone knew her and her story, and considered it the official story until the real final Simon Snow novel came out. Even a random girl Cath met in a library wearing a Simon Snow shirt knew Cath and her story! I think every fanfic writer would love to become hugely popular like that, but few do. Those that do are celebrated when they become published with their own, fully original novels for real, because everyone knows they can write and is happy to see them profiting off good, new writing. It was also interesting to see the pressure get to Cath. While she still loved writing Simon Snow, she had also lost a lot of the joy that came from writing. It was all about numbers, and she couldn't keep up with it all. It was interesting to think about the pressure that a popular writer goes through even in fandom to remain current, keep fans, find new ones, and publish satisfying works without losing her edge. I really liked the inclusion of that aspect. Cath may be fine now writing just Simon Snow fanfiction and never wanting to create her own stuff, but in time, I'm sure that she'll move on to original works and find love in them, as well. I did, and Cath is so much like me that I have hope she will, too!
If you want a more traditional contemporary novel, you may prefer ELEANOR & PARK, which is more instantly relatable for more people. ELEANOR & PARK is also more traditionally YA. FANGIRL falls more into this "New Adult" genre that has begun emerging in the last couple of years, even though it's classified as YA. If you want a good New Adult, the kind that the genre is really supposed to be rather than what it has become, FANGIRL is a shining example.
If you love writing, or fanfiction, or just seeing what propels and motivates writers, definitely give FANGIRL a try. I'm not convinced it's as secular a read as others would have you believe, especially since it made several Best of the Year lists when it debuted in 2013 (albeit not as many as ELEANOR & PARK).
Plus, if you ARE a writer, you'll love and appreciate beautiful writing quotes such as:
"Do you ever feel. ..like you're a black hole...a reverse black hole of words." "So the world is sucking you dry...of language." "Not dry, not yet. But the words are flying out of me so fast, I don't know where they're coming from." "And maybe you've run through your surplus...and now they're made of bone and blood." "Now they're made of breath.""
(pg. 101, US hardcover edition
"This wasn't good, but it was something. Cath could always change it later. That was the beauty in stacking up words--they got cheaper, the more you had of them. It would feel good to come back and cut this when she'd worked her way to something better."
(pg. 425, US hardcover edition)
"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. Cath fell and fell, leaving a trail of messy words and bad smiles behind her."
(pg. 426, US hardcover edition)
If you're not a writer, there are still plenty of great quotes to love:
"Oh, put that away," Cath said with distaste. "I don't want you to get charm all over my sister--what if we can't get it out?""
(pg. 79, US hardcover edition)
She heard the beginning of a smile in his voice--a fetal smile--and it very nearly killed her."
(pg. 268, US hardcover edition)
Despite the fact that the overuse of he said/she said can get annoying and I wish there was more variety, it's easy to overlook this small nitpick of a detail because Rowell has so many great lines, and so many ways of capturing reader's emotions and making them feel. Her characters are very human and ordinary. They're not super special magical snowflakes like so many other YA characters up there. And that, to me, is the heart of a Rainbow Rowell novel.