Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, published early last month, is a tender portrait of young adulthood, as it follows Cath, an anxious young woman who’s achieved a certain measure of fame writing fan fiction about a popular fantasy series, heads off to the University of Nebraska and starts developing a life separate from her mentally ill father and her twin sister. But for all Fangirl‘s core conflict involves Cath becoming brave enough to move away from fan fiction as her primary form of engagement with her sister, and as her primary creative outlet, the book falls somewhat short when it comes to living up to its title. Fangirl is a good, sweet coming-of-age novel. But it’s not quite the exploration of fandom and fan communities that it might have been.
Fangirl is a kind book, full of people who basically want to do the correct things, and one of the areas in which its kindness manifests is in its portrayal of fandom. The people who read Cath’s fiction, particularly her book-length work Carry On, Simon, are largely enthusiastic, even worshipful. “For thousands of people, Carry On was already it. People were always telling Cath that they couldn’t look at canon the same way after reading her stuff. (“ Why does Gemma hate Baz?”)” Cath reflects at one point. “Somebody had even started selling T-shirts on Etsy that said KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON with a photo of Baz and Simon glaring at each other.” Fangirl acknowledges that there can be a negative side to fandom–”Sometimes they even turned against her,” Rowell notes. “They’d trash her on other fansites, saying that Cath used to be good, but she’d lost the magic— that her Baz was too canon or not canon enough, that her Simon was a prude, that she overwrote Penelope.…”
But interestingly, for a character who’s so intensely sensitive to the outside world, Cath doesn’t seem particularly affected by her critics. Wren tells her to ignore them after that summary of the way Cath’s disaffected fans behave, and for the rest of the novel, she essentially does. Fangirl deals glancingly with questions like the ferocity of the debates over the correct interpretation of characters’ arcs and attempts to discern an author’s intentions. But these are passing issues, and they happen at a remove, summarized quickly in Cath’s computer screen, while the character she knows in real life bloom on the page.
There’s an argument to be made that this is the point, that Cath is emerging from a digital pool into the real world, and accepting that it will be cold, and sharp, and bright, but ultimately worth it. But I wonder if Fangirl would have been more compelling if there was a genuine competition between the people Cath meets in college, and her community of readers and fellow fan fiction writers online. As it is, fan fiction mostly seems like a stand-in for Cath’s relationship with Wren, rather than a larger competition between relationships built on line and those built in person. By writing fic even as Wren largely abandons the practice, Cath is yearning for the days when she and her sister were each other’s best friends and primary peers, and when Wren provided a buffer between Cath and the wider social community she wasn’t comfortable engaging with. There’s nothing wrong with telling a story about a relationship between sisters, but the divide between Cath’s shy studiousness and Wren’s party-girl mishaps isn’t as original or compelling as the divide between the appeal of a fan community and a college one.
You can tell terrific and compelling stories about online relationships. Ernest Cline did it in his dystopian video game novel Ready Player One. Neal Stephenson played off the tension between online and real-world identities in his picaresque adventure Reamde, which centers on the creator of a massively multiplayer online game and his extended family.
But there’s real space for a novel that places fan culture at the center of the action, and specifically, women’s engagement with fan culture. Fangirl has Cath writing slash fan fiction, and has some engagement with the sex she writes as opposed to the physical contact she experiences in the real world, as well as the phenomenon of fan fiction authors moving on to create worlds and characters of their own, as been the case for writers like Cassandra Clare. But I wish the novel had set up a real competition between Cath’s life online and the world she finds at the University of Nebraska, instead of simply stacking the deck in Nebraska’s favor. People like Cath don’t just turn to fandom and online communities because they’re damaged or scares. There’s a real world out there, and it’s a rich, exciting, and rewarding one, as well as one that’s screwed up, and obsessive, and can cause real damage in the lives of the people who participate in it. Fandom deserves a novel that doesn’t treat it like a pale substitute for life, when fan communities can be such a major component of it.