Update: Two Novels Called Fangirl

March 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

In 2010, I proposed a dissertation about the emerging field of “fan literature,” in which I planned to examine what happened when fictional storyworlds were organized around fan protagonists. My primary text was going to be Felicia Day’s Web series, The Guild, which is about a group of gamers who become real-life friends. Across six seasons of the Web series, ten comic books, and three music videos, the universe of The Guild was to provide me with everything I needed to explore my question about fan-centered storytelling. For six years, from 2007 to 2013, Day and her team tirelessly expanded that storyworld, and my appreciation for it deepened with every expansion. To contextualize what I learned from my close reading of The Guild, I thought I should examine some more formally conventional examples of the phenomenon from contemporary literature.

During the first quarter of my doctoral program, for example, I had read Noël Alumit’s 2002 queer bildungsroman Letters to Montgomery Clift, and completely fallen in love with the novel. Alumit’s depiction of the once-common pre-Internet loneliness of living in a fandom of one touched me. Further, the connections he drew between the isolation of the political migrant, the queer child, and the sensitive reader revealed new layers of meaning to me on every re-reading. While The Guild dazzled me with its New Media articulation of contemporary fan life, Letters to Montgomery Clift offered me the sacred one-on-one experience of reading prose, in private, and immersing myself in the individual perspective of a single character working to become himself with the unwavering support of a dead celebrity.

I also wanted to talk about Elif Batuman’s 2010 memoir, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, for three reasons. Firstly, I have loved Elif Batuman’s writing since I first encountered it in n+1. Secondly, I love all autobiographical writing by women, from the diaristic or bloggy to the proclamatory — as a fine example of the latter category, see Janet Mock’s 2014 memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. Like Mock’s, Batuman’s writing is at once personal and polemical, and the delicate balance she strikes between the two is impressive. Finally, I wanted to talk about Batuman because I wanted to connect my findings on fandom and contemporary literature to literary studies more broadly, and her depiction of Russian literature fandom helpfully incorporates both professional and non-professional modes of criticism. Batuman’s memoir of graduate school could easily be compared, I thought, to a more familiar kind of fan memoir, like Allyson Beatrice’s Will the Vampire People Please Leave the Lobby?: True Adventures in Cult Fandom, published in 2007. In that memoir, the author recalls her experience of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom, in message boards, at conventions, and in her e-mail-based friendship with Buffy writer Tim Minear. Although the objects of adoration are different, the quirky characters the authors encounter along the way are easy to recognize and connect, as are the kinds of emotional resolution available to thinkers who understand themselves first and foremost as fans, rather than, say, mere objects of the male gaze, or subjects learning to embody virtue.

My dissertation topic and title have changed, although many of the primary texts remain the same, but I continue to be attached to the evolution of fan literature. Since 2012, at least two novels bearing the title Fangirl have been published, and I found the time to read both of them this month. The first of these is Jill Robi’s 2012 novel, Fangirl: A Fictionalized Non-Fiction. It depicts a fangirl protagonist, Khloe, who is appealing, confident, and kind. Against stereotype, she has close friends, both on and off the Internet, and, unlike most of the characters in The Guild, she is employed and financially independent. These features work to her advantage in the part of fandom she enjoys, which is meeting celebrity actors in real life at conventions. Khloe has a LiveJournal account and enjoys fannish discussion, but is not necessarily one to seek out long fanfiction accounts of “what if?” scenarios, or plot holes in the canon of her show. Rather, she focuses her attention on every aspect of her favorite actor, Weston Moore, from the physical attributes that make him so sexually attractive, to the sense of his personality she can glean from his performances, comments in interviews, and his brief interactions with fans, including her, at conventions.

Like Bong Bong Luwad, the portagonist of Letters to Montgomery Clift, Robi’s Khloe is intensely perceptive of her own desire. She is also a savvy consumer of the marketplace of desire, aware of the artificial components that make Weston Moore so attractive to so many of his fans. We can see this when she is working to ascertain his “type,” and asks a fellow fan if he has been known to date black women, like her, in the past. While Robi’s Fangirl represents a romantic fantasy, that of a fangirl facing the opportunity to see her love for her favorite actor requited in real life, it is not a fantasy removed from the real-world politics of love and desire. Rather, the book represents a creative fictional exploration of the limits of fans’ overflowing desires, which transcend what we think we know about women, erotica, and reading.

Rainbow Rowell’s 2013 novel, also called Fangirl, is about a younger and more sexually-inexperienced and stereotypical fangirl, Cather Avery, who, at the start of the novel, is a freshman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I got my Master’s degree from UNL, and so I for one would have loved the book for its sensitive depiction of Lincoln and Omaha, even if it had failed me in its representations of fandom. In the interests of full disclosure, the same is true for Robi’s novel, because the author and I share our major fandom, and her clever representations of its particularities delighted me, too. Fortunately, so did both authors’ creative characterizations of their fangirl protagonists. Unlike Khloe, Cather Avery is a socially awkward mess when we first meet her. Her twin sister, Wren, has decided that the two should use college as an opportunity to explore their separate identities, meaning, in her case, a lot of underage binge drinking and assimilation into the world of heterosexual dating. “Cath,” by contrast, is terrified of the social world of college, and is only attracted to two things about it, namely her internet connection, and her advanced fiction writing class.

Cath also represents a different kind of fan than Khloe because her primary mode of engagement with her fannish object is the writing of fanfiction. She writes long and popular stories, which garner her fans of her own, who validate her without requiring her to enter into awkward real world socialization. Her fandom is that of the “Simon Snow” series, which is essentially a fictionalized version of the Harry Potter series. Formally speaking, Rowell does almost everything I had hoped the authors of fan literature would try out. She incorporates fake “canon” for Simon Snow, including an excerpt from a Wikipedia-like site about the series, and prose excerpts from several of the eight books that constitute the series. She also incorporates “fanon,” that is, excerpts from Cath’s fanfiction, which appear, for the most part, in the order in which Cath writes them, and usually complement the action of the story nicely. There are also nostalgic excerpts of the fanfiction Cath and Wren used to write together in high school, which reveal Cath’s emotional desire to hold onto their past closeness, rather then devote herself to the adult world represented by college, and, specifically, heterosexual love.

One of the central dichotomies explored in Rowell’s book is that of fanfiction versus “original” fiction, and so, there is an emotional catharsis that occurs when the excerpts of fanfiction give way to discussions of the writing Cath attempts for her creative writing class, which she finds much more intimidating than the seemingly endless, but crucially limited world of Simon Snow. Cath’s father works in advertising, and there is a nice analogy between the two characters, both of whom wish to be “creative,” but often find themselves stuck, their minds spinning in obsessive loops. Rowell depicts Cath’s struggles with writer’s block compassionately and creatively, first by contrasting it with her father’s mental instability, and then by balancing the young woman’s baffling social behavior with the seriousness and humor that define her inner world. The clues to understanding this inner world lie both in the descriptions of Cath’s thoughts and her writing. Rowell’s storytelling style could be compared in its complexity to that of The Guild, in which we contrast the characters with their in-game avatars. But in Rowell’s case, instead of switching media to delineate internal and external worlds, one merely switches between various prose forms.

Part of me is still convinced that these stories of fangirls represent a significant stage in the characterization of a certain type of contemporary intellectual, usually a woman. Rebecca Mead’s profiles of Lena Dunham and Jennifer Weiner in The New Yorker speak to this phenomenon, especially when complemented by her 2014 memoir, My Life in Middlemarch. Like The Possessed, My Life in Middlemarch points to a love of reading that transcends institutions as its driving force, and provides a necessary complement to more familiar depictions of desire. There is something underlying the careful attention these authors pay to the comprehensive depiction of the individual consumption of storyworlds, always gesturing towards its excesses, both material, like the Simon Snow merchandise that litters Cath and Wren’s childhood bedroom, and the more abstract, namely those excesses of inquiry and desire excited by the objects of consumption. At least I hope there is something greater underlying this phenomenon, because otherwise, I’ve one-click ordered my way into an Amazon-branded loop of self-deception.

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