Emily: The first book we are both really excited to discuss is Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, a novel that engages in a conversation about fan culture and the importance of people’s relationships with beloved artifacts of pop culture.
Fangirl follows a young woman named Cath – the aforementioned fangirl – through her first year of college. She’s an anxious introvert and a “Simon Snow” fan, and over the course of the book, which takes place during her first year of college, she negotiates her roles as a geek and a grown-up.
This was my first time reading Fangirl, but I know that you’ve read it before, Kazia. How was the re-reading experience for you?
Kazia: Re-reading this book was so much fun, but also so much more painful the second time around. Cath’s struggles with social anxiety, with her need to balance taking care of her father and herself, and with shifting status quos regarding her writing all made the book a heavier read the second time around. That said, I couldn’t help but be swept up in the joys and struggles of her first-year college experience and her fandom experience.
One of the things that I really love about Fangirl is the way that the Simon Snow series closely parallels the Harry Potter series. Cath’s obsession with Simon Snow is very much the same obsession that so many of us have with Rowling’s universe, and her writing of Simon/Baz slash fic (essentially Harry/Draco) is one that many Potter fans recognize.
Quickly, I have to say one of the things that I think is incredibly well done is the way that Rowell distinguishes between the writing style of Gemma T. Leslie (the author of the Simon Snow series) and that of Cath’s fanfiction. It’s so clear she’s familiar with the world of fanfiction – both the canon and the fanfiction included in Fangirl have believable narrative voices that balance sounding similar yet not the same.
For me, the ways that the fanfiction (and fiction) excerpts interact with the chapters reinforce the questions that Cath (and I think the reader) ask about the purpose and place of fiction and fandom in readers’ lives. As Cath’s story unfolds, so too does Simon’s, both in the canon and in fanfiction. As Cath creates, maintains, and repairs her relationships during her first year of college, Simon begins to question everything he knew about his relationship with Baz. For me, the fanfiction excerpts do exactly what all literature does: it helps me see myself and others differently and more complexly. I gain a better understanding of Cath through reading snippets from the fictional world she loves so passionately, and from her own writings set in that world.
Emily: I was also swept up in the fun of reading about this oh-so-familiar fan experience. Like you, Kazia, much of my childhood, adolescence, and now even adulthood has been colored by my love of the Harry Potter books and the fandom that surrounds them. (One of the next knitting projects in my queue involves Harry-Potter-themed knee socks.) This is a world I recognize and a world that I love, and so I’m interested in the way that Rowell explores and interrogates this world of fan culture without marginalizing it.
Particularly, here, I share your interest in the way Rowell uses fanfiction in the novel. Cath writes a lot of Simon/Baz fanfiction, and excerpts from her stories often appear as epigrams at the beginnings of chapters. Although Cath’s stylistic tics are noticeably different from Rowell’s own writing – and Cath’s writing can often sound less trained than Rowell’s does – Rowell is clearly interested in the possibilities afforded by the world of fanfiction communities.
There are a couple interesting aspects of the way that Rowell treats Cath’s fanfiction that I want to mention here. First off, Rowell has clearly done her research: Cath follows current fanfiction trends in her writing, to the extent that Cath’s stories wouldn’t feel out of place if she were actually actively writing and posting these stories on Archive of Our Own or fanfiction.net today. Additionally, Cath writes slash fanfiction and, throughout the plot of the novel, uses these fictional romantic interactions between men as a lens through which to work through her own nascent relationship with a boyfriend. The popularity of male-focused slash fiction in this genre which is dominated by women readers and writers – as well as the ties between slash fic and female sexuality – becomes an interesting conversation and one that Rowell is clearly aware of. But most directly interesting to me, Rowell takes seriously the way that fanfiction writers and readers – most of whom are women or “fangirls” – form supportive relationships and communities. Through both her fanfiction and her more general involvement in the Simon Snow fandom, Cath has found a community that understands her and embraces her.
Kazia: It’s also been really interesting to see Rowell’s response to fans of Fangirl. She treats them (us) with the same care she gives to Cath, and she actively participates in fandom-heavy communities like Tumblr. She frequently uses her Tumblr platform to bring positive attention to the Fangirl fandom (as well as the fandoms for her other books), highlighting everything from videos and fancasts for characters in the Simon Snow universe to dolls and so much fan art.
Fangirl was also the first book chosen for Tumblr’s Reblog Book Club, and fan responses through the book club have been varied, thoughtful, and complex. Archive of Our Own has 36 fanfiction pieces listed, most of which is pretty equally divided between Cath/Levi and Simon/Baz and ranges from “General Audiences” to “Mature” (and let’s be real–after finish the book, who didn’t want to read more?). I’d also be remiss not to mention the superb cover art by Noelle Stevenson (who is known for, among other things, doing alternative universe fanart of her webcomic and other well-loved series), which plays with a lot of fan art and fanfiction themes.
And that’s what I love so much about Fangirl: it invests so much in fandom that a new fandom can’t help but form and invest so much back.