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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Fangirl — Finally!

16068905 Fangirl    Finally!Why isn’t Fangirl getting more Printz buzz? It’s earned five stars and has appeared on a couple best of 2013 lists.

Is the subject too niche? Are readers putting all their support behind Eleanor & Park?

Whitney Winn of Youth Services Corner did a useful roundup of Mock Printz lists. While E&P appeared on all nineteen of the lists included in her data, Fangirl was on just five.

Am I taking crazy pills?

I lurve E&P. You know I do. But Fangirl is the stronger book. It’s richer thematically, has better characterizations, a more complex story, and a fascinating structure. If only one of Rowell’s novels is recognized by the Real Committee this year, it should be Fangirl.

Before we dig into the text, let’s judge the book by its cover. Fangirl’s features gorgeous a pastel illustration depicting a guy trying to get the attention of a girl who is busily typing on a laptop, while a thought bubble shows her thinking about two boys in love—two boys in capes. If you don’t know anything about the plot, but know about fanfiction, you can probably guess the premise of the book from the cover. (The artwork is by Noelle Stevenson, known online as gingerhaze. She’s the creator of a webcomic and terrific fanart.) Even when we don’t mean to, we do make snap judgments based on what we see before we read a single word. This cover says a whole lot about the book inside. On the surface, Fangirl is a rom-com for geeks.

But look again.

There’s something else on that cover. Take a look at where the girl (the titular character, Cath) is sitting. She’s sitting on the title. “A novel” is written on her laptop’s screen. By having the subjects collide with the informational text, the art conveys that this is a novel about writing.

Fangirl is delightful and bursting with appeal; my teen students have read it and loved it. But this is a book that’s bigger on the inside. This is a deeply layered and fascinating text, one that has been as fun to dissect as it was to read for the first time. And it’s all there on the cover.

Rowell is a master at third person limited narration. Just enough of her authorial voice is present while allowing the flavor of the novel’s story and characters to shine. Attachments takes on the social awkwardness yet lovability of its protagonist, Lincoln. Eleanor & Park throbs with an angsty ‘80s beat. Fangirl is introspective and quirky. Rowell’s voice is immediately identifiable but always harmonious with the individual novel.

In Fangirl, voice is particularly important because there are three separate authorial voices: Rowell’s, Gemma T. Leslie’s, and Cath’s, nested together like matryoshka dolls. Between chapters of the book about Cath, there are passages from Cath’s fanfic and the Simon Snow series that inspires it. The most impressive of the three is Rowell’s writing as Gemma T. Leslie, the author of Cath’s beloved books. Leslie is a J.K. Rowling-esque writer, so Rowell infuses Leslie’s voice with some of the Harry Potter author’s style. Rowling’s habit of qualifying dialogue with adverbs is also Leslie’s, and characters don’t just talk, they stammer, grumble, and whisper. As one would expect, Cath’s writing shares this trait in her Simon Snow fanfiction. The excerpts from her fanfic demonstrate that she is just as good as has been implied, but that she is most definitely mimicking Gemma T. Leslie, with bits of her own voice peeking through. There are moments when Rowell’s authorial voice merges with Cath’s. There is a particularly fun paranthetical when Rowell (or we could read it as Cath) wonders if boys giggle or chuckle. Of course, later on in the novel in one of the excerpts from Carry On, Simon giggles with Baz. It’s a subtle and wonderful connection to the earlier instance when that word choice was pondered.

These three voices (four, if you count Rowling’s invisible influence) are a wonderful example of how intertextuality manifests in an author’s use of language. This is something Rowell shows literally in Cath’s writing sessions with Nick as she writes in between, around, and above his words, reshaping his anti-love story while allowing some of his style to influence her own use of language. Their working relationship provides great romantic and dramatic tension, as well as a suitable foil for our heroine; it’s also another example of the ways in which text is the space where multiple texts converse and influence each other. (Full disclosure: I wrote a few papers on this topic as an undergrad, so please excuse any dryness in my tone. I’m a recovering English major with a soft spot for post-structuralism.)

That’s the beauty and brilliance of Fangirl: it’s a highly enjoyable, swoon-worthy coming-of-age tale. It’s about family, what happens when our closest relationships fray, how we cope with leaving home for the first time; it’s a sensitive exploration of people living with anxiety, of dealing with the literal and metaphorical end of your childhood, and learning how to be in real romantic relationship. Fangirl is readable. It’s authentic. It’s perfect for teens as aspirational reading and perfect for adults (particularly millennials) as nostalgic reading.

But, and I can’t stress this enough, this book is wicked smart.

As an exploration of why we write, Fangirl is metatext. What motivates a writer to tell stories? What responsibility does the act of writing put on the writer? Cath writes to escape herself, yet she feels responsibility to her fans. She is very much conscious of her audience, but the extrinsic is not her main motivator; it’s simply a validation of everything that she values in herself. “When I’m writing my own stuff, it’s like swimming upstream. Or … falling down a cliff and grabbing at branches, trying to invent the branches as I fall.” Her journey throughout the novel is learning to value herself outside of her escape into Simon and Baz’s world where she feels comfortable and knows she can feel success.

In addition to Cath’s metatextual creative and emotional growth, Fangirl is metafictional. When they eat in the cafeteria Reagan and Cath create stories out of the interactions they observe. Cath can’t “shake the feeling that she was pretending to be a college student in a coming-of-age movie.” Cath describes Nick’s story as “Mary Sue to the tenth power.” Even throwaway lines support this reading of the text. After winning a round of bowling, Levi (wearing a shirt on which he has written, The Strike Out King) states: “Everything I write on my shirt comes true.” Cath and Levi bond as she reads her fanfiction to him. Words, language, and storytelling are everywhere, because the text is wonderfully self-aware.

Just as in Eleanor & Park, pop culture is a part of the characters’ identity formation. Cath quips that she needs her glasses to keep “from becoming the girl in She’s All That.” Cath’s dad tries to convince her that he shouldn’t have main role her life now that’s a freshman in college by citing 90210. Rowell’s proven herself as a writer who gets how people think in pop culture. She’s a native speaker, not a mere observer, which is why these references and her style is always pitch perfect and authentic. It is arguably more important here than in E&P because this novel is a space where so many texts meet, and where intertextuality is such an important theme.

I’m kicking myself for not getting this review up sooner (this is what happens when you think too much and try to read other books at the same time). It is absolutely one of the top five books of the year and deserves more recognition than it’s received to this point. So this is me, shouting from a virtual rooftop to say that Fangirl is one of the best of the year. You may have noticed that voting is open until 7pm and we will have our honor book voting soon. Unfortunately I voted before I really cemented my thoughts for this review; if I were to do it again, I certainly would have thrown some support behind Fangirl for gold.

Stray observations:

  • In the world of Simon Snow, Doug Henning exists. That is AWESOME.
  • “What the fuck is ‘the fandom’?” Reaction of every non-fan, ever.
  • “…his eyebrows were practically sentient.”
  • This is my public plea to Rainbow Rowell to please, please write at least one Simon Snow book. That is all.

I still have a lot to say about this book, and I want to know your opinions. This conversation is long overdue!

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About Joy Piedmont

Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. Currently, she reviews for SLJ and serves as treasurer for the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading YA, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, seeking out good gluten-free food, and taking naps with her cats, Annie and Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated.

Comments

  1. Kelly says:

    Actually, I thought Eleanor and Park was much tighter, more compelling, with better and fuller characterizations, and a stronger level of writing than Fangirl. Fangirl had too many things going on and needed a stronger round of editing to remove 2 or 3 of the plot lines that were underdeveloped and overwhelmed the character development. Cath’s sister is a stock “bad” college girl, and the inclusion of the Simon Snow fanfiction was jarring, as well as uninteresting (I get what the point is, but I found it so boring and uninteresting without any real sense of what the world was the fanfic was being written about I just skipped it).

    My biggest criticism is that if the fandom was SO HUGE and Cath was such a big part in it, how come we never once got a sense of that? We never ever see what that fan community does for Cath because we never see actual interaction with/within it. We see the fiction, but we don’t see the heart. And I think in many ways that was a grave disservice to the story and what I think Rowell wanted to accomplish here. Cath is flat. She doesn’t change. People around her instead bend to fit her. Perhaps had we seen more of the way she and fandom interacted, I would feel differently about this, but from start to finish she’s anxious, she’s cold, she’s off-putting, and in the end, she’s the same way — it’s Levi who chooses to adjust to her, rather than she who chooses to adjust to college life.

    It’s been a while since I read this, but the writing itself was unpolished in many placed, and while I certainly see the appeal of the story, I have a hard time believing this is Printz caliber. Another round or two of editing could have sharpened, tightened, and forced some of the too-much into something that fit.

    Fangirl was a hugely disappointing read on the writing and execution level. I totally see where it has its fans and I see why people are passionate about it, but I can’t see it holding up on a critical level, particularly when compared to Eleanor and Park (or any number of other stronger titles this year).

    • Kelly says:

      I fleshed my thoughts out a little bit better in review: http://www.stackedbooks.org/2013/09/fangirl-by-rainbow-rowell.html

    • Keri says:

      I loved Fangirl more than any book I read last year on a pure enjoyment basis and I am a terrible Printz reader because I’m not all that into super literary books (nearly every talented Australian YA writer makes me want to throw the books across the room rather than read them for instance).

      Kelly, as a fanfic writer myself, I do agree with your criticism of the portrayal of fandom and the lack of interaction. I wonder if that’s due to the fact that Rowell probably participated in an earlier version of fandom where it was more possible to just be a fic writer without having as much interaction on fanboards and things. I didn’t start writing until 2010 and a few months later joined Twitter (under an assumed name) and later Tumblr, and that’s how I made my fandom friends and gained more of a following, but I suspect that if I had started with Harry Potter fics, I could have gotten away with just being a writer. I know some writers did have livejournals and some did have huge community following, but there were definitely some writers with huge fics that didn’t really step too far outside of that role.

      It’s still a valid criticism since the book is set today. I thought it was more surprising that Cath updated practically daily but I like to write long chapters myself.

      • Joy Piedmont says:

        I intended to jump into discussion a lot sooner than three days after this review went up, but there was voting and spreadsheets and charts (and in between I had to attend a kids’ production of Once on this Island) so you know, life.

        Kelly, I respectfully disagree with your take on this book but I think others in this thread have addressed the points I wanted to make. With regard to fandom though, this book isn’t really about that. It’s about a fangirl–a close look at what makes this individual tick. Fandom is a part of her life, and as Jonathan mentions below we do see it’s scope, but the heart of the story is not her fandom activities. Her writing, the thing that she feels the most satisfaction from, happens to be a hugely successful fanfic. There’s a lovely moment at the end of the novel where she and Wren hug and cry after buying the last Simon Snow book. Rowell isn’t looking at the macro idea of fandom, she’s exploring the micro: these smaller, more intimate moments when being a fan defines who we are.

        Also Keri, I nearly spit out my tea reading that sentence about Australian authors. I love books, but the idea of them flying across a room in frustration is hilarious.

  2. Shoshana says:

    I suspect E&P is getting more buzz than Fangirl because on the surface, it looks like the more “serious” book. Plenty of serious things happen in Fangirl, but the one-sentence pitch is usually along the lines of, “A girl who’s famous on the Internet for her fanfiction starts college and learns to have relationships in real life.” It sounds lighter than E&P, and “light” doesn’t always make people think “Printz.”

  3. Emily H. says:

    I loved Fangirl, but for me, it’s not a Printz book. It’s loose, and there’s a lot of stuff going on, and it doesn’t feel structurally tight enough.

    Like Kelly, I got a sense of Cath as a fan *writer* but not a *participant in fandom* — maybe it’s just that her status as a fandom celebrity/big name writer has turned fandom from her friends into her audience (I’ve seen it happen with big name fan writers), and maybe it’s that online communication is hard to make interesting in the context of a novel, but the idea that she has a lot of friends on the internet never quite felt realized.

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I found the fanfic sections very boring, and I do think the rest of the narrative could have used a bit of editing, but those are minor quibbles for me compared to the strengths of the book. Rowell actually did give us glimpses into the fandom (flashbacks to Wren and Cath’s early days, and Cath’s chance lunchroom encounter). While it’s true that we never got a sense of the fandom online, it’s equally true that this book isn’t about Cath’s relationship with the fandom at all, but rather Cath finding her her own voice as a writer rather than imitating somebody else’s voice. It’s the exploration of this element that leads me to agree with Joy that this is stronger thematically then ELEANOR & PARK.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      I loved the fanfic sections, both as themselves (I WANT the Simon Snow books. They’re like HP, sure, but Baz is infinitely better than Draco) and as a huge reveal of Cath: she can only consider romance when it’s a, fictional and b, two boys — meaning she is about as far from the actual relationship as she can be. The fanfic, and especially the focus on Simon & Baz, also serves as a counterpoint to the highly heteronormative world of romance novels, which I applaud on a social level but which also says something about Cath and her world and our world too. All of which can be bundled up into meta commentary about slash (see also The Empty Hearse and the fan theory).

      So yeah, add me to the list of people who think this goes deeper than Eleanor & Park.

      And for the record, since it seems like a part of the conversation that we should be open about (still thinking about bias…), I don’t read fanfic but I read a lot ABOUT fanfic and fan culture.

      • Joy Piedmont says:

        Maybe if enough of us ask, we can will a Simon Snow book into existence! Obviously, I really enjoyed the fic sections, not just because I enjoyed Simon/Baz, but because of what they revealed about Cath. It was also really fun to see some familiar markers of HP fic: characters using the names of magicians as expletives, the sly ways of getting out of actually describing love scenes, the punny titles. I understand why some people take issue with the fic. It’s actually the most cited complaint about the book I’ve heard (I should note though, none of the teens I’ve talked to about this book have complained about it). So it’s probably a matter of taste, but I maintain that it is vital to the book as a whole.

        Karyn, thanks for chiming in on the real-world importance of the Simon/Baz relationship; I agree completely. When I was reading a lot of HP fanfic, I didn’t read a lot of slash mainly because I was pretty heavily invested in the canon relationships, but like with Harry/Hermione and Hermione/Draco, what’s so great about fic is that the good writers use careful close readings as the jumping off points for their stories.

  5. Tara Kehoe says:

    I too loved Fangirl. I am with Joy on the many layers, the voices…it’s such a feat! And fun to read too. But, I have a bone to pick: we all know Cath because she is the narrator and thus we love her– but I can’t figure out why Levi would fall for her in the beginning? She seemed to give nothing for so long, why would he pursue her? Motivation?

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Oh, that’s easy. He found her physically attractive, found something interesting in her personality, and then gradually got to know her on a deeper level. Guys are so shallow.

      • Kelly says:

        And that’s not in the text so while we can assume it, what Tara brings up is a great point: what IS Levi’s motivation?

        I reiterate my point that Cath is a flat, underdeveloped character.

        • Karyn Silverman says:

          I liked Cath. She wasn’t underdeveloped in my read, and Levi is around her a lot. If I can fall for her from the text, why can’t Levi? Subjective? Yes, since it depends on my read of Cath. But can you support undeveloped with the text any more than I can support believable? It seems like this is revolving around whether the reader buys Cath — some do, some don’t. Textually, we would probably be pointing to all of the same passages!

        • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

          No, Levi’s motivation is not explicitly stated in the text. I drew an inference, and I think it’s a pretty easy one to make. Personally, I didn’t need Rowell to spell that out, but maybe others did.

          And I disagree that Cath is a flat, undeveloped character. Not only does Cath think and act and feel like a flesh-and-blood person (I think a lot of readers can relate to her on one level or another), but she grows over the course of the story, not in earth-shaking ways necessarily, but in important ones. It’s a coming of age story crossed with a fish out of water story.

          • Tara Kehoe says:

            Indeed I think that fact that we all have such different takes on Cath speaks to the writing being layered and deep. Much like in E&P, I felt like I KNEW these characters (much like Cath feels she knows Simon and Baz?) Rowell SHOULD come away with a something next week.

          • Joy Piedmont says:

            Agreed, Jonathan. Cath’s growth in the narrative is all internal, it’s a shift in her mindset. She begins the novel as a terrified college freshman, feeling cut off from a part of herself (Wren), and utterly out of place. By the end of the book she has reconciled with Wren, because she has come to accept that she is a completely separate individual from herself. She’s also decided to lean in to discomfort by writing original stories and allowing herself to love Levi.

  6. Lindsey Breuer says:

    (I realize the awards announcement has made this irrelevant, but I still wanted to share.) As a casual member of HP and other fandoms, I had been anticipating the release of Fangirl for months. Everyone else wanted to talk about E&P, but I didn’t even read that until quite a while after it was released. When I received a Fangirl galley at BEA, I finished it within a few days and was extremely satisfied with Cath’s character, the fic excerpts, and all the inside jokes. I agree with Joy that the intertextuality, characters, and plot are cause to recommend this book to all readers of YA, but I honestly don’t think it goes the extra mile for readers who are not familiar with fanfiction. Even when I talk it up to my uninitiated acquaintances and colleagues, I get the feeling that they won’t truly appreciate it. While I loved Fangirl (and found Eleanor & Park underwhelming), I think the barrier to appreciation would keep it from winning the gold.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] the ALA Youth Media Awards still looming, I re-read Fangirl to review on Someday, rediscovering everything I adored about it the first time I read it last May. It took me so long [...]

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