Sunday, March 16, 2014

Young Adult Fiction: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Cath Avery has just started university, living on campus. Her twin sister, Wren, has decided that after a lifetime of doing everything together, they will not be sharing a room; she’s keen to meet new people and have new experiences.

One thing they have always done together is write fan fiction (or fanfiction, as it’s called in this novel). Not just fanfiction, but slash fiction, the kind that has gay relationships between the two leading male characters. 

Cath is working on her magnum opus, Carry On Simon, a novel set in the World of Mages, a world not entirely unlike that of a certain boy wizard in our own universe (and actually, Harry Potter exists in the Fangirl universe too). It has to be finished before the final novel comes out in a few months, or it will be forever AU (alternative universe to all you mundanes out there). Cath has signed up for a unit in Fiction Writing, though, and has a ten thousand word major project to write as well, and the ideas just aren’t coming. Meanwhile, there’s all this stuff going on in Real Life: Nick the gorgeous guy in her writing class who writes everything in second person present tense and won’t let go of his notebook, even when they’re writing together. Reagan, her roommate, who smokes and goes out a lot, but who drags Cath out of her hiding place to take part in campus life. Levi, her boyfriend (or is he?) who has a sunny nature and suffers reading issues. Cath and Wren’s father, a loopy advertising man who eats frozen meals when he’s eating at all and needs to be checked up on. Stuff, you know?

First, a confession: I wanted to review Fangirl (MacMillan) because I know about fan fiction. I even know about slash fiction, though I don’t read it. But I did write fan fiction for many years, at least 150 stories, set in the universes of Star Trek, Blake’s 7, Robin Of Sherwood, Dr Who (one or two).  I stopped writing it when I ran out of ideas and then people started paying me to write. I won the Mary Grant Bruce Award for children’s fiction, using a story based on an idea I’d originally had for a fan story, though I ended up writing the non-fan version first.

But like Cath, I found that when you’re writing in someone else’s universe, it’s very hard to think of anything else, or to get ideas for anything else. I don’t regret the experience. It taught me a lot of writing skills, including characterization, development, short story writing, even how to write book reviews. There wasn’t an entire Internet fandom in those days, but there was plenty of feedback of a kind you don’t get in other kinds of writing. You could start a writers’ group, but that can be ineffective. But eventually, I had to focus on other writing, that might actually pay. I still read fan fic, though, and am amazed at how big it has become since the Internet came along.

So I can relate to Cath and her fannish life. And it’s nice that the author doesn’t say, “Ha ha, this nerd needs to get a life and leave fandom!” Cath eventually finds that she can do both, and have a life with friends and a boyfriend and all. The author even mentions in the FAQ at the end that people are already writing Fangirl fan fiction and she is absolutely delighted about it -- and that she started writing this when she was reading stacks of Harry Potter fiction online. I liked the regular quotes both from the Simon Snow novels and Cath’s fan fiction, between the chapters. The whole book was gentle, charming, funny and sad, all at the same time.

I did think that there would be a campus fan club for such a popular book series -- actually, Cath’s university seems strangely lacking in clubs and societies, but it’s a real place, so maybe it doesn’t have them.

I enjoyed Fangirl and I think I can persuade some of my fan writing students to read it too. ◊

Sue Bursztynski lives in Australia, where she works as a teacher-librarian. She has written several books for children and young adults, including Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly and, most recently, the YA novel Wolfborn. Her blog, The Great Raven, can be found at

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