It’s clear to anyone who has read a Rainbow Rowell book that the woman loves autumn. And so it feels fitting today, this particularly fall-ish Sunday, when the air is crisp and a handful of trees are starting to turn to crimson and gold, to talk a bit about my favourite of her books, Fangirl.
It’s the story of Cath, a shy, bookish type embarking on her first year at university. Cath’s twin sister, Wren, has ditched her, opting to have a stranger for a roommate and to fling herself into the social aspects of school. Cath feels abandoned, and terrified. She’s not good at the social aspects. And by default, she too now has a stranger (the intimidating Reagan) for a roommate.
Cath has one thing that anchors her, though. She writes fanfiction—and she’s really, really good at it.
I love this book for a lot of reasons: it’s funny, it’s touching and romantic, it tackles some hard issues like mental health and family dysfunction in a deceptively light way, and it draws you into its world with deftly woven-in details of place and time. Oh, and did I mention it’s funny? Rainbow Rowell excels at dialogue; she’s a master of the snark with the heart of gold:
“I feel sorry for you, and I’m going to be your friend.”
“I don’t want to be your friend,” Cath said as sternly as she could. “I like that we’re not friends.”
“Me, too,” Reagan said. “I’m sorry you ruined it by being so pathetic.”
But I also have another reason for loving Fangirl.
I discovered fanfiction in my first year at university. But unlike Cath, I did not write fanfiction, nor did I speak of it to anyone. It felt like a guilty pleasure, or something I should be slightly embarrassed about.
It seems silly now. Over the years I have read a lot of fanfiction that has blown my socks off in terms of the quality of the writing. It’s a delight to find a community of people who are creative, true, and die-hard fans of something that you also love with all your heart. And it’s a delight to be able to immerse yourself in a new way in a world that you don’t want to leave just yet.
Fanfiction is also remarkable for the fact that those who create it—who spend hours and hours crafting their stories, nailing character voices and nuances, and imagining new layers to fictional worlds—do so entirely for the joy of it. They will never be paid for their work, by its very nature, because it is riffing off of someone else’s intellectual property. They do it out of love.
Even knowing all of this, it wasn’t until I read Fangirl that I realized that I could tell the world how much I loved fanfiction, and I feel deeply thankful to Rainbow Rowell for showing me the error of my ways.
Rowell herself has championed fanfiction writers, saying that she is inspired by them and has been for years. Her last two novels, Carry On and Wayward Son, are based on the fictional fantasy series that Cath wrote fanfiction about in Fangirl (and yet is not to be confused with the fictional fanfiction which Cath herself wrote for this fictional series, which is, as my mother would say, slightly “spaghetti-heading”, but hey, I’m all for it).
If you haven’t forayed into the world of fanfiction, let me encourage you to do so. Check out a couple of archives, such as An Archive of Our Own, and type in something that you love—a book, a movie, a television series, a video game—you might be surprised at the number of fandoms represented. In my time I’ve read some excellent fic for Harry Potter, Star Trek, A Song of Ice and Fire, the works of L. M. Montgomery, and even—you guessed it—Rainbow Rowell books.
And do track down a copy of Fangirl. As I said, autumn really is the time to read it, as evidenced by this gem of an exchange between Cath and Reagan’s friend Levi, which—spoiler!—ends with Cath drinking a Pumpkin Mocha Breve (light on the mocha):
“Look at you. All sweatered up. What are those, leg sweaters?”
“They’re leg warmers.”
“You’re wearing at least four different kinds of sweater.”
“This is a scarf.”
“You look tarred and sweatered.”
“I get it,” she said.
Happy Reading! I hope you love Cath and Reagan and Levi as much as I do.