Friday, May 23, 2014

We need to talk about "Fangirl"

This is not about "Green Lit." 

I'm getting this out of the way because ever since critics decided to make John Green their darling and papers far and wide praised him as the "savior of YA" there has been much backlash against the idea that this straight white dude has more influence in a genre predominated by women. (In my case, I'm very much in favour of backlash against the shamefully ill-informed pieces being written about my favourite genre.) Anyway, some of that backlash has translated to some authors associated with Green, most notably Rainbow Rowell whose novel "Eleanor and Park" got a glowing review from Green, and the rest is history.

I'm going on this caveat just to make it clear - I'm about to express a very negative opinion of a book. It's not about the author or any carry-over backlash from another author. 

No, I'm doing it because "Fangirl", as a book, in itself, sucks!

Content warning: ableism, misuse of the English language.

Also, spoilers.

Still here? Okay, let's go.

"Fangirl" is about Cath, a fan of the fictional world of "Simon Snow" whose latest fanfic has gotten weirdly popular in the run-up to the release of the final book in the series. She and her twin sister Wren go to college and the book follows Cath as she struggles with being a fangirl in a grown-up world.

There's other stuff in there, subplots about a long-lost mother, a father with bipolar disorder who struggles to recalibrate his life now that his grown-up daughters are away, Wren drinking too much, Cath being exploited by a fellow student, Cath struggling with her own social anxiety, and Cath falling in love, but they are picked up and laid aside arbitrarily, as if the author grew bored with them and only later realized she had loose ends to tie.

(The book was written as a NaNo project, but it wasn't edited like a NaNo project, meaning all the filler and fluff was left right where it was, creating a Frankenstein's monster of subplots with no discernible build-up, climax, or resolution. It's just a middle. A big, slogging middle.)

Speaking of Cath's fangirlishness, I didn't have much of an issue with how it was portrayed because it reflects the way I experienced fanfic and fandom. What I don't like was how it was set up as some sort of hurdle that Cath has to overcome before... I don't know, becoming a full-fledged adult or something. The closest thing we get to a climax is Cath realizing that finishing her super-mega-fanfic before the release of the final Simon Snow book was not a big deal... and that's it. At no point does the book attempt to address the reasons behind Cath's obsession with writing on time, or her reasons for being ZOMG SUCH AN INTROVERT. She gets a good cry in and that's that.

Which... oh, honey...

Other people have written how the book is misrepresentative of social anxiety issues and how people get over them. Social anxiety and bipolar disorder, apparently, because both characters clearly identified as having mental health issues in the book are both gross stereotypes who don't really get to present a more nuanced view of the issue at hand. 

Mental health issues are not something you decide to get over. Claiming the opposite perpetuates a dangerous stereotype that people suffering from bipolar disorder, social anxiety, stress, depression, and other mental illnesses, are all lazy bums who would rather be ill and leech off the social care system than actually put in the effort to get better. And yet that's what Cath seems to do, which is why this bothers me so much.

There's some hints that Cath and Wren both have behavioural problems tied back to their mother's leaving and the stress of helping manage their father's bipolar disorder, but - again - there is no discussion, or nuance provided. The subplot of the mother trying to take a more active part of her daughters' lives is taken up and then dropped without development. 

(Cath and Wren's mother shines in her one scene in this book, by the way. Cath may bitch and moan about how she was never "there for them", but she comes across as a lot worse when she refuses to put herself in her mother's shoes for a bloody second.)(Another character potentially suffering from a mental illness, and yet the narrative doesn't allow us to properly understand her. Janey Malooney, for a book that's trying to give sympathetic portrayals of mental illness, it sure takes every opportunity to do the opposite.)

These are my complaints, or at least they would have been if "Fangirl" had done us the courtesy of a structured and consistent plot. Or a mildly believable main character. Mind you, I don't think Cath is a bad character - in some ways, her bitchiness and judgmental attitudes ring true, just as her own anxiety feels tangible. But if Rowell wanted a realistic character, perhaps she ought to have written one who is, pardon my language, less of a Sue.

The language in this book is full of overblown similes and purple prose reminiscent of the kind of fanfiction I used to write as a teen, which I guess was a stylistical decision (because if it isn't, there's an editor and a copy editor out there who clearly did not do their jobs,) which is supposed to reflect the way Cath views the world. That's fine, we all go through that stage before our writing becomes more seasoned and we learn the value of a good noun over a hundred adjectives. But the narrative treats Cath's writing as if it's supercalifragalisticexpialidoscious, to the point where an older student who supposedly knows better risks plagiarism charges to have Cath's "magic" on his side. Her first non-fanfic story wins an award! She's even got rainbow eyes, FFS!

I can't make up my mind whether Cath was intentionally written as a major Sue or if that's just how she came across. If the former, it fails completely because at no point does this book make her address her issues as a character (I think the book is allergic to any kind of critical thinking - every time Cath is about to question her life decisions someone comes along to validate them. Because that's totally how it works!)

If the latter... seriously, what was the point of writing a character like that? Is that how "real" writers view fanfiction writers? Or wish fanfiction writers were like? Is Cath supposed to be the "good kind" of fanfiction writer? I hope not, because let me tell you, that's a can of worms that I don't want to open right now.

Overall, a big slogging mess with a mess of a main character that tries to push gross stereotyping and ableism as representation. Give it a pass.

Note: image via BookLikes.

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