At the beginning of the summer I posted an Instagram photo of several books (including Fangirl) and I captioned said photo with the words, “I hope to finish these books within the next two weeks; between summer classes and work I’ll need something fun to read. What types of books do you turn to in the summer?” Those sentences were followed by various book related hashtags and that post earned a decent amount of attention for an account like mine. However, I am not writing this piece as a ploy to get you to follow me on Instagram (although if you’d like to you can find me @seekeachlight). This post has a point, believe it or not, you see I’m majoring in English and humanities so I read, a lot. At least I read a lot in theory. In actuality, I do read quite a bit but my reading is hardly ever recreational anymore. Though I still find joy in dissecting Petrarch’s poetry or progressing through the translator’s introduction for The Decameron I do not experience the same rush with those books that I felt when I used to devour fiction.
Sadly, this lack of recreational reading is something that I have trained myself to expect. When it comes down to school my courses require me to be familiar with the literature we’re discussing and as a result most of my “To read” list waits patiently for me on my bookshelf. Even in the summer when one would think that I would have all the time in the world I usually cannot bring myself to pick up a book. It’s odd and heartbreaking for me each time I pass over a book in favour of listening to music or watching a movie. There used to be a time when I was never without a book in my hand, I probably would have brought them out to recess more if my friends weren’t so adamant about socializing. I lived for rainy days in elementary school because that meant I could stay inside and read.
Books were my first friends and as I grew older they connected me with my first real friends. Now all of my friends talk about their love of reading and their textbooks but there is generally a moment during those conversations when one of us brings up the fact that she or he hasn’t just sat down and read in ages. One by one each of us will contribute our own tales of frustration concerning our lack of motivation to read – it seems to be a common conundrum for those in reading and writing intensive courses. After airing our woes we will often retreat into a discussion about our favourite book or reading related memories. Those conversations always leave me in a nostalgic state of mind because it really shouldn’t be that difficult should it? I mean I am capable of reading so why can’t I just pick up a book and read it?
I’ve been considering a variety of responses to that question and these are some of my favourites: a) Maybe I have undiagnosed commitment issues and I can’t bear the thought of picking up a book without finishing it in the same sitting; b) My attention span has been broken down by the constant barrage of social media and the short articles that usually include misspelled words which accompany random videos regularly sent to me by friends; or c) Nothing can compare to the stories that I make up in my own head. While I feel like each of these answers has merit none of them rings completely true in my mind. Perhaps it’s a combination of all of those reasons that has me going through reading withdrawal, except I did read a book this past summer.
In fact, I just finished another one last night. So, I can read and I can finish books but my reading metabolism has slowed down considerably. As opposed to the summers before university when I would finish ten to twenty books over three months I now find myself proud of having read two books in four months. The first one I finished this year was Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and though it was not a fiction book I did thoroughly enjoy it. I learned a lot from Sandberg’s words and I have been applying some of her advice to my own life. I look forward to reaping the benefits of my actions in the near future.
The second book I finished was definitely a work of fiction. It was entitled Fangirl and written by Rainbow Rowell, the author who wrote Eleanor & Park – which I have always remembered the title of because it’s the first book my sorority twin ever recommended to me. I heard about the novel around last Christmas I believe and I bought it on impulse at Chapters some months later. The premise of the novel intrigued me. It details the life of a university freshman who writes fan fiction and how she adjusts to life outside of the world she created for herself (and her twin sister).
I began reading it with the intention of loving it. I didn’t. In fact, there was a point when I truly and intensely disliked it. However, I feel that hated is too strong a verb to use in this context.
I also think I’ve figured out what I didn’t like about the book. As a writer and reader of fan fiction myself (I pointed this out in my piece on Fifty Shades of Grey) I think I felt that the book hit a little too close to home. To many who know me it might be a struggle to find the parallels between my life and Rowell’s world because I do not live in Omaha, my mother did not leave my father when I was eight, and I do not have a twin sister (that I know of at least). Regardless, I connected with the protagonist, Cath, who was sometimes her own antagonist. I understood her in a way I think that many fanfic writers would empathize with – there’s something about letting someone else’s characters romp around in your mind that makes you feel more connected with whatever fandom you’re writing about. I can understand Cath being wrapped up in her own world and her own thoughts because I do that too – sometimes I just need to escape for awhile.
What I couldn’t stand about the novel was the way that the plot played out. *Warning Spoilers Ahead* Despite her eccentricities Cath landed a perfectly wonderful boyfriend, great friends, and even came out of her own shell. It’s not that I don’t believe shy fanfic writers who hardly ever talk to others (basically that’s how Cath is depicted which is a stereotype at best) cannot have boyfriends, friends, or even lives outside of their stories it’s that life rarely ever happens in a way that can be tied up within 429 pages. Life is not a fairytale and I resented the fact that the story felt exactly like a story rather than a glimpse into someone’s life.
The novel was heartwarming at points, I won’t deny it but there was a definite Mary Sue vibe that permeated the entire book. To anyone remotely involved in the writing scene you’ll know how frustrating that can be. The words Mary Sue are usually applied to a character that is to quote Mary Poppins, “Practically perfect in every way,” in fact she’s usually so perfect that she is boring. I’m using the term in a more universal sense, the plot just seemed to ooze every ‘anti-love story’ (I borrowed that phrase from the novel actually) cliche I had ever come across in fanfic and in general fiction.
That’s not to say that I would never reread Fangirl because I feel like it tells a decent enough story – I even raced through the last few chapters because it was an extremely easy read. Rowell’s style flows smoothly like a river but I never really felt the grip of a climax or even a real ending. The book just stopped and maybe it’s meant to imitate real life because let’s face it our lives don’t necessarily have a climax though they do have definite starting and ending points but to me it felt unfinished.
Though Fangirl isn’t going to be placed on my ‘favourites’ bookshelf anytime soon I believe in the story Rowell was trying to tell even if she did it with cliches and some very typical fanfic plot devices. If I was reading that same plot on AO3 or Fanfiction.net I would likely applaud the writer for producing such an impressive word and page count. Maybe I would comment on my favourite parts or suggest a change or two. I would definitely point out that on page 345 the word though is missing an ‘r’ because nobody says, “We’ll drive though someplace” in response to being asked if they’ve eaten anything.
All in all, I am glad that I read Rowell’s book. I am quite happy that I was able to read something that wasn’t fanfic or from Buzzfeed because the latter seriously messes with your mind if it’s all that you’re reading day in and day out. I’m happy to be back to reading even if it’s only for a night or two. In my heart I know that no matter how long I go without reading just for reading’s sake I will eventually return to my books and that they will always be there, waiting for my return.
*I wrote this post while listening to I See Fire sung by Ed Sheeran – it was featured on The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug soundtrack.