Fangirl: A Story That Shouldn’t End

fangirlIn her latest novel, Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell makes an impassioned argument in favor of fanfiction through Cather Avery, a popular fanfiction writer and college freshman:

[It’s] borrowing… Repurposing. Remixing. Sampling… It’s not illegal… I don’t own the characters, but I’m not trying to sell them, either  …

The whole point of fanfiction… is that you get to play inside somebody else’s universe. Rewrite the rules. Or bend them. The story doesn’t have to end.

Cath “remixes” the characters and plots from a series similar to Harry Potter. We meet her as she’s adjusting to college, a transition that exacerbates a rift in her relationship with her identical twin and increases her anxiety over her empty-nesting father’s mental health. Adding to these stresses is a budding romance, which is as challenging as it is exciting for Cath. Aspects of this romance reminded me of my own relationship with my husband, whom I started dating our freshman year of college. Rowell really “gets” the awkwardness and excitement of young love.

While much of this romance resonated with me, it had its flaws. The conflict between Cath and Levi felt contrived, and the resolution felt too convenient. I loved the characters more than I loved the plot, but overall I enjoyed the book.

It would be great to see a “remix” of these characters in a spinoff.  I would love to see a bigger role for Reagan, whose sardonic attitude left me chuckling quite a few times, and a more fleshed out relationship between Cath and her twin. I understood the nature of their relationship by the time they went to college, but I wanted to know more about how they got to that point. Without more of this backstory, the relationship between Cath and Wren felt flimsy, making the fact that they sprang from a single zygote largely unnecessary.

I would be interested in reading sequels or prequels to Fangirl that addressed these issues, written by Rowell or even by someone else.

If someone else is so inspired, Rowell (via Cath) is generally right that such “repurposing, remixing, and sampling” is legal in the United States under certain conditions. As I discussed in a previous post, Preventing Literature from Disappearing Up its Own A-Hole:

Such derivative works often amount to copyright infringement unless the fan fiction writer is able to establish a defense, such as by arguing that the original author has given his or her implied consent (by, for example, allowing fan fiction to go unchecked long after learning about it) or by arguing that the fan fiction is Fair Use. A fan fiction author is more likely to succeed under Fair Use if, when assessing the purpose and character of the use, the derivative work is educational, a parody, and/or, perhaps most importantly, non-commercial. So, historically, a fan fiction author’s ability to make money off of his or her derivative creations has been limited — as soon as they try to commercialize the work, they can expect a ‘cease and desist’ letter from the owner of the original work’s copyright.

With this flexibility in copyright law, characters can live on long after they’ve parted ways with their originators. Sometimes the original author unexpectedly produces a sequel/extension, such as J.D. Salinger’s previously unpublished work featuring the Caulfields, but fanfiction is the most likely way for a seemingly finite story to continue.

As Cath says, “the story doesn’t have to end.” I wish Rainbow Rowell’s stories wouldn’t.

Is there a specific character in a novel you read lately who should be the focus on his or her own spinoff? Do you read or write fanfiction?

Other Fangirl reviews:

  • Katie at Words for Worms: “Rainbow Rowell, I am now your fangirl. If I ever meet you, I’ll be the girl who breaks her leg tripping over her shoelace on the way up to the table where you’re signing books. If you could sign my cast instead of my book, that’d be cool too.”
  • Molly at Wrapped Up in Books (Molly has never steered me wrong!): “Rainbow Rowell captured my heart with Eleanor & Park. I loved her adult novel, The Attachments. But Fangirl solidified her spot among my favorite authors.”

Also, in case you’re interested, here are my comments on Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments, which I highly recommend (Rowell’s description of the main character, Lincoln, reminds me so much of my husband: “built like a tank, dressed like he just won the science fair.”).


  1. Fangirl is my favorite book by far! I just finished it last night, and I’m firing to read more. ( a sequel) I have sooooo many questions that rainbow Rowell could answer in a sequel. Like, how did it go when Cath met Levi’s mom. Did Cath, Levi, Wren and Jandro ever go on a double date? If so, how was it? Did Wren stay alcohol free? Did Cath and Reagan keep in touch over the summer? Did Reagan and Cath become roommates? And I know this one is personal and kinda sexual. ( I promise I’m not a perv) but, how was Cath’s first time with Levi? Was it everything she had hoped? Did Wren still stay in contact with her mom? How is their dad? Is he still okay? …. There are sooo many questions that I have. That Rainbow Rowell left me hanging with. It would LOVVEEEE it if you made a sequel. I think a sequel is exactly what everyone needs

  2. Stumbled across this lovely post this morning! Absolutely loved Eleanor and Park but have yet to read Fangirl! Fanfiction was of interest when I was younger so it’d be interesting to see what Rowell has done here! Fanfiction in a way can be seen as copying another’s work, but done in the right taste especially with clear evidence of it being a spin-off of an original work and some form of credit given, I see it as expanding the literary world! Especially in this day and age, it is becoming rather difficult to find a creation in any art genre that isn’t derived in some part from a previous piece. We are in an era of remixes!

    1. “Fanfiction in a way can be seen as copying another’s work, but done in the right taste especially with clear evidence of it being a spin-off of an original work and some form of credit given, I see it as expanding the literary world!”

      Agreed! I’ve recently explored writing some Jane Austen fanfiction with “Amelia Elkins Elkins.” It’s certainly more complicated, though, when an original book isn’t in the public domain (like Fangirl). Generally speaking, I’m a proponent of expanded “fair use” under copyright law, and I’ve written against the copyright-restrictive efforts of certain literary estates, like the Faulkner and Arthur Conan Doyle estates.

      I haven’t yet read Eleanor and Park, but it’s on my list! Thanks for stopping by.

  3. fangirl….my favorite book so far…i really wish rainbow would make a sequel. Cath and Levi’s relationship shouldn’t just end. i bet i would be screaming really loud if she announced there will be a sequel..i don’t know how to explain how much i love this book! i even fell in love with this virtual character, levi. ❤

  4. I’m so glad you liked this! I agreed with you about Levi and Cath’s relationship and the neat and tidy ending, but still enjoyed this immensely. Rainbow Rowell’s writing just makes me smile (and cry, in the case of Eleanor & Park).

    I’m all about writing FANGIRL fanfiction! I agree Reagan would be a fun character to write, but if I were to write FANGIRL fanfiction (which I might, or at least just a snippet, because I’m doing the tumblr reblog bookclub) I’d write about the Rhode Island grad student who beta’s (meaning she’s the pre-publication second set of eyes on Cath’s fic and helps polish and proofread for errors but is also likely a soundboard for ideas and give editorial feedback on the story, too).

    My main complaint about FANGIRL is that it didn’t show much of Cath’s interaction with the fandom, which is as much a part of a typical fanfic writer’s motivation for participation as a love for the source material. It just didn’t show enough about the social aspect of the fandom for me. I’m probably most interested in this aspect because of my own experiences writing fanfiction and being part of a fan community. I don’t have time for fanfiction (reading or writing) anymore, but I still interact regularly with a select few of the people I met through that world, and those relationships are as important to me as my life-long, hometown friends.

    Which is probably why I’m most interested in knowing more about a character that only got a passing mention in the story. Once you’re indoctrinated into a fandom way of viewing a story, in that you see it as an endless and an ever-expanding universe, there’s really no going back.

    I was just talking with my husband the other day about how I’d love to write a story about Charlie’s English teacher from Perks of Being a Wallflower. He serves a very specific role in the original story by introducing Charlie to lots of great literature, but he’s off living a whole life apart from being Charlie’s teacher, and all we are really told in “canon” is that he’s a writer who had a play produced in NYC and that he’s not sure if he wants to continue teaching or keep trying at writing. And I think that’d make an interesting story, with his reflections and insight into Charlie just a small part of that story.

    1. I’ve spent much of my weekend re-reading parts of Fangirl. It’s a great book. I liked reading Cath’s fanfiction, and, while I remember what you said in your review about wanting to see her interaction with the fandom, I didn’t really miss it. That’s probably because I’m not a fanfiction writer, and I haven’t read much of it either. That said, if you decide to write Fangirl fanfiction (or if you know of anyone else who is), please let me know! I would LOVE to read it! I really loved these characters. I wonder if Rowell would consider licensing her books to Amazon’s Kindle Worlds (or licensing it some other way). That would lend some legitimacy to fanfiction, and possibly produce some great derivatives of her fabulous novels.

      As for Eleanor and Park, the fact that it made you cry is probably why I’ve avoided it. I know I need to read it, but I never feel like I’m in the right mood.

    1. That part of the book was so cute! Rowell really “gets” young love. This book made me reminisce a lot about my freshman year of college. Great memories!

  5. Do you know that I had no idea there was such a thing as fan fiction until like, last year? Where was I?? The library, I guess.
    I think a big part of what authors (successful authors who have hugely popular universes under their names) really don’t like about fan-fiction is not the re-use of their characters or the usurping of the worlds they’ve created. I think it’s the back-door to popularity fan-fiction authors take, and there’s no legal recourse for that. Sure, fanfic writers don’t get paid for their work, but they basically walk into another author’s club, get a whole bunch of people to like them, and then invite all those fans over to their house for an after-party. When popular fan-fiction writers eventually publish an original work, they already have a fan base (courtesy of the established author whose universe they used).
    I can see where that would be upsetting, and yet flattering at the same time.

    1. Yeah, I can see how an original author could find fanfiction invasive. However, I’m not particularly sympathetic to wildly successful authors complaining that their work is too popular. Fanfiction is a form of flattery. If it annoys them, then they should do their best to ignore it. If a fanfiction author crosses the line–borrows too much and sells it commercially without a license–then the original author has a reason to complain and has legal recourse.

  6. I’d love to have seen more Reagan, she was a fabulous character! I totally agree with you on Rowell’s characters- she draws them so well. I just finished Attachments, and I think it’s downright adorable that your husband has Lincoln-esque qualities! (Also, I feel like a celebrity being quoted in your post! Thank you.)

  7. Amazon has made deals with several parent companies to publish fanfic for profit. I’m not sure what to think about that, having read both really good and exceptionally bad fanfic. I guess I’d tend to shy away from buying any until I was sure of what I was getting, but I also wonder why these writers don’t create their own characters and worlds instead of hiding inside someone else’s?

    Your review of this book lets me glimpse one reason, and I get it, but I’m still unsure about selling this kind of work for profit, whatever blessings Amazon sees fit to put on it. Writing fanfic (big Heroes/Sylar and Star Trek fan here) sanded off the rough edges on my writing when I hadn’t done it in years, but I’d never consider trying to sell any of it. It’s my writing, yes, but not my characters or ‘verse.

    1. Your comment reminds me of a part of Rowell’s book:
      “These characters belong to Gemma T. Leslie, [Cath] wrote at the beginning of every new chapter [of her fanfiction]… ‘I’m just borrowing you.’
      ‘You didn’t borrow [Gemma’s characer],’ Wren would say. ‘You kidnapped him and raised him as your own.'”

      I can see how fanfiction would feel invasive to an original author, while still being a form of flattery. An author could initiate copyright infringement lawsuits, but most fanfiction authors would have a good fair use defense, particularly if they’re not selling the derivative works. So, authors of popular books really have two options when it comes to fanfiction: ignore it or encourage it. One way to encourage it is to join Kindle Worlds, which, from what I’ve read, seems like a fair concept for both original authors and fanfiction writers. The original authors license their work, and the fanfiction writers get royalties if their work sells. Plus, the possibility of royalties might encourage the creation of better fanfiction.

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