How Rainbow Rowell Weaponized Fandom for Good
Dana Schwartz on Fictional Books Within Fictional Books
There are two Simon Snow series in the world.
The first Simon Snow series is by acclaimed YA author Rainbow Rowell and consists of the book Carry On, and its follow-up, Wayward Son, which will be released on September 24.
The second Simon Snow series is written by Gemma T. Leslie. Leslie’s books—there are eight of them—are a more obvious Harry Potter analogue. Starting with Simon Snow and the Mage’s Heir all the way to Simon Snow and the Eighth Dance, they follow a British boy wizard who discovers he’s the “chosen one” while studying at a magical school alongside a bossy know-it-all girl and a sneering patrician rival.
Except Gemma T. Leslie doesn’t actually exist, and neither do her Simon Snow books. Rainbow Rowell invented her—and the idea of her fantasy series—for her young adult novel Fangirl, which takes place in the real world (albeit a real world in which Harry Potter has a major cultural competitor).
In Fangirl, a college freshman named Cath obsesses over the Gemma T. Leslie (GTL, to the initiated) fantasy series and spends much of her time embedded in the fanfiction community, writing her own novel-length internet-famous fanfic of the Simon Snow series called Carry On, Simon, which we get to read in snippets between Fangirl chapters.
As Cath’s fanfic is described in Fangirl: “Carry On was written as if it were the eighth Simon Snow book, as if it were Cath’s job to wrap up all the loose ends to make sure that Simon ascended to Mage, to redeem Baz (something GTL would never do), to make both boys forget about Agatha… To write all the good-bye scenes and graduation scenes and last-minute revelations… And to stage the final battle between Simon and the Insidious Humdrum.”
At this point, you might be imagining Carry On (Rowell’s actual, real, published book) to be the full, expanded version of Carry On (the fictional fanfic within the book Fangirl). You would be incorrect.
You see, Rowell’s Carry On doesn’t match the snippets of Cath’s story the readers of Fangirl were privy to, at all—because this Carry On is actually by Rainbow Rowell, and not by Rainbow Rowell through the lens of her fictional character. Confused yet?Fanfiction writers will write hundreds of thousands of words that they put out into the world for free, often under the complete anonymity of a username.
There’s a rich tradition of authors writing books in response to an invented piece of literature: Nabokov’s Pale Fire consists of the foreword, commentary, and index of an academic responding to a poem by the fictional “John Shade”; William Goldman, author of The Princess Bride, pretended it was a fantasy novel by S. Morgenstern that Goldman’s grandfather had read to him as a child. The book intersperses the story with comments from Goldman, writing as himself, on the book and memories of hearing it in childhood.
But that’s not what Rowell is doing.
Carry On, the book, does share certain (indelibly “fan-fiction-y”) qualities with Carry On, the fanfiction. Both begin in media res, as Simon is returning to the Watford School of Magicks for his final year, and both center around a same-sex enemies-to-lovers romance, a favorite among online writers impatient with waiting for mainstream publishing to catch up with the kinds of “shipping” they want.
But Rowell’s Carry On isn’t the full version of the fanfic her character, Cath, wrote. The book isn’t presented as though it was written by Cath, or by Gemma T. Leslie. It’s Rowell taking the characters that already exist and writing a story using them exactly as she herself wants to tell it. In short: it’s fanfiction.
Authors writing fanfiction-esque versions of their own characters isn’t without precedent. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle rescued Sherlock Holmes from death (classic fanfiction move) after fan outcry when he moved to retire the character. And no doubt acquiescing to the character’s popular Jeff Goldblum portrayal in the film adaptation of Jurassic Park, Ian Malcom reappears as a character in Michael Creighton’s The Lost World even though the character had ostensibly died at the end of the previous novel.
But can something be fanfiction if it’s fanfiction based on original characters that the writer created? For Rowell, her answer is no. Or no… ish. No doubt anticipating confusion, that’s a question Rowell answers on the Carry On page of her website. Under the header, “Wait a minute—is Carry On fanfiction or canon?” Rowell writes:
The most common question I’ve been asked is whether I’m writing as Cath or as Gemma T. Leslie … The answer is, I’m writing as me. After I finished writing Fangirl, I kept thinking about Simon and Baz and the World of Mages … I wanted to write more about them, but I didn’t want to write the full series GTL-style. And I also didn’t want to write through Cath’s hands and brain.
I wanted to explore what I would do with this world and these characters. So, even though I’m writing a book that was inspired by fictional fanfiction of a fictional series …I think what I’m writing now is canon.
In the literary community, fanfiction is almost uniformly dismissed as frivolous, associated a certain unseriousness that misogynists love to ascribe to teenage girls. But the strange relationship among Rowell’s books (not to mention their explicitly fanfic-centric plots) force light onto the all-too-fine line that exists between metafiction, so often exalted as high art, and fanfiction, so often dismissed as high art’s downfall.
(Ironically, as soon as a work reaches a certain level of unimpeachable literary importance, “borrowing” its characters becomes entirely accepted. Literary darling Ian McEwan’s 14th novel Nutshell is Shakespeare’s Hamlet retold as though Hamlet were an unborn child. Wide Sargsasso Sea imagines the secret life of Jane Eyre’s mad wife in the attic. And what is Dante’s Inferno but the ultimate self-insert fanfic in which the author gets to spend three books hanging out with his favorite celebrity?)
The thing many laypeople don’t understand about fanfiction is its writers’ depth of commitment: fanfiction writers will write hundreds of thousands of words that they put out into the world for free, often under the complete anonymity of a username. I make my living as a writer, and I do love to write, but I fully admit I enjoy the benefits of money and public attention and esteem I receive for my work. Fanfiction is writing for sheer love of writing—for sharing a story with fellow devoted obsessives who don’t give a lick about status or Upper West Side cocktail parties or who’s published a short story in Granta and who hasn’t.
Rowell’s own Simon Snow series, then, the one we all get to read, embodies the purest distillation of the best aspects of fanfiction: she fell in love with characters, and wanted to try her hand at writing them in her own voice. That’s the impulse at the heart of all good writing, canon be damned.