• “Pale Fire” (Tavi’s Version): Notes on Taylor Swift and the Literature of Obsessive Fandom

    Leigh Stein Considers Tavi Gevinson’s New Zine, “Fan Fiction”

    In 1962, when Mary McCarthy reviewed Pale Fire for The New Republic, she called it “a Jack-in-the-box, a Faberge gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself novel.”

    Sixty-two years later, the 27-year-old writer/actress Tavi Gevinson has released a gender-swapped pastiche of Pale Fire, about one writer’s obsession with arguably the most popular poet in America, in the form a 75-page self-published zine titled Fan Fiction that I consumed cover-to-cover in a state of monomaniacal ecstasy that reminded me of being—what else?—a teenage girl.

    You could say I’m a fan.

    The zine’s photocopied cover page is a collage of icons representing what girls get up to when they’re not scrolling their phones: rings and bobby pins and paper clips, a stud earring in the shape of a rose, a microscope, a friendship bracelet, a masquerade mask and fan, a film canister.

    Beneath the handwritten title is a caption that says “a satire,” but a satire of what?

    The second page reveals our second clue: a black-and-white photocopy of a glass vial stamped with the name TAYLOR SWIFT, spilling stick matches that fall down the page like arrows.

    Before we go any further, I should confess that I don’t identify as a Swiftie. I just googled “taylor swift bottle of matches” and found out that this is official merch for her Midnights album (the match tips are purple!). Nor am I a Nabokovian. I came to Fan Fiction as a fan of Tavi’s writing, a zine enthusiast, and a satirist. You don’t need to know a single Taylor Swift lyric by heart to enjoy Tavi’s genre-defying project.

    The epigraph from Pale Fire, on page three, is handwritten: “The calendar says I had known him only for a few months but there exist friendships which develop their own inner duration, their own eons of transparent time, independent of rotating malicious music.” Before writing the pronoun “him,” the author wrote “her” and scribbled it out.

    The fanzine is divided into three parts. The first, titled “New Romantics,” reads as a braided essay, written in the first person, using the Eras Tour as a frame to explore memory and feeling in Taylor’s lyrics. Tavi flashes her literary bona fides by quoting Virginia Woolf, Michael Chabon’s essay on Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes, Carson McCullers, John Berger, and Roland Barthes.

    I don’t think Tavi is targeting Taylor’s fandom; she counts herself as a subject in their enchanted kingdom.

    I found myself scanning for satire, but the narrator isn’t a caricature of a crazy fan. She isn’t self-aggrandizing to compensate for insecurity, like Charles Kinbote. The tone is dialed to the self-reflective earnestness I’ve come to expect from gen z writers. From the narrative distance of her twenties, Tavi romanticizes adolescence:

    Swift’s early music did not just reflect my feelings; it scripted them. She laminated my high school hallways with marks to hit, gazes to hold, pauses to read into. Did a glance linger a hair too long? Did a backpack brush my shoulder on purpose? Obviously there was no way to know; the point was to wonder. I journaled about such encounters with a level of detail so precise that it was almost clinical, even when the sense of potential was infinite. This was the best part, being suspended in mid-air; I wanted any crush to last as long as possible before much interaction could take place; life was not allowed to happen faster than I could write it down.

    Part two of the zine, “Mirrorball” is bordered with illustrations like a Rookie collage kit. Here, the register shifts from cool, self-possessed essayist to the pressured confession of a madwoman:

    OK, that was my smug little “culture critic” attempt at talking about some aspects of Taylor’s music that I think get over­looked, as if one of the most famous people in the world isn’t talked about enough, or more like I just need to plant a flag in whatever unique (God willing) contributions I can make to a subject that I, as a Swiftie, feel competitive about, which is ironic because if I am really being possessive, if I really feel a desperate need to insert myself into the Conversation, then what I should lead with is that I know Taylor, I knew Taylor, we were friends, maybe we are still friends, if you can be friends with someone without ever talking to them…

    Before she spills the tea, our narrator tells us she is “using the genre of fiction as insurance” against the “wrath” of Swifties, who are “among the most well-organized grassroots movements of our time,” and that this is the first time she has written as “not-me.”

    She then proceeds to summarize Tavi Gevinson’s REAL LIFE as a child style blogger and founder of the online magazine Rookie, who went on to become a Broadway actress, personal essayist, and influencer, and who “started following Taylor’s career as a higher-stakes, more famous, more mainstream version of [her] own.” The level of detail that can be verified through google casts tantalizing doubt on her claim that this is merely “fiction.” Of course, that’s the game. If Pale Fire was “a trap to catch reviewers,” then Fan Fiction is a trap for the Swifties who work as full-time cryptographers.

    Once again, I could not help but notice this was not satire. It was autofiction.

    Feeling gaslit, I reached out to Adam Smith, an English professor at York St. John University, and co-host of a podcast dedicated to satire, via email, to ask: is this satire?

    The fundamental definition of satire, Adam told me, is a work “that performs critique through distortion.”

    “Satire needs to have a target,” he continued, “the target needs to be something in the ‘real world’ which the author finds in some way dangerous or reprehensible, and the critique is performed using exaggeration and some form of fiction. Determining whether or not this fanzine is in fact a satire relies on determining precisely what it is targeting: what is the intended object of critique, and where is the distortion or exaggeration happening?”

    I don’t think Tavi is targeting Taylor’s fandom; she counts herself as a subject in their enchanted kingdom. The narrator is in the audience at the Eras Tour in the zine’s first section; she uses the first person plural when she says, “…meaning grows when it is shared, when it’s a connecting force, as with music, as with fandom. We were characters in [Taylor’s] story, yes, but chiefly so it could support our own, the need to make narrative sense, to track our growings-up, to hold on till it was safe to let go, to remain frozen till we were ready to thaw.”

    Adam agrees with me on the tone, writing, “this fanzine never feels hostile, and the affection for Taylor feels both warranted and—for want of a better term—authentic.”

    “Mirrorball” builds to an unforgettable night at fictional Taylor’s house, when fictional Tavi drops her affected persona and becomes a fan in front of her idol, only to regret it the next morning.

    The final section of the zine, “Mine,” is a series of emails, between fictional Tavi and fictional Taylor, about a fictional book that fictional Tavi is publishing with FSG titled Portrait of the Artist as a Young-Girl inspired by Taylor’s music. Anxiety mounts when Tavi doesn’t hear from Taylor.

    When the idol finally does reply, it’s with an exhaustive list of what she’d like Tavi to remove from the book. Her list of demands becomes an exquisite anaphoric break-up poem:

    – Delete note I left you.
    – Delete letter you sent me.
    – Delete ring you gave me.
    – Delete voicemail I left you.
    – Delete secret language.
    – Delete polaroid.
    – Delete film reel.
    – Delete postcard.
    – Delete locket.
    – Delete cardigan.
    – Delete dress.
    – Delete key.
    – Delete scarf.

    Tavi takes every nostalgic object Taylor demands be excised and adheres it to the pages of the zine, to make a scrapbook of an ending.

    Although I don’t idolize any musician, writer, or artist in the way tens of millions idolize Taylor, I harbor my own obsessions. One is my nostalgia for the early 2000s internet, where I came of age, following Tavi’s predecessors, moody poets and cryptic self-portrait photographers on Livejournal. I collected zines and chapbooks. I believed art and poetry were meant to be shared, among other young women, like an artist collective enabled by the internet, before I knew anything about branding or marketing or book advances. Before Instagram replaced the mall. Tavi’s zine, distributed for free, reminds me of the time in my life before I began, out of economic necessity, to treat my own art as a business.

    Hailey Colborn is a writer and a media founder who is also trying to balance art and business. After reading the zine, I called her, because she is also the #1 Nabokov fan I know.

    Hailey found a copy of Pnin at her favorite bookstore in Kansas at age 17. “I found the writing so disorienting, but in a beautiful way, and it started this obsession,” she told me. She read Pale Fire when she was 20, after moving back into her childhood bedroom during the pandemic.

    I asked her what she made of Pale Fire (Tavi’s Version), with Taylor Swift in the role of the poet.

    “I mean…I’m a writer and I’m jealous of poets,” Hailey admitted. “Poets don’t have to do as much explaining.”

    “Charles Kinbote is like a prosaic commentator, not an artist, right?”

    “It’s like obsession commentary,” Hailey said. “Does he want to know what [the poet] has to say or does he want to be him? I think that line is pretty thin. I think that line is really thin between Tavi and Taylor as well.”

    Hailey compared the structure of Tavi’s meta zine to “garden path content,” meaning that you hook the viewer (of video content) or reader with one thing, and then lead them in a completely different direction.

    And Nabokov does this, too. “You come for a 999-line poem, and this scholar that is obsessed with the poet, and you end up with this repressed self-reflection and a murder. The self-reflection is never really in your face. His characters are always very scholarly. They puff out their chests intellectually, but underneath it, he’s such a writer with feeling. All the Nabokov novels—I always cry at the end. I don’t know why.”

    I asked Hailey if Nabokov is her Taylor Swift.

    She laughed and hesitated before answering. Finally, she said, “I think he was, when I was 17 to 20. I think being obsessed with him gave me permission to be more experimental in my own writing.”

    A couple hours after I talked to Hailey, she texted me a photo of her bedroom wall.

    “I probably could’ve mentioned that I do have a poster of Nabokov in my bedroom like many do t Swift,” she wrote.

    It’s a black-and-white image of the writer, balding, his brow crinkled by time, holding a postage stamp of a butterfly—a symbol of the ephemerality of girlhood.

    On the cover page of Tavi’s zine, the title Fan Fiction is bordered by forty tiny butterflies.

    Leigh Stein
    Leigh Stein
    Leigh Stein is a writer interested in what the internet is doing to our identities, relationships, and politics. She is the author of five books, including the critically acclaimed satirical novel Self Care (Penguin, 2020) and the poetry collection What to Miss When (Soft Skull Press, 2021). Her non-fiction writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker online, Allure, ELLE, Poets & Writers, BuzzFeed, The Cut, Salon, and Slate.

    More Story
    Lit Hub Daily: April 19, 2024 When is enough enough? Ryan Chapman on wants, needs, money, and time. | Lit Hub Memoir “Resets are necessary throughout...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.