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How to Be Famous

June 17, 2018

How to be Famous is Caitlin Moran’s latest novel, but you don’t have to know anything about How to Be a Woman or How to Build a Girl to enjoy this one. I got an advance copy from Harper Collins so now I can tell you how great it is and how much you want to read it when it comes out in the U.S. on July 3.

How great is it? I was introduced to the 19-year-old heroine and her life as a “music journalist” in London, things I would not ordinarily be all that interested in, and was immediately charmed by this character’s, Johanna’s, sense of humor and adventure. She explains “I live a life that could largely be described as that of Pippi Longstocking, but with whiskey and rock music. To live in a city at eighteen, alone but for a pet, is to engage in adult pursuits, but with the vision of a child.” She further elaborates that “when I have money, I have take-away spaghetti Bolognese for breakfast, every day, because that is the most treat-y meal, and children buy themselves meals that are treats…I wake at noon, and stay out until 3:00 a.m., and then I have a bath, when I come home–because I can. It doesn’t wake anyone up. Every single one of those baths makes me happy. You leave home to have baths in the middle of the night. That is true independence.”

So I was drawn in, and worried about what’s going to happen to Johanna when she is about to make a mistake and says “if I could go back and talk to me then, I would say, ‘Johanna! Never trust a man who says sex and love are dirty and dangerous! Never go along with it–because to nod is to check the ‘I agree to terms and conditions’ box of the man who is telling you he is dirty and dangerous. He’s telling you, right up front, what his world is like. He’s showing you the contract.”

In addition to being drawn in, I discovered passages that were always going to delight me whether I cared about the characters or not, like the scene in which a dangerous man reads poetry to Johanna: “Having someone read bad poetry to you, angrily, is oddly sinister. I’m surprised people don’t get more baddies to do it in horror films–it’s quite chilling. Not so much from the power of the imagery, but more because you really want to laugh, but know that, if you do, they will become even angrier, and maybe read you another one. In an even more furious way.” You know, kind of like a Vogon (from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

And also the scene where Johanna reveals that “it is traditional, as soon as you break up with someone, to tell everyone they have a tiny penis. The impression you have to give is that, when you broke up, you took most of their penis with you. I presume it’s an ancient, witchcraft thing.”

Johanna’s ideas about music and writing and art are fun, and the tale of her love for an older rock musician, John Kite, doesn’t take the path I thought it might. Her stated goal, at the beginning of the novel, is “to write a series of pieces so funny, insightful, wise, and somehow hot that he will fall in love with me–just as his songs made me fall in love with him. This, now, is an art battle. He is my prose victim.”

We get to see some of Johanna’s music journalism in chapter ten, which is entitled “Ten Things I Have Noticed in Two Years of Interacting with Famous People” and with her professional byline attached, “Dolly Wilde.” Like with many of the things she writes, she has John in mind as the audience, hoping that it will “amuse him and make him see I understand what his life is like now.” We see more of her writing in chapter fifteen, in an article with the headline “In Defense of Groupies,” and we also get how Johanna’s new friend Suzanne reacts (“‘I LOVE THIS!’ Suzanne roars, pointing at the paragraph. ‘YES! YES!’”)

Johanna spends most of the novel learning how to become an adult; she negotiates new relationships with friends, and also with her brother and parents. She caricatures many of the the people she meets with her sharp wit–for instance, “people who take a lot of cocaine…remind me of the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Black leather, silly John Lennon glasses, greasy hair, twitchy noses.” She aptly characterizes the situations she finds herself in, like when she says “at nineteen, I already have the sense that it is the job of women to simply absorb the unpleasantness that bad men dole out to us. If we stopped doing this–revealing all the awfulness sloshing around–then all the good men would become sad, and anxious, on our behalves, and the world would consist only of bad men, and sad men, and be no fun at all. It’s the work of mere seconds to simply cut the unhappiness, and keep the world more joyful.” We admire her ever-growing bravery.

She also gets braver about using her body. She is not a slender 19-year-old girl. “Ironically,” she says, “given its size, my body lived in a very small world. It could sit and write, it could sit and drink, it could sit and smoke, it could fuck, and it could sleep. That was it. That was its world. It was like an unhappy, housebound pet. And because I could not think about it, or acknowledge it–because I would speak for a thousand hours before ever mentioning my body–I couldn’t change it. You have to name the problem before you can solve it. And I would not name this problem, because I didn’t have the time, or the inclination, to feel embarrassed, and then cry for a thousand years.” Sound familiar? It certainly does to me.

The turning point of the novel comes when John makes a slightly disparaging remark about his teenage girl fans and Johanna becomes indignant on their behalf, thinking that he sees only the crowd, “not thousands of separate young women, who had waited months to be there’ whose walls were covered in pictures of him; who quietly sang his lyrics to themselves when they were scared, walking down dark roads at night. Young women like me.” She resolves to fix it, saying to herself: “I can write. I am good at writing. I am going to write something about teenage fans so good, it will make John a better person. I am going to upgrade him–with prose.” This turning point comes about halfway through, and it takes until almost the end to find out if she has succeeded.

13220830_10208360709408418_9068125062605025278_nIn fact–spoiler alert–she does succeed. And what she says about artists and fans really hit home for me, because I am a fangirl (actually, a fan woman). I’ve stood in a lot of lines, ostensibly to get a book signed but mostly just to see the author up close. Once I went with my daughter to an entire fan convention, for the TV show Supernatural, where we paid to have a photo taken with one of the show’s stars, Jared Padalecki. He had been standing in a small, brightly-lit room for a couple of hours, posing however fans asked him to before it was our turn, and I will never forget how he gave us his complete attention for the few minutes it took us to ask him to put an arm around each of us for our photo.

This is what Johanna says about such an experience:
“I think about how brave it is, to do this: to queue up, and meet your hero. There’s something incredibly intimate about reading, or listening, or looking at someone else’s art. When it truly moves you–when you whoop when Prince whoops in Purple Rain; or cry when Bastian cries in The NeverEnding Story, it is as if you have been them, for a while. You traveled inside them, in their shoes, breathing their breath. Moving with their pulse. A faint ghost of them imprinted, inside you, forever–it responds when you meet them, as if it recognizes its own reflection.
And this is why meeting an artist you admire is always such an uneven, unfair thing. For they–they don’t recognize you at all. You shake their hand, feeling as if you are seeing a dear, old friend again–remembering all the times you shared, together–and they look back at you, as if you are a stranger, and say, quizzically, ‘And what name would you like me to sign it to?’ And you remember: they did not share those times at all. You were there–but they were not.
You can’t meet your heroes–because they are, in the end, just an idea, that lives inside you.
This is why I feel such love for John–watching what he is doing, with all these fans. They are not meeting him–he is meeting them. He is looking them in the eye, conspiratorially; he is hugging them, like they have imagined hugging him. He is saying, ‘We meet–at last!’ He is telling them they are as wonderful as they feel when they listen to him. He has…completed the circle of putting art out, into the world. He sent those songs out into the world, not knowing who would receive them, and now, one by one, they are coming to him, and saying, ‘I found it. I get it. It worked. It made a piece of me–just here.’
And he is saying, ‘And I see it has made you glorious. Thank you. That was just what it was supposed to do.’”

I think that in the past decade there have been an increasing number of writers and actors who make the time to meet their fans in person, and it’s a good trend. Even the introverts are making an effort, like David Sedaris giving condoms or hotel soaps to his fans. We should try to express our appreciation, at least by word of mouth, for those who try to complete what Johanna calls “the circle of putting art out, into the world.”

There are many other good parts of this novel besides the bits I’ve quoted here, but you should discover them for yourself, as Johanna has to experience the kinds of things no one can easily pass on to another person.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 17, 2018 4:20 am

    I have a bit of a mixed relationship with Moran’s writing but this does sound good, with plenty to say. As you say, the nature of fame is changing now with stars being less remote and its an interesting situation.

    • June 24, 2018 9:41 pm

      I liked this one so much I thought I’d go back and read some of her earlier novels. Perhaps this one was written at the peak of her career and published at just the right time, when fame is changing so much?

  2. June 18, 2018 10:12 am

    This book doesn’t sound like one I would normally read, so I thank you for sharing the quote about the relationship between creator and audience. Loved it!

    • June 24, 2018 9:42 pm

      I agree about the book not being one I would normally read. Glad I did, though, and glad you loved that quote too!

  3. June 18, 2018 5:26 pm

    I LOVE that picture of you and Jared! Your beaming expression is pretty much the best – and also basically me whenever I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some artist I admire.

    • June 24, 2018 9:42 pm

      Yes, I was smiling so big my face about split in half. Eleanor and I had thoughts about other poses, but in the end that’s all my face would do.

  4. June 27, 2018 12:14 pm

    I’ve not read Moran before and I am not sure I will ever read this book, but your enthusiasm for it is delightful and I loved reading your thoughts and experience with it.

    • June 28, 2018 9:49 am

      Thanks! I often feel that way about your bicycling posts–not anything I could ever do, but I love reading your thoughts about it and experiences with it.

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