Caitlin Moran’s novel is bubbling with pop culture, featuring a hero every girl needs
Caitlin Moran: How to be Famous review:
How to be Famous
You could waste a lot of your own time drawing parallels between Caitlin Moran’s real history and the life of her protagonist, Johanna Morrigan. As Moran sets out in her Author’s Note – painstakingly, it seems, as if to head off knuckle-gnawingly dull questions from journalists about whether her fiction is indeed fiction – Johanna and Caitlin are not the same person.
They’re both home-schooled polymaths from large families in Wolverhampton, and they both worked as music journalists in a London that was first dazzled and ultimately damned by Britpop. Yes, Johanna’s voice frequently mirrors Moran’s, particularly in the extracts taken from Johanna’s “How To Be Famous” magazine column of the book’s title. You could argue Moran’s hold on fiction versus creative non-fiction til the cows come home, but you’d still miss the fundamental point.
The point being, does anyone really give a toss?
The point being, stop taking your ball in, arsing about with what’s real and what’s fiction. Sit back, enjoy the ride. This novel has its pockets filled with charm and cake crumbs, as funny and easy to befriend as its perpetually sunny narrator.
We pick off where Moran’s first novel, How To Build A Girl, leaves off. It’s 1994 and Johanna is 19 years old. She’s routinely thrilled by her own unusual circumstance: a teenager living alone in London, on the guest list for every gig worth going to. Unlike her colleagues at the shambolic D&ME magazine, she actually likes most music. “They’re for sad fat mums in Oklahoma now,” her colleague, Jerry, says of REM’s Shiny Happy People.
“Personally, I thought making music for sad fat mums in Oklahoma sounded like a lovely thing to do. I mean, they are a hard audience to write for!” Johanna chirps back. “They only have time and money for one album a year. If it’s yours, it must be good.”
It’s a line you can’t help smiling at, and typical of Moran’s love of the ideological bait-and-switch. Since exploding on the literary scene with 2011’s How To Be A Woman, Moran has been serving up jokes and characters that erupt feminist messaging like a spoon through a Gü pud. You might hold it against her if she wasn’t so good at it. And while this cool-substitute-teacher vibe may not work on every topic Moran turns her hand to, with her meditations on girlhood, fandom and the earth-swallowing emotional intensity of being a young woman, she’s one of the best we have.
“We’ve got to make lady trolls as hot as man-hogs,” argues Johanna’s best friend, Suzanne Branks of riot grrl outfit The Branks. Suzanne demands to know why Gerard Depardieu is “beating off the fanny with a stick” while ugly girls get left in the dust.
“Famous is the shortcut to power. It’s how you hotwire the revolution. I’m gonna make lady-hogs sexy. And then – because there’s more of us, because we’ve got the numbers – the ugly girls are going to take over the world.”
It’s a novel that bubbles with pop culture, heaving with Moran’s theories about its intersection with girlhood. “And why did girls love the Beatles so much? Because the Beatles loved girls. The Beatles were saturated in girl culture. They grew their hair long – like girls; an act of alliance in a time when femininity was implicitly inferior.”
Reading How to Be Famous feels like being cooked for by a great chef, who is also a little drunk. It’s supremely cosy, standing in their kitchen while they alternate between drinking the wine and throwing it in the saucepan. At some point, however, you do start to worry about how much butter and salt they’re throwing in.
In Moran’s case, the butter and salt is an elaborate, sometimes exhausting use of metaphor (“At that point, John’s life was like a zoo on fire. Animals running everywhere. If I kissed him there, then, that kiss would just be one more confused penguin.”) and a tendency to break from the narrative to simply address the reader head on.
We spend most of the novel with Johanna in the present tense, yet will occasionally receive dispatches from a much older Johanna, for no reason at all. (“In later years, when I’m having a long lunch with some girlfriends . . .”) It takes the urgency out of Johanna’s story: we don’t have to worry whether everything works out for her because we’re frequently reassured that everything did.
Still, this is a nitpick. The real joy of Moran’s second novel is that it gives girls like Johanna – the wrong size, the wrong class, the wrong everything for the industry she’s working in – a story as hopeful and ambitious as she is. Johanna has rockstar crushes, enormous talents, boundless adventures, and a little black book full of people who think she’s brilliant. She’s the hero girls need, as well as the one they deserve.
- Caroline O’Donoghue is author of ‘Promising Young Women’.