The best books about fame and fanhood

From Joan Didion's exploration of the late 60s to a Harry Styles-themed poetry collection, these releases trace the highs and lows of stan culture.

by Jessica White
01 September 2021, 7:00am

Columbia Pictures

Fame: some people would die for it, some people couldn’t think of anything worse, and others have it thrust on them whether they like it or not. In a recent interview with The Guardian, ahead of the release of her third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You? author Sally Rooney reflected on her own fame, saying anyone who intentionally seeks something like it is “deeply psychologically ill.” Whether that’s true is up for debate, and the range of texts delving into the black hole that is the discussion of fame is merely evidence of that. These books, short story collections and poems not only reflect on the nature of fame and celebrity but also the people who make it possible (for better or worse): the fans themselves. Fandoms and celebrities are mutually exclusive, and their relationships with one another can be fulfilling or uneasy. Often, it’s both.

The Giant Dark **by Sarvat Hasin (Dialogue Books, 2021)
**Told from the perspectives of a musician, her muse and her fanbase, The Giant Dark is a masterful exploration of fame and followings. Musician Aida reconnects with her former lover Ehsan at the height of her career, and what follows is a devastating retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth as she embarks on her world tour with Ehsan in tow. Their complicated and messy history is recounted in two distinct acts, and is interspersed with chapters told from the perspective of her fans that mythologise Aida as a god-like celebrity. The antithesis between the construction of a personality by her devotees and the harsh reality of someone coming to terms with fame and juggling the day-to-day tensions of interpersonal relationships is what makes Hasin’s novel particularly brilliant.

Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen **by Greg Jenner (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020)
**Jenner’s historical exploration of the celebrity figure is wide-ranging and thorough, paying tribute to the notion that celebrities are ‘part of the sturdy foundations upon which we build our identities.’ Deconstructing the separate definitions of fame and renown, the Horrible Histories historical consultant and You’re Dead To Me podcast host steamrolls into setting out the varying aspects that makes someone a star. Each chapter outlines an important element of becoming or being famous, from PR to image to money to cultivating a fanbase, using a myriad of historical examples ranging from the expected (Rita Hayworth, Evelyn Nesbit, Oscar Wilde) to the unexpected (Clara the rhino).

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Gold Light Shining **by Bebe Ashley (Banshee Press, 2020)
**In her debut poetry collection, Ashley reflects on the spiritual experience of being a Harry Styles fan. These poems not only draw inspiration from Styles’ back catalogue of music and his distinct style, but also how they exist on the internet, in wider popular culture and as a private experience for the individual follower. The acts of buying merchandise, writing and reading fanfiction and newsletters and listening to vinyl are made transcendental in the collection as a whole, meaning that it is as much about being a fan of anything as it is about being a fan of the musician specifically. You don’t need to have Harry mania to appreciate Ashley’s sharp and perceptive style, but it does make the collection even more special if you do.

Fangirls: Scenes from Modern Music Culture by Hannah Ewens (Quadrille, 2019) Focusing specifically on the misunderstood art of fangirlling Ewens examines what it means to be a fan of a music artist and a woman. The bulk of the interviews that she carries out as research for Fangirls are from contemporary teenagers and young women, meaning that this is also a book about being online. She makes important distinctions between newer fandoms (One Direction and Harry Styles, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Halsey) and older ones (The Beatles, Backstreet Boys, Courtney Love and Hole), specifically noting how the internet has changed how fans interact with their idols and with each other. Ewens’ skill lies in how open-minded and empathetic she is with the girls she encounters, making this book a much needed tribute to fandoms and the women behind them, rather than a criticism of them.

Gossip Girl characters reading Black Swans by Eve Babitz

Black Swans **by Eve Babitz (originally published in 1993, reissued by Counterpoint, 2018)
**Nobody writes about the Hollywood elite like Eve Babitz. Born in L.A. and raised by a painter mother and a composer father (who worked for 20th Century Fox), Babitz has always had a front seat to the dramas of famous and famous-adaject people. Black Swans is a collection of short stories that highlight both the changes and constants of L.A. from the 60s until the 90s. In her introduction to the Counterpoint edition, Stephanie Danler characterises Babitz as “serious about writing but also serious about parties, dresses, love affairs and gossip”, and this is no better exhibited than in this collection where parties, dresses, love affairs and gossip abound across the decades. In her typical satirical style, Babitz is sharply perceptive about the nature of fame, notoriety and sociability, as well as exploring difficult topics like the AIDS crisis and her struggles with alcohol and substance addiction.

Play It As It Lays **by Joan Didion (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1970)
**A modern American classic, Didion’s Play It As It Lays is a sprawling story of an actress’s mental breakdown that bounces between L.A., New York and small-town Nevada. Both the alluring glamour and the malevolence of fame are explored in protagonist Maria Wyeth’s story that opens with her in a psychiatric hospital and continues with a reflection on her life thus far, in and out of the public eye. The death of her parents, blackmail, failed relationships and a hospitalised child are played out against the backdrop of a New York and a California that is interspersed with actors, film producers and lovers, culminating in personal disaster for Maria. A tragic story that is as much about marriage and motherhood as it is about fame and Hollywood, Play It As It Lays is a simmering masterpiece.

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