It’s 1990. Johanna Morrigan, fourteen, has shamed herself so badly on local TV that she decides that there’s no point in being Johanna anymore and reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde—fast-talking, hard-drinking Gothic hero and full-time Lady Sex Adventurer. She will save her poverty-stricken Bohemian family by becoming a writer—like Jo in Little Women, or the Bröntes—but without the dying young bit.
By sixteen, she’s smoking cigarettes, getting drunk and working for a music paper. She’s writing pornographic letters to rock-stars, having all the kinds of sex with all kinds of men, and eviscerating bands in reviews of 600 words or less.
But what happens when Johanna realizes she’s built Dolly with a fatal flaw? Is a box full of records, a wall full of posters, and a head full of paperbacks, enough to build a girl after all?
This is a difficult review to write – I have always been a fan of Moran and was one of many women who jumped up on chairs to shout “I AM A FEMINIST” when she tore the book charts apart with the brilliant How to Be A Woman.
In fact, I loved her so much that I was baffled when people told me they didn’t like her. She so encompassed everything I was passionate about that I felt personally affronted, and a little bit like the person making these comments mustn’t be that great a feminist – as if Moran herself was the goddess embodiment of the movement. I defended her against some of my friends accusations that she was “a keyboard warrior”, “unbearably smug” and “just a jumble of annoying facial expressions.”
Moran has come out and said her position in the feminist fight is resolutely sat at a computer writing rather than down on the frontline and I can see how irksome this is (especially to those I know who march and petition and bash down doors), but someone has to write a battle cry. Yes she can come across as a bit “smug” – but for me this is just another example of how women aren’t allowed to be pleased with their life’s work without being seen as showing off and not exhibiting the right amount of girly modesty.
But when it comes to this book, this book I looked forward to for months, that had me dancing around my front room when my B/F bought it home to me, that led to me wondering how many flappy bits of paper I would be inserting into it to mark all the wonder-nuggets within….
“Joy! My fella came home with this beauty last night! I wonder how many flappy bits this one will get…”
….I was disappointed.
If I have read my How To guides correctly, the second rule of writing (after JUST WRITE DAMNIT!) is Write What You Know, and after one biographically-based non-fiction work, one biographically-based sitcom (Raised by Wolves) and now a second biographically-based novel, it is clear that Moran takes this rule very seriously and that to get me to engage with it again, it would have to be something pretty special.
The Author Note can protest all it wants to the contrary, but there is no getting away from the fact this is Moran’s teen years (again) wrapped around a few fictional incidents. The cover even shows a girl kicking her heels in a pair of Moran’s trademark DM boots. Moran’s story is an interesting and funny one – a monumental rise from benefits to bestsellers – but I can’t help wondering if this really is all Moran has to write about?
Before this book came out Twitter exploded in 140 character rage one morning when Moran made this comment to The Bookseller:
“It’s always about teenage boys going off and having amazing adventures. You don’t see teenage girls anywhere unless they’re being bitten by vampires so I wanted to write about a funny, weird teenage girl having adventures, particularly sex adventures.”
This was a bizarrely out of touch statement to make, and my Twitter feed swelled with excellent examples of YA fiction, from readers and writers, which represented funny and fantastic female characters (some that weren’t even interested in sex either, fancy that!). As a former children’s bookseller who mingled with the YA community in one way or the other on a daily basis, I couldn’t believe such an apparently informed person could make such a clanger. To my knowledge Moran never responded to this (please correct me in the comments section if I’m wrong), only to tweak the answer in a later interview to say it was more the dystopian novels she had a problem with:
“It’s so great that there are things like Divergent and The Hunger Games out there, but they’re set in horrible dystopias where a girl has the burden of saving the world.”
As the hashtag #whatcaitlinmoanshouldread will show you, Moran is pretty much dead wrong about this, and her comments make you feel a little like she is being a tad selectively blind.
Also, she can herald this as a new sex-adventure book for teenage girls as much as she likes, it doesn’t change the fact the book has been released for adults. I get that she likes the idea of girls sneakily reading this like my generation sneakily read Jilly Cooper, but if you are so determined to offer something you hope will inspire teenage girls – give it to the teenage girls. I am being cynical here (that’s me breaking the number one Moran rule), but you can’t help thinking that a) deep down Moran knows this story isn’t missing from the YA section and b) that she’d get an awful lot more sales from an adult readership that already loves her.
I’ll agree with her, it is hard to relate to girls existing in dystopian futures (although, bizarrely her own character becomes obsessed with wanking over gothic, satanic imagery so IT IS ok to like vampires and such, but only in a Moran way), but as someone who has struggled with employment in one way or the other since I left uni, the story of a girl walking into a dream job at 16 is pretty hard to relate to. And I don’t think people ignored the lessons of, say, 1984, just because it had an unreal societal setting.
Personally, I would take Katniss and her simmering inner strength over Johanna’s blathering on about sex like a six former at the back of the bus any day. And as this is so clearly Moran’s story, its hard to care about Johanna’s future when you know Moran’s ends up pretty brilliantly. All you do end up with is wondering when Johanna will have sex, and when she does, it is a pretty one-sided affair, something she initially relishes. It takes an uncomf0rtably long time for Moran to redress the balance and stop her character saying stuff about making men come being her job.
This book is also crammed with men and male accomplishment, female bands and writers are mentioned a bit, but most of Johanna’s idols seem to come from a very laddish place. I would have liked Moran to include more examples of creative women for her sneaky teenage audience to discover and be inspired by. Sure, Courtney Love gets a good look-in, but it’s Cobain’s face on the back cover.
It is also a shame that John Kite (the would-be hero of the piece) keeps referring to Johanna as “Duchess”. In my head he kept morphing into Jimmy Saville talking about his mum, and when a book covers older men having sex with a 17-year-old, it felt particularly ugh-some.
“I can’t read anymore of me” Johanna laments on page 311, and by this time, neither could I. This book is testament to the contrived eccentricity of being a teenager and her top hat, name-change and general self-centred awareness becomes pretty grating.
But when Moran drops the narrative in Chapter 24 to offer her own voice and sisterly advice about building and rebuilding yourself, it is brilliant, and a timely reminder of how excellently she can put a point across (even if that point is the same “be yourself-whatever self, or how many selves that is” type of a point that appears in all those other books Moran says don’t exist). It’s just a shame the rest of the book contained such a unrelatable (to me) and slightly annoying character, this felt like the only moment where this became a book about TEENAGERS and not just about ONE TEENAGER.
The potential for something brilliant always bubbles around Moran, but for me this was a lost opportunity.
I would say, there can never be TOO many feminist friendly YA books (and argument Moran SHOULD have made), and its a shame this book will be shelved in the adult fiction section as it would have made a good companion to the likes of Holly Smale and Dawn O’Porter. But as many enraged YA writers will tell you, they just don’t need her.
But I still love Moran, I read How to Be a Woman during a really painful, difficult time and she was like this great towering powerhouse of advice and wit that helped push me through it. I will still read what she writes, as she writes like an astounding dream. I just really, really don’t need to hear this story, or badly pitched arguments about the state of YA, any more.