This YA Novel Explores Queer Fantasies And Boy Band Fandoms
Zan Romanoff’s Grace And The Fever opens a space for alternate YA futures.
For years, a One Direction conspiracy theory has divided the notoriously fervent fandom into two camps: believers and nonbelievers. On Tumblr blogs and Twitter accounts, a rabid portion of the fan base is invested in perpetuating the rumor that singer Harry Styles and ex-bandmate Louis Tomlinson are dating and they’re both involved in an elaborate ruse to conceal the affair from the public. Fans do everything in their power to prove this theory, even photoshopping pictures of Tomlinson’s infant child to attempt to demonstrate that it’s not his.
It’s this level of community-based crowdsourced sleuthing that inspired Grace and the Fever, a young adult novel by Zan Romanoff that has already been ordered for a second reprinting after its first week of sales. In Grace and the Fever, the protagonist, Grace, is a Tumblr-running superfan of a One Directionesque boy band called Fever Dream. When she encounters Fever Dream’s lead singer in real life, Grace embarks on a mission to prove a suspicion she’s harbored for years: that two of the band members are in a romantic relationship with each other.
“The next frontier of conspiracy theories are of teenage girls who love pop music,” Romanoff tells me over the phone. She has spent hours on Tumblr reading fan theories about the members of the boys in One Direction. “It’s all Tumblr now.”
As Harry Styles recently told Rolling Stone, it’s teen girls who decide what’s cool. “How can you say young girls don’t get it?" Styles said about his audience. “They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage girl fans—they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.”
Romanoff also believes in the validity of teenage experiences and their power to change which narratives get attention. “I was reading the posts of people who were in fandom. I'm thinking about their experiences, and about my experiences loving Hanson when I was younger.” As a devout Hanson fan, Romanoff raised herself on fan fiction about the band. When she started reading about Harry Styles vis-à-vis Taylor Swift, she recalled her own childhood, and the adolescence she spent in front of that blue startup screen, waiting to log on and read the subversively feminist stories about her favorite cute boys. “I was obsessed with it and telling myself that I was doing research for the book, but also, I was becoming a huge One Direction fan.”
And so Grace and the Fever was born, a novel that Romanoff wrote in just two months: a real fever dream. Surprisingly, for a book about boy bands, it passes the Bechdel test and then some: there’s no marriage plot to resolve the conflict between Grace and her love interest. Instead, Grace’s relationships with her online fandom friends are where the real romance exists. Her novel insists on two things: that connection can be born of an internet connection and that love is not all frivolous and hetero. Instead, Grace and the Fever prioritizes queer love—between two members of the novel’s boy band—as the most compelling driving force of its world’s pop music.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]We don't have an accepted vocabulary for talking about what it feels like to desire men’s bodies, like, ‘Are you a breast man or an ass man?’[/quote]
Young adult fiction is a genre defined by melodrama: divorce, cancer, and suicide are so common as plot devices that they’re reliable tropes. However, for a genre that traffics in raw emotion, its demographics are notably limited. Young adult protagonists—the ones in the popular love stories that get sweet New York Times best-seller shine, at least—are frequently white and straight. They fall in love with the monster (Twilight). They fall in love and they have cancer (The Fault in Our Stars). Or they fall in love too late (Thirteen Reasons Why). But teens, as authors popularize them, never seem to be in love with what’s outside of the mainstream. While these novels might have queer or nonwhite characters on the periphery, it’s rare that the plot hinges on their stories.
In real life, teenage life is undoubtedly governed by the dramas of identity: race, sexual orientation, gender, and the nexus at which these issues often intersect. Teenagers often gravitate toward subculture; they buck what their parents like and they crave what’s new. So what do you do if your narrative is missing from the dominant culture?
Easy. You make it up.
Enter the fandom. The digital age has made fan fiction easier than ever, so much so that it bleeds into real life, becoming the stuff of political conspiracies. Fans commit to theories about their idols much harder than you’ve ever seen anyone preach about why the moon landing was fake. For Romanoff, the power of the queer conspiracy theory was powerful enough to be a compelling plot for her novel.
Author Zan Romanoff. Photo by Describe the Fauna.
She’s careful not to posture her novel as an emblem of queer culture. “I know that a lot of people in fandom feel really frustrated by the way in which it gets sort of pigeonholed,” she explains, “Now it's often straight white women like me who are speaking for it.”
Still, the existence of a queer relationship as the linchpin of a young adult novel helps “shift the focus” to other divergent narratives. In this way, Romanoff’s novel—like other great YA novels—gives young people a chance to explore their potential realities through fiction, in ways that haven’t been described to them yet. In 13 Reasons Why, we shift the focus to suicide and mental illness through an unrealized romantic relationship. In Everything Everything, biracial identity is not the primary conflict in a romance between two teens, one of whom suffers from a debilitating illness. And in Grace and the Fever, an imagined affair between two young men allows young fans to sublimate their own search for identity into a fantasy relationship. For the rest of us—adults, that is—this means turning to youth culture to access alternate possibilities for our own narratives.
For Romanoff, the innocuous thirst of boy band fans was an access point for a larger conversation. “One of the things I think is interesting about it is the idea that there's not a real cultural conversation around what it feels like to desire men's bodies,” explains Romanoff. “We don't have an accepted vocabulary for talking about that kind of stuff, like, ‘Are you a breast man or an ass man?’ Right? Like no one's ever asked me, ‘Are you a shoulders man or a forearms man?’ You know? I've had to develop that vocabulary!”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]There are ways of engaging with the dominant culture without buying what you're being sold.[/quote]
As Romanoff explains it, fandom is “about opening up space” just as “queerness is about opening up space.” Shouldn’t all YA be about opening up space for self-discovery? Romanoff hopes so, as many of us do. We look to young people to help us realize and save ourselves. “There are ways of engaging with the dominant culture without buying what you're being sold,” Romanoff says. When you don’t buy the product, you reimagine it. If fantasies become our reality, then we can look to YA for different versions of the future. After all, what in YA can’t be solved by love?