“How To Build a Girl” by Caitlin Moran

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There’s a moment about three quarters of the way through columnist and British feminist heroine Caitlin Moran’s debut novel as an adult (she wrote her first as a teenager) where Moran’s fictional stand-in Johanna realises that the older man she has been romantically involved with is taking advantage of her, and she is seen as a joke by his circle of friends. It’s a surprisingly raw moment that brings a much needed dose of realism to the tale, and one that epitomises the cruel paradox that often comes with being a teenage girl. This one moment is emotional, relatable and a demonstration of Moran’s potential as a storyteller.

Unfortunately, it’s surrounded by 335 or so other pages of obnoxiousness, laboured jokes and the full house of Caitlin Moran Bingo.

To offer a full disclaimer, I am not a fan of Moran’s previous work. She is skilled as a writer at times, capable of evocative imagery and real pathos, but she has a habit of falling back on the stylistic choices of perpetual adolescence and an overwhelming belief that everything she says and thinks is not only hilarious but 100% right. Hearing the news that she would be writing a novel (and the subsequent slams of YA she made in the process) piqued my interest, if only because I wanted to see if Moran were capable of moving outside of her overused bag of tricks.

If this is any evidence, she’s not capable.

On top of writing this, Moran’s memoir-cum-feminist tract (with a hefty dose of bigotry) How To Be a Woman discussed her childhood as part of a large family on a Wolverhampton council estate with a jobbing musician father at length. Her life and past features prominently in her weekly column for The Times, and she even co-wrote a television show inspired by her childhood with her sister, entitled Raised By Wolves. The novel she wrote as a teenager seems to lift a lot from her childhood too. Writers are taught to “write what you know” but it seems to be the only lesson Moran ever cared to learn, and the disclaimer offered before the novel starts that the following events are not based on her life ring hollow. There are large chunks of this story that feel as if they were lifted directly from her memoir, including overused capslock and styling everything as a list. It’s not just boring, it’s exhausting.

Everything from Moran’s well told life story is here – the large, rambunctious family on a Wolverhampton council estate who are short of money but big on weird jokes, a father who works (or in this case doesn’t work) in the music industry, the Moran stand-in winning a writing competition, changing her name and leaving school to go off to write for a music magazine… If you remember it from How To Be a Woman, chances are it’s all here. This is just Moran’s second memoir. Even the cover draws attention to that, with the Doc Martens, Moran’s shoe of choice (she doesn’t wear heels because they’re a beacon for rapists, apparently). As such, this means there’s very little for the reader to invest in. Why bother doing that when we know how Moran’s own life worked out?

I agree with Moran politically on a lot. Thatcher was awful. She sucked the working classes dry, and the welfare system in Great Britain is class shaming and unnecessarily cruel. These are things I believe to be true. There are ways to incorporate that into the story without stopping the already lagging pacing stone dead to have a character essentially turn to the reader and say, “Hi, I’m Caitlin Moran, and I’d like to talk to you about what it’s like to live on benefits”. It’s jarring and ultimately comes across as patronising. Trust your readers.

There also seems to be a serious lack of non-white people in 1990s Wolverhampton and London. I wonder if Moran literally couldn’t give a shit about that.

Johanna (later Dolly Wilde), is looking back on her life as the narrator yet there’s no difference between 14-17 year old Johanna’s voice and that of her presumably older counterpart. The prose is simultaneously immature and a painfully contrived attempt at an authentic teen voice, each line seemingly overwritten and yet rushed at the same time. Jokes come thick and fast but seldom land a punchline because they’ve clearly been overthought and feel like too much of an effort. It’s understandable and indeed somewhat admirable to have a female teenage protagonist who wholeheartedly embraces her burgeoning sexuality yet her constant masturbatory fantasies feel written by committee, as if a bunch of writers sat around a table and thought ‘What would be really funny to have a teenager wank off to?’

Her journey of self-discovery, which comes to a conclusion with the Disney friendly “Be yourself and remember where you’re from” mantra, has some funny moments but stumbles time after time due to sloppy prose and a desperate attempt by the author to remind everyone of how funny and interesting she is. This inconsistency in tone and intent means that moments where pathos are supposed to come are left dangling awkwardly, such as Johanna’s brief moment of self-harming, a moment mishandled so spectacularly, I’m amazed it made it past her editor. It doesn’t help that every other character in the book is either a non-entity or a Moran clone.

There’s a moment where Johanna/Moran offers a long reflection on cynicism and how damaging it is. What is supposed to be a rallying cry for optimism and joy against “thick black carapace” of cynicism instead points out everything that is wrong with this novel. John Crace’s Digested Read of the novel declared it to be an example of “How to build a brand”, and that is exactly what this, and Moran’s entire career is. She is the operator of an assembly line that takes her life and makes products out of it to be sold and used as cheap inspiration repeatedly, selling herself as a commodity. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and she’s hardly the first writer to do so, but her lack of consistent skill combined with the most obvious recycling of the same old stuff this side of a Transformers sequel becomes galling, especially when it’s sold as optimism. There’s nothing optimistic about this irritating and lazily constructed product.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great review! Personally, I’ve always found Moran to be irritating. A writer that believes what she says is always 100% right and hilarious. She reminds me of a girl I knew at school who insisted on having her voice heard even when people didn’t want to hear it. Very much overhyped.

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