Dolly Wilde, the heroine of Times columnist Caitlin Moran’s third novel How to Be Famous, is an alter ego twice over. Firstly, and most overtly, she’s the drinking, partying, devil-may-care persona of teen music journalist Johanna Morrigan, who in Moran’s earlier novel How to Build a Girl moved from depressed Wolverhampton to London in search of fame and fortune. In How to Be Famous, Johanna/Dolly, now well-established in the music scene, befriends a fierce feminist singer named Suzanne, attempts to deal with the fact that her father is spending much of his time stoned in her London flat, and faces some good old-fashioned 90s chauvinism when a jilted comedian releases a sex tape in an act of revenge.
Less obviously – but not much less obviously – Dolly is also a stand-in for Moran herself. Like Johanna, Moran grew up on benefits in Wolverhampton and left for London to pursue a career in music journalism at the age of 18. She claims, nevertheless, that How to Build a Girl and How to Be Famous are not autobiographical – a claim that might be more convincing if Johanna’s voice were not so relentlessly polemical. How to Be Famous does have some trenchant (if not particularly original) things to say about feminism, but the way that it says them is declamatory and didactic: there are whole passages (including a series of articles Dolly writes about teenage fannishness) that could come straight from one of Moran’s columns.
It has to be said that this isn’t wholly aesthetically ineffective: Moran’s a well-paid writer for a reason, and her prose is rhetorically well-structured, with a strong ear for rhythm and sound. Too, Johanna is an attractively adventurous character, her fanciful gothpunk facade concealing highly relatable feelings of insecurity and anxiety. But nowhere is it subtle; and even in her insecurity Johanna is somehow too easy a character, a stereotypical Heroine Facing the Forces of Misogyny. How to Be Famous is a fun enough read, but as a study of sexism historical and contemporary it doesn’t quite satisfy: I’d like more nuance, more care and, most pressingly, more intersectionality.