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February 10, 2015

Fifty Shades of Fan Fiction


E L James’ notorious Fifty Shades of Grey series is almost too easy to ridicule. Does that stop me from doing so? Of course not. However, its abundance of editorial issues, coupled with its titillating subject matter, has overshadowed an issue that has serious implications in the book world. In light of the movie’s release, it’s high time to address it.

Unless you are a survivalist living in the woods --- in which case, if you’re reading this, I commend you for having such diverse interests --- you’ve heard of Fifty Shades of Grey. If you haven’t given it much thought, you’ve at least heard it discussed by talk show pundits and writers, comedians and professors, your aunt and your dentist.

They’ve analyzed the relationship at the center of the story, discussed the cultural implications of erotica becoming destigmatized, questioned whether its bewildering popularity is a victory for feminism or a setback. Those issues are all worthy of discussion; however, their buzzword-friendly nature has distracted from one of equal importance: the legitimacy of fan fiction.

Fan fiction is a fascinating and controversial part of pop culture that was once thought of as niche, confined to circles of only the most zealous fans. But now it has been brought out into the open, onto bestseller lists and movie theater screens.  

On one hand, its very existence says something powerful about the relationship between art and audience. And it’s hardly a new phenomenon; writers have been engaging with previously existing works for hundreds of years, in every medium.

THE DIVINE COMEDY is essentially Virgil and Homer fan fiction. In film, West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet (what if there were gangs and singing?). In novels, ULYSSES is THE ODYSSEY (what if it was in Dublin and the Cyclops was a narrow-minded blowhard Citizen?). And in television,“Sons of Anarchy” is Hamlet (what if he was the biker prince of an idyllic small town with a higher murder rate than Detroit?)

Fan fiction, at its essence, is a celebration of storytelling. A fan uses a story he or she loves as inspiration to create something new --- an act that honors the original and creates a lasting communication between art and audience.

The above examples are all Type One fan fiction: They acknowledge their connection to the original and don’t attempt subterfuge; yet they also stand as unique work. They diverge enough from their respective origins that few would even think to ascribe the term to them.

Also because “fan fiction,” as we know it today, often has sexual connotations: It’s become pretty safe to assume it’s just fans writing about previously conceived characters banging each other. But more on that in just a second. The bottom line is, most of those artists wouldn’t appreciate that, though somehow I have a feeling Joyce would smile.

This brings us to the other kind of fan fiction: Type Two, which is an entirely different animal than Type One. (For additional reading on it, click here.) Typically found online, it spins its stories from source material that is largely modern --- meaning, it does not fall under the umbrella of public domain --- using the same world and characters as the original. It’s not quite plagiarism, but it is playing on someone else’s playground and it walks a fine ethical line. As long as the original author consents and it remains not for profit, it doesn’t cross that line. This is not meant to be an indictment of fan fiction; as long as that playground is respected and acknowledged as borrowed property, nothing is wrong.

But then came the one that did cross the line. Thanks to the hullaballoo around Fifty Shades of Grey, Type Two fan fiction has become legitimized and for-profit. To return to the playground analogy, it played on someone else’s playground and left a half-eaten tuna sandwich in the sandbox and vandalized the slide with ineptly drawn graffiti.

When the Fifty Shades franchise made its initial ripple across the ocean of pop culture, it became a whirlpool of hot-button talking points that everyone and their mothers had an opinion about. But I’m not here to resurrect them (though I will say it’s quite impressive that the movie adaptation managed to send the one and only Charlie Hunnam --- the guy who has the biggest thug-swagger in Hollywood and an actual personal weapon collection --- running for the hills). I am also not here to shame you if you read the booksor plan to see the movie. I am here to address its status as Type Two fan fiction.

For anyone who was unaware, Fifty Shades of Grey originated as an online story about Bella and Edward [from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series] banging each other, because why not? And as long as it was only online, it was a big “why not?” Sure, it’s silly, but if it made people happy and the original author had no problem with it; no harm, no foul.

However, then names were changed and it was published legitimately. Fifty Shades of Grey is Twilight  with a few minor details changed and sex thrown in. Its fan fiction roots have been mentioned mostly as a punch line, but the silliness of its origin distracts from the seriousness: It was and still is wildly successful; everyone ran out and bought it; every talk show host came up with cracks about it; and nobody sued E L James.  

Now, I’m not a lawyer; I can only assume enough was changed to evade legal ramifications (apparently changing a Native American guy named Jacob into a Hispanic guy named José and exchanging fangs for floggers is sufficient). I’m also not a diehard fan of Twilight who is offended by Fifty Shades out of loyalty to the original. Nor do I disparage erotica as a genre. But I am someone who values stories and art of all kinds --- just as I assume anyone reading this is. Hopefully, then, we can agree that passing off a version of another work as your own original work is a trespass and a violation.

It doesn’t matter whether the source material is highbrow or lowbrow, or whether you even enjoyed it. In many ways, thissituation is all the more interesting because the original was not exactly universally regarded as Great Art. But whatever you think of Twilight --- whether you love it, hate it, or feel indifferent to it --- is irrelevant to the larger picture of the insidious road this paves.

People have found many reasons to be offended by Fifty Shades --- for once Christian groups and kink lifestyle groups are united in outrage at the same thing! --- but the creative trespass is what I believe is truly offensive.

For people who find the writing offensive, yes, it is indeed a level of bad that makes you disheartened with humanity. But it’s hardly the first poorly written bestseller. For people who find the relationship offensive, yes, it does indeed romanticize stalking, and yes, the character Christian Grey is a laughable fantasy. But people are certainly entitled to find a fantasy valid or have fantasies that aren’t PC. However, it’s not every day that Type Two fan fiction gets published as original work.

But maybe it will be --- it may not have had legal ramifications, but it certainly has ramifications in the book world. Already, more online fan fictions are getting published legitimately. What does this mean for the future? That’s why this matters; that’s why you should care even if you couldn’t care less about Twilight or Fifty Shades. Its publication and popularity have set a potentially disturbing precedent.

And if you are an innocent, non line-crossing writer of Type Two fan fiction, who acts solely out of pure fanly love, the Fifty Shades phenomenon may hurt you, too, as authors will certainly now think twice about giving you consent.

So debate all you want about whether the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey signifies progress or a setback for feminism or for the mainstreaming of alternate lifestyles --- it’s certainly a setback for storytelling.

To end on a positive note, here is some Type One fan fiction --- stories that honor the original and stand as unique work:

The original: HAMLET 

FANGIRL by Rainbow Rowell
The original: Harry Potter 

SONG OF ACHILLES by Madeline Miller
The original: THE ILIAD 

THE MAGICIANS by Lev Grossman
The original: The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter 


THE GREAT NIGHT by Chris Adrian

The original: SPIDERMAN