What’s next for the plagued book publishing business? At a time when the industry is facing unprecedented disruption, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy comes along to makes things more interesting. What lessons can we learn from the success of Fifty Shades? Is it that sex still sells in the not-so-conservative United States? I’d say that’s a given. More interesting is that America may be ready for traditionally-published works of fan fiction.
Fan fiction has always been confined to the fandom communities, and although it was around before the Internet, modern technology has brought about easier, more efficient distribution of fan works, including fan fiction and fan art.
But that all changed when Fifty Shades of Grey, written by E.L. James, was published by a mainstream publisher, Vantage. It was previously published as an ebook by a smaller Australian publisher in 2011. Its roots were in fan fiction—titled Master of the Universe, it was Twilight fan fiction. More specifically, it was Twilight smut fan fiction.
James has since taken down the original Twilight fiction, and has been trying to remove any mention of it from the web. She even went so far as to get the Wayback Machine to remove its snapshots of her previous website.
If you look hard enough, though, you may find a PDF of the original version. In it, you’ll find some nice pieces of prose like this:
Fifty Shades of Grey is nearly identical to Master of the Universe except a change of character names, with Bella and Edward becoming Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. One blogger compared the two with Turnitin, a service used to compare student papers to other student papers. The similarity index, according to Turnitin, was 89%.
In the image to the right, the red is the text that is the same in both pieces.
Despite criticism by professional book reviewers, according to Amazon UK, Fifty Shades of Grey outsold the entire Harry Potter series combined. Because of its explicit sexual details and mostly female fanbase, it has been described as “mommy’s porn.”
And it may just be a pioneer of a new movementAnd it may just be a pioneer of a new movement. Following its success, several other fan fiction pieces have been “reworked”—mostly due to copyright issues—including Beautiful Bastard and Gabriel’s Inferno, both previously Twilight fan fiction pieces. They will now join Fifty Shades on the bookshelves with their porn-without-plot storylines.
I haven’t read Fifty Shades (for obvious reasons), but I’m still amazed by its success. Where did its success come from? People have linked it to the explicit mentions of bondage and fulfilling women’s sexual fantasy, but also word of mouth. Word of mouth was a big factor in the success of Fifty Shades, all because of its origin.
It’s Twilight smut. Fifty Shades of Grey is the epitome of “fan service,” a piece intentionally written to give its audience exactly what they want—in this case, it’s geared toward those on “Team Edward.” Though I don’t know if most Twilight fans wanted to see Edward and Bella in the sexual acts described in the book.
“My characters are my children, I have been heard to say. I don’t want people making off with them, thank you.”
~George R.R. MartinTwilight author Stephenie Meyer told MTV News that Fifty Shades of Grey was “not [her] thing,” but congratulated her on her success. Other authors, however, are not so supportive. George R.R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones series, is opposed to his fans writing fan fiction.
In a blog post, Martin wrote, “My characters are my children, I have been heard to say. I don’t want people making off with them, thank you. Even people who say they love my children. I’m sure that’s true, I don’t doubt the sincerity of that affection, but still…”
Is fan fiction copyright infringement? Some authors think so, and ask fans not to produce fan fiction of their work. Others believe it falls under the “fair use” definition.
Regardless of author consent, fan fiction will continue. We live in a remix culture, as Marc Fenell noted in a 2011 Hungry Beat piece. “So much creativity is built on violating copyright, on reusing, reinterpreting and recombining bits of pop culture,” he says.
If the legal and ethical issues can be overcome, one must wonder if the success of Fifty Shades is evident of a shift in public opinion of what can be considered original art. Fan fiction as a form of literature in its own right is more popular than ever, fueled in recent years by the devotion of fans, and technology.
The pornographic nature of Fifty Shades of Grey has guaranteed that mainstream people will see fan fiction as an extension to porn, but that is not completely true. There are plenty of erotica fan fiction stories, but there are also some good, well written, non-pornographic stories out there (with plots!).
Fifty Shades of Grey has opened up a new door for fan fiction authors to distribute their work. Perhaps it may also ready the public for more traditionally-published fan fiction pieces.