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Fifty Shades of Pissed Off

I'm probably not going to rant about what you expect. It's pretty standard these days for struggling writers who haven't scored their first novel publication yet to go off on bitter, venomous screeds about, for example, Stephanie Meyer or E.L. James and how damn unfair it is that obviously I can string words together in a superior way so where are my millions and by the way I've figured out that stalking isn't love and ARGH.


Whatever. Whether it's true or not when someone complains about quality of writing and cringe-worthy plot elements, it all comes out sounding like sour grapes anyway, just waiting to be crafted into the finest whine. (See what I did there?)


Actually, I've got a much more specific problem with Fifty Shades of Grey that has nothing to do with writing quality. In all honesty I don't know what the writing is like in that book and I have no intention of ever finding out, because dental surgery sounds more appetizing to me than vampire BDSM erotica. But you know. Whatever floats your boat.


My problem begins and ends with the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey started as fanfiction.


I wrote fanfiction for years before I ever started writing my own original work in any kind of serious way. Hell, I still write fanfiction today in the rare moments I have spare time. (This is me, side-eyeing that unfinished Avengers fanfic that's staring at me accusingly from the internet.) I still meet people online who remember me from my days of writing Gundam Wing fanfic where Duo murders the shit out of vampires with a narrative flair lovingly borrowed from Laurel K. Hamilton.


This is the thing about fanfiction. You do it because you love someone else's story. It's a way for fans to have a conversation with someone else's art, and for that art to answer back. Fanfiction did amazing things for me. It taught me how to write dialog and how to put together a plot that could span 80K words and still keep people interested.  It's awesome and fun and a magical way to waste time that you really ought to be using to, say, study for your oceanic geochemistry final because your brain has just melted.


But always, always, always you are in communication with someone else's art.


Someone else already did the hard work for you. They created the story, the world, and characters that, rightly or wrongly, people like and give a shit about. They worked their ass off to create a base of fans who are now predisposed to seek out and like what you write because they loved the original. Even if you're writing a complete alternate universe, you are still dipping your toe in a pool that some other person built for you.


At its most basic, it isn't yours.


And that right there is the thing that just pisses me off about Fifty Shades of Grey. Changing the character names and doctoring the details so that they're no longer a match doesn't do anything to alter the fact that the story involved borrowing someone else's ideas and playing 'what if?' with them. And at the point you're making money off of those ideas, you're no longer borrowing them - you're stealing them.


Back in my Gundam Wing days, I actually had a couple of people who really liked my stories suggest that I either just throw them on Lulu (uh, no, I don't want to get sued if someone notices) or alter them a bit for plausible deniability and self-publish. I never took those suggestions seriously, even though I probably could have done it fairly easily. Hey, that's what a global find and replace is for, isn't it? But it wasn't right. The characters weren't mine. The concepts weren't mine. And I knew that tarting them up a bit wouldn't change anything because what was in my head when I wrote the stories wasn't from me.


But Rachael, you ask, what about things like Laurie R King's Mary Russell novels? Or you would if you were some kind of creepy stalker who had broken into my house and observed my bookshelves for a few minutes. Obviously, I'm okay with what is basically fanfiction of Sherlock Holmes being published for profit. I'm okay with things like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.


This is the difference, and I think it's an important one. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is dead. Jane Austen is dead. They've both been gone for a long time, and are obviously no longer capable of creating their own stories with their own characters, let alone be financially hurt by someone grabbing their coattails and going for a ride. Frankly, it's been long enough since those works were created that there's even an interesting question if modern writers can even add to work because perspectives have changed significantly. And of course, those issues are entirely separate from works that are still under copyright, but are used with permission of the author or estate.


As someone who hopes to have novel credits to her name some day in the near future, the commercial success of Fifty Shades of Grey both infuriates and scares the shit out of me. The success of someone else wouldn't necessarily diminish my own (in this case purely hypothetical) success, but it's still, to put it bluntly, unfair.


But really, that pales in comparison to my utter fury as someone who writes fanfiction. As fans, the contract we make with creators is that if they're nice and let us play with their toys, we'll give them back in good condition. We admit and revel in the fact that we are playing in someone else's sandbox. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, Fifty Shades of Grey is a betrayal of what writing fanfic is supposed to be about.


Legal technicalities aside, arguments about just how much resemblance to Twilight is too much aside, that is the issue. There's plenty of fanfiction out there that bears only a passing resemblance to the work upon which it is based. But normally, the writers have the integrity to admit that their jumping off point wasn't something that came from within them, and thus it's not right to try to capitalize on it. It's cheating.


With how successful Fifty Shades of Grey has been, I won't be surprised if we see more people taking fanfiction and trying to rewrite it into something with at least a veneer of originality. I've never been good at guessing the future, so I'm not going to make any sweeping predictions about how this could change things for fanfiction in general. The communities of fans who share their enthusiasm and stories are so enormous that global or fast change seems highly unlikely. But it does make me sad regardless, because the entire endeavor feels so much less innocent now.


...which I suppose is only fitting since we're talking something that was originally BDSM porn fanfiction.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 20th, 2012 03:46 am (UTC)
I raise my glass to you. I agree completely. I didn't know the books were fanfiction until I read the article in EW. I, too, have no desire to read them and never read the fanfiction it was derived from as I detest Twilight for so many literary and personal reasons. But I have no doubt that we will see more of this. There are so many extremely talented fanfiction writer like your self who have worked very hard at getting a foot into the publishing door. I wouldn't be suprised if more people attempted to take that authors path to financial gain.
May. 24th, 2012 03:09 am (UTC)
I'd been steering clear of the whole thing until Alithea pointed out that it was fanfiction once and then my head just EXPLODED with rage. If nothing else, it's such a sleazy way to try to tap into a ready-made audience. Which... fine, but ffs it's not like the author had permission of the original owner to do that. I'm really stunned this is not a flat-out scandal.
May. 20th, 2012 03:48 am (UTC)
Thank you. This articulates the problem I have with that book much more clearly than I have been able to. I've seen parts of Supernatural fandom discussing it and the consensus I've witnessed is that it's a good thing that this type of erotic fiction is reaching a wider audience (I did mention that this is Supernatural fandom having this discussion, right? :P) but that it's unfortunate that such a relatively lacklustre specimen is the one to introduce the genre to mainstream. In all of that discussion, there was some argument over whether it should have been allowed, but that concern seemed trumped by the merits of getting BDSM erotica published, like it's some kind of trailblazer, which I suppose it is. I just feel like that kind of thing should take a backseat to the pretty serious breach of the honour system we had going here.
May. 24th, 2012 03:07 am (UTC)
Exactly! I mean, feelings on erotica being mainstreamed (and they're making it into a movie? AHAHAHA RIGHT.) I've been stunned that more people haven't been up in arms about that. Or who knows, maybe there are a lot of fanfic writers now eyeballing their old stories and considering the possibilities. Which is a depressing thought.
May. 23rd, 2012 01:03 am (UTC)
I saw this and thought of you. I actually sorta know Jennifer Armintrout as a friendly online acquaintance, and she's pretty awesome. http://jenniferarmintrout.blogspot.com/2012/04/50-shades-of-grey-chapter-one-or-why.html
May. 24th, 2012 03:06 am (UTC)
Haha, looks funny. But argh, I don't know if I want to get even that close to the cursed book...
May. 24th, 2012 02:06 pm (UTC)
I find these pretty fun. I didn't even mean to get sucked in, since I haven't even read the book, nor do I intend to. And while people like to say things they dislike are terribly written, this one really is. All the sentences are choppy, and she uses the wrong words for lots of things. Accidentally attached a main character's description to his tie.

Do you ever read ginmar? She's full of feminist rants, and frequent fiction rants. She has it in for this series lately as well. And she's into zombies and werewolves and Buffy and The Hunger Games. You might like her.
May. 25th, 2012 01:37 am (UTC)
It's like MST3K/rifftrax, but the nice thing about those is that they only last two hours no matter how painful the movie is. >.>

I'll check her out.
May. 24th, 2012 05:41 pm (UTC)
You know, after thinking it over for a while Fifty Shades of Grey actually sounds like a Twilight meets Secretary crossover/mashup. I'm just saying. Of course not having even read an excerpt from Fifty Shades of Grey I could be completely wrong.
May. 24th, 2012 05:44 pm (UTC)
On other thoughts this hardly the first piece of erotica to reach mainstream status though it is probably the first to hit such amzing numbers. I think The Story of O and East of Eden hit the mainstream radars first.
May. 25th, 2012 01:33 am (UTC)
I really like Secretary, so that thought makes me SO SAD.
May. 25th, 2012 01:46 am (UTC)
Me too, which made me a little more angry than I needed to be once I jumped on that train. But the name of the boss is even Mr. Grey so... how much of a coincidence can it be. Stupid, stupid rat creatures. >_<
May. 26th, 2012 12:37 am (UTC)
...ugh. That's just even worse. It makes me feel stabby all over again.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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