Yet more thoughts on fanfiction: E. L. James and Fifty Shades of Grey

Ilona Andrews drew my attention to the phenomenon that is FSOG and I couldn’t help but dive face first into the trainwreck.

That review by lazaruspaste is truly amusing on top of being edifying, by the way, and I love her voice.

It was infuriating. I wanted to scratch my eyes out or maybe the characters’. I’m not really sure. At one point, I had to start drinking heavily. But even gin didn’t dull the fury.

I know, I know; the ease at which I get TWS is truly horrifying. It’s almost like norovirus — somehow, sometimes, despite how many times you might get it, your immune system never quite develops full resistance to it.

(Here’s another funny summary of the highlights of FSOG from Read|React|Review in list form, for those of you who might want to read this after seeing the trainwreck. Bonus! Drinking game from Livingbyfiction that’s hysterical. )

There’s a bit of a kerfuffle going on about the fact that FSOG’s previous incarnation was a fanfiction of Twilight called Master Of The Universe.

MoTU was one of the most popular series on ff.net, a repository for free fan fiction. During the height of its popularity, an auction for the series raised $30,000. The author appeared on a fan fiction panel at the 2010 ComicCon and attended a three day conference in DC thrown by her fans.

There’s a lot of divided opinion on the matter and I’ve spent the better part of the night trying to figure out where I stand on the matter.

Jami Gold’s assessment of the situation:

Beyond what’s legal or illegal as far as copyright, trademark, fair use, or derivative vs. transformative works, fanfic authors owe a debt of thanks to the original creator (after all, without the original work, the fanfic author wouldn’t have been inspired to use that as a jumping-off point). And in return, I believe a fanfic author should never exploit the characters, setting, world—or the original author’s brand or fan loyalty—for their own gain.

I believe that if someone chose to invest their time, energy, and heart into doing something, they deserve to be paid for it. I’ve said it before and I’ll said it again now: everything’s been done before, somewhere, somehow, countless endless times.

This follows that I believe that people should be allowed to be paid for fanfiction, yes?

Correct.

After all, Wicked, and Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies are pretty much fanfictions that are capitalizing off of their established fanbases.

It’s true that they are considered parodies, but I think that line is sometimes a bit too indistinct. It’s not enough of a hard line that I’m ready to pass judgement on someone just because they’re playing in someone else’s sandbox.

Some defenses of James that I don’t find relevant to what I find problematic about the situation but feel I should address because I don’t want them to pop up as strawman arguments:

Trojanwalls comments that:

Recently I found one of my favourite authors posting her opinion on a book that she admits she barely read - ‘Would FSOG be as successful without Twilight?  Probably not.  It’s definitely cashing in on the Twilight fandom’s desire for nookie between beloved characters.’ – probably because she read other people posting similar opinions on their blogs. Maybe they are right, maybe I missed something – but it seems wrong to judge a book by its biased reviews which is what she seems to have done.

My reaction to that is, if James truly thought that her work could stand on its own feet, then she wouldn’t have put it up as fanfiction. Also, something that DA and Smart Bitches lambastes in quite the way lazaruspastes did is unlikely to surprise me in terms of quality.

Pavarti K Tyler, on pull-to-publish fanfiction (I don’t think she’s explicitly talking about MOTU, but these arguments have been used in defense of MOTU being published) :

But what about some of the stuff I wrote that really wasn’t based on them. What about the original fiction I was writing that I plugged their names into just so I could put it out there. I didn’t have the balls to self-publish it then, would it be wrong to pull and publish it now?

Again, if James didn’t have the balls to throw her baby out there and have it judged on its own merits, then it shouldn’t be an issue that people are complaining that she’s capitalizing off Meyer’s fame. Either it’s OF or it’s FF, make up your mind. Everything has a price, and you’re staring right at it. This is vaguely related to my actual beef with her, but I wanted to clarify that the names were never the problem.

What specific issues do I have with James?

I feel like she cheated and that she’s a bit morally suspect for her actions.

I’m not even going to go into chat transcripts that imply she only went into the Twihard fanfiction world just to drum up a fanbase so she could get catapulted into fame.

“Well don’t tell anyone – I have visions of being interviewed by Time Magazine for revolutionizing publishing…”

“I have done it as a sort of exercise.. to see if I could … and I think I have proven that I can… I now want to capitalize on it…”

“I have to say I do not feel as passionately as you do about the fandom”

“it’s like the old groucho marx joke which I cant remember about not wanting to belong to a club that you’re a member of…”

even when you publish it on amazon, theres still gonna be negativity “true… but I’m sure it’s easier to take with a big fat paycheck LOL”

What I really despise is that I feel like she’s gamed the system for her own benefit and it reflects extremely poorly on the rest of us, writer or fanficcer alike.

I feel that Wicked and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies were likely held up to a higher standard because they had to overcome the stigma of being derivative works. They are also open and upfront about being derivative, which is actually a mark in their favor.

In my opinion, James took something that could have been an Original Fiction (OF) and essentially springboarded her work by branding it as Twilight fanfiction. Then, as far as I can tell, she took her work, which was available for free, as soon as she figured out that she could capitalize on it, and stripped it of all identifying tags and published it for her own profit.

So she’s cheating by gaining a built-in fanbase, by bypassing the slushpiles (virtual or otherwise) using the knowledge that fans will read almost anything in their desire to get more of their crack, by using fans as free sounding boards and critique partners, and finally she’s cheating Meyers of whatever advertising she could have provided through her fanfiction.

KimmyDonn also makes a very good point when she says:

You wrote a great fanfiction ‘novel.’ That’s great! Wonderful! You have readers and reviewers ready and eager for your next work. Don’t just give them redressed left-overs. Put that practice piece aside. Give it the place it deserves as a lesson learned and start your new and completely original idea. If you’re worried about losing those fans in the meantime, tell them what you’re doing. You might redress ‘left-overs’ in the form of out-takes from your completed story to keep them checking your page. Tack on a teaser from your Work-In-Progress to whet their appetites, and then, give them what they really want – something original.

Yes, it’s also a bit suspect when you take something that was originally **free** and repackage it for sale, even with significant overhaul.

Every person’s first novel, or heck, their second novel is essentially a trial to see if they have the chops to make it. Not only has James slunk past the starting line by advertising her work as FF, but she’s not even really respecting her fans or Meyers by putting her first novel up as sort of a tribute, something to give back to what inspired her and gave her what’s now her fanbase. I feel like she had the change to take the classy route and she utterly gave it up and rolled around in the muck.

 

4 Responses to “Yet more thoughts on fanfiction: E. L. James and Fifty Shades of Grey”

  1. Thene

    I believe that if someone chose to invest their time, energy, and heart into doing something, they deserve to be paid for it.

    I guess the unspoken clause here is that the something in question is marketable and people want to spend money on it.

    I’ve not dug too deep into this trainwreck myself but from my POV it seems much like a fuss over nothing. ‘Cheating’ in the world of publishing & marketing books seems moot to me, given how many people use personal connections to get published. Using ‘AU fic’ as a frame for test-driving a story and getting people to like it (and therefore getting the energy to finish it) doesn’t seem like a big deal to me – and I will say that this; “fans will read almost anything in their desire to get more of their crack, by using fans as free sounding boards and critique partners” – isn’t true, as every fic writer who’s ever slaved in the dark knows. Not everyone gets noticed in fandom, especially not a huge fandom like Twilight – getting noticed in fandom isn’t a fair game either but one has to be competent and one usually has to be writing something that’s marketable by fandom’s standards (sexy, emotionally gratifying, and some good one-liners don’t hurt (even if they’re not original to you (hello cassandra clare))).

    Also, free things becoming available for sale doesn’t strike me as unusual when it comes to getting published. David Wong pulled the free version of John Dies At The End off the internet under the terms of its third publishing deal. If a writer deserves money for their efforts sometimes they have to play ball to get it.

    tl;dr there are no rules. I do wonder how much simpler this would all be if the public domain was still what it used to be; that way fans could just wait out the clock, and anything over 28 years old would be fair game, and our culture would be better all around. There are several large fandoms based on public domain works (eg. Arthurian fandom, Sherlock Holmes fandom, RO3K fandom, Austen fandom as you mentioned) and I kind of hate seeing them analysed in a different way to other fandoms when it’s all one world really.

  2. kyrias

    Oh thene, you know how conflicted and messy my thoughts on this tend to be. :D

    I’m going to devolve into in-coherency soon, I feel, because I don’t want it to come across as “omg I hate her because she succeeded”, because it’s truly not. I also spent more than 5 hours thinking about this the other day and then a chunk more than that drafting this post out and I don’t even know where my lines are anymore. :D

    It’s a confluence of Bad Things, such as the stripping of names that painted it as a fanfiction, yet still retaining the characteristics of the characters that resonated with that crowd; the non-editing that went on when she P2ped; etc etc etc. There was a side-by-side comparison of the characters of FSOG and Twilight and it does appear that the personalities have been lifted whole-sale. I don’t mind people getting paid off fanfiction. I don’t mind people using fen as a springboard. I kinda do mind when you do this and then turn around and claim it as OF.

    I do not deny that James must be a mostly-competent writer. Certainly she knows how to play to her audience’s likes and dislikes. My question is simply: “How many fans would she have on her own if she started this out as OF? If you really thought it would run under its own weight as OF, then why would you start it off as FF?”

    Again, I have no problem with fanfiction authors being paid for their work. But this is murky ground in which it’s neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring. It can’t be FF because James and her fen say it ain’t, except for the Twi-fen who say it is Twi-FF. It can’t be OF because it started out as FF and hasn’t undergone enough revisions to strip it of all characteristics that remind one of Twilight. What is then?

  3. Thene

    There was a side-by-side comparison of the characters of FSOG and Twilight and it does appear that the personalities have been lifted whole-sale. I don’t mind people getting paid off fanfiction. I don’t mind people using fen as a springboard. I kinda do mind when you do this and then turn around and claim it as OF.

    You seem to be declaring that the Twilight characters are original :)

    I’ve never read Twilight so can’t comment on either the originality of its characters or how far derived the FSOG characters are from it; from this distance I was just kind of assuming that both fulfil some preexisting cookie-cutter romantic trope dynamic that tons of people are already primed to like. A lot of fic does this anyway (and sometimes gets criticised for it) and as I understand it this is AU fic, right? ie. not using any sparklepire fantasy elements that are original to Meyer? At this point we’re getting into the question of how original any character portrayal is, and also how much original content any individual fic writer adds to the basis. I love fandoms where there’s a lot of different portrayals being played out rather than one ‘IC’ dogma.

    Without any intention of passing it off as OF, I did once write a 20k fusion fanfic that didn’t mention either of the two main character’s names. :) fyi, there’s a delightful phrase Fly uses for this kind of fiddling; ‘fic with the serial numbers filed off’. It seems most common in action/thriller novels rather than romance. I wouldn’t consider doing it with any of the work I’ve ever done thus far but not on moral grounds; it simply wouldn’t work because I like leaning on canon contexts for stuff. If I wasn’t leaning on canon for plot/setting/mechanics, and I was using extensive amounts of characterisation that I’d come up with myself? You never know.

    “How many fans would she have on her own if she started this out as OF? If you really thought it would run under its own weight as OF, then why would you start it off as FF?” For the instantly gratifying attention, I figure. If she’d been planning a career from the start she would never have done it that way.

  4. kyrias

    I think you’re being rather more optimistic than I am about it, but since neither of us know her well, then the point is non-debatable by us.

    As for Twilight having **original characters** — I’d hardly go that far. But Camaro says it better than I can:


    I do have to say that I find the reasoning of the people who claim that these books have “nothing, absolutely NOTHING to do with Twilight” quite naive. I read FSoG knowing that the book used to be Twific and I could definitely tell. I recognized the Twilight ensemble of characters quite easily, hell I recognize a LOT of other things quite easily. It is surprising that at this point no one (that I know of) has bothered to really connect the dots and prove how the stories are similar. Seems like the logical thing to do. This is my humble attempt as I am tired of people not seeing it for whatever reason.

    - both Edward and Christian were adopted.
    - both Edward and Christian have a deep, dark, dangerous secret that no one is privy to, except for the heroine and by extension us
    - both Edward and Christian are rich and more sophisticated than the heroine
    - Although I find that their personalities do have differences, both Christian and Edward have stalker tendencies and are domineering
    - Both Edward and Christian have reddish/bronze tinted hair
    - Both Edward and Christian give the heroine a car (can someone please reconfirm this on the Twilight side, been a while since I read Twilight)
    - Both Edward and Christian are piano-players (a little detail I found fascinating while reading FSoG until I rediscovered it was derived from Twilight)
    - Both Edward and Christian have a loving supportive adoptive family comprised of Carrick/Carlisle (the father), Grace/Esme (the mother), Elliot/Emmet (the brother), Mia/Alice (the sister). The remaining two members of the ensemble, Jasper and Rosalie discussed below.
    -Jasper and Rosalie/ Ethan and Kate in FSoG. Rosalie and Kate are both blonde, beautiful and a high contrast to Bella. Kate and Elliot end up together as a couple which is reminiscent of them also being a couple in Twilight (Rose and Emmet).
    - Jasper and Alice are a couple in Twilight, Ethan from FSoG ends up setting his sights on the proto-Alice character in FSoG, Mia. BOOM!, there you go, your whole Twilight Cullen cast/ensemble, reloaded.
    - Both Twilight and FSoG have the couple following the arc of initial attraction, hero attempting to separate himself from heroine by stating he’s not right for her, heroine pursuing relationship, heroine finding out dark secret, heroine still pursuing relationship, couple briefly parts/breaks up and then reunites, couple marries, goes off to exotic/romantic honeymoon, heroine gets preggers prematurely, hero reacts extremely negatively, heroine still has kid. Hero eventually comes around about kid.
    - Both stories are set in Washington state.
    - Jacob/José (Twilight/FSoG) both dislike the hero because they want to be with the heroine. The heroine is not interested in Jacob/José but Jacob/José continues to pursue her until he gives up and realizes that the heroine chose the “bad guy” over them.
    - Anastasia is essentially, Bella (more so than Christian being Edward, where there are more differences). She has pretty much all of Bella’s mannerisms. She talks like Bella, she acts like Bella, she says the same things Bella would. She is highly clumsy and uncoordinated, she is quiet, reserved, not popular, odd one out, like Bella. She bites her bottom lip like Bella. She feels a bit like a fish out of water in the presence of the Greys just like Bella feels in the presence of the Cullens. At most she is a proto-Bella but essentially the same character at the core.
    - Both Bella and Ana have a bit of an excentric mother that lives somewhere else and has remarried several times (at least twice from what I remember).
    - Both Bella and Ana have a father that they love, that lives by himself (is a bit of a loner), that has a great relationship with them, even if slightly distanced. The main difference is that Ray (FSoG) is a stepfather to Ana, while Charlie (Twilight) is blood father to Bella.
    - Both Charlie and Ray have a love of fishing.
    - Both stories feature a stalker (Lauren/Leila) who stalks Bella/Ana and wants to hurt/kill her.
    - Jasper and Rose pretend to be twins in Twilight. Ethan and Kate (their parallels) are twins in FSoG.

    I don’t think the problem is so much a question of authenticity and originality of the characters as it is clear that James had consciously chosen to write in such a fashion as to evoke the characters and happenings of the original book. I see that as clear intent to create a world which is supposed to bring to mind SM’s Twi-books.

    Taking the finished product and then keeping it as is without editing to strip out the Twi-y characteristics is part of what is problematic for me.

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