I will start with an admission: I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey. Nor am I likely to. It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with it, necessarily – although the excerpts I have read online are not encouraging me to race out and get it.
But if I want romance with sex hot enough to peel the cover off the iPad, I’ll get me some Denise Rossetti, or Mel Tescho or Keziah Hill. Or, if I want it more m-rated, but still hot and other-wordly, I’ll go for some Kylie Griffin, or Tracey O’Hara. I mean, seriously, people. It’s not as though sex and the dark side – be that vampires, werewolves, BDSM, or whatever – were invented by Stephanie Myers, much less E.L James. Sure, a lot of people like 50 Shades, but there are many fabulous erotic romance and paranormal writers out there and I’d rather start with the ones I know and/or have had recommended to me.
Let’s be frank, though. My reluctance to go the 50 Shades way isn’t just about a TBR pile that is rapidly becoming a fire hazard (and don’t tell me ebooks fix that – edevices can overheat, you know).
It’s The Fanfic Question: which, all of a sudden, with the advent of 50 Shades of Grey, has assumed the proportions of The Irish Question – you know, that little dispute over ownership that plagued the English ruling classes for centuries, and some would argue, still does.
There’s been a lot of talk about this in the blogsphere and I imagine there will be a lot more. Over at Dear Author, they are talking about it in detail and I would recommend that discussion to anyone interested in this question.
But I wanted to address it too, because there are a lot of interested people (read, writers) who don’t even know what fan fiction is. It’s kind of hard to join this conversation without the base knowledge and I believe that this is a conversation that writers need to be part of.
Fan Fiction, or fanfic, is what happens when people fall so much in love with a fictional world and its characters that they don’t want their interaction with it to end at the end of the book, or movie, or tv show. When the original creators can’t give the fans enough of what they want, and talking with other fans is no longer enough, some of them turn to writing their own stories about those characters and that world.
It might be stories about characters who are loved, but not seen much of, who the fans want to give their own story. An example might be a love story between Neville and Luna, from Harry Potter. It isn’t in the books, but it’s an adorable idea and I’m sure there’s fanfic out there that gives them a happily-ever-after. (For those who’ve seen the films, obviously film-makers are not immune to the lure of the unwritten HEA!)
Or it might be that the fans really would have liked things to have turned out differently. Staying with Harry Potter, there is plenty of fanfic that re-imagines the story so that Harry and Hermione end up together. Similarly, there are fanfic-ers who bring together Buffy and Angel, or (for the kinkier) Buffy and Spike. Or they rewrite endings of books that disappointed them in other ways – although interestingly, it’s often the love stories that get people most fired up.
Long before the internet, there was fanfic written by the original Trekkies (Star Trek fans) exploring the gleefully imagined secret relationship between Captain Kirk and Spock. Which is of course, another really important branch, if not a whole trunk, of the fanfic tree; the imagining of ‘illicit’ relationships of one kind or another. Not necessarily illicit in the real world, you understand, but certainly not explored in the original material. Kirk/Spock is a prime example.
Or sometimes, people imagine new characters and new stories, inspired by the fictional world. This could take the form of, say, a story about some of the other teachers or students at Hogwarts. Or it could use the names of people from the fictional world, to evoke a mood, or atmosphere, or setting, but make them different from the way they were in the original work, in character, or even in gender (which, trust me, is a whole different post. Or thesis).
So is there anything wrong with this? Where is the line between homage, or inspiration, and stealing? For me, as long as people are doing this for love, fun, exploration, personal development, or to be part of a community, and offer the resulting work for free, it’s fine. It counts as homage to the other person’s creation and, if it were my work that were the inspiration, I would take it as a compliment. I know that not all writers would agree, but that’s my position.
But the minute the fanfic writer starts to get paid for their fan fiction, it starts getting very murky indeed. If someone writes a new story using someone else’s characters, or their world-building, I would argue that’s theft. They are stealing the work it took to build that world and those characters and the book-selling value of those story elements. I would argue that, as exploitable commodities, these things belong to the original author. If the ‘inspiration’ they draw is less obvious, it’s less clearly theft, but for me as a writer, it would still be a no-go area.
Of course, this is an ethical argument. Legally, such things are very hard to enforce (see Dear Author for more on copyright and plagiarism). And in reality, most of the time, the question doesn’t come up, because, let’s face it, there is a reason why most fanfic writers are amateurs. Some of it is excellent. I once read an imagined talk-show interview with Buffy, Sookie Stackhouse and Bella, about going out with vampires, that made me laugh so hard I nearly hurt myself.** But a lot of it is so bad, it will make your eyeballs bubble – and not in a good way. It’s appeal is exclusively to other fans and other fanfic writers.
But this grey (sorry!) area is one reason why I have never written fan fiction. As someone who hopes to get paid for my fiction, I would not invest time and effort in creating work that isn’t fully my own. I may not sell everything I write, but even if I offer it free, I want to know that it is all my own creation.
So where does that leave E.L James and 50 Shades of Grey?
From what I can tell, it seems that this work is mostly James’ own. It seems to me that the connections to Twilight are, in the finished work, fairly slender. But… it started in the Twilight fanfic community as a work of fan fiction and was appreciated and supported by that community as such. And it was, apparently, very popular there and those people spread the word to others and it became popular more widely.
Now, to write anything that a lot of people want to read is a genuine achievement and a lot of work and I, as a writer, would be the last to suggest otherwise. And, as a writer, I would never suggest that the labouring writer is not worthy of her hire. If James makes a lot of money out of her hard work, good luck to her. Most writers work just as hard and never make anywhere near as much. But…
…there is a shadow hanging over this work, because of where it started and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous at best and, at worst, deceitful. James’ new publishers assert that 50 Shades is not the same as her work published online as a Twilight Fanfic piece. According to Dear Author (again), that is not entirely true. So why not own it as such? If Twilight was a cherished inspiration, why not say so and be open about it?
My guess is because the publisher wants to distance itself from any claim from Stephanie Myers. But this is disappointing. Fanfic is not going to go away and works that grow from it are only going to increase. We need to have the conversation about what is and isn’t okay. Copyright law is not going to keep up and, in any case, I don’t think any of us want to see writers slugging it out in the courts. As writers, can we come to an agreement? As readers, do you care?
I know where I stand on my own work. I’ve drawn a clear line in the sand for myself. But what about writers who start in fanfic, perhaps without any thought of publication, then go on to bigger things? Where do I stand on that?
I’m not entirely sure. What do you think?
Thanks for sticking with me this far. I know it’s a bit long, but it’s a big topic!
*Yes, my bias is showing. All of these wonderful writers are Australian and fellow members of the Romance Writers of Australia, a truly wonderful group. And there are many more great writers in the group; I just seized on the ones whose books I have bought most recently and fit the bill. Give ’em a go and see what you think!
**Interestingly, if the author made money from this, I would not consider it theft. Probably because it is a different form from the original. It isn’t a novel, or even a story. It’s a sketch, a comedy piece. The only effect it could have on the original author or creator’s sales would be to increase them. For me, effect is important than the letter of the law. If someone creates a video mashup of your show on YouTube and people love it, it may be legally copyright infringement but it is effectively advertising, so ethically, for me, that’s fine. See? Complicated!