50 Shades of Unoriginal – Should Fanfiction Be Marketed as Original Writing?

If I say the title “Fifty Shades of Grey” to most people, they know exactly what I’m talking about.  They may never have any intention of reading it, but they’ll recognize it.  Why?  Because E.L. James has become a household name and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

I have several real issues with this trilogy, and while only one of them is the focus of this blog, in the interest of full disclosure, the following is a summary: I’m sure that my time in fandom has led me to far raunchier pieces than this trilogy, some that I’ve enjoyed, other that have left me with the distinct need for brain bleach.  Some of the good ones are more well written than this trilogy by leaps and bounds.  I don’t need to read an entire book to know it’s badly written, I need only samples to feel the need to give some advice to James: You shouldn’t eat a thesaurus and then start spitting out words at random.  It just doesn’t make for a smooth writing style.  Never mind the complaints that I’ve heard that this book contains a false representation of a consensual BDSM lifestyle and instead throws an abusive relationship before the reader and claims that it’s BDSM – that’s one I can’t even remotely confirm, as I never plan to read it.

Despite all of that, my biggest complaint about this book is it’s origins.  Once named “Master of the Universe,” “Fifty Shades of Grey” originated as a Twilight fanfiction.  Now, I’m not a big fan of Twilight, so what I’m upset about isn’t something as basic as the bastardization of my favorite characters.  The issue is that it violates a basic tenant of most fanfiction writers – this work does not belong to you.

You may be thinking ‘She spent a long time working on this and the words were hers, how can it not be her work?”.  There’s some truth to that.  For instance, when E.L. James wrote her fanfic,it was an “AU Fic,” a fandom term for Alternate Universe Fiction.  Meaning she eschewed the world that Twilight’s Stephanie Meyer created, took her characters and placed them in a non-supernatural setting where they could meet, fall in love and have wild bondage sex together and not have to worry about that pesky vampire issue.

E.L. James isn’t the only fanfiction writer to become a published author.  Cassandra Clare, author of the NY Times Bestselling Mortal Instrument series and its companion series, The Infernal Devices, was originally a writer of Harry Potter fanfiction.  There are quite a few moments of deja vu to be had while reading her fanfiction – main characters Clary and Simon strongly resemble HP’s Ginny and Harry, while Jace is nearly an exact replica of Clare’s interpretation of Draco Malfoy.  The world is certainly not the same, but they are both Young Adult novels in which magic exists but is hidden from regular humans.  Potter’s J.K. Rowling names those regular humans Muggles, while Clare calls them Mundanes.  There are even a few passages that Clare wrote for her fanfiction to serve as back story for Draco and then lifted out to serve as back story for Jace’s character.  According to publishing website Galleycat, new writer Sylvain Reynard is about to come out with a new book titled Gabriel’s Inferno, also based on a Twilight fanfiction.  So this is becoming a trend.

The very basis of writing fanfiction is the idea that you are writing a story based in another writer’s world, so what’s the problem?   As both a fanfiction writer, and a writer of my own original work, there is a great deal of work I am not doing when I create fanfiction.  I am not dreaming up casts of characters, making them whole and seeing where they will go.  I am not creating a world and all of it’s facets.  I am working within the confines of an already existing world created by someone else.  And as such, while I will admit to being inspired by another writer to create a character or use certain themes that may vaguely resemble the work of another, that character or theme always takes a different direction, is combined with completely other elements and is molded into something new and different.  And there is a big difference between “inspired by” and taking somebody else’s characters, putting them into a different situations, changing their names, and selling it as your own work.

There is alot that goes into creating a very good piece of fanfiction – I’m not denying that.  But creating an entire world all your own from beginning to end takes alot more work.  I’ve done both, so I can tell you for sure.  Despite plucking Edward and Bella from the Twilight world and putting them in a real world situation, E.L. James wrote this work while envisioning another person’s characters in the role.  Despite a tendency towards purple prose and the fanfiction roots of The Mortal Instruments, I fell in love enough with the more original characters in that series to actually enjoy those books – yet I still bristle whenever I can tell Jace is really just a reproduction of Malfoy.

I bristle because, despite the fact that the day someone decides to write fanfiction about my work will be a day I feel like I’ve really made it, the day someone tries to make money off of that work will be the day the lawyers come out to play.  Not because my characters, my plot, my worlds are my bread and butter, but because they are my heart and soul, and taking a piece of that and pretending its yours crosses an ethical boundary that, I feel, cannot be denied.

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26 thoughts on “50 Shades of Unoriginal – Should Fanfiction Be Marketed as Original Writing?

  1. As another writer of both fan and original fiction, I agree with everything you’ve said here. Profiting from fanfic, no matter how AU, no matter if you search-and-replace character names, is morally wrong. Maybe James can sleep at night, what with the thousands she’s made, but I couldn’t.

    1. Oh yes Misa, if I could like this comment, I would. There’s just a different frame of mind that goes into writing a fanfic and writing an original story.

      The thousands must make her pillow fluffier, but I pretty much consider her half a plagiarist.

  2. *inserts Jenna Marbles slowclap.gif here* Brilliant. Simply brilliant.

    My biggest issue with ’50 Shades of Grey’ is it is promoting horribly written literature. People are taking in this story without actually paying any real attention to what’s written on the page. When I saw excerpts from this book come across Tumblr, I swear to the GODS I thought it was a joke (because this was Tumblr, where pretty much everything can be turned into a joke). I had to go to Human Google (Twitter) to have it confirmed that it was legit right out of the book. AND PEOPLE ARE SAYING IT’S GOOD. It actually makes me very scared for society that books like this can be published, not because it’s based in the story or the origins of the story, but because of just how poorly written it is. Makes me want to go to every store that sells books and hide every copy of the 50 Shades Trilogy behind copies of The Hunger Games trilogy… Oh wait. Think I’ve done that.

    When examining the fact that it was originally AU fanfiction, it feels like E.L. James has betrayed the fanfiction writer’s code. We are always saying, as fanfiction writers, that we are not in this for profit. That is is simply the characters who speak to us who we want to expand on more in ways the canon does not. We’re not looking to get paid. As it is, fiction writers already have a biased against fanfiction writers because they think we’re stealing their characters. James doing this does not help our case in the slightest!

    As a person who often writes fanfiction AUs, I totally agree with what you’ve said. No matter how much we twist the storylines to our own making, these will never be our characters. We are not deviating from their canon descriptions or personalities. At least, not to any extreme. Because if you deviate too far, they are no longer the characters they are in canon. And that is ESSENTIAL for AU fic writing. It does not matter if we dream up an entirely original scenario. Still not our characters.

    (And I’m not gonna get into any debate on The Mortal Instruments because we both know we have differing views on that series! 😉 )

    ~Pip

    1. Thank you dahling! 😉

      I wholeheartedly agree. It hurts when I hear people refer to this as SUCH a great book, because there is so many better written stories out there, even when it comes to the smuttier stuff, and people are seriously wasting their time with this when they could be reading something so much more worthy of their time.

      But yes, as fanfiction writers, we are the ones who probably see the egregious fault in this book better than anyone – the violation of the fanfic writer’s code. Without it, we would just be simply plagiarists ourselves, but we try to draw a clear line, one that James has very publicly erased.

      As for The Mortal Instruments, I’m up to City of Glass! I’m still reading it aren’t I? I’m just…frustrated by her drawing on other things. But it’s well written enough and Simon, Alec and Magnus are intriguing enough, and there is enough original material for me not to feel nearly the contempt I feel for James towards Clare. For whatever that’s worth. 😉

    1. As a fanfic writer, I would be off the wall if somebody wrote a fic of my work, as long as they showed it proper respect. I’m surprised Stephanie Meyer hasn’t attempted a law suit yet. I honestly am.

      1. I would say that it wouldn’t have been published without Meyer’s agreement….it’s no skin off her nose is it if the notoriety of 50 Shades benefits Twilight?.

      2. Meyer’s issued a statement about it: “I haven’t read it. I mean, that’s really not my genre, not my thing… I’ve heard about it; I haven’t really gotten into it that much. Good on her — she’s doing well. That’s great!” http://www.sheknows.com/entertainment/articles/961639/stephenie-meyer-50-shades-of-grey-not-my-thing
        It’s quite possible that James’s grip on characterization is so OOC from the source as to be unrecognizable & difficult for Meyer to claim there’s any actionable similarity. Which of course isn’t a ringing endorsement of James’s writing skills.

  3. No it shouldn’t be marketed as original. There should be an automatic disclaimer at the front of the book, that the characters/world used in the story are the product of the original creators…doesn’t Fandemonium do something like this for their SG books?
    That being said though when does the use/inspiration of already created characters cease to be fanfiction?.
    One of my favourite authors, who writes for Fandemonium, has an original series that she quite readily admits contains characters bounced off of Mitchell and Vala. As a matter of fact she posted a picture of Claudia Black in a particular dress that is the inspiration for a pivotal character in the second book of the series…and to those of us who know Vala, the character is clearly based on Vala.

    1. Yes, but Fandemonium does legally sanctioned media tie-ins of television shows. That’s different. Considering that 50 Shades was self-published, I don’t think James got any kind of permission.

      That author’s situation is a little odd. But then, it’s one thing basing a character off of things you like about a character – I have a character whose super intelligent, sort of arrogant behavior is like a largely skewed version of Daniel from Stargate – but it’s a tad daring to go around posting pics on your website of the actor who played the character you’re basing your character off of. I’m assuming there is more than enough difference to separate the two stories?

      1. But how did a ‘self-published’ piece ever make it to maintstream availability if an real publishing company didn’t pick it up…and what real publishing company is going to set themselves up for a plagarism lawsuit. Somewhere along the line Meyer must of okayed it.

        Oh there’s a difference between SG and her “Lost Things” trilogy.
        Here’s the link to her LJ:
        http://jo-graham.livejournal.com/
        I highly recommend her…she’s a fabulous writer.
        She’s posted an excerpt from the opening scene where she introduces the character inspired by Vala and there’s also a link to the picture of Claudia that’s inspired the character.
        To those of us who know Vala, the character is definitely reminscent of her, but to readers who don’t know her, the character is just a character. So I think the point I’m reaching for here is, if book is published for the mainstream reader and the character(s) have different names and they are in a different world/era, is it really still fanfiction?
        If I take the D/V personas, give them different names and put them in a completely different era/circumstances, but retain their personalities and they way they interact with each other…is it still fanfiction? Or is it only in the eye of the beholder because they recognize the character’s basis.

  4. I think the real line that James crosses is that she tries to turn back time. Yes, with the AU situation, there was a very good chance that publishing the story would have never resulted in a connection with Twilight. However, in a perverse attempt to turn back time, she instead released her story to the world as a fanfic, then tried to make it disappear, changed the names and began to sell it. If that doesn’t reek of her knowing exactly what conventions she was breaking, I don’t know what does.

    1. HUH?
      I know virtually nothing about this book except that it’s supposed to be raunchy and it’s connected to Twilight…a book I NEVER had the slightest interest in reading, so you’re going to have to explain how something that was fanfiction and therefore blatant plagiarism got picked up by legit publishers and made available to a mainstream audience.

  5. Having never read this series, I can’t really comment on whether it is or isn’t based on Twilight or not. The reality of the situation is that there are so many illiterate folks out there, they would never notice whether or not the fic was good or bad or based on something else. It is unfortunate what this world has become thanks to technology. It’s not the tehcnology itself that is bad, but how folks respond to it, shortening everything from names to whole sentences into three letter abbreviations. Hell, some get one letter – “U” or you, for example. There are actually kids turning in papers written using the text/IM spellings of words. I’m ranting, I know, but the fact of the matter is, the reason this author is doing so well is because her fans have experienced the dumbing down of American on a very large scale.

  6. I definitely see where you’re coming from, but I don’t entirely agree. I’m not a fan of AU fanfiction because I don’t think it really qualifies as fanfiction (in most cases). If someone changes the characters, plot, universe, etc it isn’t fanfiction anymore and I think it’s fine to qualify as original work. However, I do agree that if the story is obviously fanfiction (for example, if you can tell what fandom it’s from even though the names have changed) it is not original.
    I am NOT supporting Fifty Shades of Grey in any way. I have no intention of ever reading it. Ever. I think it’s great that a fanfiction author became so successful (that is what we’re all after), but based off everything I have heard about the book, it sounds absolutely terrible.

      1. Thank you, Campy, for answering. Sometimes I think we share one brain (although yours is more perverted than mine. ;)). Obsessivefangirling, I see your point. And I’m inclined to agree, somewhat. But publishing a work AS FANFICTION, thus openly admitting you wanted it to be an AU Twilight fic, then yanking all evidence of it, replacing the names and, as you see in Campy’s link, changing absolutely nothing else before you publish it as your own work…it’s a sketchy place in the land of ethics.

  7. There was considerable grumbling withiin the established speculative fiction author community about plagiarism back when Terry Brooks published his Sword of Shannara books; they were clearly derivative of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

    And then there are the shelf-feet of Jane Austen sequels/spin-offs written by modern authors; the books qualify as *legal* fan fiction only by dint of the source author having been dead for centuries. And how can I speak to the many adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays into movies & novels (Hamlet/The Lion King; She’s the Man/12th Night; 10 Things I Hate About You/Taming of the Shrew)? Then there’s Shakespeare himself adapting Greek/Roman mythology (Pyramus & Thisbe/Romeo & Juliet…)

    At what point is it OK to make an homage, or create a work “inspired” by another? Does permission from the source’s creator make it OK? Or the passage of time after the death of the original artist? Or, in the case of free fan fiction, lack of objection from the original creator/copyright holder?

    As for me, I heartily endorse the full disclosure of one’s inspiration; referencing folklore is a time-honored tradtion. My main ethical objection to 50SoG is that James neglected to disclose her source inspiration, and misrepresented her work as wholly original by doing so.

    My main *artistic* objection to 50SoG is, “FOR THE LOVE OF GOB, PEOPLE, DO NOT EMULATE THIS BECAUSE IT IS EXECRABLY WRITTEN.”

    1. 1) I feel like works that take place long after the death of the original artists, but that denote the original work as being the inspiration for the current, are A OK in my book. I also feel that if you aren’t making any money off of it, there is nothing wrong with it. I also feel that sourcing something as your inspiration is just a good ethical standard.

      2) You have the crux of my argument in the statement regarding James neglecting to disclose her source inspiration. That is my problem right there.

      3) AND YES – PLEASE DO NOT TRY TO DUPLICATE 50SoG. It is just plain horrendous as a writing example.

      1. I must admit that I enjoy cackling at the 50SoG pull quotes I see on Tumblr. I’m glad that people are actually READING any book at all instead of watching Jersey Shore reruns or stealing cars. ;D

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