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.