50 Shades of Grey and Twilight: When Is Fan Fiction Not Fan Fiction?

5 years ago

I have spent the last several hours trying to figure out the phenomenon that is E.L. James' 50 Shades of Grey. The book is selling like hotcakes, based almost exclusively on word-of-mouth buzz and some Goodreads viral magic. According to Good Morning America, 50 Shades of Grey is heating up bedrooms, and it's even been called "mommy porn." Sex certainly does sell -- but it's this series' Twilight-based origins that are raising eyebrows and making people in the publishing and writing communities question when fan fiction stops being fan fiction.

I've read my share of fan fiction. I'm guessing many of you have as well. Think about all the Jane Austen sequels and prequels or the fairy tale retellings you've seen. Those are, in essence, fan fiction, and a lot of the ones I've read are darned good. Pamela Aiden's Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman series was probably the first fan fiction that I truly loved. Of course, Jane Austen has been dead for years and her work is in the public domain, as are many fairy tales. But fan fiction isn't just for public domain works. I remember when Cassandra Claire was known for her Harry Potter-inspired Draco trilogy. It was years before her series, The Mortal Instruments, hit bookstore shelves.

Claire never published her Draco trilogy. Attempting to publish fan fiction based on a book that is not in the public domain is a difficult process, especially for a work as widely protected as the Harry Potter series. I mean, we all remember what happened when Steven Vander Ark originally tried to publish his Harry Potter Lexicon, right? There was a lengthy court case that J.K. Rowling ultimately won.

Writing Harry Potter fan fiction might have helped Cassandra Claire develop her writing skills, but when Claire published, it was a story set in a universe of her own making and with original characters. And that's where 50 Shades of Grey may differ -- or maybe not. It all depends on who you ask.

As was reported in the Washington Post, the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy has its origins in Twilight fan fiction. James took Bella and Edward, placed them a few years in the future in Seattle, and called the book Master of the Universe. That book was published on FanFiction.net. James reportedly rewrote the story to remove the Twilight influence, adding new characters and situations. Edward's character became Christian Grey and Bella was re-imagined as Anastasia Steele. All paranormal elements were removed -- there are no vampires whatsoever. This new work is what readers are getting when they buy 50 Shades of Grey edition published by The Writer's Coffee Shop.

But is that enough? Vintage, which has just obtained the rights to republish the series in the United States, has found itself in the position of defending the originality of James' work in a statement:

"She subsequently took that story and re-wrote the work, with new characters and situations. That was the beginning of the 'Fifty Shades' trilogy. The great majority of readers, including fan fiction aficionados, have found 'Fifty Shades' deeply immersive and incredibly satisfying."

Jane at Dear Author decided to do a bit of investigation by comparing Master of the Universe to 50 Shades of Grey. Was the new work really that different from the original fan fiction? Her comparison showed that all references to Bella, Edward, and anything Cullen were removed -- but when she ran the two pieces of fiction through Turnitin, a plagiarism checker frequently used on college campus, it gave the two pieces of fiction a similarity index of 89%. Jane also includes side-by-side text comparisons.

I have no doubt that Vintage and E.L. James believe that 50 Shades of Grey is an original piece of work. I think that James wrote the words and created the scenarios. But if James was inspired by Twilight and based her original characters on Bella and Edward, where does that put then in terms of originality? Are they really James' characters? Or are they Stephenie Meyer's characters with new names? I'm still stuck wondering when fan fiction ceases to be fan fiction, and Smart Bitch Sarah Wendell is basically wondering the same thing.

The entire phenomenon makes me question where the "ok, then" line is, and what this means for publishing in the future. It's ok to do homages. It's ok to rewrite Beauty and the Beast fairy tales sixty different ways (and I will so totally buy them all). It's ok to write parody and satire, and nod to obvious influences and include winking jokes and references to older source material that fans will totally catch. That's all good - and I've enjoyed some of it.

But the debate continues as to whether a book that began as fanfic ever diverged from the original enough to qualify as original work.

I don't know that there is an easy answer, but I'd love to know what you think. Have you read the hot new so-called (and why so-called?) "mommy porn," 50 Shades of Grey? When you do think fan fiction stops being fan fiction?

BlogHer Book Club Host Karen Ballum also blogs at Sassymonkey and Sassymonkey Reads.

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