Fifty Shades of Pissed Off

I’m probably not going to rant about what you expect. It’s pretty standard these days for struggling writers who haven’t scored their first novel publication yet to go off on bitter, venomous screeds about, for example, Stephanie Meyer or E.L. James and how damn unfair it is that obviously I can string words together in a superior way so where are my millions and by the way I’ve figured out that stalking isn’t love and ARGH.

Whatever. Whether it’s true or not when someone complains about quality of writing and cringe-worthy plot elements, it all comes out sounding like sour grapes anyway, just waiting to be crafted into the finest whine. (See what I did there?)

Actually, I’ve got a much more specific problem with Fifty Shades of Grey that has nothing to do with writing quality. In all honesty I don’t know what the writing is like in that book and I have no intention of ever finding out, because dental surgery sounds more appetizing to me than vampire BDSM erotica. But you know. Whatever floats your boat.

My problem begins and ends with the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey started as fanfiction.

I wrote fanfiction for years before I ever started writing my own original work in any kind of serious way. Hell, I still write fanfiction today in the rare moments I have spare time. (This is me, side-eyeing that unfinished Avengers fanfic that’s staring at me accusingly from the internet.) I still meet people online who remember me from my days of writing Gundam Wing fanfic where Duo murders the shit out of vampires with a narrative flair lovingly borrowed from Laurel K. Hamilton.

This is the thing about fanfiction. You do it because you love someone else’s story. It’s a way for fans to have a conversation with someone else’s art, and for that art to answer back. Fanfiction did amazing things for me. It taught me how to write dialog and how to put together a plot that could span 80K words and still keep people interested.  It’s awesome and fun and a magical way to waste time that you really ought to be using to, say, study for your oceanic geochemistry final because your brain has just melted.

But always, always, always you are in communication with someone else’s art.

Someone else already did the hard work for you. They created the story, the world, and characters that, rightly or wrongly, people like and give a shit about. They worked their ass off to create a base of fans who are now predisposed to seek out and like what you write because they loved the original. Even if you’re writing a complete alternate universe, you are still dipping your toe in a pool that some other person built for you.

At its most basic, it isn’t yours.

And that right there is the thing that just pisses me off about Fifty Shades of Grey. Changing the character names and doctoring the details so that they’re no longer a match doesn’t do anything to alter the fact that the story involved borrowing someone else’s ideas and playing ‘what if?’ with them. And at the point you’re making money off of those ideas, you’re no longer borrowing them – you’re stealing them.

Back in my Gundam Wing days, I actually had a couple of people who really liked my stories suggest that I either just throw them on Lulu (uh, no, I don’t want to get sued if someone notices) or alter them a bit for plausible deniability and self-publish. I never took those suggestions seriously, even though I probably could have done it fairly easily. Hey, that’s what a global find and replace is for, isn’t it? But it wasn’t right. The characters weren’t mine. The concepts weren’t mine. And I knew that tarting them up a bit wouldn’t change anything because what was in my head when I wrote the stories wasn’t from me.

But Rachael, you ask, what about things like Laurie R King’s Mary Russell novels? Or you would if you were some kind of creepy stalker who had broken into my house and observed my bookshelves for a few minutes. Obviously, I’m okay with what is basically fanfiction of Sherlock Holmes being published for profit. I’m okay with things like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

This is the difference, and I think it’s an important one. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is dead. Jane Austen is dead. They’ve both been gone for a long time, and are obviously no longer capable of creating their own stories with their own characters, let alone be financially hurt by someone grabbing their coattails and going for a ride. Frankly, it’s been long enough since those works were created that there’s even an interesting question if modern writers can even add to work because perspectives have changed significantly. And of course, those issues are entirely separate from works that are still under copyright, but are used with permission of the author or estate.

As someone who hopes to have novel credits to her name some day in the near future, the commercial success of Fifty Shades of Grey both infuriates and scares the shit out of me. The success of someone else wouldn’t necessarily diminish my own (in this case purely hypothetical) success, but it’s still, to put it bluntly, unfair.

But really, that pales in comparison to my utter fury as someone who writes fanfiction. As fans, the contract we make with creators is that if they’re nice and let us play with their toys, we’ll give them back in good condition. We admit and revel in the fact that we are playing in someone else’s sandbox. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, Fifty Shades of Grey is a betrayal of what writing fanfic is supposed to be about.

Legal technicalities aside, arguments about just how much resemblance to Twilight is too much aside, that is the issue. There’s plenty of fanfiction out there that bears only a passing resemblance to the work upon which it is based. But normally, the writers have the integrity to admit that their jumping off point wasn’t something that came from within them, and thus it’s not right to try to capitalize on it. It’s cheating.

With how successful Fifty Shades of Grey has been, I won’t be surprised if we see more people taking fanfiction and trying to rewrite it into something with at least a veneer of originality. I’ve never been good at guessing the future, so I’m not going to make any sweeping predictions about how this could change things for fanfiction in general. The communities of fans who share their enthusiasm and stories are so enormous that global or fast change seems highly unlikely. But it does make me sad regardless, because the entire endeavor feels so much less innocent now.

…which I suppose is only fitting since we’re talking something that was originally BDSM porn fanfiction.

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