50 Shades of Grey and the World's Oldest Art Form

There’s plenty of reasons to write fan fiction. Maybe you want to explore the motivations of an underused character, maybe you want to make the subtext text. Maybe you thought the original work didn’t have enough fucking. Why read Anais Nin’s eroticas about barely described specters when you can read about characters you already know and love doing it? When you’ve already invested that much of your time and your soul to Aragorn, Harry Potter, or Katniss Everdeen, it’s only natural to want them rewarded with love and make-outs.

The publication of 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James sheds light on the thin line between original content and fan work and what people are clamoring to read. The book was originally published online as Twilight fanfic. That’s right, Twilight fanfic. Then James changed the names (and little else) and published the new, “original” work as an e-book. The book’s history is common knowledge amongst its readers, but  has has that hurt sales? Of course not.

It’s also hardly the first book that owes a lot to its predecessor. In fact, it has less to do with its source material than books like Wide Saragasso Sea, The Wind Done Gone, or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. When the time, location, profession, names, and character traits are all different, how is it even fanfic? It’s “inspired by” at best. At that point, why mention its origins at all? Every author was inspired by someone else’s work. I’m sure even Homer and the Anonymous dude who belted out Beowulf got a few ideas from some drunk friends.

It’s a marketing ploy, hoping to capture some of the Twilight fervor that has (willingly or not) captured the interest of millions. Again, not the first of its kind. From the “highbrow” Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike to the multitude of Mr. Darcy books, there are plenty of authors who put down a book and thought “good, but I wish there was more sex.” Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (and its offspring) is the same, but with violence. Because why not? Yeah, taking a steamy character like Mr. Darcy and kicking his knickers off is pandering, but if there’s an audience (and obviously there is), go for it.

There’s more to fan fiction than satisfying primitive urges, though. Wide Saragasso Sea, Wind Done Gone, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead (and many others) are all about flipping the script. Or, to be precise, they are about looking at the same story from a different point of view, using the framing, not the content, as the message. Hey, maybe that English colonialist isn’t so blameless in his sham marriage. Maybe we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the slaves that did all the work in a Georgia plantation. Maybe Hamlet was kinda a douche. They could almost be written as stand-alone novels with original characters except for the asset of name recognition. These books in particular are addressing stereotypes or things readers assume to be true. Rather than build up a world only to tear it down, they take a world that already exists, that we’ve already spent pages and pages on, and turns it on its head.

It makes the readers culpable: not only did the author present this biased world, you didn’t even question it.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with any of this, not the books with a message, and not even the “mommy porn” (note: blech!) either. There is nothing wrong with fanfic. It’s a word that is too often used pejoratively.  Twilight was often described as “like fanfic.” It isn’t. It’s like BAD fanfic. There is a ton of it out there, but it’s on the internet, it’s free, and you don’t have to read some teenager’s fantasy about Orlando Bloom coming to take her to the prom (note: I’ve seen this, it’s real). There is also a ton of good fanfic. Some of it barely has a plot, some have plots to rival the original work. There is some Harry Potter fic out there, written between books 6 and 7 that rivals the horcrux hunts in Deathly Hallows. A lot of it could be worthy of being published. Just because something is put on the internet for free does not mean that it’s bad, just as getting published and sold doesn’t make a piece of writing any good.

Any hand wringing about the end of original characters is misplaced. The Song of Achilles came out this year, and that’s about one of the oldest characters… ever. It’s even got a fanfic-worthy premise: all that Patroclus/Achilles, will they/won’t they subtext? TEXT! The original Greek playwrights (Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus) all wrote about the same cursed families, Orestes, Achilles, Atreus, etc. but they weren’t just recounting events, they were using the stories to make statements about their own time. This was seen as more creative than just making something up out of thin air. Writing something new about characters that already exist is older than, well, writing. The only worthiness factor of an adaptation is the quality: the characters don’t have to be original. The author does.

Stephenie Meyer is charitable to E.L. James, saying, “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!” Here’s hoping that James will be just as charitable when someone writes the inevitable 50 Shades of Grey fanfic.

One response to “50 Shades of Grey and the World's Oldest Art Form”

  1. Bryan says:

    Didn’t know that about 50 Shades of Gray (“350% more gray than that Staind album!”). My favorite fanfic tales still revolve around Minesweeper and baseball player slash. Those are (fortunately? unfortunately?) separate stories.