The Internet blew up over Shades of Grey, whether you’re talking lovers or haters, and there’s a lot of whipsmart commentary about the book and the reactions to it; 50 Shades explores empowered female sexuality in a way that seems to delight some readers and discomfit others, and that’s the kind of thing that sparks discussion. I’m actually less interested in this aspect of the phenomenon than the origins of the book, which lie in the world of fanfiction.
As Marianne has pointed out, fanfic provides a fascinating venue for fixit endings, exploration of alternate approaches to storytelling, and so much more. And 50 Shades started out originally as Twilight fanfiction. Just like Cassandra Claire’s popular Mortal Instruments series began in the Harry Potter fandom. And other novels have their roots in fanfiction as well.
And in all cases, it’s treated like a deep dark secret that shouldn’t be discussed, with the authors themselves often distancing their work from its origins. Other authors who produce both original and transformative works, meanwhile, often write their fanfiction under a pseudonym and are careful not to cross the streams, concerned about the potential career repercussions.
Fanfic comes in for a lot of hate. Everyone likes to bag on it and its creators, perhaps first and foremost by claiming it’s not a creative endeavor. Derivative works, it’s suggested, aren’t ‘original.’ Not even when they involve a fundamental expansion of the world and the characters in it, new plot development, total flips of the world that take it in entirely new directions. Clearly unoriginal. Like following instructions in a colouring book, with absolutely no creativity involved or even required.
And of course no respected authors of ‘real’ fiction borrow ideas, stories, characters from other works. They come up with 100% original concepts every time, and we are asea in continual waves of utterly new tales that have never been told before, right? When I peruse the shelves at the bookstore, every single book I pick up is entirely fresh and new, exploring content, ideas, and themes that have never come up in fiction before.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is an award-winning take on Hamlet that received a lot of buzz when it came out, and continues to be recommended as a contemporary classic. It’s been celebrated as a key literary work, and, yes, it is good and deserves at least some of those accolades; I enjoyed it and thought the change of setting enriched the story. He took Hamlet and took it in a new and interesting direction, illustrating that it’s possible to return to the classics again and again to get more out of them. 50 Shades hasn’t gotten that kind of critical love, though.
What’s the difference between Edgar Sawtelle and 50 Shades?
Snobs would talk about the quality of the writing, and the august history of the original work, but it’s about more than that. Both James and Clare started out writing fanfiction explicitly, not literary adaptations, and they focused on contemporary young adult literature, not classics, treading a thin and complex legal dividing line by working with source material that isn’t in the public domain. More than that, they both produced fiction that explores sexuality and autonomy; they are more explicit than the works they’re based on and they’re specifically about female sexuality.
There’s something threatening about these works, even as they diverge very, very far from the original canon and into entirely new territory. They were inspired by source works which clearly played a formative role in their development, but it’s fair to say that both Clare and James put considerable energy into their work, and that they are original and creative storytellers, like other people in the fanfic community, where meticulously edited, discussed, and workshopped works upwards of 100,000 words are not uncommon.
People sneering at both authors are definitely playing up the ‘ew, gross, fanfic’ factor. They want to make it clear that they disdain fanfic and the people who write it. Intriguingly, many of those people are women, so there’s a subtle embedded misogyny going on here in the way people discuss fanfic; female creative endeavors are dismissed, while male literary fiction is embraced and celebrated. Just like romance as a genre is trashed (‘ew, gross, it’s for women’) and literary fiction is considered high culture (‘it’s about dudes, you know’).
Many people involved in the discussion swirling around books like these seem unaware of the cultural and social attitudes underlying the way they frame these works. This refusal to interrogate the source of their attitudes means that they miss out on a much deeper conversation; if everyone’s fixated on the ‘ew, gross, trashy, for women’ factor, they can’t have an honest discussion about the actual content of the books. Refusing to acknowledge that fanfiction does have a place in the literary canon, and that it is creative, means missing out on a huge and fascinating community.
Moreover, it’s another example of allowing dominant opinions to reinforce misogyny. Many women trash fanfiction without knowing much about it, and many of those women are actually interested in gender equality and social justice. They dismiss fanfiction, unwittingly parroting precisely what dominant arbiters of opinion want them to say and think. Unoriginal. Derivative. Pointless. Drivel. Poorly written. Many of these critics haven’t read a single word of fanfic, and they’re letting the male literary establishment tell them how to react to it?
Books like 50 Shades can be critiqued and discussed both on their own and as examples of transformative works that have been taken far from the source material. And there are lots of legitimate reasons to dislike 50 Shades. But simply saying ‘ew, gross, it’s fanfic’ isn’t a sufficient or acceptable argument.