Fifty Shades of Fan Fiction: Imagination or Appropriation?



"Little is really original anymore. Even if you’re not aware of it, your “brilliant idea” has probably been done before. And even if it takes “borrowing someone else’s toys,” – as Robert Smedley of puts it – to do so still involves a huge amount of imagination, I think." - Gina Badillo

Yes, I’ll admit that I have read Fifty Shades of Grey… twice. I’m sure everyone knows about that book by now – E. L. James’s erotic romance novel that had record breaking sales. The first time I read it, I just wanted to see what all the hype was about. I knew that probably 99% of the people who picked up that book just wanted to read the explicit sex scenes. The funny thing was that I found myself flipping past those, because I couldn’t wait to see what actually happened to Ana Steele and Christian Grey (besides way more orgasms than are probably physically possible). I was actually intrigued by the characters – I felt for them. After I finished the series, I couldn’t stop thinking about them, so I read the series again.

            I will also admit that, in my opinion, Fifty Shades of Grey is not a well written book. It reads as amateurish – like fan fiction, because that’s exactly what it is. Twilight fan fiction.

            Fan fiction is a piece of writing that uses the characters, premise, or any inspiration from other pieces of work, like books, movies, television shows, and the like. Usually posted online, fan fiction is written by fans for fans, often sexually explicit in nature.

            E. L. James first published what would later become Fifty Shades of Grey on (one of the largest fan fiction sites on the web) under the title Master of the Universe. The story, which used the characters Edward and Bella from Stephenie Meyer’s wildly successful vampire novel, was set in an alternate universe that contained no vampires – only sadomasochistic billionaires. The story became so popular that James eventually self-published online, changing the characters’ names to Christian and Ana. The book was then picked up by Vintage Books, underwent some edits, then was published in paperback.

            That got me wondering: is it fair that E. L. James became so successful by writing a story using someone else’s characters instead of creating her own? Can we really call her an imaginative individual?

            Surprisingly Stephenie Meyers herself seems to think so. While admitting to MTV that she had never read Fifty Shades, when the interviewer said that, without Twilight, James’s book might not exist, Meyers replied, “It might not exist in the exact form that it’s in. Obviously, [James] had a story in her, and so it would’ve come out in some other way.”

            I have to say that I agree with Meyers on this one. Little is really original anymore. Even if you’re not aware of it, your “brilliant idea” has probably been done before. And even if it takes “borrowing someone else’s toys,” – as Robert Smedley of puts it – to do so still involves a huge amount of imagination, I think.

            As I began writing my first novel, which includes a large number of characters, I started by thinking, “What would it be like if a person like a character from this TV show, a person like that celebrity, a person like a character from this book, and so on, were all put in this or that scenario together? Sure, the characters evolved from there into something a bit more unique, but the original inspiration came from what I saw in the world around me.

            The publishing industry also seems to think that James’s method has some validity to it. In an interview with the Washington Post, Jennifer Bergstrom of Gallery Books, a division of Simon and Schuster, said, “Fan fiction has absolutely become part of the fiber of what we publish. This is changing at a time when traditional publishing needs it most.” Just last month, the book After, by Anna Todd, was released in paperback. The original format of this novel? One Direction fan fiction published on Wattpad. Of course, in the version published by Simon and Schuster, the names of the band members are changed, but readers know exactly which characters correspond to which people.

            To be honest, this makes me much more uncomfortable than fan fiction based on someone else’s fictional work. Sure, the author of the fan fiction can be accused of stealing someone else’s characters for their story, but, in this case, the author is making up a story about real live human being. When put that way, it sounds like the gossip that goes around the hallways of a high school. While it is obviously not Todd’s intention, this feels to me much more like an invasion than does writing fan fiction about someone’s make believe characters.

            Still, the idea is the same. Todd is just drawing inspiration from the world around her, just like I did, and just like James did. Bergstrom is right – times are changing. People are going to write fan fiction, whether authors like it or not, and since that’s the case, I urge those who write it to do so respectfully. Remember, as Smedley said, “you’re playing with someone else’s toys.” 


Gina is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying psychology and creative writing. She's finished writing her first novel and is working to get it published. Follow Gina on Twitter @GBadilloBooks

Tags: creative writing, fan fiction, fiction, gina badillo

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