Monday, March 26, 2012

Fifty Shades of Fuming

Fifteen years ago, I was hooked on a TV show that featured a "will they/won't they" relationship between the two main characters. As the fourth season drew to a close, the couple broke up again. In the last minutes of the finale, the heroine was at the altar with a childhood sweetheart when the hero showed up, ready to declare his love. Aaaaaaand - season ends!

Unfortunately, the season finale was also the series finale, as the show wasn't renewed for a fifth season. So fans of the show were left with a cliffhanger that would never be resolved.

I was so irritated by the lack of resolution that I ended up writing my own. And thus, I was introduced to the world of fanfiction.

It was awesome. I discovered a community of other fans of the show, from all over the country, all as passionate about the characters and the storyline as I was. We spearheaded a (doomed) attempt to get the network to bring the show back to the schedule, but most of our focus was on fanfic. 

And the most important rule of fanfiction, the first thing I learned when I dove into fandom?


When you're writing fanfic, you're playing in someone else's playground, using their toys. They've done the hard work of creation. For the most part, they're doing you a favor by turning a blind eye to the underground creativity that drives fandom. So it was always understood - both explicitly and implicitly - that fandom was just for fun, not economic gain.

It wasn't just in that fandom that this was the rule of the day. I've participated in many fandoms since then, both as a reader and as a writer, and it was always expected that you were never intending to profit. Most stories even have that as a disclaimer at the top of the page.

Which is why I'm infuriated at the actions of EL James, her publisher, her agent, and the big movie studios currently throwing obscene amounts of cash in her direction.

Fifty Shades of Gray, and the other two books in the trilogy, originally started as Twilight fanfiction. It was an Edward and Bella AU (Alternate Universe) called Master of the Universe. And a year or so ago, James pulled the fic off the web, did a search-and-replace for the names and a few other details, and published it.

I don't care if her Edward doesn't sparkle, or if Bella is a college student instead of a high school kid. It was written in and intended for the Twilight fandom, and should have stayed there. And if James wanted to be a published author? She should have written something completely new. I believe it would have been the ethical thing to do.

I started writing romance in fanfic. It was a chance for me to try out a new genre with the framework of characters I already knew and loved. But when it came time to write for publication, I never considered using my fanfic writing. And I never will. (And yes, I still write in some different fandoms from time to time, but that's completely separate from my professional writing.)

Will there be fallout from this? For James, probably not. She's got a seven figure book deal, a potential movie deal that will likely bring her even more, publicity from almost every media outlet imaginable, and multiple weeks at the top of the bestsellers lists.

For fandom, most likely. The writers and producers who have allowed fanfic to flourish outside of their notice may now decide it's not worth the risk, and start invoking their copyright claims. Why should other people profit from their creations? I fear a crackdown while at the same time I don't blame them if they choose to go that direction.

So James got hers, and the rest of the fanfic writers, readers, and fandom participants will get the blowback. Which is why I will never read Fifty Shades or the rest of the trilogy, and why all the attention leaves me Fifty Shades of furious.

What do you think? Are the rules of fanfic changing? Should people be able to profit from fanfic? Or should those boundaries be respected?


notoriouslyunique said...

it is highly disingenuous to post fanfic as original fic.
I have read some AMAZING works of fanfic that are better than many published commercial works (and sometimes better than the original material, even), but if they were ever to be published, I'd never read them or take them seriously.
Fanfic and fanart are supposed to be a creative outlet and an expression of admiration for the characters and setting created by the original writers. If you love a book, movie, show, etc... you can feel inspired by it and wish to create transformative work. It can be to fill in gaps, change something you don't agree with, or just test out new situations and opportunities for the characters. In the end, however, they're still someone else's characters.
And I'd like to differentiate between writing an original work inspired by a previous work and writing a fanfic and changing the names. Brigitte Jones has many tones of Pride and Prejudice, but it is still an original work because its characters weren't plagiarized. Edward will still be Edward even if you call him someone else. It's blatant plagiarism, and it threatens many non-plagiarizing
fanfic writers with law suits and creative restrictions that they shouldn't have to deal with.

Kate Davies said...

I agree that being inspired by another work is different than fanfic, and shouldn't be treated the same way. "Clueless" and "Bridget Jones' Diary" were inspired by the original works. Neither was a fanfic using the original characters.

I get so frustrated by the conflation of the two. And by the confusion over whether 50 Shades counts as fanfic because there aren't any vampires. AU doesn't make it original work! The fanfic intent was still there.


Anonymous said...

Hi Erin,
I agree with you 100%. I have no desire to read any book in this series and not that I have found this out I definitely will not be reading it ever. I think it's a disgrace that someone wants to claim to be an author so strongly that they will play off of the hard work of someone else. I also blame the people involved in letting these things be published or made into movies. Whoever offers a movie deal for this has to know it's based on the Twilight Saga, it's too big of a series. This is a time when the laws should be followed and something be done about it before it goes any further. A movie will probably be made and it will make millions with no consequences. It's disgusting!!

Meg Benjamin said...

I guess my fuming here is less about fanfic and more about the way critics and people in the industry are behaving as if this book is something new and unique. From what I've seen, Shades is second-rate erotica, but the reaction seems to be "Wow, someone's writing erotica. Who knew?" Well, a lot of us, as it turns out. Several hundred erotica writers have every reason to feel annoyed that this book is getting this kind of attention when they've been writing much better stuff for years.

Maia Strong said...

All those involved should both be ashamed of themselves for profiting off of the original author's work. Ignoring for a moment that the original work is garbage, the fact that Ms James and her entourage are going to make money of off another person's creation sickens me. I can only imagine how fast Paramount would be after my ass if I tried to pull the same scam with my Star Trek fanfiction. Paramount has been wonderfully tolerant about fan works for many decades, but when it comes to any of it making money, they will lay down the law. I've seen it happen. And that's fine. It's their intellectual property. But this 50 Shades situation... No good can come of it, and particularly for fans and fandoms. Aside from the blatantly unethical aspect of the whole fubar situation, I have to wonder just how short-sighted and/or selfish the people involved are. This could cause major damage to fans and fandoms that only want to celebrate through transformative works that which others have created. It's going to create one hell of a mess for all the honest fans out there when the dishonest ones see that they can, in fact, get away with plagiarism.

Heather in FL said...

I've often wondered how authors felt about fanfic. I'm told that if you read Fifty Shades without knowing it's fanfic, you'd have no idea. So maybe that's a point for Ms. James in her ability to profit from this.

However, I would think that the fact that it started out as fanfic would preclude it from being published. It was clearly based on another person's hard work. Fanfic proponents say it should be flattering to the author that someone was so passionate that they took the story in another direction. Pretty sure Ms. Meyer wouldn't want her characters to have anything to do with BDSM.

It does seem a bit like stealing to me. And if Ms. James got such a positive response from this series, why not just create something entirely new? Leave the fanfic there and make up your own characters and story lines? I'm guessing she's a talented writer based on her success, so why not *really* do it on her own?

And BTW, Ms. Benjamin... I don't think the big deal is that someone's writing erotica. I think the big deal is that stay-at-home moms in suburban book clubs are reading this and getting off on it. (And then idiots like Dr. Drew can call them all crazy.) Like suburban moms are somehow not supposed to have a sex life or talk about it. I haven't read the books, so I can't comment on their content, but it seems a lot of people really liked them.

Maria D. said...

I have to agree with everyone so far, I have zero interest in reading this series. I have no problems with fanfic but I do have a problem with someone taking fanfic and having it published. Frankly I think Ms. James should be ashamed and shouldn't be allowed to get away with it.

Melissa Schroeder said...

OMG someone agrees with me. I have found it slightly disturbing that authors are clamoring around this series and talking about it the way they are. I have a feeling if this situation involved one of their books, they wouldn't be so happy about it.
I have felt from the beginning it is an ethical problem. I voiced it several times and people acted like I was an idiot and one person emailed me to tell me I was just jealous *g*.

Annette said...

I do not knowingly read fanfic. This now removes 50 Shades from my "to-read" list.

Kelly Jamieson said...

Great post Kate! There are so many facets of this whole thing - your point about the fanfic and profiting from it; Meg's point about it being touted as something original and groundbreaking when as she said, others have been writing BDSM romance for a long time; and the issue of the quality of the writing. I also think the recent interest of a big publisher is one more sign of how much trouble NY pubs are in, when $$ signs are more important than ethics and quality writing. In addition to that - the movie rights!! A BDSM on earth are they ever going to do that? What are people thinking?

I know other have said they're not interested in reading it, and others have said they refuse to read it. I was right there with you but I did just buy it on the weekend, only because I want to have an informed opinion about the quality of the book. I'll let you know what I think!

Kate Davies said...

Tina, I agree, I hate seeing this book series move forward with no consequences. It may not be illegal, but it goes against everything fanfic stands for.

Meg, oh, there's plenty to be irritated about when it comes to this book. I just had to narrow it down to one topic or I'd take over the whole blog!

Maia, you know it. I'm (un?)lucky enough that most of my fandoms are for shows no longer on the air, but I'm sure the creators would have things to say if I tried to profit from them.

Heather, I'm sure that the fact Fifty Shades is AU is the main reason the people connected to it can pretend it's not really fanfic. But in the world of fandom, that's not an excuse. And it should be held to the same expectations.

Kate Davies said...

Maria, I feel the same way.

Melissa - someone said you were jealous? LOL Trust me, you're not alone. There are a lot of us out here who are disturbed by the reception this book has gotten. Especially from inside fandom - because we fear it will be used as an excuse to trash and vilify fanfic as a whole.

Annette, I've been approached by several people in "real life" who've asked me if I've read this series - and my answer is the same as yours. :)

Kelly, I have a feeling the movie is going to tank. It's just not something that I think will translate to the screen - at least in an R-rated format! And do let me know what your opinion is on the book. I'm curious to know what you think!