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Is Fifty Shades of Grey a New Frontier in Fan Fiction?

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With the runaway publishing phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey, arriving in stores this week, industry pundits are wondering if we'll see lines stretching out bookstores' doors (a welcome sight given the state of bookselling, no matter which book brings customers in.) What some of Fifty Shades' readers may not be aware of, however, is that the book's greatest impact may not be due to the fact that it's erotica or that its initial success came through ebook sales -- both fairly novel concepts in the staid world of publishing, to be sure -- but because of what it may mean for authors of fan fiction.

With the recent sale of movie rights to the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, the debate over fan fiction has heated up. After all, if the primary argument against litigation was that fan fiction had no commercial value, it was made moot when Vintage Books reportedly paid seven figures, and Universal Pictures and Focus Features paid an undisclosed sum, to Fifty Shades' author E.L. James for the rights to her books, according to EW.com and Publishers Weekly.

There seems to be no debate as to whether Fifty Shades can legitimately be called fan fiction or not, since the author workshopped the original manuscript, Master of the Universe, explicitly as Twilight fan fiction on fan fiction sites. A comparative analysis done by Jane Litte of Dear Author.com pretty much makes a clear case for Fifty Shades being a version of Master of the Universe with few changes aside from the names of the main characters. Readers of Fifty Shades have come out on both sides of the argument: some say that they can't read from the books without Bella and Edward coming to mind, while others argue that Fifty Shades as a story stands wholly apart from Twilight.

The disposition of the law regarding of an author's rights to her intellectual property is far from cut and dried, and the fact that Twilight author Stephenie Meyer didn't take legal action over James' books before we got to this point in the imbroglio should not be considered any reflection on the legal merits of such a case. Like most everything else in life, what exists is a mixed bag: while many authors will not tolerate fan fiction -- Orson Scott Card and Diane Gabaldon among them -- others do cheerfully. And it's not always in an author's best interest to try to eradicate it like so many weeds in the garden. Fan fiction is a reflection of fan interest, and there's an argument to be made that anything that drives fan interest drives sales, too.

In any case, the question of infringement on copyright and other legal matters seem to be of less concern to the average reader than does the issue of the ethics. If you haven't read the books in question, it seems like a straightforward enough issue, and most Americans would probably agree that it is unethical to try to profit from a work that isn't wholly your own creation. Part of the derisiveness in this case is undoubtedly due to the huge sums of money involved: if James wasn't getting millions (purportedly) for her work, it probably wouldn't matter to anyone except James and the author of the original story.

And, since James changed the main characters of her story from Bella and Edward to Ana and Christian, you might wonder what benefit she is actually getting from Twilight. There is the little matter of her fan base, which was built in Twilight fan fiction enclaves. That is the primary benefit for writers of fan fiction, I would argue: they're leapfrogging over the incredibly hard business of actually building an audience by piggybacking on the work done by someone else. As a recent debut novelist, I can attest to the fact it is much harder to convince people to read your work than it is to actually write it. For that reason, if nothing else, James owes a great deal to Meyer. If there had never been Twilight, very few people would give a fig about Fifty Shades.

Of course, this gets to the issue of how do you define an idea as original? In graduate school, I was taught that there were only two plots in all of fiction (or four, or sixteen, take your pick) and that the art was not in the what of the story but in the how, as in how you told your story. That's the reason we, as readers, can put up with all the retelling that goes on in literature: we look for artfulness in the telling. Think of all the stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, Odysseus, or some version of a Jane Austen character (or Jane Austen herself). Do you think you could come up with the litmus test that would differentiate any of them from fan fiction?

You might argue that we are living in a boom time for repurposed characters. What are television's Merlin and Sherlock Holmes series if not elaborate forms of fan fiction? Disney might be the bigger purveyor of fan fiction there is, their mega-hit movies blatant retellings of fairy and folk tales. Doesn't this foster an atmosphere that encourages individuals to appropriate a story and make it their own?

The point of this post was not to come up with a definitive answer to the ethical and legal questions raised by the monetization of Fifty Shades of Grey, but to try to illustrate what a tangled mess of issues it raises. And, in the spirit of this very blog post, I will freely disclose that there was a much more comprehensive piece on fan fiction written by Lev Grossman in July 2011. Is this blog post fan non-fiction, or merely derivative? I'll let you decide.

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