Apparently I have had my head in the sand as I am just recently discovering the controversy surrounding E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (Thanks Patty).
Originally dubbed Master of the Universe and posted on a fan fiction site, the author re-wrote the story and it was published in 2011 by a small publisher, The Writer’s Coffee Shop. It has already sold more than 250,000 copies, both paperback and e-book versions. The rights to the trilogy were recently purchased by U.S. publisher Vantage Press and will be released in the U.S. in April. E-book versions are already available.
There are two controversial points associated with this book. One is the explicit portrayal of the bondage/domination lifestyle that has some claiming it is “Mommy Porn” and the other is profiting from what was originally fan fiction. I have not read the books yet so I can’t speak to the sexual explicitness which is largely the more popular controversy. Click here to see the Today show segment.
The U.S. publishers of Fifty Shades are standing by the work:
“It is widely known that E.L James began to capture a following as a writer shortly after she posted her second fan fiction story,” Vintage said in a statement. “She subsequently took that story and re-wrote the work, with new characters and situations. That was the beginning of the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy. The great majority of readers, including fan fiction aficionados, have found ‘Fifty Shades’ deeply immersive and incredibly satisfying.” - Washington Post
Fan fiction is essentially taking a character or setting from an original work of another author and creating an alternate story. It is an internet phenomenon with sites such as Fanfiction.net immensely popular. Some authors such as J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer encourage fan fiction while there are other authors opposed to these stories.
I tend to think the idea of fan fiction is a good thing, is there a better form of flattery for an author? But, I think fans should respect each author’s feelings on fan fiction, if an author supports these writings, go for it. If a writer is opposed, their wishes should be respected.
In recent years there has been a hugely successful market on Jane Austen – with portrayals of vampires and zombies, not to mention the books written on Darcy alone. Granted, some works such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies give credit to Austen as a Co-author but other works such as Jane Bites Back and Death at Pemberely do not. Some of these books are labeled as Historical Fiction, but most are not. There is a definite argument that these are fan fiction novels yet they hardly cause the uproar that Fifty Shades has.
What makes these books different from Fifty Shades?
Just as Fifty Shades started as Bella and Edward re-imagined, these authors take Pride and Prejudice or another Austen work or character and create their own spin or setting. I haven’t seen any of these books labeled as fan fiction, yet they clearly are, just as the authors are clearly profiting and Jane Austen is long dead to collect any royalties.
So why is it that the Fifty Shades books are creating such a fire storm of controversy? Vantage Press claims James re-wrote the novels and Bella/Edward similarities have been taken out. Not the case for Austen fiction. The characters have the same names, same characteristics etc. Clearly works of fan fiction yet no controversy. If we want to take umbrage with fan fiction profiteering, shouldn’t we take it with the whole market and not just one individual author? When is it ok to profit from another author’s work and label it your own?