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Sex & Low Beach
by Suze Myers
Fifty Shades of Grey has more in common with Dante’s Inferno than you might think.
It’s no secret that Dante was a diehard fan of antiquity. When penning Inferno, the Italian poet borrowed classical characters—both real, like Virgil, and fictional, like Ulysses—and dropped them into his Christian conception of hell.
Borrowed characters, unexpected crossovers, and alternate universes also abound in the fan fiction forums where E. L. James got her start as a writer. Fan fiction, or “fanfic,” is the term used to describe stories written by nonprofessionals about characters or settings that are derived from one or more pre-existing sources. James chose a popular source text, Twilight. Under the pseudonym Snowqueens Icedragon, she reimagined Edward and Bella as a rich entrepreneur and a college student, respectively. The story follows the predictable arc of a romance, but James pushes the familiar characters into explicitly sexual territory, where the source text wouldn’t dare tread.
In June 2011, Fifty Shades of Grey was published in all of its sadomasochistic glory. The international best-seller is scorned as “mommy porn,” and some critics have also slammed the novel for its origins as a Twilight fanfic. These skeptics challenge the transition of fan fiction into the publishing world on the grounds of both copyright law and creativity.
“The problem is that people who make these kinds of accusations base them on the assumption that the fan fiction stories in question were dependent on the universe of the book they were inspired by,” Elizabeth Harper, president of Omnific Publishing, wrote in an email. Omnific has published various romance novels that began as Internet fan fiction, though Harper believes that these works “do not infringe on anyone’s copyright.”
“Ultimately, the names are often the only thing these fan fiction stories shared in common with the original works,” Harper said. “We have male leads ranging from a moody professor to a playboy photographer, from a cocky bartender to a successful doctor, from a millionaire advertising executive to a homeless man living at a train station. Each of these men was named Edward in a former version of their manuscript, but none of them are Twilight’s Edward Cullen.”
Fan fiction writers often envision characters like Edward in alternative universes where the names may be the only tie to the source text. In fact, there are no vampires or other Twilight mainstays in Fifty Shades of Grey.
The freedom to expand a favorite novel by reimagining its settings and characters is not the only appeal of writing fan fiction; according to Anne Jamison, a 1990 alumna of Barnard College and an associate professor of English at the University of Utah, fan fiction writers are also driven by “a spirit of exchange and collaboration.” For example, FanFiction.net, the largest and most popular fan fiction site at over 2 million members, allows users to message each other and to leave reviews for stories. “This community and the feedback it gives is a big part of fan fiction today,” Jamison says. “Sometimes writing fan fiction helps a writer find the confidence to try writing professionally.”
This was precisely the experience of Nicki Elson, author of Twific-turned-novel Three Daves (Omnific). “The feedback helped me to know that the story was enjoyable to more people than just me,” Elson wrote in an email. “Confidence turns out to be one of the most important assets a writer can possess, and yet also one of the most elusive.”
Because of its unique possibilities for the development of author confidence, creativity, and collaboration, fan fiction has sparked scholarship and academic research. Jamison teaches the course Theories of Popular Culture at the University of Utah, which includes a unit on Twilight fan fiction. Interestingly, Jamison selected "Master of the Universe” by Snowqueens Icedragon for the syllabus, even before it was published almost word-for-word as Fifty Shades of Grey.
She felt that in its fan fiction form, the text offered an interesting commentary on Twilight, though the current published novel precludes this interpretation. “I think once you change the names, take it out of a community that shares characters and imagery, and present it for sale as a stand-alone novel (or three), it really changes the reading experience—and not necessarily for the better,” Jamison wrote in an email.
The close relationship to both a source text and an online community are precisely what make fan fiction a unique literary medium and a burgeoning field of study. Transformative Works and Cultures, started in 2008, is an international peer-reviewed journal that, according to its website, “publishes articles about popular media, fan communities, and transformative works, broadly conceived.” Both the journal’s editorial board and authors are interdisciplinary. Articles published in the journal have explored queer politics, fan fiction authors’ claim to power, and other aspects of this diverse mode of writing—one that extends far beyond the pornographic text with which many associate it.
Karen Hellekson, Ph.D., an editor of the journal, wrote in an email, “Although I’m glad that Fifty Shades of Grey has caused interest in the fan fiction phenomenon, I also worry that the prurient, overtly sexual, often violent nature of the text reflects badly on fan fiction in general, because it’s not representative of fan fiction or the impetus to write it.”
Fans are inspired to write fiction in order to continue experiencing a text, its characters, and settings. Often, they write for themselves and for fellow fans, with no pretensions of achieving fame comparable to their source texts’ authors. Fan fiction’s forays into the worlds of publishing and academia, however, show that it is a broader cultural phenomenon that appeals to more than the fans alone.
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