Illustrations by Hannah Watanabe-Rocco
I believe in being a true fan. In unironic, unadulterated adoration. There is such a thing as taking your love too far, but I suspect my standards for normalcy are low. I say this because I am constantly amused by and am willing to defend fandom—and in the case of this particular blog, fanfiction. (Here’s a primer.)
The thunderous rise of the 50 Shades of Grey series, a trilogy of erotic novels that were originally Twilight fanfics, has put a spotlight on fanfic and the communities that spawn them. The conversations generated go like this: Are fictional characters copyrightable? (Not exactly.) Does filing the serial numbers off your fanfic mean it can be published as an original work of fiction? (I guess so.)
The latter point is a lot of people’s big beef with 50 Shades and the apparently rampant Twilight profic phenomenon. My main beef, however, is a little more grassroots…grassfed, even.
I think pulling your fanfic to publish it professionally stands in direct contradiction of what fanfic is.
A carefully laid out universe and cast of characters waiting to be molded into something new is one helluva creative prompt. And a surefire way for an amateur writer to get lots of eyes on their craft is to thrust it into a community of super-fans waiting to see their favorite stories expanded or renewed. Not many fanfic writers are destined for or even seeking mainstream success, though a fair few of them do make a career out of writing—be that original fiction, journalism, marketing copy, whatever. I don’t think I’m wrong in believing they see writing fanfic as, first and foremost, “joyful play.”
And when it comes to writing for fun, few venues can match fandom. With a little talent, a fanfic writer can gain a dedicated following, a pool of insightful reviewers, and maybe even a beta reader or two. This is because fanfic communities are inherently participatory. Encouragement, constructive criticism, and volunteer editing are currency in that economy. The writers aren’t getting paid, and readers know that the fuel that keeps them updating is reviews. In the end, a good fanfic is oftentimes as much a product of the community as it is a product of a single writer.
So when a story vanishes from ff.net then crops up at a bookstore with a price tag a few months later, it’s no wonder that fandom and the creators of the books, films, games, TV series, and comics that inspired them get pissed.
I bristle and hiss whenever popular authors like Anne Rice and George R.R. Martin come out against fanfic. Were I a real writer with characters and fictions, there would be no sincerer flattery than seeing someone turn my story into a crossover with Weeds then make all the het males kiss each other. What can I say? I’m new school. So I’m ashamed to admit that in the face of E.L. James making a jagillion dollars on her Twilight fanfic that suddenly…I see their point.
I doubt E.L. James is cutting into Stephenie Meyer’s livelihood, but she is certainly treading on her patent on abysmally written romances with intolerable lead characters. Combined with all the non-LDS sanctioned premarital sexy sex in 50 Shades, this could convince Stephenie Meyer to go back on her thumbs up to Twilight fanfic. If you’ll let me indulge a slippery slope theory for a moment…who’s to say other authors won’t follow? That The Powers That Be won’t try to cut these shenanigans off at the root with tighter copyright laws? And that, in the meantime, fans of fanfic won’t lose the will to participate, to support and uplift good writers that might opt to professionally publish fanfic from their vault rather than create truly original fiction?
E.L. James (or should I say Erika Leonard? [or should I say Snowqueens Icedragon?]) is by no means the first fanfic author to break the code, but she’s certainly the most high profile to date. Here’s hoping that her success neither kills fanfic nor inspires floods of double-derivative shitty romances. Because really, guys. I’ve had enough.