Whose story is it anyway? by Sara Veal
07 June 2012
I'm one of those busybody readers: the kind that has no shame in peering over fellow commuters' shoulders to investigate a hyperbolic headline. The sort that absolutely has to read what everyone else is reading ... even if it sounds dreadful. Especially if it sounds dreadful, if I'm honest. I love a good bandwagon. So, as soon as I heard about mummy porn extravaganza 'Fifty Shades of Grey', I naturally jumped on board. I read the trilogy within a week, hoping that fellow commuters weren't peering over my shoulder.
I wasn't impressed, but I hadn't expected to be. I was mainly curious because I had heard that 'Fifty Shades' began life as 'Twilight' fanfiction and yet was BDSM erotica - the natural extension of Bella and Edward's codependency? Maybe, but it didn't exactly sound like a recipe for a blockbuster and I wondered how the publishers had gotten away with the brand association. I also wondered why there was all this nattering about fanfiction as if it were a publishing gold mine. Don't get me wrong, I adore fanfiction. I love that it exists. I can still clearly and fondly recall my first experience of the genre. I so wanted Mulder and Scully to get together and, lo and behold, my wish was fulfilled, sort of, on an 'X-Files' fan site. I even had a brief, heady reign as fanfiction queen of a Crash Bandicoot forum, so I know a little of what E. L. James is experiencing, fame and fortune-wise ... a very little ...
But, should a work of fanfiction like 'Fifty Shades' be 'officially' published? And for profit at that, which apparently contravenes one of the genre’s few tenets?
What is fanfiction anyway, as opposed to, say, homage, parody or pastiche? 'Wide Sargasso Sea' by Jean Rhys could be described as 'Jane Eyre' fanfictio, but it's widely regarded as a great work in its own right. The first book in Jasper Fforde's terrific Thursday Next series, 'The Eyre Affair', owes essential plot points to Bronte's classic while remaining a world and style apart. In fact, 'Fifty Shades' itself can be viewed as something of a 'Jane Eyre' homage.
I guess for me what defines fanfiction is the fact that it is mostly derivative. Both 'Wide Sargasso Sea' and 'The Eyre Affair' may have their roots in 'Jane Eyre', but they use the shared elements to propel their own stories in unexpected directions in distinctive authorial voices.
That's not to say that there isn't such a thing as unexpected, distinctively-voiced fanfiction. What is for certain is that 'Fifty Shades' isn't it. The names may be different, there may be gratuitous sex instead of fangs or claws, but otherwise, the characters and setting are very much like Stephenie Meyer's and James' prose is decidedly flat (again, much like Meyer's). Even with all that bondage, I doubt 'Fifty Shades' would have attracted such attention without the 'Twilight' association, both pre- and post-publication.
But if Meyer doesn't give a damn, I probably shouldn't either. Still, I am hoping that 'Fifty Shades' doesn't represent a trend towards explicitly derivative works in mainstream publishing. It might sound hopelessly naive, but if publishers are looking to get rich quick, perhaps they should avoid letting the golden eggs eat the goose. There may be no such thing as a truly original story, but surely that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.