You Did it for Love (of Money): Or, Why E.L. James is a Disgrace to Fandom Culture

As I wait for Tusk to wander onto VOD and into my waiting arms (that I may better fill out the back-burnered essay about its creation), I find myself looking ahead to Kevin Smith’s filmography-to-be. The record so far stands at one anticipated (Yoga Hosers, because damned if I’m not starved for more supernatural-comedies-with-female-leads), one indifferent (we’ll see how the trailer for Krampus looks), and one perturbed (Moose Jaws). In case you were wondering, your first instinct on that last one is correct. It’s Jaws with a moose.

At first I couldn’t figure out why this set me on edge. There’s enormous historical precedent for comedic film riffs that basically lift the plot of a famous film – from genre classics conceived in love, like Young Frankenstein, to smirking exercises in nose snubbing a la Scary Movie. It’s an accepted Thing That Happens.

And while I’m not sure the joke at the heart of Moose Jaws will be enough to carry it, I’m entirely confident that Smith’s too earnest about it to go ripping people off (see also: his glorious Blues Brothers homage in Clerks II) – any nods he makes will be trumpeted from the rooftops. This, of course, is when it hit me. Those movies I mentioned before were not made at a time when one of the best-selling bits of popular culture was a flagrant and unadmitted bit of thievery. Yeah. 50 Shades of Grey is ruining Kevin Smith movies for me. And with that damnable movie coming out, it seems like time we had a talk.

Never has it been more satisfying to remember that Valentine’s Day was named after an executed man
and served as the moniker of a gruesome massacre.

For those of you not in the know, EL James three 50 Shades novels (…of Grey, Darker, and Freed) were originally written as an AU (alternate universe – wherein you take a story’s characters and core concepts and put them in a new situation – this encompasses stuff like the Wish Verse in Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well as idling thoughts like ‘hey what if these grown adults were actually in high school’) fanfiction called Master of the Universe.

The fic was popular, so James took out the character names and most overt references to Twilight (sparkly vamps and all) and tried to turn a buck off of her little project. And in case you’re looking to quibble, it is provably damn near the same thing, just different enough to skirt under the legal radar. Ah, you might say, but so what? The point of an AU is it puts familiar characters in new situations – why, that might make them different altogether! To which I would say: a clumsy main character meets a mysterious guy with a dark secret, and…oh, you know what, it’ll just be faster if you read these (bonus for the fact that big chunks of 50 Shades the fanfic just regurgitate the basic structure of Stephanie Meyer’s books!). The short of it is, while the names were changed and the vampires removed, the character roles and relationships are pretty much intact. So much for saying it’s its own work.


E.L. James: Industrially closing the gap between writer and opportunistic sleazebag

But isn’t that what people do all the time? From Sherlock to Hook, there are all kinds of skewed takes on characters we already know. At which point I must point out that when it comes to those works the creators are either long dead and the work is in the public domain (Sleepy Hollow, Hercules, Wicked, half of Once Upon a Time) or the still-living authors/owners have given all the necessary t-crossed blessings to the work in question (Hannibal, Wreck-it Ralph, the other half of Once Upon a Time). And while it may be the case that authors are magpies (if you are feeling kind) and thieves (if you are not), there is still a constant reshuffling of themes and motifs, combined with the author’s unique viewpoint, that continually remakes old ideas as something worth examining in new contexts.

In the case of 50 Shades (based, let us all never forget, on Twilight and its sequels) the connection is never acknowledged, and you can bet your ass Stephanie Meyer isn’t seeing a dime of those billions. Now, you may be saying ‘Vrai, you photophobic recluse, you don’t even like Twilight!’ And you would be right, because I find its damaging qualities as an influence on youth fairly disturbing before we even get into the dubious writing quality. But I respect Stephanie Meyer for coming up with it. Whatever I think of the thing I respect that she created it, and it offends me down to my very core to think of someone profiting off of her work without her consent – not just as a writer, but as a lover of fandom.

Pictured: every writer who has pointed out these issues and received the response ‘You’re Just Jealous’

Because here’s the thing: I think fanfiction is great! It’s a wonderful way for fans to share things with each other, from possibilities for shows that were cancelled prematurely to information that’s part of the show’s universe but not in the main body of work to explorations of things that the pacing of the narrative doesn’t leave time for (and porn – it is also the breeding ground of millions of cubic tons of porn). Fanfiction is one of the purest signs of devotion a fan can offer, and for writers of my generation it’s often a milestone of having ‘made it’ if someone loves your characters enough to want more of them. Deeper than that, it’s a great tool for aspiring writers to hone aspects of their craft like tone, voice, pacing, etc. without feeling the pressure of having to invent an entire world (you work up to that). Fanfiction is wonderful. Fanfiction is also free.

It is free because it has existed back and back and back, and before this age of social hiveminding we call the internet authors were incredibly leery of it. It was pretty common for authors to declare bans on the writing of fanfiction, and some even went out of their way to enforce that – Anne Rice is particularly infamous for her mad crusade to hunt down internet authors by way of internet lawyers. Not a lot of people are going to go to jail for that sort of thing, but it inevitably colors the nature of the community around a work. It shuts down sharing and discussion, things on which fan communities thrive. It’s a shame.

But the flip side of the coin is that those bans exist out of a fear of exactly the scenario we are now discussing. Authors crack down on fanworks because they’re afraid of their work being stolen from them, and the entire modern history of fandom has been spent trying to assuage those fears. Take a look at any fan archive written from the 2000s to present, and you’re bound to find the weirdest, most freewheeling stuff still carries a not-for-profit disclaimer.


Hold on, I’m starting to see little rage spots.
Let me get something to make that better

E.L. James spits in the face of every one of those fans. Her juggernaut success provides a very good reason for authors to indulge in those fears of theft, and to attempt to restrict fan activity – which again, does not work, but has a negative impact on the author/audience dynamic. At the same time that success serves as a kind of ‘hey, why don’t I do that!’ to other fanfiction writers who would very much like to make a lot of money from things they wrote for free. And thus do we have a nasty, fear-mongering cycle, with lawyers on both sides snapping for rights and the unfettered joy of fandom slowly being strangled to death in the crossfire.

That is plenty of reason to loathe these books. The lack of ethics baked into the publication of James’ work need not involve questions of the books’ quality, or the fact that they have become a popular icon of BDSM sexuality despite James having done no research on the lifestyle (this being a universe where safe words are ignored, after care is not a thing, and BDSM sexuality is a thing one is apparently into because they were sexually abused), or that the relationship at the core of the books is a harrowing tale of abuse.

Even if the books represent a guilty pleasure to you, even if you are confident that those above factors will have a minimal effect on your mindset, there is no denying that these books are theft. Theft without acknowledgment, without permission, and without remorse. And I cannot, as an author or a fan, stand by and watch that. Hell, 50 people might see this post and that will be the end of it, but it’s worth telling anyone who will listen: don’t buy these books. Don’t see that movie. Buy Twilight. Buy yourself some BDSM erotica by someone who uses research. Buy silk ties and spreader bars! But don’t support an author who is a detriment to the craft, to the work that she supposedly loved enough to create fanfiction for it, and to the very concept of fan identity.

13 replies »

  1. This was a super post. I am unaware about a number of the trends that you wrote about. I do not plan on seeing or reading that “50 shades” thing anyway.

    I loved your line about “genre classics conceived in love, like Young Frankenstein”. It had woke me up, to notice that Yes, most parodies these days are way too mean-spirited. Where is the fun, and love of the genres being spoofed?

    Oh, my little fingers are like concrete today —

    • I think the Wayan brothers might’ve chased it out of film with the success of Scary Movie and its bastard brethren, but I’m not sure it’s gone completely (I did think of Shaun of the Dead, but that’s really more a romantic comedy with zombies, which is part of what makes it work so well).
      I do think there’s still a real love and affection in some of the most successful Abridged Series (particularly DBZ and YuGiOh). And the wave of the caustic internet critic did some shaping as to how mocking is done – but your Yahtzees and Doug Walkers tend to have an intelligent thoughtfulness to the way they critique that gets…shall we say diminishing returns in copycats (and of course there are critics like Kyle Kallgren, who’s wonderful at appreciating the beauty in things he also critiques).

  2. I hate to defend EL James, and I suppose I’m not, really, but Cassandra Clare is really the ultimate “magpie.” Fanfiction that plagiarizes from well-known fan favorites, then original works that recycle the fanfiction plots. Wheels within wheels!

    Clare’s original work isn’t as well-known as James’s, but I don’t think that exculpates her. (That, and I think 50 Shades owes as much to boardroom bodicerippers as it does to Twilight–the “mean boss falls in love with possibly brain-dead virgin” trope is as old as the hills, at least in the romance community. Where does trope use stop and plagiarism begin?)

    • Oh, I’ve heard of Clare – i recall hearing tell about all that, with full sympathy to the wounded parties. And I’d direct the same ire toward her, because that shit is not okay in terms of fanwork codes of honor.
      That said, EL James ended up stealing material for what is now one of the highest grossing series of all time, and has let loose a whole host of intensely disturbing thematic misrepresentation into the world at the same time (reputation aside, I can’t speak to the competency of Clare;s writing as I can James’…which is to say, none).

    • Oh! It is a good point re: romance being extremely boilerplate. But I think in this case we can very clearly draw the line based on intent – we have existing characters being married to a boilerplate, and then those characters are renamed to make great deals of money. It’s a lot more blatantly dishonest than just someone writing a beat for beat genre piece.
      (And now I wish belatedly that I was properly equipped to read Clare the riot act as well).

  3. I’d like to slow clap for this post. As with Cassandra Clare, it’s a weird, weird realm when you get into drawing the line between workshopping previous writing into a novel for publication, being inspired by a pre-existing piece you’re a fan of, and outright theft. I agree with you wholeheartedly about fanfiction and fan culture though–and what you’ve pointed out makes me really quite worried for the future of this fan-author relationship, and lord, the fan-author stigma. As if I needed any more reason to be annoyed that this movie exists.

    • At the risk of devaluing my ‘compassionate critic’ schtick…it does kind of fill one with a combined sense of befuddled terror and ‘we can’t have nice things’ rage, doesn’t it?
      At this point my best guess is that there’ll be increased attempts to regulate fan production or at least to create a hierarchy (Supernatural and World of Warcraft have already gotten free creative labor under the guise of ‘fan contribution,’ after all).

  4. I… really don’t get why sharing a similar structure is grounds for theft just because it used to be fanfiction.

    There are a lot of shows that have similar characters, similar relationships, and it’s usually called a formula instead of theft. I’d say the easiest way to stamp in that shows tend to repeat stuff again, and again, and again, is to link you to It’s a bit like Wikipedia for elements of media.

    Every bumbling dad figure.

    And the shows or movies that you mentioned that borrow very heavily from other people’s writing.

    Aaaand don’t forget Superman, Batman and Spiderman, creations of an artist which were subsequently rented out to so many people that canon breaks down and periodic reboots are necessary.

    • Well, except for the fact that this was provably fanfiction. Building off someone else’s intellectual property in order to make a profit. The antithesis of what fanfiction and respectful fan behavior is meant to be. One character is an homage. an entire network of relationships and relative roles lifted from another story with different names pasted on is backhanded, sleazy theft.

  5. I don’t disagree with you regarding E.L James, but if you look into the backstory of 50 Shades she had some co-conspirators who are just as guilty. In particular an Australian publisher named Amanda Hayward who seems to have started looking at ways to monetize fanfic about 5 seconds after discovering it. The history of the Writers Coffee Shop (the original publishers of 50 Shades back when it wasn’t pretending not to be fanfiction) makes for more interesting reading than anything they actually published. It’s kind of hilarious that they’re all suing each other now though.

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