Fifty shades of literary grey area

Those following the latest chatter in the publishing world may have heard about the latest sensation in housewife readings, namely a trilogy of erotic romance novels called Fifty Shades of Grey, which some reviewers have poshly branded “Mommy Porn.” Originally, the books were self-published last year in print-on-demand paperback and eBook form, before it went viral through book clubs, resulting in a huge bidding war that ended last week with Random House snagging a seven-figure re-release deal through their Vintage imprint. Naturally, no hot book goes unnoticed by Hollywood—the Sarlacc Pit of ideas—so the author is now shopping it to various studios to turn it into the next talked about movie trilogy.

What does this have to do with Twilight? Well, much has also been written of the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey was originally written as a piece of fan fiction starring Edward Cullen and Bella Swan.

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Here’s how it started: In 2009, British mom Erika Leonard started a multi-chapter story called Master of the Universe on under the pen name Snowqueens Icedragon (complete with a Mortal Kombat Sub-Zero avatar). The gist of the story is that it re-imagines Bella Swan as a naive college grad living in Seattle, who then meets Edward Cullen, handsome CEO of a respected billion-dollar industrial company. Instead of being secretly a vampire, he’s secretly a dom with a dark sexual appetite and drags virginal Bella into his world of BDSM fetish.

Think of it as Twilight, but instead of Edward fighting the urge to drink Bella’s blood, he’s fighting the urge to handcuff her over his desk and spank her ass red with a studded paddle.

Re-imaginings are fairly common in the fanfic world, where fans of an existing work latch onto the characters, but not necessarily the plot or even the genre of those original works, and would put the characters in “what if” scenarios. In the sub-category of Twilight fanfic alone, Edward Cullen has been cast as a geeky tech support guy, a junkie punk rocker, a hardened convicted criminal, and even a foreign prince—often susceptible to whatever the women who write these stories fantasize their dreamboat to be, really.

Master of the Universe took the Twihards by storm and became the most popular story on Snowqueens Icedragon gained legions of fans from it and was even invited to the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con to be a part of the Twilight Fanfic panel.

In 2011, she decided to cash in: having proven that people like her story, she deleted Master of the Universe from in order to publish it in three parts as the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy (followed by Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed) under the more professional nom de plume EL James. Aside from getting a more polished edit, she also changed the names of the Twilight characters and some little details (Bella’s car model, her eye color) that might tread into copyright infringement, and presented her story as an original piece of erotica about Ana Steele, a naive college grad living in Seattle, who meets Christian Grey, handsome CEO of a respected billion-dollar industrial company who’s secretly a dom with a dark sexual appetite and drags virginal Ana into his world of BDSM fetish.

Given that there are no vampires or werewolves present in the story, everybody’s none the wiser. Except for her original fans from, some of whom are trying to call attention to the books’ humble beginnings. Random House, predictably, is trying to downplay the Twilight connection in anticipation of its April 3rd release, claiming that Fifty Shades of Grey went through a rewrite process to make it distinct and separate from Master of the Universe.

Of course, that’s just—to put it in publishing terms—bullshit. I was going to do a comparison between the two versions myself, but Jane Litte from Dear Author already did an impeccable job. Take a look at this random passage from the second book, compared to its predecessor:

I have survived Day Two Post Edward, and my first day at work. It has been a welcome distraction. The time has flown by in a haze of new faces, work to do and Mr. James Smith. He smiles down at me, his dark blue eyes twinkling, as he leans against my desk. ”Excellent work, Bella. I think we‘re going to make a great team.” He beams at me, knowingly. Somehow, I manage to curl my lips upwards in a semblance of a smile.

I have survived Day Three Post-Christian, and my first day at work. It has been a welcome distraction. The time has flown by in a haze of new faces, work to do, and Mr. Jack Hyde. Mr. Jack Hyde… he smiles down at me, his blue eyes twinkling, as he leans against my desk. ”Excellent work, Ana. I think we’re going to make a great team.” Somehow, I manage to curl my lips upward in a semblance of a smile.

According to student paper plagiarism checker, the two stories are 89% identical.

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So what’s the big deal? She wrote both versions, right? Legally, EL James and Random House are probably in the clear with Stephenie Meyer and Hachette, but what about ethically? Disregarding the fact that it’s Twilight for a second, this is actually a pretty interesting ethical quandary in general, and why I find the whole thing very interesting. Should fanfiction be used as a workshop for aspiring writers to test their stories?

Plenty of writers started out as fanfic writers and then “graduated” to writing their own material. Marjorie M. Liu famously dabbled in X-Men fanfic before Marvel actually hired her to write X-Men books, but that’s a unique situation thanks to a shared universe. More often, it’d be like Cassandra Claire, who used to write Harry Potter fanfic and then became a New York Times best-selling YA novelist with characters of her own creation. Fanfiction can be a useful training ground, despite George R.R. Martin’s advice to the contrary:

The more you write, the better you’ll get. But don’t write in my universe, or Tolkien’s, or the Marvel universe, or the Star Trek universe, or any other borrowed background. Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out.

What I believe Martin was getting at is the fact that using other people’s work means you don’t go through the laborious process writers go through when they invent characters. This is what James bypassed: while the prose and plot are her own, she was using built-in preconceptions of the Twilight characters that allowed readers to come in with an already developed understanding of the players in her story. Not enough to infringe on legal copyright, but enough to ride the coattails.

Remember Frank Miller’s Holy Terror? It was originally commissioned as a book about Batman fighting Al Qaeda, but after DC Comics dropped the project during its creation, Miller released it under a different publisher with an original superhero. It still didn’t fool anyone. The guy is obviously Batman sans bat ears, and it was hard for even the final product’s fans to separate their enjoyment from the understanding that they’re reading a Batman stand-in stomping terrorists. For all of Miller’s efforts to create his own distinct character, Holy Terror still indirectly benefited from the Batman genesis. It’s hard to argue that Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t doing the same.

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The world of fanfics is already on shaky grounds to begin with. polices itself by diligently removing content when asked by copyright holders (it thrives on Twilight and Harry Potter fanfic, which are allowed and even encouraged by Meyer and Rowling). The reason why fanfiction is widely excused and beloved is because it is first and foremost an expression of fandom. It’s a tribute to a universe or a character that a fan loves, rather than a writing endeavor that just happens to fit a pre-existing property. If you write slashfic between Kirk and Spock, it should primarily come from a place of love for Kirk and Spock and you want to share that with other people who feel the same, not because you feel that you have an important love story to tell and the chops to do it, and then arbitrarily assign it to Kirk and Spock.

It’s impossible to insist that Fifty Shades of Grey is separate from Twilight because the author wrote it, presumably, as a dedication to Twilight characters, targeted at Twilight fans. To take the story and then publish it by only replacing the names is arguably considered a violation of the implicit trust in the sharing of fanfic material, and understood by many members of the community as an unwritten no-no.

Others, however, see no issue with James doing this and are even cheering it on, fan-wanking at the possibility of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart playing Christian Grey and Ana Steele in the planned movie adaptation. Perhaps even wishing on the slim possibility of Summit Entertainment buying the rights to these books and re-adapting them back into a Twilight story in order to make further sequels, similar to how Disney bought the rights to Tim Powers’ novel On Stranger Tides and rewrote it into a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel. An unlikely scenario, admittedly, given Pattinson’s apparent dislike towards the franchise—he’d probably prefer to be done with everything Twilight once and for all after Breaking Dawn: Part II comes out later this year.

None of this is expected to put a stop to the Fifty Shades gravy train, but the ethics of it will probably continue to be questioned. Meanwhile, if you ever come across a Doctor Who fanfic allegedly written by me, please ignore any similarities it might have to my soon-to-be-published science-fiction erotic novel, The Wedding Night of Professor Creek Ballad, Sex Archaeologist.

This story was originally published on