So, as many people know, E.L. James' 50 Shades of Grey trilogy was originally posted as a Twilight fanfic over on The PIt of Voles. She then did some name-swapping and made Jacob really hilariously Mexican (every time he appears, it's like, '"Hola blah blah amiga blah blah pura vida!" said Jose, who was Mexican in case that wasn't bleedingly obvious already.') and published the thing. The origins of James' story, as well as the usage of her Twilight fanbase to create her initial surge of popularity, have both been controversial issues.
I was linked to this article today by one of my comms, and while a bit on long side, it takes a great look into the situation (and treats fanfiction with some sensitivity if not respect, unlike many other articles you'll read). I would recommend you all read it. My post is primarily a reaction to that article.
Below the cut are my off-the-cuff thoughts on fanfiction, publishing, and why I don't feel even a little bit guilty for not paying to read 50 Shades of Grey. I'd love to debate this further and hear responses from you guys, so please comment!
(Also, before I begin, can anyone tell me why everyone in fandom says 'fanfiction' but when people not in the fandom write about us they say 'fan fiction'? Is it just because the term makes more sense as two words?)
I have no problem with fanfiction. Obviously. I think it's a great way for fans to express their love for other peoples' creations, for people to practice writing and get feedback on it, and to exist as a hobbyist writer but not in isolation. The idea of ‘copyrighted literature’ is a very modern and Western concept (originating no doubt concurrently with the ability make money from writing). There is strong evidence to support the idea that in many B.C.E. cultures, writing works under the name of a famous author was considered to be the highest homage you could pay to the author. Fanfiction is much the same. At the heart of it all, fanfiction is created out of love for both the craft of writing and for the worlds and characters already created by others.
I also don’t have a problem with fanfiction authors going on to publish original works. If I approve of fanfiction as a method of practice, then it would be pretty dumb of me to disapprove of the eventual result of that practice. I think it's great that Cassandra Clare realized her dream of becoming a published author. Good for her.
I also don’t have a problem with the fact that some of Clare’s popularity may have originally stemmed from her popularity in fandom. Becoming popular on the internet and then using those fans to boost you into fame off the internet is not at all a crime—people do it all the time outside of the world of writing. Furthermore, Clare was a BNF, and in the Harry Potter fandom no less. We can also probably assume that James was a BNF in the Twilight fandom, given the supposed 37,000 reviews. HP and Twilight are the two largest fandoms on The Pit by a wide margin, and probably, these are the only two fandoms large enough to even have a chance of launching an author into success. BNFs in fandoms as large as these are also few in number. So, quite honestly, I don’t think we need to be concerned that Clare and James are going to start a trend of authors gaining success due to fandom support from their fanfiction days.
If you don’t believe me, check out all the other authors who have tried to transition from fanfiction to original work. The vast majority of them are still self-publishing using Amazon’s CreatSpace eBook program.
As for whether or not an author should, following publishing, take down their works of fanfiction, is not something I want to delve into too deeply. Clare took down her works, probably at the behest of her agent, but many fanfiction authors who self-publish and achieve no fame whatsoever also maintain their fanfictional works. Having listened to a few NPR interviews and read a few articles by lawyers on the subject, I get the sense that fanfiction is 90% legal, and that if anyone were to actually sue, they’d have to have a pretty good lawyer and a pretty crotchety judge to win. So in theory it’s totes okay to leave your fanfiction up.
That being said, this has never actually been tested in court. The fact that fanfiction is not done for profit, and that the author also risks serious alienation of fans in suing, has kept this from the courtroom so far. So for now it’s a sketchy area no one’s really touching, and it’s likely that Clare took down her works as either a cautionary measure, or to separate herself from her previous online persona. (James took her works down as well, but that was sort of necessary for her publishing 50 Shades of Grey.)
This "filing off the serial number" business, as seen in 50 Shades of Grey, is trickier. This is a disturbingly long list of Twilight fics that had the names swapped out and were then published as either real books or eBooks. Yes, E.L. James is on this list. Don’t worry, though, the rest are pretty much all eBooks on Amazon.
My gut reaction to this is annoyance. When I look to published works, I expect to read something that is truly unique—and if I fall in love with that unique quality, then I look to fanfiction to give me ten thousand variations on it. In publishing name-swapped fanfiction, you are publishing a variation and I’m not interested in paying for it. You don’t deserve my money because you didn’t create those characters—you borrowed them from someone else.
(And yes, I am aware that this argument rests on the supposition that all literature published is unique. I am aware that there are many books published today are formulaic and derivative and have stock characters. Shhh. Reality is for squares.)
Also, the motives behind publishing name-swapped fanfiction bother me. What do authors gain from publishing their books like this? They get to call themselves a ‘published author’, they might make a bit of money, and okay, this might eventually provide a springboard for a full-time job as a writer and potential fame, but realistically that’s unlikely. Most importantly, though, none of these motivations jive with what I consider to be the spirit of fanfiction. It’s a cheap way to try to elevate yourself above the unpublished masses, and shows that you have no idea what it truly means to be a published author.
One of the most common arguments in defense of E.L. James is that in taking Edward and Bella and placing them in a difference universe, she removes herself far enough from the world of Twilight that she can call the characters her own. Almost all of the books on the list linked above are AUs. And, after all, any good fanfiction author will know that the fun of the AU is seeing how characters are changed by different universes—in effect, the AU creates a variation on the original character. So, if you have these variant characters and a completely new universe, does this constitute original, publishable fiction?
I say no. The reason that we love fanfiction is, as I said above, because we get to explore a thousand variations on whatever unique quality made us fall in love with that particular book/film/show. Drift too far from those unique qualities and you’ll find your fanfiction very unpopular. Therefore, when creating an AU, in order to remain palatable to your fandom audience you need to find a way to recreate at least some of those beloved unique qualities in your new universe, otherwise you really have no reason to set your story in that particular fandom, and your story loses its validity as fanfiction.
These ‘unique qualities’ that I keep referring to are dependent on the fandom, but are very, very often a certain dynamic between characters, or between a character and a situation. Dynamics are almost completely dependent on characters’ personalities. So while AUs may produce a variant on the original character, to strip them of the core elements of their personality—the building blocks of the unique quality that drew us to the fandom in the first place—would be to create fanfiction that really has no business being fanfiction.
Ergo, if in order to have a successful fanfiction AU you must retain the core personalities of the original characters, then you cannot consider these variant characters to be separate of the original work. If in order to have a successful fanfiction AU you must retain the unique elements that made the fandom love it and made it publishable in the first place, then you cannot consider this an original work. It is still fanfiction. You are still borrowing.
So, in conclusion, I have no problem with fanfiction, or fanfiction authors who go on to publish original works, or authors who use a fandom fanbase to help them be successful in the world of original fiction. I do have problems with publishing fanfiction as original fiction because I think it simultaneously goes against the spirit of fanfiction and cheapens what it means to be a published author. If you want to write fanfiction, do it because you love writing and you love your fandom. If you want to write original fiction, put in the effort to make your own characters and your own universe, and then I’ll think about paying to read it.