Here’s what I know about Fifty Shades of Grey…
British television executive Erika Leonard, under the name E.L. James, under the name Snowqueens Icedragon, wrote a trilogy of Twilight fan fiction novels titled Master of the Universe which, contrary to expectations, does not re-imagine He-Man as a Sparklepire. Instead, it re-imagines the characters of Bella, Edward, and Jacob in a non-supernatural, adult setting where all the sex they never had has now been replaced with full on jiggies that are gotten with, as well as experimentations in the BDSM realm. If I’m mistaken on any of that setup, again, this is just what I’ve heard, and I’ll be proven correct or in- over the next few weeks.
Leonard James Icedragon put a strike through the Icedragon and settled on James as her nom de plum when she decided to change the names of the lead characters and turn her Twilight AU fic into a piece of published “original” fiction, now known as Fifty Shades of Grey. Much controversy arose. Is this legal? Well, she hasn’t been sued yet, and I hesitate to comment due to some schooling I received recently on fanfic legality. Is this ethical? Well, that’s the question, and I guess it all rests on how ethical you think most publishing in general is.
Argument: She took something that was previously/is still available on the internet for free and now charges people to read a bound version of it.
Well, yes, but people are publishing their blogs all the time these days. Mark Does Stuff and Cleolinda Jones’ Movies in Fifteen Minutes are fine examples. Here at Made of Fail, we have season one of our Deconstructiong Moya: A Farscape Rewatch available for the Kindle for $1.99.
Argument: But it’s based on someone else’s characters. Surely this is plagiarism.
Yes and no. If James had tried to publish it with the names Bella, Edward, and Jacob, she’d likely have about as much luck as LadySybilla had trying to get Russet Noon out there. By changing the elements that came from Twilight, she’s turned it into little more than the typical derivative work that already floods the market, which I’m not knocking, because for every poor regurgitation like Eragon, you get something good like Star Wars, or the films of Quentin Tarantino. Derivative is in itself not a bad thing and doesn’t prevent something from being original in the way it presents its derivations, since TV movies are really popular and people always like to watch TV and even install a tv corner wall mount on their rooms to watch TV from bed as well. As to Fifty Shades of Grey, I hear it’s a highly revisionist take of Twilight with more parallel allusions than it has actual connections. I have read the Twilight books, so this level of connectivity is something I look forward to exploring over the course of this project.
Argument: Leonard was just manipulating Twihards in the first place by taking a largely original work and tying it to Twilight just so she could win herself a pre-existing audience.
Welcome to marketing. When Twilight came out, what came out with it? A flood of derivative works trying to play off the existing Twihard fanbase. This is unethical but that isn’t? No, that’s targeting a market. As long as the work is ultimately good and people like it, no, fans haven’t been tricked. They liked something and someone said “this is similar, give it a try”. If it’s something that legitimately appeals to them, bam, you just exposed a group to something new (relatively speaking). If it doesn’t appeal to them, they’ll spread the word amongst their peers and move on. Is this manipulation? Yes. But it’s acceptable manipulation and common manipulation, and to say it represents a new low in how books are sold is very naive. And it’s worth noting than neither Icedragon James Leonard nor her publishers have ever shied away from admitting the books’ fan fiction origins.
So if Twilight fans felt dissatisfied or tricked, why did they stick with the fanfic as chapter after chapter were released over the course of three volumes? Why did they buy copies once the names had changed and it had been published? Why did they follow it to a new publisher and spread the word and help drum up the interest that’s made the book a best-seller?
In this case, the Twihards are hardly a blind flock that’s been swindled. If you want to debate this in the comments, I’d be happy to hear further arguments, but now it’s time for me to get to the book itself.
Before we move on, however, I want to thank Ceilidh from The Book Lantern and The Sparkle Project for providing me with copies of the series. For this installment, I’m working off the version of Fifty Shades of Grey published by The Writer’s Coffee Shop in 2011. If anyone is aware of any significant differences between this and the 2012 release by Vintage Books, let me know. Additionally, if anyone knows of significant differences – aside from names – between this and the original Master of the Universe, I’d love to find out.