Fifty Shades of Fan Fiction: Publishing Porn

By Victoria Knobloch

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-day series about fan fiction and the publishing industry.

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As of April 22, “Fifty Shades of Grey” has spent four weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. The story of young Anastasia Steele’s rough romance with billionaire playboy Christian Grey is a classic one of girl-meets-roguishly-handsome -suitor, suitor wishes to tie her up and whip her, girl faces internal conflict about bondage verses love. Vintage Books will be re-releasing the trilogy of which “Fifty Shades” is the first installment, for which they paid seven figures. And now author E.L. James has been offered $5 million dollars for the movie rights.

Why is “Fifty Shades” such a sensation? Maybe it’s the racy content. Maybe it’s that housewives can read that racy content on the privacy of their e-readers. Maybe it’s that American women have a secret urge to be dominated. But maybe it’s because Anastasia Steele came into literary existence as Bella Swan, and Christian Grey once bore the name Edward Cullen.

Originally published as “Master of the Universe” on fanfiction.net, “Fifty Shades” has gone through some cosmetic edits. Before publishing houses and movie studios decided to throw money at her, James was just another “fan fiction” writer, posting original stories with familiar characters to be read by other fans on the internet. A few name swaps, total removal of the vampire element, and bam! You’ve got yourself a bestseller.

The success of “Fifty Shades” has caused a flurry of news pieces about the long reaching implications of the book. After moving from fanfiction.net to her own personal website, James found initial commercial success when she began to self publish. The copy of the book on shelves now is distributed by indie publisher, Australia’s Writer’s Coffee Shop Publishing. That “Fifty Shades” shot to the top without the support or promotion of a major publishing house has many speculating on the future of big publishing verses indie and self-published titles.

Others find something remarkable in the idea that women have brought this book such financial success. Why it is news to anyone that women want to read sexy books is beyond me, as the romance novel market thrives on this very principle. Despite women being half the population, some men folk are still thrown by ladies who like porn. But romance novels aside, “Fifty Shades” origins lead to a world where young women devour pornographic writing.

I read my first piece of fan fiction around the age of 12 or 13. I had been granted freedom to roam the Internet, perhaps more freedom than was wise. I don’t remember how I came upon it, but I know Harry Potter was involved. And a reference to wands that had nothing to do with casting spells.

In a world where months and years can pass between installments of books and movies and writers take unsatisfying plot turns and kill off beloved characters, fans decided to take fictional destiny into their own hands. Sometimes it’s just playing with existing characters in the established universe, filling in missing scenes or dabbling in what might have occurred after happily ever after.

Other times, fan fiction writers take established characters and place them in an alternate universe. Bilbo and Sam become high school students in the 1980s. Holmes and Watson become professional tennis players. The My Little Ponies go to Saratoga.

And in what is perhaps the backbone of fan fiction, a writer will place two – or more! – characters, whether they are canonically together or not, into a romantic situation. Perhaps more often than you would think, this evolves into a situation worthy of an NC-17 rating.

Didn’t think there was enough gay sex in Lord of the Rings? Man, do I have the fan subculture for you.

Fan fiction in its current incarnation dates back to the 1960s, when fanzines circulated with fan fiction. “Spockanalia,” a fanzine for the original series of Star Trek was first printed in 1967, and included fan works, including drawings and fan fiction. Other early Star Trek fanworks brought terms that are commonly used to this day, including “slash,” which references a gay relationship, as in Kirk/Spock. Known for its particularly fanatical fans, there is no surprise Star Trek birthed many of the traditions of modern fan communities.

But fan-inspired works go way back, to authorized, non-Arthur Conan Doyle written Sherlock Holmes novels and “Scarlett,” the authorized sequel to “Gone with the Wind.”

Still, fan works came into their own with the advent of internet culture. With the ability to share and comment with viral speed, fan communities flourished. And just like other pornographic material, erotic fan fiction found a happy home on the Internet.

With strong communities forming around shows like “The X-Files” as early as 1994, Internet fandom is close to 17 years old, if not older. Many women of my generation became involved in Internet fandom in the early 2000s, often through Harry Potter. That means there is a swath of women out there in their 20s who grew up reading and writing fan fiction.

For many fan fiction writers today, participating in fandom is a hobby, albeit a time consuming one. They have no desire to do what James has done, or even venture into original fiction. But for another subset of writers, fan fiction has been a training ground for becoming a professional writer. It is these writers, prolific, talented, and with a knack for the erotic, that may influence the future of publishing.

This is the first part of a two-day series. Victoria Knobloch is the Opinion/Editorial editor and can be reached at [email protected]