Fifty Shades of Fan Fiction: Writers and friends

By Victoria Knobloch


“Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James has been number one on the New York Times bestseller list for four weeks. People are talking – partly because it’s a pornographic work, partly because there are heavy bondage and sadism themes, and partly because it was originally published as a “Twilight” fan fiction. This is a discussion of the world it came from, and if the literary future holds a place for more fan fiction writers.

It is difficult to assess exactly how many fan fiction writers and readers there are out there, and to what demographic they belong. The anonymity of the Internet and the often pornographic nature of the content being shared means identities are kept secret. In 2009, fan fiction archive had 2.2 million accounts, and whether or not those accounts are active, both in reading and writing, is constantly changing and difficult to calculate.

And is far from the main place to find fanworks online. Livejournal, Dreamwidth, and more recently Tumblr – as well as several fandom specific archives – hold an unknown number of fics. Relatively new non-profit multifandom database Archive of Our Own (AO3) recently passed 40,000 users, who have contributed 332,300 works – including works besides fic – across over 8,800 fandoms, nearly doubling their number of users since September 2011. It was difficult to find a total number for stories on, but as a point of reference, as of 2012 there are upwards of 589,700 Harry Potter fan fictions alone, as the site has been an established archive for far longer.

Francesca Coppa, a member of the founding board of the Organization for Transformative Works, the organization behind AO3, and an associate professor of English at Muhlenberg College, said the archives cater to specific demographics.

“We know that fanfic-writing fandom in general and transformative works fandom broadly speaking is predominantly female: other than that, however, we see all ages –13-year-olds and grandmothers – all classes and races, and sexualities,” Coppa said.

The Organization for Transformative Works and Archive of Our Own were both founded on the principle that fans needed an infrastructure and space of their own.  Companies like Livejournal have a history of removing fan fiction due to content or copyright issues. Coppa said many of the sites currently used to share fanworks “are great, but they don’t have any particular loyalty to fandom and so are more likely to ignore us or hurt us if they feel legally or financially threatened.”

The need for a safe space may also speak to how fandom has been a home to women and minorities as well. Coppa quoted Henry Jenkins, a media scholar and professor at the University of Southern California, as saying that fan fiction is “the way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.”

Coppa added, “This is a system that does particular damage to women and minorities, who don’t see their stories or interests reflected as much in the mass media. I would add that fan fiction allows for people to customize fiction in a way that publishing doesn’t allow.”

Whether or not fandom is a home for fostering social justice is up for debate, but there is no doubt it is a space where many people feel comfortable and at home. Especially for young writers, the experience of writing fan fiction has built community and taught them to write through constructive feedback.

Networks of “betas,” people willing to read rough drafts of fic, are set up in individual fandoms. Not all fics are beta’d, but many go through this process of editing, character development and plot building. Then, a completed fic is published on, Livejournal, AO3 or another public place for fanworks, and readers and other writers will comment on the story. This cycle of writing for an audience and receiving reviews propels many writers to produce content and strive for excellence. While many, many fan fics fall far short of excellent, there is learning and improvement – as well as the occasional excellent writer. On AO3, an otherwise non-promoted fic can get over 100 views in 24 hours. That beats a writer’s workshop or MFA program any day, and the criticism may be just as strong, depending on what fandom you’re in.

Emma Grant, a 40-year-old fan fiction writer and organizer of Slashcast, a podcast about slash fan fiction, said writing fan fiction “absolutely” improved her writing ability. Grant is also a teacher at the University of Texas.

“People who write professionally get this sort of feedback through their training, writing groups, pre-readers and so on, but you can get an insane level of feedback when you post fan fiction online,” Grant said.

Dora, a 19-year-old sociology student also from Texas, agreed that the process of writing fan fic was beneficial to her as a writer.

“There’s an almost instant feedback when you post fic, and a majority of people offer constructive criticisms. Plus, with the beauty of online anonymity, no one has to know that they’re my mistakes,” she said.

Another fan fic writer, a 23-year-old woman from England, commented on the communal nature of the process.

“I’ve met some of my best friends in the world through being part of fic reading and writing fandom.”

This thriving world of writers and fans who sometimes create pornographic work has bolstered communities, formed friendships, harbored developing writers and created safe space for those ignored or mistreated by established fictional canons. And for the most part, it’s gone unnoticed by those outside of fandom. There will be a mocking blog post here, a sensational news story about women liking porn there, but largely it’s been dismissed.

And then “Fifty Shades of Grey,” an erotic BDSM novel birthed from fan fiction, sold for seven figures.

Of course, “Fifty Shades” in its current form is not a fan fic. It can’t be, for copyright reasons. But its roots are firmly planted in fan fiction, and there is a whole lot more where that came from.

“Fifty Shades,” is much like its mother work, “Twilight,” in that the writing leaves something to be desired. While some fic writers grow leaps and bounds through the process of posting, “Fifty Shades” author James never improved past Stephanie Meyer’s original, oft-criticized style. The writing is clumsy, simple and unintentionally funny. But it also pulls sales like Twilight, so credit where it’s due.

The primary problem with filing off the serial numbers and selling fan fic as original, is that the characters remain the same through any name change. Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey are the way they are because that’s how Bella Swan and Edward Cullen were, not because of any independent character development. True, they are put through a very different scenario in a slightly different world, but the characters only really come across as fully developed if you are familiar with the source material.

Straight up fan fiction does not have a future in commercial publishing for legal reasons, and name swapped fic may or may not survive more aggressive literary lawyers. But that does not mean the community of fan fiction writers has no part in the future of the ever growing and changing publishing industry.

Not every fan fic writer creates original fiction, and even amongst those who do, not all wish to seek publication. But there is a subset of writers, encouraged and taught by fandom, who wish to pursue original writing in a professional setting.

Some successful professional writers have admitted to a start in fandom. Bestselling author Cassandra Clare wrote for some time in the Harry Potter fandom before publishing her first young adult novel.

This may be a trend we will see more of, especially if “Fifty Shades” sets off a desire in publishing for more erotic fiction. Since many fan fic authors write predominantly NC-17 rated material, and many fan fic writers do have aspirations of professional publishing some day, it may be that an intersection of these paths will lead to a new kind of writer. Trained through a constant feedback loop of supportive internet communities, many fan fic writers achieve a level of writing far superior to “Fifty Shades,” are practiced in erotic writing and have the creativity to craft their own original characters. Those with the right motivation and luck may find themselves joining E.L. James on the bestseller list.

Whether or not fan fiction will remain a part of internet subculture or become a part of mainstream pop cultural discussion remains to be seen. However, the community it created and the writers it fostered will continue to thrive as long as stories are told. And though “Fifty Shades” is not a far departure from its source material, there will be other writers, trained in the tradition of fan fiction, who will begin to tell original stories of their own.

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