Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why Fifty Shades of Grey Matters

I've been reading a lot of crap on the internet directed at E.L. James lately, and frankly, I feel sorry for her. She wrote some fanfic based on the highly successful Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. A publisher picked it up, had her tweak it a little so as not to get sued, and released the paperback to huge success. Ten million books is nothing to sneeze at.

Two weeks ago, a tiny elderly lady came into the Day Job. She asked me to wrap a few presents for her granddaughter's bridal shower.

My customer had no problem proudly displaying the two lingerie sets, much to her husband's embarrassment. Let's just say they were very interesting purchases from the Frederick's of Hollywood next door to the Day Job.

But it was the third purchase that had my customer blushing. Slowly, she pulls a rectangular object wrapped in a white plastic bag out of her gigantic purse. She looks at me with huge, worried eyes. "Please don't judge me."

I unwrap the object. A trade copy of, you guessed it, Fifty Shades of Grey.

"I read it and loved it." My customer is now whispering. She checks around with furtive glances to make sure no other shoppers are near by. "Do you think she'll like it?"

I smile. "I'm sure she will."

"Have you read it?"

"No, ma'am, but I've heard several people say they enjoy it."

Satisfied, my customer wandered off to look at shower cards while I wrapped her presents.

With all the kvetching about the decline of reading in the U.S., why do folks in the publishing industry get pissed off when a book captures the imagination of the public?

My elderly customer certainly didn't know Fifty Shades had started life as fanfic. And I can't say whether the alleged grammar and editing issues affected her. What I do know is that she found a book she enjoyed and she wanted to share it with people she loved.

Isn't that something all writers should be striving for?


  1. I haven't read it either, but nothing I've heard about it leads me to believe there should be any problem with it. So far as public attitude goes, hey, we're romance writers, we're used to jerks sneering at us.

    Legally, though, I would think it's still okay. Yes, it started out as fanfic, but it was an AU where, as I understand, the Edward-analog character isn't even a vampire anymore. Apparently the writer lifted her impression of the two personalities out of Twilight and wrote a very different story with them. Proving infringement based on a couple of personalities would be -- should be, noting that I'm not a lawyer and my idea of logic doesn't necessarily apply -- very difficult for the prosecution. We can hope, anyway. If the book were about a vampire and a high school girl, that'd be one thing. From what I've heard about the book, there seems to be very little in it that's directly traceable to Ms. Meyer's work.


  2. Angie, what amazes me is that two years ago something like Fifty Shades whould never have gotten past a fan convention. (This is coming from someone who's read and written A LOT of Star Trek fan fic in her day.)

    The internet has so changed what we can access. Anything we want to read is now available. And something like Fifty Shades can become a NYT bestseller.

    I'm not advocating ripping off someone else's intellectual property. I just find it fascinating how certain things grab onto the collective conscious of the consumers and take a life of their own.

  3. I think that's because fanfic writers are paid ONLY in feedback, applause, fangirling, whatever you call it, so the fan writer spot pretty much selects for people who are good at the id-grab. Also, so many fan writers don't really have the craftsmanship skills to do well on that end of it, but they can make up for it with storytelling chops. I've read some fics where the craftsmanship made my eyes bleed, but the story was good enough to drag me along anyway. You don't really get that on the commercial side. Sure, there's talk here and there about how Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer are lousy writers on a technical level, but they're good storytellers and tap into the reader id well enough to have to take their money to the bank in a wheelbarrow. But there's a lower limit on craftsmanship on the commercial side which just isn't there in fanfic.

    But the storytelling talent and the id grab will float to the top on the fannish side. That's actually the better of the two skills to start out with, IMO. I can teach someone good craftsmanship, but storytelling is one of those things you have to just have, you know? Or at least, I can't teach it, and I don't know anyone who can.

    For something like Fifty Shades, I think the writer did her own id grab and doesn't owe much to Ms. Meyer for it. She wrote a major AU (as opposed to a minor AU, where, frex., Bella's parents had never gotten divorced, or something like that) in the first place, and then filed off whatever serial numbers remained; I don't see that as ripping anyone off.

    Maculategiraffe wrote an awesome post about id fic and specifically Stephenie Meyer.

    I think she hit quite a few things on the head there.


  4. Dammit, Angie! You're making my id, my ego AND my superego hurt! (LOL)

    I read Maculategiraffe's post. I also found a cached page of James's original story (silly girl to think it's all gone), read the first chapter of the first book, and read Jennifer Armintrout's breakdown of 50 Shades over the last week.

    Now, I'm wondering if culture could ever reprogram the id.