Imagine the most detestable literary fiction that comes to mind: cheap pornography in lumpy editions; subgenres brimming with sex and violence that clone film and television hits; bestsellers written in a mold to adapt to market demands. The most hateful book you’ve ever read. Well, for many literary critics, 50 Shades of Grey is a step above the fanfiction, a variant that has been described as derivative, narcissistic, with horrible artistic results, childish, consumerist and, of course, unoriginal. What is true about it all? Are fanfiction (50 Shades of Grey among them) an unmitigated horror? Is there gold in the manure?
First let’s clarify the terms: a fanfiction is a literary piece written by a fan and that starts from a previous work, official and canonical, in any medium (film, book, television series, video game, comic) to build a new fiction. To do so, it recycles the characters, stages or any other element. The possible variants, as we shall see, are almost infinite, so let us immerse ourselves in this parallel underworld of impossible pairings and senseless sequels and try to find something logical about it. These are 7 keys to understanding the art of fanfiction:
1. It all began with the Bible
It can be said that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were non-professional writers (fishermen, tax collectors, shop makers, among other professions) who wrote different versions about the life of someone whose life had come to them, essentially by transmission from others. Each one brought his own style, his own ideas to the narration. Therefore, the four biblical evangelists first authors of fanfiction.
It is interesting to contemplate how the diffuse author and the reuse of other people’s creation was common even before the industrialization of literature that came with the invention of the printing press. With the oral transmission of stories, it was normal to tell over and over again the same legends, the same morals and the same mythologies, but changing the differential elements of each tribe, race or epoch. Come on, we don’t call it fanfiction because we don’t get great, but there were the mimbres of collective narratives and the recycling of other people’s stories.
Along with the printing press came also the basis of copyright and intellectual property, and there we can fix a difference between a canonical story, with a defined author, and a variant made with commercial, parodic or playful intentions. An example that you will have studied even in high school is that of Quixote by Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda (a possible pseudonym, as his digital heirs would do four hundred years later), an unofficial sequel to Cervantes’ great work that enraged the one-armed historian so much that he accounted for it (in literary terms) in the second part of his book.
2. The First Regurgitated Myths
But the first case of fanfiction created is with Jane Austen, whose fans took advantage of the decline in printing and reproduction costs at the beginning of the twentieth century to make fruit salad with many of his works. They called themselves “Janeítas”, and one of the most outstanding works of this trend, Old Friends and New Fancies, by Sybil Brinton, was published commercially in 1913. We don’t think Austen would have cared much, considering that some of his works, such as Pride and Prejudice, are little less than a regurgitation of more cultured readings, but it would be good to know what he would think if his work continued to generate dozens of fanfiction works a year, most of a romanticism unleashed along the same lines and almost all with a very high pornographic content. One of its last variants, not exactly fanfiction but that starts from a good part of the philosophy of the movement, is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and its sequels, work of Seth Grahame-Smith.
The other classic example is Sherlock Holmes. The popularity of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation led to the creation of detective fan clubs at the beginning of the last century, which generated products such as the Baker Street Journal, a fanzine that discussed the original cases of the detective and brought to the canon new stories written by fans (some of them frankly illustrious). In many of them we find another of the key features of fanfiction: the completely voluntary and joyful confusion between genuine and apocryphal storytelling. Possibly, Holmes is the literary character that has historically received more variations in its bosom, possibly because of the hyperpopulation of Victorian mythology: the times he has faced Jack the Ripper, for example, in a multitude of stories and films such as Murder by Decree, are countless. There were countless examples of those types of stories that weren’t always published (though in this age you’ll find tons of self-published Sherlock Holmes stories floating around)
3. But… Who is Mary Sue?
The fanfiction samples known as Mary Sue are those in which the author of the story (there is a male version of Mary Sue, called Marty Stu, but it is less iconic) appears as one more character, needless to say that often with physical or psychological characteristics greatly enhanced with respect to their real model. The classic case of this trend dates back to 1973: Paula Smith wrote the parodic story A Trekkies Tale in her fanzine Menagerie. In it, Lieutenant Mary Sue was a 15-year-old teenager who revolutionized the adult crew of the Star Trek universe. With her she satirized the tendency that Smith had detected in the literary fandom of the mythical series of science fiction: that of the characters that were identified with plasmaizations sickly idealized of the own authors. Even today, this infantiloid vanity is one of the problems that the critics of fanfiction find in the genre.
4. Slash is not only the guitarist of Guns ‘N Roses
The best-known sub-genre of fanfiction is the slash, in which the male protagonists of a film, novel or television series fall in love, with a degree of sexual explicitness at the author’s discretion. The denomination slash comes from there: the custom of using a bar (“/”, slash in English), to separate in the title the names of the forbidden lovers. Some examples: Holmes/Watson (Sherlock Holmes universe) or Harry/Ron (Harry Potter), to say two of the most frequent.
The first slash novel on record is Jennifer Guttridge’s mythical The Ring of Soshern, written in 1968 and with an argument that perfectly sums up why this type of literature is so fascinating: Spock and Kirk, Star Trek protagonists, are trapped on an isolated planet. Spock enters the state of Pon Far, a fever that plagues Vulcans and kills them if they don’t have sex with the first one they catch. Captain Kirk, of course, lets himself be done to save his friend.
Of course, after forced sex there will come other more consensual encounters in which the purest love will sprout. With the passage of time, slash has become synonymous with any type of pornographic fanfiction.
5. The Harry Potter Phenomenon
Harry Potter is above and beyond in the fanfiction world because of the unusual tolerance that the creator of the original franchise, JK Rowling, has always shown towards unofficial fictions inspired by his work. The nuts of this tolerance were tightened to the max with the publication of James Potter and the Hall of Elders Crossing, written by George Lippert as a continuation of Harry’s adventures through his son James. The only conditions that Rowling has always put on fanfiction works inspired by Harry Potter are that they have no commercial intent, no hate messages or pornography. The first of these conditions was clearly trampled on by Lippert, who published the book on paper, despite threats of demand from Rowling. Rowling finally gave up and gave permission for the publication of the book, as the fanfiction community supported its existence.
With over millions of Harry Potter fanfictions across sites like Pottermore, AO3, Fanfiction.net, Commaful and others, the franchise is indisputably one of the most popular and active community. But Rowling is far from heeding his relatively understandable request that his characters not be sullied by low passions: Harry Potter’s slash is one of the most abundant pornographic subgenres on the fanfiction scene. Essentially, the chances of any Harry Potter character having slept with any Harry Potter character are very high, regardless of age or sex (a popular and quirky example: Remus Lupin/Sirius Black). It should be noted that many of these stories feature underage characters, but this feral nature is an intrinsic part of the fanfiction phenomenon.
6. Spain: Famous Mondo
It is not surprising that in a country that renders such an exorbitant cult to celebrities walking around the house as ours have arisen multitude of fanfiction works centered on celebrities of adolescent cult. In Wattpad, the nerve center of much of the fanfiction produced in our language, you can find endearing fictions halfway between the virginal slash and the most classic Mary Sue. Some of them were shelled by the scholars of theróspido Los Hermanos Podcast, in episodes 4 (where the glorious phrase was put on the table “But how can this be?” present in an erotic teen fanfic about Justin Bieber that its author has already regretted leaving puberty behind) and 59 (in which Wattpad throws fanfics about Omarion, One Direction and youtubers several) of his podcast. The undisputed dark side of fanfiction.
7. But… What about 50 Shades of Grey?
Along with those of Harry Potter, the stories based on the Twilight universe make up one of the most popular successes in fanfiction literature: more than 100 novels and almost 200,000 stories that pose alternative universes to those imagined by Stephanie Meyer in the original novels.
The original title of E.L. James’ series of novels was Master of the Universe and was written under the pseudonym Snowqueen’s Icedragon and belonged to another variant of fanfiction called alternative universes (AUs). In this case, the story transferred Bella to Seattle. James turned Edward, the protagonists of Twilight, into an attractive millionaire and the Bella into an innocent journalist, and eliminated the vampiric component that characterizes the original fictions. The result, a drawer slash like so many others, which manipulates the usual ingredients in sub-genre fiction (occasional underground misogyny, eroticism with sadomasochistic components – slash narratives abound with stories of sexual possessions, soft rapes and other forms of consensual or non-consensual domination), to the point where The Guardian went so far as to describe 50 Shades of Grey, in reference to the hackneyed nature of its elements, as “a book with sixty thousand authors”.
Where E.L. James did hit the nail on the head, and in that she was perhaps more clever than the rest of the 60,000 co-authors, was in the distribution after the writing process: through Amazon, in epub format, ready to be downloaded and read on Kindle, instead of lost in an immense repository of fictions of similar characteristics. Even without drafting any query letters or having to pitch and publishers, the story took off. Fictions that, of course, are confused with the fanfiction generated by Grey’s own 50 Shades, often pornographic and with arguments that intersect with other franchises (including Twilight, which has given rise to at least confusing stories).
Word of mouth, in any case, worked extraordinarily well for the books, which soon caught the attention of the media for their extraordinary diffusion among the female population and their eminently viral success. It wasn’t long before Vintage Books bought the rights and released a physical version in April 2012. In just a few months, Amazon UK announced that 50 Shades of Grey had already sold more copies on its website than the entire Harry Potter series, for a total of 60 million copies worldwide. Attempts to replicate the success abound, some of them even starting from the same source as 50 Shades of Grey: the Twilight fanfiction.
Meanwhile, the controversy over the very nature of the book persists: in 2012, Time magazine put E.L. James on its list of the world’s most influential people, while the book was almost unanimously criticized for the low quality of its prose, for many a sign of its origins. Its very nature has been analyzed to the extreme, as in the case of The Huffington Post critic Soraya Chemaly, who stated that Grey’s 50 shadows success was “remarkable not for her transgressive sex but for how women are using technology to subvert gender shame, exploring explicit sexual content privately and using ebook readers (…). Open consumption, sharing and discussing these contents by women is a feminist success. On the other hand, the rest of the fanfiction authors are too happy with the success: one of the fanfiction.net administrators stated that “we’re worried that once people start making money from the fanfiction, the authors and publishers will pay attention to us and say ‘Uh, uh, it’s over? copyright infringement’. A tricky subject, that of copyright and its repercussions, which can give a lot to talk about and discuss in the future. Also in that, there is no denying, 50 Shades of Grey has been a pioneer despite its cringey .