Sunday, April 29, 2012

Fifty Shades of Fanfiction

I have a confession to make:  I like fanfiction.  Especially slash.

Why do I feel the need to use the word "confession", which implies that I'm ashamed?  Fanfiction is seen by a lot of people as slightly embarrassing; the kind of thing someone might write if they aren't good enough to write "real" fiction.  But lately it's been making big news, and making big money, and I wonder if people are starting to take it more seriously.

I've delved into fanfiction twice; the first time was in 1997.  I would come home from work and sit at my desk in my little one bedroom apartment, fire up my strawberry iMac, connect to the internet with AOL over my phone line, and read Star Trek Voyager fanfiction on a webring. Quite a few of them were terrible, but I found one woman who wrote Tuvok/Kim slash, and she was good.  This was my first experience with the designation "slash", which means a sexual relationship between two same-sex characters.  This writer had taken a few tv instances of Commaker Tuvok and Ensign Harry Kim playing Kal-toh late into the evening, and turned it into the beginning of a very sexy relationship.  It was well-written, and it was hot

And it did the one thing that makes fanfiction so very much fun, especially for the writer:  She completely threw out the fact that the whole relationship never happened on the show and was not likely to happen given the heterosexuality of both characters, and just reveled in making it up. She wanted Tuvok and Harry to get busy, so she wrote it, and as a reader I'm guessing she enjoyed the hell out of writing it.  I sure enjoyed reading it.

I poked around on other sites and found fanfiction that didn't appeal to me, and kind of forgot about the whole thing.  Then last year a friend mentioned finding some Harry Potter fanfiction that she really liked, and I signed up on to have a look around.

Okay, here's where it gets a teensy bit embarrassing.  I read Harry/Draco slash.  But the characters were adults, I wasn't reading about children, yikes.  This particular fanfiction author has written literally hundreds of short stories, novellas, and even full-length novels, a few more than 200,000 words, about adult Harry and Draco in various sexual relationships.  Some are sweet and romantic, some are dark and violent, some are funny.  Some are G rated, some are pretty much porn. 

As a writer, her style fascinated me.  During some of the sex scenes, she jumped point of view from Harry to Draco back to Harry and then to Draco again, all within the same scene.  She had peripheral characters that were so one-dimensional they were practically cardboard cutouts, only there out of a sense of necessity of continuing on the familiar story, then disposed of quickly because she wasn't interested in writing about them.  It was obvious that she was just doing what she wanted and disregarding whatever writing rule got in the way of her fun.  Despite the fact that writing rules are usually there for a good reason and sometimes her style was a tad confusing, it was genuinely fun to read.  Many of her stories seemed to have been written not only with playful abandon, but with joy.  I read a half-dozen or so of her novels and a bunch of short stories, and enjoyed them all.

And then I heard about Fifty Shades of Grey.  My goodness. Fifty Shades of Grey went from being the erotic Twilight fanfiction novel Masters of the Universe posted online by Snowqueens Icedragon, to a rewritten ebook Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James released by The Writer's Coffeeshop, to a trade paperback coming out next month from Vintage Books, to a movie being filmed by Universal Pictures.  People were talking about it all over the place online and on tv, it was even on the cover of Newsweek.  The viral marketing campaign even managed to spawn a new phrase: Mommy Porn.  Articles have been popping up everywhere, quoting women saying they told all their girlfriends to read this book:  "It'll make you want to have sex with your husband." 

I have conflicting emotions about the hoopla.  I'm genuinely glad to see a spotlight illuminating the existence of fanfiction, which has never gotten much respect.  I read Fifty Shades of Grey, and while it isn't especially well-written and it does break a few literary rules (like pretty much all fanfiction) it was a fun story.  The idea of a fanfiction author ending up so successful would, I'd think, have the potential to inspire a few literary agents and book publishers to give fanfiction a try, or possibly inspire fanfiction authors to shine up their work and look for an agent.  Maybe a couple of years from now we'll have a bunch of carefully disguised Harrys and Dracos on the top of the bestseller lists.  It occurred to me as I was reading them that some of the Harry/Draco novels could easily be stripped of their identifying details, edited, and published.  In fact, EL James said in an interview that her fanfiction readers had given her the idea to try publishing her novel, and many of the comments left on the Harry/Draco slash novels were encouraging that author to do the same.

On the other hand, Fifty Shades of Grey isn't great writing, and the disproportionately enthusiastic response from women about the sex scenes makes me wonder if they've ever read any erotica before.  The many, many, many reviews were largely critical.  The plot was appealing to me, but in a Mary Sue kind of way.  It's certainly not great literature, but does it matter?  No one even won the Pulitzer prize for fiction this year.  Maybe the author of Fifty Shades of Grey won a prize even better: Fame, the knowledge that she aroused and entertained a great number of people, and millions of dollars.