Let’s face it: there are a lot of bad books out in the world. For every masterfully crafted novel there’s one filled with lusty wereotters or heaving bosoms or whatever the fuck else is in bad books these days. The ratio of shitty books to those with standards has, of course, become skewed due to the advent of self-publishing, but most of these books are just shoddily crafted and poorly edited. They are not dangerous. They’re just bad. 50 Shades of Grey, though — it’s both.
50 Shades of Grey is — and I fully believe this — the worst piece of literature to come out in the past decade. Back in the day when Twilight was becoming all the rage, I was convinced that I would never find anything I hated more. I was wrong. Twilight is a comparative masterpiece. Now, I’ll say right off the bat that I’ve read the first book of Twilight and none of the others. And I’ve certainly never actually read 50 Shades of Grey. I’ve read excerpts and that’s more than enough for me. I know it’s a bit of a faux pas to lambast something you’ve never actually read yourself, but I think I should mention that I don’t hate 50 Shades of Grey because it’s a shitty book. That’s only part of the reason.
So let’s start off with the fact that it’s terribly written. As a writer, I find it incredibly upsetting that Time magazine included E.L James as one of the most influential people in the world, because her writing style is just that awful. The main character, in the midst of sexy times, will say “Holy cow!” or spin long-winded metaphors about how her inner goddess enjoys sunning herself on the back porch sipping lemonade while — wait what’s happening in the book again? The passage “I’ll agree to the fisting, but I’d really like to claim your ass, Anastasia…. Besides, it’s not something we can dive into. Your ass will need training.” is actually present. Some other gems include:
“‘His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel… or something.”
“I feel the color in my cheeks rising again. I must be the color of the communist manifesto.
These sorts of lines are cringe-worthy. The relationship is cringe-worthy. Everything about this book is cringe-worthy.
“But Kendra,” you may say, “What makes this terrible erotica/romance novel so much worse than every other terrible erotica/romance novel?”
I’m getting to that.
The reason I hate 50 Shades of Grey more than probably every other bad novel out there is because originally, it was a fanfiction. And let it be known that I think fanfiction is a glorious thing. I think it allows young writers to find their voices, and I think it helps people hone their craft while not worrying so much about worldbuilding. There’s still imagination, there’s still characterisation — but it’s an easier way to improve than just starting everything from scratch. But fanfiction is still only fanfiction. It stops being okay to write fanfiction when you start making money off it and when, god forbid, you start passing it off as your own. And that’s what E.L James did.
Let me tell you a little story: way back before 50 Shades of Grey was a thing, there was a Twilight fanfic writer (known hilariously as “Snowqueen’s Icedragon”) who wrote a highly praised alternate-universe erotic trilogy called Master of the Universe. This series featured the familiar characters of Edward Cullen and Bella Swan in a universe where supernatural creatures did not exist. Instead, Edward was a high-powered, sexually deviant millionaire who tempted Bella, a naive college student, into joining him in his world.
Fast forward a few years. Master of the Universe has done brilliantly among the sexually repressed housewives and horny teenagers who read Twilight but were disappointed with the lack of sexytimes, so good old Snowqueen Icedragon, high on anonymous praise from reviewers on The Interweb, decides to take the next step. She has put so much time and effort into crafting this series that, gosh darn it, why shouldn’t she get some kind of reward for all her hard work? So what if she didn’t create the characters or the relationship — she came up with the “plot,” right? So she changed the names from Bella Swan to Anastasia Steele and Edward Cullen to Christian Grey and published her reworked version of Master of the Universe (split into a three-part series) with a virtual publisher based in Australia, choosing the much more sophisticated pen name E.L. James. And eventually this heinous plague was unleashed on the rest of humanity.
Up until this point, the moral responsibility of stealing someone else’s characters and passing them off as original creations lay solely on E.L. James’s shoulders. But that all changed when Vintage Books (a Big Six imprint) decided that this trilogy would make them heaps and heaps and heaps of money and offered her an incredibly enormous book deal. And here’s where I start to hate pretty much everything about the book series, its author, its situation, and its publisher: it does not matter one bit whether it’s a brilliant masterpiece or a deformed dog turd — what matters is that no one saw the slightest thing wrong with publishing fanfiction as a real work of art.
I know the characters names have been changed. I’m also aware that the selling point has nothing to do with vampires. But my point still remains: the characters, which the entire trilogy depends on, are complete and utter ripoffs of Stephenie Meyer’s characters. And while I know I wrote earlier that I find Twilight a literary abomination, I still feel that every author, regardless of how talentless he or she may be, deserves at least a little bit of credit for coming up with something in its entirety and seeing it through to the bitter end. Twilight may be a series filled with terrible role models for young girls, unrealistic (and dangerous) standards for relationships, and mediocre turns of phrase, but at least Stephenie Meyer didn’t rip anybody off to write it. No matter how much I dislike her books, I have to give the lady props. She dreamed up characters, she loved them, she wrote them, and she happened to make millions off them. And what I find terribly unjust is that now, someone else is taking these characters she loved and (presumably) put a lot of work into. She’s changed their names and stuck them in a slightly different plot — which, if you remove the supernatural creatures from one and the BDSM from the other, really isn’t all that different — and Stephenie Meyer gets no credit. Instead, James is making bank. Lots of bank.
A publishing house should know better than this — especially one that’s so influential, especially after all the book scandals of the past few years (James Frey, I’m looking at you, you big worst). Vintage shouldn’t sit there and say “oh, it’s okay” — they should be outraged! No work is, of course, wholly original, as it’s all been said and done before — but this is conceptual plagiarism. Without Twilight, this novel would not exist — and Twilight, unlike Jane Eyre, is not exactly in the public domain just yet. Without Edward Cullen, Christian Grey would not be a character — and Christian Grey is Edward, just as Anastasia is Bella. A rose by any other name, in this instance, smells exactly the fucking same.
So why does this bother me so much? Two reasons. The first is the implication this has in the publishing and writing world. I know the publishing industry is struggling in some respects. But is it really that far gone that we have to resort to skirting around copyright issues just to make a buck? Does it mean I can publish my novel and four or five years down the road find someone else making money off characters that resemble mine in every way but name? I know imitation is a form of flattery, but that is taking things too damn far.
James wrote fanfiction about a series she enjoyed by an author she liked. She liked it so much she used Meyer’s characters and wrote her own little stories about them. And then she turned around and slapped Meyer in the face wearing a shit-eating grin that said, “Hey! You’re great but I’m going to make ALL the benjamins and I’m not going to give you any credit at all for making my work what it was.” Now what kind of person does that make her?
The worst part about all of this is that, unlike the James Frey situation (in which he lied and the publishing house got slammed for not checking into things sooner), Vintage was well aware right from the beginning that 50 Shades of Grey originated as a Twilight fic. In an article I read long ago, a spokesperson from Vintage stated that the book barely resembled its fanfiction roots — and just a few paragraphs later claimed that 50 Shades of Grey had been left virtually untouched. And I know that they’re trying to cash in on the Twilight craze; they even vaguely referenced Twilight in the similar cover art styles! But there are other ways to make money that don’t infringe on other writers’ rights.
The other scary implication for me is what this will do to the fanfiction community. Yeah, fanfiction isn’t the most glamourous thing, but as I said above, it really can help young writers. It gives them a sense of community, a place where they can get feedback on whatever they’ve done, and this can really help boost their confidence. Certain authors, such as Anne Rice, have already expressed a dislike for fanfiction, and will not permit it written about their book. Many more authors are okay with fanfiction — so long as the writers adhere to the stipulations that A) they write a disclaimer that explains that the characters and world are someone else’s brainchild and B) they make no profit. 50 Shades of Grey crosses both lines. It claims to be a standalone work, derived from nothing (though paradoxically James freely talks about the books’ beginnings as a fanfic) and is making millions upon millions of dollars. Will this set a bad precedent and make other authors more leery of allowing an otherwise harmless hobby? And will it teach aspiring writers that it’s okay to cheat and to steal so long as your work makes it big?
I won’t tell you not to read the books. If you feel the need to lower your IQ and turn your retinas into goo, please, by all means, read them. But don’t buy them. Pirate them, get them from your local library, read snippets online — because after all, it’s a book and it is meant to be read. But by giving this harpy your hard-earned cash, you’re telling her — and the rest of the world — that creativity and respect mean nothing.