Mastering the Universe, Part One: Fifty Shades and Fan-Fiction
I have news for you Fifty Shades of Grey fans: your favourite book did not start life as a book.
As a matter of fact, the best-selling erotic trilogy began as a fan-fiction blockbuster named Master of the Universe on a website named fanfiction.net. I hope I’m not the only one who immediately thought of a television show from the 1980's with a very similar name.
Written by an anonymous author named “Snowqueen's Icedragon” later proved to be E.L. James- also a pseudonym, incidentally- Master of the Universe was a story based heavily on Stephenie Meyer's Twilight. The main characters were named Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, and the story revolved around a situation where the Twilight characters were moved to contemporary Seattle and allowed to indulge in premarital sex.
[James' real name is Erika Leonard, but I'm going to keep using her second pseudonym here for the sake of clarity.]
Master of the Universe was one of fanfiction.net's most popular series before James decamped to Australian independent publisher The Writer's Coffee Shop. She rewrote Master for commercial publication, removed the Twilight references and renamed her characters before it debuted in e-book and print-on-demand format during May last year.
We all know what happened next but after something of a bidding war, Writer's lost the series to American publisher Vintage in March this year. Vintage are an imprint of the giant Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and they paid big money for the series - undoubtedly a good investment. Global sales of the Fifty Shades series were clocked at over 40 million last month, and the first instalment is officially the most popular book on British publication records, ever.
Most of the internet seems to agree that while it was definitely unethical of James to base her incredibly profitable franchise on Twilight, we probably won't see litigation from Meyer anytime soon. Amanda Hayward CEO of The Writer's Coffee Shop had an interesting take on the situation, saying even though the story began as fan-fiction, the ideas were James' own.
"Essentially only the character's names were borrowed, the setting, plot, abilities, relationship structure, feel and focus of the story were original,” she said. “Twilight and the Fifty Shades Trilogy are worlds apart.”
Personally, I'd shy away from making judgements on the originality of James vs Meyer's work for purely ideological reasons. As the Guardian so eloquently pointed out, folk literature has a long and distinguished tradition of creative adaptions, and arguments over who thought what first really only mattered after the invention of intellectual property law in the 18th century.
“This isn't an example of plagiarism but a return to an earlier notion of collective creation,” said the Guardian. “Fifty Shades is a book with 60,000 authors.”
My feeling is that the Twilight franchise was built on such a basic set of romance concepts that sooner or later somebody was always going to do well with a similar story. James is just more visible than most of us expected.
Of course, a number of literary blogs have gone ahead and gleefully put Fifty Shades through the ringer anyway. The more intelligent have hit on running it through plagiarism-checking programs designed for university assignments against both Master of the Universe and Twilight itself, with amusing results. You can see some of the better-aggregated scores here .
If you're confused by all these references to fan-fiction culture, you're not alone. After following James down the fan-fic rabbit hole, I decided I wanted to know more about this scene where phenomenally popular authors can be unironically named after dragons.
So, I picked up the phone and called the most dragonesque person I know- fan-fiction writer and reader Jonni Andre. He'll be making an appearance in next week's blog post explaining everything you wanted to know about fan-fiction and more...