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Seeing the same thing from a different angle.

Fan Fiction, Literary Elitism, and Fifty Shades of Grey

I made the comment on Twitter that I wonder what it says about me that I know people who are feeling shocked and getting hot and bothered over reading Fifty Shades of Grey, but I just didn’t see anything that exciting when I looked through it in the store recently. My Twitter feed has been full of talk about it since. Most of that has ranged from “I hated it” to “I wouldn’t even both reading it”.

One of the biggest reasons I’ve seen cited for being opposed to the very existence of Fifty Shades of Grey is that it started out as Twilight fan fiction. There are two camps of  This Is Bad… the FanFic Is Bad camp, and the Twilight Is Bad camp. I can’t put myself in either camp.

I read all the books in the Twilight series and enjoyed them. I read them at a time when my medical condition was making it increasingly difficult for me to read at all. As a child, my reading and comprehension was on the college level while I was still in elementary school. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to find books both on my reading level and with age appropriate content. Even as an adult, I just had to accept that books were something I would easily devour and not have to think very much about. Right up until I became ill, anyway. That made my brain take a sudden leap from being able to read a novel with half my attention on something else and still get the whole story (including remembering dialogue) all the way down to wondering why I couldn’t read the book. Why I just couldn’t make sense of all the words when I knew for a fact that I knew what each of them meant.

Twilight isn’t great literature. It was what I needed at the time, though. There are plenty of people who have never climbed above that level of reading, and they are often intimidated by books targeted at them because, whether they should be able to easily comphrehend those books or not, the reality is that they can’t. So they don’t read. Because they don’t read, they don’t get better at reading. Pat the Bunny is no Chronicles of Narnia, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say it never should have been published. There’s a group of children it is appropriate for.

I didn’t get preachy anti-sex lessons out of Twilight, but I often don’t get the lessons other people do from things. I almost always see the opposite of whatever people are outraged about in Disney movies, and I think everyone’s missed the biggest lesson in the story of the birth of Jesus… Don’t travel so close to your due date. Honestly, I just accepted that these are fictional problems that may arise when humans and vampires try to mate. I never read it as Edward being a symbol for any kind of real boyfriend/partner. I read it as a human and a vampire. Buffy and Angel had strange relationship problems, too, but I never thought Joss Whedon was trying to preach to me through them.

Fan fiction. That’s a big one. Lots of people hate fan fiction. I’m not a big fan of it, myself. (No pun intended.) Now, I flipped through and read a few pages here, a few pages there of Fifty Shades of Grey. (Yes, I was going for the naughty bits.) I cannot comment on how much it may or may not still resemble Twilight fan fiction without reading the whole thing. I wouldn’t judge it based on the fact that it started as fan fiction, though. Not if it’s been rewritten enough to be its own story since then.

I don’t like having to sort through a lot of badly written fanfiction to find the good stuff, and I don’t care for the drama I hear about in fan fiction communities. I read good stuff when it’s recommended to me. (There was one some years back in which John Constantine ends up in the Harry Potter universe and becomes the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts. It was very true to the spirits of the originals. If you’re familiar with both, let that sink in for a moment.) I don’t have a problem with the existence of fan fiction, though.  Mercedes Lackey explains the benefits of fan fiction much better than I ever could.

I enjoy roleplaying my characters when I play roleplaying games, and that’s a form of fan fiction. And I’ve enjoyed reading Peter David’s Star Trek: TNG novels. Especially the ones about Q! And, as Mercedes Lackey points out…

Well just as an example, go have a look at all the Star Trek, Star Wars, and game-based books there are out there. If you reduce things to principles, most of those are fanfiction—fanfiction commissioned by and given the blessing of the publisher, and produced by professionals, yes, but still fanfiction.

You don’t have to enjoy fan fiction, or the Twilight books, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exist. I think they have their place. It may not be a place that’s relevent in your life, and that’s fine. I can’t help, though, but think it’s an elitist attitude when I see and hear people say certain books should have never been written or published.

I’ve been known to argue that I don’t think certain works should have been done in a certain way, especially when it comes to adaptations in another medium. Even that depends on just how much was changed and why. I do not believe that anyone really can make an adequate movie adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, but I’m able to enjoy the movie for what it is. The movie version of Starship Troopers, though? The actual approach to making the movie was so dismissive of Heinlein’s novel that I just don’t think it was fair to use his work at all. I think it would have been better to build something else on top of the basic idea and then say in interviews, “We drew some inspiration from guys like Heinlein when we wrote this story.” I do not actually fault the director for not wanting to finish the novel or thinking it was depressing, nor for wanting to take his movie in a a different direction because he couldn’t muster up enough “give a damn” for the book. I only fault him for passing the movie off as an adaptation of the book instead of really going his own way with it.

So what is my problem with Fifty Shades of Grey ? I don’t have a problem with it. The situation is exactly what I said it was… I’m kind of confused about myself when I compare my reaction to it to the reactions of other people I know. People I don’t think of as having poor reading skills, or being particularly naive about sex and relationships. Certainly not overly-religious, sheltered people. Admittedly, I don’t think any of them are part of the BDSM lifestyle, but neither am I. I’ve had friends who are, though, and so I’m not completely ignorant of it just because I’m not experienced with it.

A book has me taking a look at myself, wondering about my place among other people… about how and why we’re different and whether or not that has any significant bearing on how I relate to those people. (And I didn’t even really read the book!) I’m not arguing that it’s great literature, but isn’t this what books are supposed to do?

One response to “Fan Fiction, Literary Elitism, and Fifty Shades of Grey

  1. Rades (@_Rades) June 28, 2012 at 1:10 am

    I have a similar stance on the series. I haven’t read Twilight, and haven’t read Shades of Grey, and from what I’ve seen of either I don’t think I’d enjoy them. But if you (the proverbial you, not YOU you) like them? Okay. That’s fine. It doesn’t make any difference to me. I mean, if I hear of a particular awful line, I might bug you about it, but only in the way friends mock each other good-naturedly. It might be different if you were completely obsessed with it, but that’s less about the actual content and quality (or lack thereof) and more about the obsession itself.

    As for fanfiction…it’s such a touchy subject. It really does seem to be the common opinion that, “oh, it’s *just* fanfiction”, as if its unofficial nature makes it naturally lacking in quality. And of course, this reputation didn’t come out of nowhere – there IS a lot of really painful fanfiction. But just because something isn’t official doesn’t mean it should be automatically dismissed. You hear a lot of comments disparaging Shades of Grey as “Oh, it’s just Twilight fanfiction.” But what’s ironic is, considering how many people think the Twilight series is horribly written, you’d think they’d be excited for Twilight content that might be GOOD stuff!

    I also feel personally invested in the whole fanfiction idea, since all of the Letters from ____ are just that, no doubt about it – WoW fanfiction. And I am really proud of those, and consider them probably my best writing ever. So I’d be annoyed (and do get annoyed) when I follow a hit back to a forum where someone shares a Letter as an interesting read, and then a response just goes “meh, fanfiction”.

    Also, some of those entries that win the Blizzard Writing Contest? Those are fanfiction, too. Recognized officially, but still fanfiction. And those stories are AMAZING. And it’s a shame that the fanfic label immediately brings to mind negative connotations, for some people, because there IS quality stuff out there. There’s crap, sure, but there’s good stuff.

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