Fifty Shades of Fanfiction

In Commentary, HOME, LITERATURE by Beci Moss

Fanfiction. It’s a word that holds a plethora of meanings to many people. For some it is a wonderful creative outlet, and a great source of entertainment. For others it is a dark world which no-one should go to unless you want to be scarred for life by tales of explicit sexual encounters between popular fictional characters, actors, YouTubers, and even musicians. Then you have those who don’t know or care about what fanfiction is (which, to be fair, is probably a blessing in disguise).

I fall into the second category, mainly thanks to the fact that I probably spend more time on the Internet than I do with actual human beings. While I’m not an avid reader of fanfiction, I know about fanfiction through various YouTube videos, in which fanfictions are read out and even re-enacted by the YouTubers that are the subjects of the fanfiction.

The problem with watching such videos is that I, like many others, now hold the stigmatised view that fanfictions are mainly fantasies of an often graphic and just plain weird sexual nature that are written by fangirls on Tumblr or about their favourite characters or celebrities. This view has been further exacerbated by the astonishing mainstream success of E.L. James’ 2011 erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, which originally started out as a Twilight fanfiction.

This in turn raises the question of fanfiction’s place in the world of literature. Can it be considered to be a genre? Is the success of novels that have a fanfiction origin proving detrimental to the appeal of literature, or is it enhancing it? Is fanfiction affecting the originality of works that are being published nowadays?

In an attempt to find an answer to these questions, I spoke to my good friend and student Lucy. Lucy used to be a prominent member of the ‘Glambert’ fandom, which is dedicated to former American Idol contestant and star of Glee Adam Lambert. During this time, Lucy wrote fanfiction about Adam Lambert, and so I asked her about her thoughts on fanfiction and its effect on the literary world.  She gave me this reply:

I think that fanfiction is one way for people to connect a creative world to something they are passionate about and thus employ and hone a skill-set that often benefits essay writing in school, encourages an active imagination and a yearning to read, write and learn more.

Not many people would think about this aspect of fanfiction. But once you get through the stacks of hardcore erotic fanfiction, the idea that fanfiction provides an opportunity to practise and hone your creative writing skills does become apparent.

For example, two of the most popular forms of fanfiction are ‘AU’ (alternate universe), or ‘Continuation’ (the continuation of a story after the end of the published novel). These two forms are very good, as they allow fanfiction authors the ability to get very creative with existing characters. However, the fact that these characters have already been provided with specific personalities and tastes by their original creator means that the fanfiction author is limited as to how far they can take their plotlines, which therefore creates a controlled environment for the fanfiction author. While this can be seen as negative, it can also be a positive thing for those who are just starting out in creative writing, as it can be quite useful to practise with existing characters as a method of exploring your own creative abilities. This is not an unusual concept: the Brontës during their childhood wrote adventures featuring their favourite authors.

Lucy also acknowledged the more negative aspects of fanfiction:

[….] fanfiction is not positive when it is taken too seriously by fans of real life people – for example, the fanfics I wrote [about Adam Lambert] and have recently deleted encouraged fans to ship a fake relationship a little too seriously which later resulted in a schism of ideas and beliefs.

Just to clarify for those who don’t know, ‘shipping’ is when you place two people in a fictional relationship, for example one of the earliest ‘ships’ was Star Trek’s Kirk and Spock.

This aspect of fanfiction has definitely played a role in the often negative portrayal of fanfiction in the media, seeing as the majority of fanfictions have a plotline that is based on the ‘shipping’ of their main protagonists. This has in turn cast doubt on the validity of fanfiction as a genre, due to the fact that these types of stories are often just a product of the author’s personal desires for the protagonists. There’s even a name for these types of fanfictions: ‘Mary Sue’.

So, to sum up, and attempt to answer my previous questions, fanfiction’s effect on the literary world is both positive and negative. It could be considered a genre, as it has its own unique forms and characteristics, and it holds the ability to entertain the public, which is evident through the success of Fifty Shades of Grey. Finally, it is and isn’t affecting the originality of works being published today. While the characters are not original, the situations that they are placed in by fanfiction authors can be very unique. Fanfiction can also be a good way to celebrate an author’s success. Think of how many spin-offs of Jane Austen’s works there have been, like Death Comes To Pemberley. Even now they’ve got various authors reworking her novels as part of The Austen Project.

Basically, try not to look at fanfiction with derision. Like anything else we maybe don’t particularly like, we should try and give it a chance, as fanfiction can have its nice moments. I mean, even Justin Bieber has a nice moment, remember him surprising that wee girl on Jimmy Kimmel’s show?

Rebecca Dickson

Rebecca Dickson is a German and English Lit student at the University of Edinburgh. Alongside her degree, Rebecca enjoys food, sleep and YouTube. Rebecca’s main aims in life are to become an amalgamation of Miranda Hart and Bridget Jones, and to be best friends with Rebel Wilson and Jennifer Lawrence. Oh, and to swim with dolphins.

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