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Fifty Shades of Grey and The Lack of Vacuum that is the Internet

June 1, 2012

I never necessarily planned on talking about this, hell, I wasn’t even intending to start the posting schedule again until next week. A brief aside about posting, my schedule is still fairly hectic but I’m trying to bring it to a heel, and when it resembles something more normal I’ll be able to return to the posting schedule I had (Sunday through Friday, alternating between opinions and beer reviews). Now, on to this thing I want to talk about.

Fifty Shades of Grey.

Where does one even begin to talk about this?

I suppose I’ll start by saying, no this isn’t the death of literature.

Literature has been tarnished pretty heavily over the centuries, and one more popular erotic novel isn’t going to change that.

But let’s not mince words, this ain’t no Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

For those who are unfamiliar, Fifty Shades of Grey is the opening novel in a trilogy of romance novels. It’s been parodied heavily for the fact that it’s clearly made to appeal to cooped up housewives who have lost the spark in their sex and love lives (if it was ever there to begin with). Is it starting to sound like another book you might know? That brings us to what it is also known for. It holds an 89% similarity rating to a Twilight fanfic that was posted to

There’s a lot of bad things happening here, but my head starts to spin from trying to keep track of them.

Let’s start with the same issues that Twilight has, since it by virtue of being in the same style has the same problem. Well, it has the same problem as all erotica really.

Sidebar right now folks.

Some people might be saying, “Whoa, Mark, these books are romance novels that just happen to contain erotic scenes not some dirty word porn!”

There is a fine line between a romance novel and erotica. That line is really in the characters. In a romance novel the characters are at least one dimensional archetypes; lovelorn ladies who are going to be married off to brutish lords, dashing bravos, and well the brutish lord. They’re the same characters who populate telenovelas and soap operas. They can be slightly more developed than this, but still clearly rely on tropes, think your average rom-com vehicle. Then finally are the fully developed romance characters, and the story is exclusively about their love lives but other things happen because they’re there to be more than just a character seeking love.

In erotica, the character is sort of like a second skin. Erotica that doesn’t try to hide it is told from the first-person perspective, and there is minimal description of the main character, and they express little to no personality. The character might express feelings or thoughts, but they’ll be broad so that the reader can interpret them to be in line with their own thoughts, feelings, personality, and background. A good analogy is the First Person Shooter in video games. Most FPS characters are just there to be worn by the player so that he feels like he is the space marine come to save the day. In erotica, the same principle applies.

So yes, Fifty Shades of Grey has this problem. The main character is just a second skin for the reader to put on so they can feel like everything is happening to them.

Now, I suppose the question is at this juncture, is this wrong? Is this actually damaging our society?

In all honesty, no.

Erotica has and always will exist. It will also generally be poorly written, because it is as I have said in other places, “for the fapping.” It’s the same reason a lot of pornos are shot in flat medium shots with the occasional close up on action, or shot/reverse shot for the “dialogue.” If you’re out to make pornography, there’s no sense in getting fancy. Though on a personal level, some well-directed porn and well-written erotica would be pretty cool.

It’s overall a similar problem to Harry Potter.* Good, we’re all reading but could we all read something a little…better? Maybe some Michael Chabon?

So yeah, blah blah blah, Twilight, poorly constructed characters, bippity boppity boo.

Far more intelligent, eloquent, or just funnier people have covered all those issues before. So that’s it, issue to rest, right?


No because Fifty Shades of Grey does something much more dangerous. And, it’s not dangerous to readers. It’s dangerous to authors.

And no, I’m not talking about how it flies in the face of the traditional publishing model. It’s taking power from editors, and publishers, and oh no the death of printed media. I will once more take a quick aside to say that editors and publishers have gotten to where they are for a reason, and while I have published something on Kindle it was far from a first choice and I don’t proudly call myself an “independent author.”

Ultimately it’s not dangerous to people who are already in the traditional publishing model. If you got a publishing contract, you’re good, and you’ve proven yourself.

It will begin to hurt hopeful authors however.

First off, now any author with a similar concept to something that is, to use the common parlance, hot right now will need to on some level prove that this isn’t edited fan fiction. Sure, they might not, some people don’t care and will just take your awesome manuscript titled Galaxy Battles about Duke Starskipper fighting the villainous Imperium. Yet, for some people questions might get raised. Hell, it’s already a question that gets raised amongst authors and their teams. Some established authors freely admit that they still write fanfiction, and even put it on websites. Still, one more stumbling block in the long process of getting agents to take you seriously is not what a new author needs. In other words, if you’re writing an epic low fantasy novel told from the point of view of a noble family, watch out cause now not only will you get compared to George R. R. Martin, people are going to ask if you’re young precocious male character is really just Arya with a penis.

Worse than this is the hope that it gives to the fanfiction community.

Hope is the most dangerous gift of all.

Many fanfiction authors do want to become legitimate authors. Most people write fanfiction at some point in their lives, it’s often their first real writing because it’s an imitation of a better writer. The best fanfiction authors are people mature enough to say, “Ya know what, I don’t care if I get published anymore, I have an idea for these characters or this setting, and it doesn’t matter I just want to share it.” These people are pretty rare, though their fanfiction is quite awesome. The majority of fanfiction authors are people who really do want to jump to super stardom, and if they could do it with their Kirk/Spock romance than all the better!**

The self-published ebook is already causing enough issues with every fanfiction author thinking they can just retool their “totally awesome and better than the original,” piece into something “completely original,” and sell it for ten dollars to all those super-cool people that left a review. After all if your story has ten reviews on that’s an audience of like, 10 million people, right? Cause most people just don’t write reviews cause they’re too busy being blown away by your take on Mal Reynolds from Firefly.

Now there’s someone who did retool their fanfiction and got on Time’s 100 Most Influential People list. The extent to which it had to be or has been retooled being extremely debatable, and I don’t want to poo-poo the author for being successful. I think what we need to remember though is that things aren’t happening in a vacuum.

So I suppose at the end this is more a warning to everyone who wants to be the next great fanfiction sensation. Your fanfiction reviewers will most likely not become an army of support for even your truly original works. Dropping 11% similarity to your fanfiction in editing is difficult, and it is not always the magic number. Fifty Shades of Grey‘s eleven percent was mostly names and some relatively minor vampire elements it wasn’t say, a whole secret society of wizards with its own specialized language.

Oh I suppose it’s also a request for us all to sit down and read something cool and well-composed. I mean seriously, how about some Michael Chabon? You can’t be a comic book fan if you don’t read The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay.

I’ll just put this link right here, you don’t have to click on it, but it’s there for you know, when you’re ready.



*: The difference is of course that while it’s so purple, you can paint an entire violet phase of your career, some characters in Harry Potter have arcs.

**: I would totally read a well-constructed, well-written space romance about two bros having butt-secks on a space exploration mission. Kind of amazed it hasn’t been written and published yet. I guess it’s the butt-secks part.


From → Opinions

  1. As a counterpoint to your eminently reasonable post, The Sword of Shannara was Tolkien fic with the serial numbers filed off. This has been going on for a while. It actually seems like many authors nowadays who come from fandom are not trying this trick and are entering the publishing market with wholly original works (Cassandra Clare & Jaida Jones are the two examples I know – and in these cases, I think their legion of fans were helpful, but not the reason they got published and stayed published).

    With the power of self-publishing, a wider range of fan fiction authors can transition to original work the lazy way, but most will fail to find an audience and be ignored. Many readers of fan fiction are pretty critical toward any attempts to monetize fandom in this way.

  2. Speaking of a really good Firefly FF:
    Speaking of a really great Ironman FF:
    Speaking of an incredibly hilarious Destroyer FF:

    Oh wait, these are all Harry Potter X-overs too…

  3. Fair points, Becky. I suppose I didn’t wish to imply that this is new or any different from what people are doing before. Little bit of a forest for the trees situation in this post. As for legions of fandom fans who support you when you put out your first original work. I find it to be one of those things that’s tricky to predict. There are certainly people from fanfiction who have fans stick by them, and others that don’t (certainly not when they go the lazy way). Ultimately though, as you say, their fanfiction is not why they get published or stay published.

    And Jeff, I will not read these ridiculous Harry Potter crossover fics no matter how many times you send them to me.

  4. OH COME ON. THEY ARE SO GOOD. I say this in all honesty. You will actually really like Browncoat, Green Eyes. It’s (a) Firefly (b) Harry Potter (c) elements of Discworld

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