Connected devices, user generated content and cultural shifts all coincided this week to prove once again that our most sophisticated developments drive our most basic desires. A senior placed figure at Nielsen Book explained to me that e-books are driving a massive commercial return in popularity for bodice ripper fiction (what we used to call simply “Mills and Boon”) and a significant upsurge of the interest is in female oriented erotic fiction.
The reason is quite plain to see – or perhaps not to see. The anonymous, book-jacket-less convenience of reading a Kindle (or other digital reader device) allows women to avoid any public embarrassment of being seen to be reading something less than entirely “Richard and Judy” or “Oprah”-like book club material. This might be old news to some who are already fully aware of how porn drove the early adoption of the most successful internet business models – subscriptions and micro-payments, but we did also see that as a predictable reflection of boys with their toys. A female version of a similar phenomenon is something new – and possibly almost post-feminist. Unfortunately, the male heroes of these works of fiction seem to represent the most classic characters of gothic anti-hero; distant, unimaginably wealthy, faintly malevolent, and oh so utterly emotionally illiterate in the intensity of their passion. So progress has moved us along but not necessarily forward.
Coinciding with this curious but entirely plausible phenomenon is another curious incident of literary evolution in the same genre. Paidcontent this week focussed on a new work of erotic fiction entitled 50 Shades of Grey which sold over 250,000 units through its Australian publisher – mostly in ebook format – and has been republished by Vintage and is currently number one at the top of the New York Times bestseller list (Number two is Fifty Shades Darker the second title in the 50 Shades Trilogy). The book is a rewriting of a title that had previously been called Master of the Universe and published for free on a fan fiction site under the authorship of Snowsqueen Icedragon (according to IMDB). Fan fiction blog, Dear Author carried out numerous comparison tests. They found the book, according to the plagiarism detection app TurnItIn, to be 89% identical to the previous title. Now there doesn’t seem to be a matter of plagiarism here at all since the published author and the fan fiction author are assumed to be the same E L James. James herself, according to Dear Author, turns out to be a pseudonym for a London-based ex-television producer, Erika Leonard who lives in Brentford. According to the International Business Times, having expressed her delight at such good fortune to the New York Times, Erika Leonard is now resisting the publicity and refused to give an interview to the London Evening Standard. But, despite her blushing pseudonymity, the thing that is key here is that Erika Leonard’s original fan fiction titles were based on the massively successful Twilight series.
The main characters in question are Edward and Bella transposed from their Twilight origins to a present-day setting in downtown Seattle. So it’s an interesting question as to what the copyright issues are in regard to the work of Twilight author – Stephanie Meyer. Paidcontent’s Laura Hazard Owen (can that really be her middle name?) doesn’t seem to think there is a problem ”unless Twilight contains a major bondage and sadomasochism element that I missed”, she writes. So even though the characters are recognisable and the overall context might be clearly based on a context established by Twilight, what Erika Leonard has produced is sufficiently unique not to be an infringement of Meyer’s copyright. That at least is what Vintage Random House would no doubt wish to argue on this occasion.
Fan fiction is a growing phenomenon which challenges conventional notions of authorship and exclusivity of creation – rather as mashups do. And it is of course very cool. Apparently Stephanie Meyer showed up at some public fan fiction forum to encourage her fans and awarded some prizes to the top ranking works. Based on that behaviour, it seems unlikely that she would wish to pursue Ms Leonard – but then of course that was before the fan fiction became best selling fiction.
Now that one of those pieces has found its way into the commercial domain – albeit with some cosmetic changes, will Meyer’s publishers step in and try to take a cut? Will fan fiction be reduced to canon fodder for the major writers whose works spawn it? Or more likely perhaps, will it simply be acknowledged as a new manifestation of one work being inspired by another or what the post-structuralists used to call intertextuality?
This delicious nexus of sophisticated devices, anonymous reading, anonymous writing, and secret pleasures points to all the dangerous delights and questions around what, with good reason, we have sometimes come to call co-creation. Even as you read this, some major film studio is busily convincing the stars of the Twilight movies, to star in the forthcoming film versions of the 50 Shades Trilogy and then release them for exclusive private viewing on new high definition iPads… Watch this space… and of course, for those of you that might wish to try this at home, you can buy your grey ties here.