Fifty Shades of Fan Fiction

Booknotes looks at the rise of Erika Leonard James.

Mike Selby

She really, really, really liked ‘Twilight.’

OK, she loved it. Erika Leonard James, a part-time television executive and full-time mother of two, picked up the first ‘Twilight’ book after seeing the movie in 2009. She was so taken by the teen vampire romance novels that she read all four books in the series over and over. Since no new ‘Twilight’ books were forthcoming, James decided to write her own.

She wrote what is commonly known as fan fiction, which is simply taking characters and settings created by someone else, and writing one’s own story about them. While literary historians trace this practice back to the 16th century, fan fiction really didn’t become a phenomenon until the late 1960s, when all kinds of Spock-based stories began to be inflicted on a would-be writer’s family members after the original Star Trek television show first aired.

Thankfully the internet would go to save countless family members from torment as fan fiction authors could now post their stories to the web for anyone to read. This is exactly what James did.

Calling her story ‘Master of the Universe,’ she posted it online at fanfiction.net under the pseudonym Snowqueens Icedragon. Now anyone who wanted to could read the continuing adventures of Edward and Bella — the two romantic leads of the ‘Twilight’ books. While James was merely one of thousands posting their ‘Twilight’ fan fiction, readers of her webpage quickly noticed a huge theme to her stories not found anywhere else: there was a lot of sex and a lot of ropes.

Since the original ‘Twilight’ series was written for teens, the characters barely even kiss. Yet James’ story had the characters explore their relationship through bondage acts.

Many readers were not amused, so James took her story offline, completely rewrote it with her own original characters, and then reposted it. However by this time, the story had grown so large she had to split it into three different books. She called the first one ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’

And we all know what happened next.

E.L. James became the fastest selling author in history.

At first her books — ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ Fifty Shades Darker,’ and ‘Fifty Shades Free’ were available only as a digital book, offered by a coffee-shop in Australia. Then Random House published the print versions, and 70 million copies absolutely flew off the shelves. James quickly outsold (and out-earned) Stephen King, Danielle Steel, and even J.K. Rowling. These books continue to have a strong shelf life, with James being named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. A big budget film of the first book is currently being made.

Despite all this, ‘Fifty Shades’ continues to receive negative reviews. It is the writing, though, and not the sadomasochistic sex acts, which attract most of the book’s derision. The entire trilogy is often characterized as “poorly written,” “degrading to women,” “mommy porn” (is there a daddy porn?), “a sad joke,” “exceedingly awful,” “asinine” and “depressing.” A New York Times writer even stated James’s books are “the end of civilization.”

These reviews fail to address the undeniable fact that more people have read these books than have ever read ‘Harry Potter.’

Some writers — regardless of their prose style or subject matter — are just compulsively readable, page after page after page.

After all, when was the last time a book caused numerous hardware stores to run out of rope?

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library