A big welcome to my Guest Blogger, Emily Wheeler, and her thoughts on the ethical issues of reworking an existing novel!
Fan fiction has been in the blogosphere a lot of late, due to the recent acquisition by a major publishing house of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, by EL James. This hugely popular erotic novel started out life as a Twilight fan fiction story. Apparently when it was on fanfiction.net, under another name, it had hundreds of thousands of hits and reviews. The author then removed it from that site, hosted it on her own site, and then re-wrote it as an original fiction story.
This has opened up the ubiquitous can of worms. While it cannot be denied that Fifty Shades of Grey was written entirely by the author and that she deserves any success coming her way, there has been discussion about ethics. Fan fiction itself is not unethical, people say (with the exception of some authors who do not authorise it on their works), but reworking a fan fiction novel as an original fiction, and then using its fan fiction origins –and therefore piggybacking off another fandom – as part of its promotion, whether publicly or privately, is another issue.
I should offer a disclaimer here. I come from the world of fan fiction myself, and while my fan fiction novel is nowhere near as popular as the original version of Fifty Shades of Grey was, it has its fair share of fans. Someone even suggested to me in a review that I should re-write it using original names for my characters, and it would be a best-seller. I’m under no illusions about that: the story itself isn’t bad, but if I was writing it as a commercial novel instead of a freely-available fan fiction story, about half of it would be cut and there would be significant changes made to the structure. But that’s by the by. Personally I doubt that my fan fiction could be successfully reworked into original fiction, and even if it could, I wouldn’t try. It was written for a fandom, and there it will stay.
Coming from this background, I’m inclined to side with EL James. She wrote the whole thing herself , including two sequels, and is entitled to any success and accolades it receives. However, I can see the argument. While I’ve not read Fifty Shades or Twilight, I understand that there are several similarities in plot, structure and character development.
If Twilight was an older work of fiction and in the public domain, this wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. Everyone knows that Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary is a modern reworking of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; Clueless was a film adaptation of Emma. A quick look at Amazon will reveal any number of books based around Mr Darcy, Heathcliff or other famed heroes of classic novels; even the estate of Margaret Mitchell approved the release of sequels to the unsurpassable Gone with the Wind. What are these, if not fan fictions? In truth, I see little difference.
The main difference between those books and Fifty Shades of Grey seems to be the timing. Twilight is still under copyright and has an enormous fandom, many of whom would buy a book that was based on it even if it’s been redone as original fiction. In that sense EL James may be considered not a debut author, but an extension of Stephenie Meyer. And that is where the controversy lies.
Is it ethical to publish a fan fiction story as original fiction, if the original work is still under copyright? I’m not sure. In a sense it does seem to be cheating. But, it seems, the publishing world has spoken. If they’re willing to publish Fifty Shades of Grey, and give EL James a huge advance against it, then that’s their decision, and they will have to live with any consequences.
Emily Wheeler is a former fan fiction author who is now concentrating on her first original fiction novel, when she has time between looking after her children and trying to live a normal adult life.
Her blog can be found at http://www.EmilysTeaLeaves.wordpress.com.