Fanfiction: Legitimate lit or thinly-veiled plagiarism?

Victoria Cotman explains the murky netherworld of fanfiction, where a loving pastiche can occasionally mask outright plagiarism.

Any creative person in the pursuit of happiness (read: a creative career) will tell you this one thing: it is hard. It’s an uphill battle in a highly competitive environment and your success depends entirely on someone’s subjective opinion. Professionals in the writing craft make no overtures on anything otherwise and the shortcuts simply do not exist. If you’re ever going to make it, it will be on the back of hard work, blind luck and dogged persistence. A truism that exists, although not in the realms of fanfiction.

Well, that is unless you’re someone like E.L James – in which case, it’s on the back of someone else’s hard work and dogged persistence. I say that because, if you didn’t already know, 50 Shades of Grey is Twilight fanfiction.

What is fanfiction? Glad you asked.

It is the gentle art of taking the characters of a favourite book or show and writing them into new scenes, chapters or books.

These are then posted online where other people obsessed with these characters can read it. In many ways, fanfiction is a role-playing game. You get to inhabit the characters you love for a little while and write them into the situations you wish to see them.

Mostly, it’s a coping mechanism for people who can’t let go. It’s also totally harmless – writing for the sheer love of it.

So when E.L James wanted to imagine Edward and Bella getting it on, she rewrote Twilight to include the beast with two backs and posted it on the net. Like I said, harmless…and pretty typical of fanfiction.

Then a publisher in Australia read the story and told James that if she changed some details – names, jobs et al, they would publish it. So 50 Shades of Grey was born, to the disgrace of literature.

You may say there is nothing new in the world. Fast and the Furious is Point Break with cars, No Reservations is just a tacky American version of Germany’s Mostly Martha, but there is a difference between writing yet another “a stranger comes to town” story and lifting an author’s work, changing the names and calling it yours.

It would be very cool to think that the latter is some Duchampian comment on the worlds of publishing and literature. “What is a writer?”, “Are you only an author when published?” That sort of thing…but I somehow doubt anyone involved is that existential.

No, the act of publishing, and therefore legitimising, slightly altered fanfiction simply smacks of plagiarism. Further, unlike the harmless corner of the net where one’s appropriation is rewarded with readership and spin-offs, published fanfiction writers receive monetary compensation for simply re-titling someone else’s work, which doesn’t feel like a fair crack of the studded whip.

It is particularly offensive in this case because Twilight was already badly written. An amateur rewriting added a level of grime so thick it was hard to see through.

Most of all, though – no matter how you feel about Twilight – its author had to go through hell to get published. Piggybacking on her struggle is no more than malicious laziness.

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