Do you know which film is currently at the top of the box office? Let me give you a hint: it’s based on the only book club pick that my mother didn’t feel comfortable toting to the beach. It’s based on what is arguably the most provocative and inflammatory bestseller of the past several years.
I am, of course, referring to Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie adaptation of E.L. James’ controversial novel. Fifty Shades’ subject matter alone is understandably shocking to more traditional readers like my mother (whose fellow book club members were, although scandalized, undeterred from ordering the follow-up books from the tiny independent bookshop in my rural hometown). But another perhaps equally disparaged characteristic of the notorious volumes is the poor quality of the prose itself. Erratic changes of tense, grammar missteps, and unlikely dialogue punctuate the story, conveying a sense of sloppiness to even the most casual of readers.
Despite all of this, the Fifty Shades series and its creator have become household names, and not just among the scornful and culturally savvy. In 2012, Publishers Weekly made the controversial move of naming E.L. James their Publishing Person of the Year, and Amazon announced that she was their top-selling author of all time. Terms were coined to describe the various social implications of the books’ infamy. Ever since its initial corruption of the masses, Fifty Shades has remained a cultural phenomenon.
Fifty Shades’ astronomical rise to near-canonical status has left many confused and questioning. Sex sells, that much is indisputable fact, but certainly there is no lack of poorly written erotica. So why is the publishing industry so shaken up by E.L. James and her Fifty Shades?
Fifty Shades is distinguished by its origin story. Its initial conception was within transformative Internet fandom, a contemporary subculture that consistently pushes the limits set by traditional media. Before being picked up by a publisher, it was posted to the Internet as Master of the Universe, a Twilight story set in an alternate universe. The mass-distribution of these novels denotes one of the first major intersections of this particular underground movement with the mainstream.
Those who are unfamiliar with online fan communities are quick to dismiss fan fiction as a fad. It is widely seen as a cringe-worthy mark on the cultural landscape that will soon fade from our collective consciousness, not unlike the latest viral BuzzFeed “article” or the advent of selfie sticks. In reality, fan fiction in its purest form is a centuries-old tradition, one that encourages unconventional narratives and experimental prose and has been transformed by widespread personal Internet use.
Fifty Shades’ colossal commercial success suggests that this convergence of worlds could bring about a new frontier for mainstream publishing. In this year’s edition of Publishers Inc, we will be taking a look at the history of fan fiction and how we can begin to understand its place in the modern, technologically-driven media landscape.