Fifty Shades of Fan Fiction

April 2, 2012 | 7 books mentioned 23 7 min read

coverThe trilogy currently sitting atop the New York Times bestseller list is in many ways a fascinating one, the sort of Cinderella story that gives journalists a chance to make wild guesses about the future of publishing. E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels began on the Internet, evolved into e-books, were printed by a small Australian press, and, just a few weeks ago, were finally picked up by a traditional big publisher, Vintage, which paid seven figures at auction for the North American rights. It wasn’t a risky bet; the biggest trouble has reportedly been keeping physical copies on the shelves.

coverThe book is notable, too, because to some degree, it’s forced erotica into the mainstream conversation. Much of the coverage of Fifty Shades of Grey has focused on sex: women are passing around the novels at spin classes and telling the Times how nice it is to be able to read porn and talk about it with friends. (“It’s relighting a fire under a lot of marriages,” one woman said.) But then there are the books’ origins: the trilogy started on, as a story entitled “Master of the Universe,” in which James’ main characters, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, were called Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. It was Twilight AU, or Alternate Universe fan fiction, wherein Stephenie Meyer’s innocent girl and vampire were re-imagined as innocent girl and manipulative billionaire. The story eventually morphed into something more original — and “Masters of the Universe” was removed from the web — but the threads remained. “The book emerged from the steamy land of fan fiction,” said Jason Boog, discussing the legal and ethical questions for NPR. “Fifty Shades of Grey has opened the box underneath Pandora’s bed, and we need to decide what to do with the sexy publishing trend hidden inside.”

Why, when discussing fan fiction, do journalists often sound like anthropologists discovering some long-lost tribe — and a somewhat unsavory and oversexed one at that? To be fair, Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic novel, but it represents a mere fraction of this “steamy land.” Let me take a crack at it: fan fiction is original work with largely unoriginal foundations, in which writers take established fictional worlds and spin them into something else entirely. Outside of all of the various fandoms, and even occasionally within them, a few assumptions seem to prevail: that there is something inherently embarrassing about fan fiction, that it’s cause for anonymity and secrecy, and that it is overwhelmingly pornographic — and often seriously, creepily pornographic. There’s plenty of that stuff, sure, but then, there’s plenty of original erotica out there, too. It’s all a sliver of something much larger. For every story that puts Harry, Ron, and Hermione in some kind of BDSM threesome, there are a thousand stories in which they manage to save the world without having any sex at all.

The literary establishment seems divided on the subject — those who even notice fan fiction, at least. (It’s here that we can part ways with Fifty Shades of Grey, which, as a romance novel, doesn’t really fall under the purview of the “literary establishment” — and the blurry dividers between genres are a wholly different discussion.) Writing for TIME last year, Lev Grossman mercifully skipped the baffled anthropologist shtick: the piece was clearly the work of a super-fan, and he laid out the basics with a great deal of affection. Fan fiction is “still the cultural equivalent of dark matter,” he writes. “It’s largely invisible to the mainstream, but at the same time, it’s unbelievably massive.” (, the largest fanfic site in the world, has more than two million users and nearly 600,000 Harry Potter stories.) Grossman continues:

Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.

Some authors seem to love the conversation, but some, for legal or creative reasons, seriously hate it. Grossman highlights a few of its vehement detractors, like Orson Scott Card, Anne Rice, and George R. R. Martin, who says on his website that, “Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out.”

covercoverBut writers have been lifting and borrowing and refashioning characters, worlds, and settings since people began putting stories down on the page. Grossman draws a line between literary influences, allusions, and homage and the world of fan fiction: he highlights 1966, the year in which Star Trek premiered and Trekkies were, in turn, born, and in which two great literary heists were published: Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The latter pair were “written for profit, and they’re adorned with the trappings of cultural prestige; true fan fiction has naught to do with either one.”

I’m just not sure we need the distinction — and I’m not sure that it helps. Nearly every work of fan fiction on the Internet is accompanied by a disclaimer, some variation on “This story was not written for profit, and these characters are not my own.” But it’s copyright law at the heart of that, and to suggest that these writers have no interest in “the trappings of cultural prestige” creates a stark division between fan fiction and its literary counterparts. I have a deep respect for the devotion of fans, and I can certainly understand why one would write a story for love rather than for money. But it’s a multi-faceted world: many of these writers just want a different — and sometimes, a better — way into a story. Hasn’t literature has been doing that for centuries?

coverThere’s fan fiction lore surrounding King Arthur and Don Quixote, but we find easier analogies with modern-day fan culture say, a few hundred years ago, when the novel as we know it was born. Copyright laws had been on the books since the seventeenth century, but the most successful eighteenth and nineteenth century writers watched helplessly as their characters were baldly lifted and reworked into sequels or just plain rewrites — and then sold to the public at a fraction of the price. Charles Dickens, already a victim of intellectual pirating across the Atlantic, watched domestic copycats put out seriously poor imitations of his books with dismay: “I have not the least doubt that these Vagabonds can be stopped,” he wrote. “They must be.”

This was pure plagiarism, meant to harm and to generate profit, not to elevate Dickens’s words. But a century earlier, Samuel Richardson found Clarissa, which he was publishing in installments, to be the subject of positive and somewhat extraordinary fannish speculation. Two sisters, Lady Bradshaigh and Lady Echlin, exchanged dozens of letters with Richardson, urging him to change the course of the novel (basically, they wanted to cut out the rape and death). In The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Carol Houlihan Flynn writes of Bradshaigh contacting Richardson: “Assiduously scribbling over the margins of all the volumes of the novel, she first writes him after finishing volume 4, cajoling, flirting, excoriating, loving, hating, but always admiring her torturer.” Her sister took things further: “Lady Echlin…seems more professional in her investment into the passions of Clarissa, and literally rewrites the novel…Richardson received and of course rejected her alternative ending, but they debated the critical differences in at least forty letters.”

The nineteenth century saw fans skipping correspondence with recalcitrant authors and writing their own endings for books that they loved, including the novels of Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and, most notably, Arthur Conan Doyle, who made the mistake of killing off Sherlock Holmes and whipping the detective’s admirers into a frenzy. The practice continued through the first half of the twentieth century, until the 1960s, when the term “fan fiction” was coined and the literary tradition merged with our current ideas of fandom — science fiction, “cult” television shows, terms like “continuity” and “canon” gaining significance in the process. As the Internet became pervasive, fan fiction communities grew and spread exponentially.

covercoverBut the past half-century also played host to a lot of self-conscious borrowing and refashioning across literature: authors began to look for silences in the canon and probed the neglected perspectives they found there. Some post-colonial literature could easily be categorized as fan fiction. The most famous of these is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which follows Jane Eyre’s “madwoman in the attic” all the way back to the Caribbean. Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête draws the colonial themes out of The Tempest with an essentially direct re-writing of the play. J. M. Coetzee’s Foe exists within the confines of Robinson Crusoe, placing another character on the island with Crusoe and Friday, and explores ideas of authorial voice in the colonial narrative.

coverOutside post-colonialism, dozens of books fall within the realm of “parallel novels,” many of which take minor characters and expand their worlds. Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs emerges from Great Expectations; Geraldine Brooks looks for the absent father of Little Women in March. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours offers us two subgenres of fan fiction: the AU of the modern-day Clarissa, Richard, and Sally, and the RPF — that’s Real Person Fic — of the Virginia Woolf passages. With RPF, you’re not writing about Aragorn and Legolas’ lost adventures anymore — it’s Viggo and Orlando on the set, and who knew they might be an item? Every biopic that takes factual liberties could be classified as such, and the same could be said for plenty of books, from Colm Tóibín’s The Master (Henry James) to Ron Hansen’s Exiles (Gerard Manley Hopkins) to Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George (our old favorite, Arthur Conan Doyle).

So what’s the difference? Isn’t all of this just a bunch of variations on the same theme? Why does fan fiction’s stigma persist — and why are remixes and mash-ups, analogs in the art and music worlds, accepted, even celebrated? There’s something about the written word that limits all this unfettered refashioning, something that makes people more protective of their work. It’s the fear of plagiarism, perhaps, or the way that for many people, a character can feel so much dearer than a beat or an image ever could. But fan fiction — and all of its literary counterparts, however you classify them — comes from a place of love and admiration. Some people see a corner of a fictional world waiting to be explored; others just want to exist in the world past the last page of their favorite novel. After all, who among us hasn’t felt that way, closing the back cover of an amazing book and wishing that the author had given us a little bit more?


is a staff writer for The Millions and writes a regular column about fan culture for the New Statesman. She recently completed an MA in the digital humanities at University College London. She's gotten much better at Twitter in the past year, but she still spends most of her time (/life) on Tumblr. She lives in Brooklyn.


  1. Small correction: Viggo/Orlando is RPS, not RPF — Real Person Slash. “Slash” fiction used to signify male/male pairings in fanfic, but it’s apparently become a generic term for *any* pairing. However, in the LotR RPS fandom of old, “slash” always meant male/male — and Viggo/Orlando was a huge OTP (One True Pairing) along with Elijah/Dominic.

  2. On a less slashy note, I’ve always had a soft spot for parallel fiction. Having been involved in several fandoms, especially when I was younger, I see the appeal of reworking a well known story to see it from an unexpected perspective. You mention one of my favorites, Wide Sargasso Sea, but another that just bowls me over is Grendel. Both are told from the POV of the so-called antagonist of the original work, and by focusing on them they then become the sympathetic, misunderstood protagonist. Brilliant.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with the lifting of the stigma on fan fiction. I haven’t read or written a word of it but the thought crossed my mind recently. Why wouldn’t an interested party want to provide a fictional back story for a character they love who intrigues them?

    I think the stigma is in the age-old dichotomy between “this is the noble canon- the best that has been thought and said” on one side vs. “creepy couch potatoes who are obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” It’s bogus, as you rightly point out.

    Tom Stoppard, Coetzee, Rhys and even *groan* Michael Cunningham (just to name a few) get into the act by rewriting some classic texts from new perspectives why shouldn’t anybody else? One man’s adaptation is another man’s travesty, but there is a difference.

    I think the difference lies where it always does- the quality of the writing. You can mash-up classic texts all you want but if you can’t write worth a damn you’re probably going to be just as easily swept into the ash-heap of history as easily as any kinky scribe of Narnia or Hogwarts. But if you know what you’re doing, some frisky adventures with the players of pop culture might attain the level of high art.

    Ancient Mythology…..?

  4. The reason a stigma exists is because there is the canon of acceptable literature, and there is everything outside of it. Authors like J.M. Coetzee and Michael Cunningham are comfortably within the established base of New York Times best selling authors, while most other people aren’t. Foe and The Hours are fan fiction, if well written, but fan fiction nonetheless. But no one dared call them that lest the establishment rise up against them.

    We can whine about the canon all we want, but it isn’t going away, nor should we want it to. The big critics can have their obscure authors and the rest of us can read what we want. There’s a reason J.K. Rowling is always going to outsell Philip Roth. One is an author people want to read, the other is what Harold Bloom considers good literature.

    Fan fiction has always been around, but now that the internet is here to lift the blanket off of everything, the general public can see how pervasive the voice of the real people is. It’s been a long time since literature was democratic, since the days of Dickens, but it’s coming back around. Fan fiction is not going anywhere. If anything, it’s going to get bigger and bigger. One day, there might be a fan fiction section in the Times Book Review.

  5. As a scholar of fanfiction, I found this refreshing. Even within the field there is often a stigma associated with fanfiction, and even with its study. However, as you have shown, it is an interesting genre with a long history and clear social implications.

  6. This is all well and nice but what about due compensation to the original author/creator.

    It is one thing to do a story based on a piece of work that is in the public domain but is it really fair for fans to take over ownership for a work that is not in the public domain?

    I get that fans have a feeling of ownership but the author is the one who did the work and for every fan that may hate how something went, another may be perfectly fine with it. And if a fan wants to change the ‘canon’, shouldn’t that fan get permission from the original creator? Or at least the person who owns the copyright?

    And that whole “The story eventually morphed into something more original” about Fifty Shades is patently incorrect. It is still the same story as it was in its fanfic form and it still borrows heavily from the original source material.

    And to be frank, the Fifty Shades situation actually shows how correct Card, Martin et al are about their stringent opposition of fanfiction. These days, an author/creator has to claim ownership of their own work because in the light of the Fifty Shades situation, it is clear that if the author doesn’t, then someone else will.

  7. Elizabeth,

    A nice argument, but two points I feel need to be straightened out:

    1. Fanfiction authors don’t BELIEVE that they own the work. As the article stated above (and as you can find on ANY piece of fanfiction, if you take the time to look into reading a work) a fanfiction writer will leave a disclaimer, a statement clearly saying “This story was not written for profit, and these characters are not my own.”.

    2. Fanfiction authors are, for the most part, NOT trying to change the canon. The reason that they are writing in the first place is because they love the canon! No, what they are doing is developing ‘fanon’, meaning a clearly-established FAN version of what is going on, usually because they are unhappy. And, if an actual author does not WANT fanfiction written about their piece, they have that clear right. Fanfiction site managers and writers are willing to accept their will. You won’t find Anne Rice fanfiction on a site like

    For the most part, fanfiction authors are NOT trying to make a profit. The Fifty Shades is a unique exception, and one that most fanfiction writers will probably be upset over. And again, for the most part, modern authors don’t CARE that their fans are taking their own stab at things, because it: 1., shows their love of the author’s hard work and commitment, and 2., isn’t taking precedent over what they’ve penned.

    Besides, if people object over fanfiction, that means they object Shakespeare. Because really, that’s all Shakespeare was: a very clever, very lucky fanfiction writer.

  8. The difference, I think, is not necessarily the quality of the writing (though that helps), but the purpose to which the author puts the established characters. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” doesn’t simply take Hamlet’s characters and gives them a new adventure. It uses them and the the world of the play to illustrate new themes in a wholly different style. The end result is arguably more allusion than anything. Something that I’m sure most fan fiction couldn’t claim.

  9. Joseph,

    You obviously haven’t read much fanficiton, have you? Because for the most part, that’s what good fanfiction does. It takes the characters from a world we love and uses them to comment on situations which a lot fans find distasteful.

    I see no difference between the allusions you speak of regarding “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and someone forcing a military character from a TV show into dealing with homophobia or other issues of the day.

    Perhaps if you read more and opened your mind you would see that the world is filled with far greater diversity than simply what is published in the mainstream.

  10. Personally I think the problem with (some) fanfiction is quality, but that is to be expected. With the exception of “betas”, most fanfiction goes through no formal editing process. Many authors are just learning to write or are not overly concerned with quality. HOWEVER. There are some amazing, breathtakingly beautiful fanfictions, in every fandom. Sometimes they borrow heavily from canon, sometimes the relationship is tangential. Sometimes the fanfic surpasses the original content. For every incredible gem of a story you find, you might have to sift through a hundred or more mediocre ones. But that one is well worth it.

  11. I couldn’t finish Fifty Shades of Gray.. the writing is so awful. But i have a better understanding today of why it’s so popular than i did even a few days ago! I never actually thought of Jack Maggs, (Peter Carey is one of my fav writers,) and March, by Geraldine Brooks, as examples of fanfiction. But they are. And they’re excellent. I’m trying not to be a fanfiction snob, and i’m getting there! Not every novel has to be literature. And secretly.. sort of.. there are many stories i would love to see alternative endings to, or characters added! I’ll be coverted yet.. Hah!

  12. Fanfiction has done a lot for me and it is something I fully support as both a reader and a writer. I managed to become a real writer while writing allot of fanfiction. Yes, it was horrible at first, but it got better and better. I think it’s a great exercise for anybody who wants to write cause it makes it a bit easier for you. You already have the characters and a background and you can build on that. It makes you more observant towards the original, cause you need to keep the characters in-character and the action plausible (unless it’s au). That doesn’t mean I believe fanfiction is inferior to original writing. I have encountered some stories that have literally changed my life. Yes, as somebody mentioned, there are allot of bad stories, but to find those really amazing ones it’s worth the hunt. And you can learn allot by reading bad stories too. It teaches you what not to do. Everybody usually starts out with a Mary Sue or a Gary Stue, but as you read more stories, you start noticing clichees and try to avoid them.
    But in the end, I suppose it’s really about that— wanting more. It’s a bit like the theatre. Directors write fanfiction everyday, with every new Hamlet: Hamlet today, Hamlet if Claudius was actually a mob boss not a king, Hamlet-was-gay. It’s because good stories make us dream, expand on them and make them become relevant to the culture always. I’m not saying low-quality works don’t get fanfiction too, like 50shades, but in the end it’s a matter of personal taste.
    I’ll never understand writers who oppose fanfiction. They’re depriving their fans from allot of shared joy.

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