Monday, December 10, 2012

Talking Sense About Fifty $hade$ of Grey

According to John Lennard, my editor at Humanities Ebooks,
E. L. James has had an enormous amount of free publicity from journalists who don't have the slightest understanding or concern about what she's done to fandom, to feminism, and to the efforts of the BDSM community to gain recognition and end legal persecution. But that story is there in the fannish archives, and I've set it out, briefly and readably [in Talking Sense About Fifty $hade$ of Grey or, Fanfic, Feminism, and BDSM.]
John writes fanfic, so he has more than a little first-hand experience of a type of fiction whose earliest examples, he suggests, may be deemed to include the fifteenth-century Robert Henryson's continuation of Chaucer’s Troylus and Criseyde and the unauthorised continuation of Don Quixote which was published before Cervantes's own. In addition to a brief history of fanfiction, he also provides short outlines of feminist debates about pornography, and the history of BDSM because, though there
are of course many other things media coverage has ignored or misrepresented, [...] those three aspects – fanfiction in a digital world, the feminist dilemma, and BDSM – are at the heart of the Fifty Shades phenomenon. So it is those three things that I look at in turn to offer some ways of talking sense about E. L. James and her publishing phenomenon. Each part starts with some background and history, to explain the issues that affect Fifty Shades, but comes back to the trilogy in the end.
Given that I know relatively little about these three topics I'm not particularly well placed to evaluate this assessment of Fifty Shades but it seems to me that John succeeds in laying out the reasons why there is
a clear case that James has exploited the work and language of the BDSM community as she has exploited that of the fanfic community, and traduced BDSM as a political cause as she has traduced feminism. It is all very debatable, of course, and depends on what you know and how you see ; but then again, three strikes and you’re out.
I received my copy free from John who kindly sent it in a format I could read. He's self-published it via Amazon, and it's currently available for free for members of Amazon Prime, and otherwise at $3.28 $2.99 at and £2.05 at . For those wondering about the length, in the pdf version I received, the main argument comprised 73 out of 92 pages (the rest are a few introductory pages and plentiful end notes).


  1. Laura,

    I've just purchased a Kindle version on Amazon for $2.99. As a Prime member, I also had the option of borrowing it for free. Thanks for the heads up!


  2. I'd be very interested to know what you make of it, Jessica, particularly the bit about feminism and pornography. My impression was that John was being even-handed in his overview but since my knowledge of this is rather vague, I can't be absolutely certain that nothing vital was omitted.

    I'll change the price mentioned in my post so that it's the one you saw. I suspect that the price I can see on the US Amazon site is affected by my location outside the US.

  3. She has exploited the fanfic "community," but they are themselves trading in exploitation, aren't they? Their works are literally all derivative, and the site where most of the published Twilight fanfics have their origins- that was created strictly to source Twilight fandom, attract fans of Twilight to Twilight fanfic.

    But it is too bad that she gives such a bad name to feminism -I haven't read Fifty, but the "inner goddess" excerpts, LOL! She's by no means the first to write that way though, isn't that common parlance in the chick-lit genre (distinct from romance)?- and BDSM. Although, has she, really? Although it's true she misrepresented BDSM and makes it seem pathological in her angsty characterization of Fifty, the pseudo-BDSM was received well and drew more positive attention to that community.

  4. I have the impression from reading John's book that the convention when writing fanfic has been that it should not be "pulled to publish," and that this is how the fanfic community generally ensures that they're not regarded as "exploitative."

    I also have the impression from my reading more generally, that they see themselves as fans who are exploring the books/movies/series they love via the writing of fanfic, which generates conversations and enjoyment about/of the original series as well as of the fanfic and, indeed, can even keep interest in the original book/movie/series alive (either between episodes/installments or, indeed, in the long-term) and may thus even boost sales/viewer numbers for the original work.

    From what John says, though, the Twilight fandom has been something of an anomaly among fanfic-producing fandoms.

    Re feminism, John's argument isn't focused on the writing style (though he does mention it) and although he acknowledges that "the pseudo-BDSM was received well and drew more positive attention to that community" he lays out reasons why the depiction is, nonetheless, problematic.

  5. Yeah, I tend to agree fanfic shouldn't be pulled to publish, but that's abusing author's rights, not the fanfic community.

    Re: defending fanfic, the same argument's been used to defend piracy and it's less sound here because fanfic typically only draws fans. It's just people enjoying media. Banking off an author's work is another thing altogether, but I guess imitation is nothing new.