When the novel Fifty Shades of Grey was published, it sparked a wide range of slightly frothy responses, from the (shocking!) truth about its history as Twilight AU (Alternate Universe) fanfiction to the (even more shocking!) indication that many women like to read erotic fiction and that sometimes that erotica can get pretty kinky. Much of the press coverage that paid attention to the fandom aspect of the story focused on the copyright issues inherent in fanfiction and other transformative works, which is still up for some debate – and which, thanks to Fifty Shades, will likely continue to be debated into the foreseeable future.
To the extent that people seem willing to own that there might be something ethically amiss with the publication and subsequent success of Fifty Shades, the copyright issues seem, again, to be the primary focus. These rest not only with the fact that Fifty Shades began life as a work of freely available fanfiction and was then “pulled to publish” (removed and altered) — this is not an entirely uncommon phenomenon in publishing or in fandom, though opinions regarding its integrity as a practice vary somewhat in both spheres — but with the extent to which Fifty Shades appears to be different from its fandom incarnation. Which is to say, hardly at all, as the book blog Dear Author demonstrated.
This is the point at which copyright issues intersect with the ethical culture of fandom itself, and where we have to consider prosumption — the idea that the line between the producer and the consumer of a product is increasingly less intelligible or meaningful. Prosumption has already been recognized on this blog by Dave Strohecker as a fundamental part of fandom culture and of how fannish works are produced; fandom is intensely collaborative in nature, with fannish works being produced not only through inspiration by a media source but often strongly influenced by a communally constructed interpretation of that source (a “fanon”, as opposed to the officially accepted “canon”). Members of fandom are writers of fanfiction as often as they’re readers; indeed, to create within a fandom, one usually has to have a general sense of what’s been created already. To produce, one must consume, and the two grow out of each other in a mutually reciprocating dynamic.
There are two primary elements of fandom culture that make Fifty Shades problematic, both of which incorporate and are slightly complicated by the idea of prosumption. The first is the general aversion to profit-seeking within fandom: given that fannish works are driven primarily by collective love for a particular media property, there is a sense among most members of fandom as a whole that the seeking of monetary gain from fannish works is not only legally questionable but sullies the respect that fans ideally have for the object of their fandom. Fans who actively seek profit from their works are likely to be considered not “true” fans by many members of the fandom.
Prosumption complicates this situation when one considers the Marxian question of the creation of value through labor — within fandom there is one kind of value that is generally considered desirable (pride in the product and the esteem of others within the fandom) and one kind of value that is generally considered questionable at best (monetary value). For most of the rest of the Western capitalist world, this last is most desirable, and Fifty Shades has generated a lot of it.
The second issue — and the one that has probably been the most neglected in mainstream discussions of the fandom aspect of Fifty Shades — proceeds from the above and touches more fundamental issues of how fannish works are created. As I said above, fandom is intensely collaborative in nature, with inspiration for a work often hard to trace to a single source, and with many potential participants in the creation of a work, even though it may technically have only one listed author. Fanfiction is frequently produced out of cycles of feedback and editing with other fan volunteers — the technical term is a “beta reader” — and sometimes, if the work is created and shared in installments, through the comments and feedback of other fans. The result is that members of a fandom are likely to feel — and to feel intensely — that they as a community have collectively helped to produce fannish works out of mutual love for a particular media source rather than any hope of monetary gain. And the last aspect is a point of special pride for fandom as a whole as well as a defense against legal action.
When Fifty Shades was posted as Twilight AU fanfiction — then under the title Master of the Universe — it was wildly successful, arguably garnering fans of its own. From within fandom, this is the source of much of the controversy around the book: From this perspective, the author built a following within a community founded in part on the explicit rejection of monetary gain in favor of fannish love, and then used that community and the work it helped her to produce in order to make a name — and a fair amount of money — in mainstream publishing.
From many in fandom’s perspective, this amounts to a considerable betrayal.
This is not to skewer E.L. James or to cast aspersions on her as an author. What the fandom controversy around Fifty Shades reveals so effectively is the increasingly complex nature of fannish prosumption and the cultural and ethical issues around it, especially as prosumption is becoming the norm for methods of content and value generation in other areas. As I said above, the practice of “pull to publish” is by no means unheard of, and may become more common with the success of Fifty Shades. Authors such as Naomi Novik and Cassandra Claire (the latter being the subject of a fair amount of fandom controversy herself) have emerged from fandom to become successful fantasy writers in their own right (click for a longer list of fans turned pro).
Fandom is still evolving. So is fandom’s technological home. Clashes of prosumption, the generation of value, and the culture of fandom did not begin with Fifty Shades of Grey and are unlikely to end there.