Friday, November 9, 2012

Beautiful Bastard, 50 Shades, and the difference between fanfic and retellings, inspiration and plagiarism

As you may have already learned, another book with its beginnings as a Twilight fanfic has been picked up by a major publisher. The Hollywood Reporter writes:
The Office, which reimagined the Edward Cullen-Bella Swan relationship as a steamy love/hate romance between a boss and his assistant, was one of the pioneers of the Twilight fanfic genre, generating more than two million downloads, before being taken offline by the author in 2009.
Beautiful Bastard, a reworked version of The Office written byChristina Hobbs and Lauren Billings under the pen nameChristina Lauren, is scheduled for publication on Feb. 12, 2013. A sequel, Beautiful Stranger, will be released on May 28, 2013.
Simon & Schuster’s Gallery imprint bought the rights to the story in a pre-emptive situation for what insiders describe as a “substantial” advance.
As you might have guessed, a lot of people are pissed as hell. I was one of them. After all, this is what, the second, third time a publisher has thrown a huge amount of money at a ficcer for rights to publish what the author doesn't really own? Angry tweets, many of them my own, flooded my twitter stream. As the conversations went on, I noticed that there seems to be a lot of confusion regarding what fanfic is, why it's wrong to publish it, and also what makes Beautiful Bastard different from 50 Shades. And it was during this conversation that I reverted to a neutral stance on the topic of Beautiful Bastard and the circumstances surrounding its publishing.

The way I look at it, 50 Shades of Grey is plagiarism. Not because it started out as fanfic, but because it's so maddeningly close to its source material without acknowledging it. If you've been reading my recaps, you know that major plot points, scenes, and characters from Twilight are just barely disguised by E.L. James, right down the cars the characters drive. Yes, she removed the vampire element of the story and replaced it with wealth and child abuse. Yes, she ramped up the obsessive characteristics of Edward and the neediness of Bella. At the end of the day, though, 50 Shades is still Twilight, and while its publisher and its author seem comfortable with their delusion that 50 Shades and its fanfic origin, Master of The Universe are totally different properties, Dear Author has thoroughly debunked that claim.

This is apparently not the case with The Office, a former Twilight fanfic that served as the proving ground for Beautiful Bastard. Insiders not involved with the book's publication have vouched for it, and cited massive revisions. Not the company that purchased it, not the authors themselves, but other industry professionals who have more to lose if they're seen championing a book that might be plagiarized. Right now, that's enough for me to put a hold on condemning it.

Let me be clear, though, that we're talking about what I would consider the ethical side of plagiarism, and not copyright law. I'm not talking about what is "legal" but what is "right." Those are two different concepts.

If you're writing a story and you're like, "Man, I love Harry Potter so much, I'm going to write my own wizard stories," but you're not directly copying Harry Potter, then you're talking about inspiration. Like how M*A*S*H inspired China Beach. If you're writing a story and you're like, "Man, I love Harry Potter so much, I'm going to write a story where he's not a wizard, he's just a kid going to school, and he's going to meet his two best friends, a poor kid and a smart girl, and they're going to have adventures running from a serial killer named Valdemark," then I'm sorry, you're straight up thieving. You're not taking inspiration from someone else and making the story your own. And that's what 50 Shades of Grey is. We're talking about a woman who has taken the entire story of the Twilight series and rewritten it so instead of running from vampires, Bella is running from sexual predators. Instead of struggling to balance his humanity and his dark urge to kill, Edward is struggling to balance his humanity and his dark urge to engage in sexual deviance. It's the same story. It's a rip-off.

But isn't 50 Shades of Grey just a re-imagining, or a homage, to Twilight? What's wrong with that? Nothing. Nothing is wrong with re-imaginings or homages. I wrote re-imagined fairy tales as Abigail Barnette. I wrote American Vampire, which is a love letter to Stephen King, from the name of the monster to the small town setting, to the unlikeable narrator. I love Pride and Prejudice sequels, and new Sherlock Holmes stories. But when I wrote American Vampire, I made up the story myself. I made up the characters myself. I made all of that stuff up by myself, and I added little touches here and there to let readers know that I was referencing King's work. When someone writes a Pride and Prejudice sequel, they use the backstory and the characters and the setting of Austen's work, but they write their own story. When Clueless premiered, everyone know it was Emma, and the creator acknowledged that. All E.L. James did with 50 Shades of Grey is rewrite Twilight, without vampires, and then claim it wasn't at all like Twilight. She and her publisher both claimed that 50 Shades wasn't even similar to the original fanfic it came from, which is a clear and outright lie. The similarities between the two are staggering, and a reader would become suspicious even if they didn't know it was a Twilight fanfic to begin with.

Here's another important point to consider: when someone writes a Jane Austen sequel or re-imagines a fairy tale, they aren't impacting a living writer, who is still making money from and exerting ownership over their intellectual property. Jane Austen is never going to write a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, and I'm pretty sure she doesn't give a shit at this point if someone else does. No one is dependent upon the success of her novels to feed their family, and no one even exists who has a claim of ownership over them, anyway. Her novels belong to the world now. Not so much with Twilight.

If I were to write a book called Pride and Prejudice in The West and just set the original novel's plot in a steampunk western setting, it would be awesome. So long as I acknowledged the source material and the original author, no big deal. But if I wrote that same book, but I changed Mr. Darcy to Mr. Marcy and Elizabeth Bennett to Anastasia Rose Steele, then claimed the story was entirely my own, brand new creation entirely separate from the Pride and Prejudice fanfic I'd written a year earlier, but I didn't change anything, then I'm a rip-off artist.

People in the know, who have read the fic The Office, that Beautiful Bastard started out as, have asserted that story is not similar to Twilight and would need only very minor changes to make it an original piece of fiction. The authors claim they've changed 80%. Maybe the characters will retain some similarities to the characters in Twilight, in the same way that Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones's Diary is clearly inspired by Jane Austen's Darcy. As long as the rest of the plot is different from Twilight, then I don't see much of a problem with Bella and Edward being the inspiration for those characters.

When Beautiful Bastard releases, I'll have no problem buying a copy. I want to see how much of it is similar to the original fanfic. I want to see how much of it is similar to Twilight. From what I've heard through the grapevine, not much will be. And if it turns out that everyone is wrong, and the book is just as big a Twilight rip-off as 50 Shades of Grey is, then I'll be wrong. And it won't be the first time, and we'll all survive.

Does it bother me that pull to publish is becoming a real thing? Absolutely. Fanfic was one of the last secret nerd refuges unchallenged by the mainstream, and now it's becoming the mainstream. That makes me incredibly sad. And it makes me incredibly sad when I received a landslide of despairing tweets and emails yesterday from aspiring authors who feel like giving up on their original creations because New York publishing is only interested in fanfic. If you are one of those authors, I say unto you: Don't stop. Don't give up. Because readers are going to get tired of this trend, like readers get tired of every trend. Remember 2008? When you were so tired of sexy vampires? It's going to be like that.

Someone also asked me yesterday if I would consider selling my fanfic, should the opportunity arise. This is a tricky question, because the overwhelming majority of my fanfic is written in the Les Miserables fandom. If I were approached by a publisher saying, "We really like what you did with Inspector Javert here, can we publish this," I would say, "No. But you can publish something else I'll write about Javert." Because I don't see anything ethically wrong with using an iconic character from a non-copyrighted work to build my own stories around, so long as I'm acknowledging that I didn't come up with the character myself. In fact, I'm currently working on a project that involves not only Shakespearean characters (which he stole shamelessly and without attribution, himself), but also figures from Norse mythology. I'm not going to try and convince anyone I've made those characters up on my own. I'm not going to write Romeo and Juliet as a fanfic, then change their names to Chedward and Annabella and say, "This is my own vision, entirely, because I changed their names." That would go against my personal moral code. But if someone came to me and said, "I really like your Predator fanfic, we want you to change the names owned by the Predator franchise and thinly disguise the world building so we can sell it and put your name on it without legal repercussions," then the answer is no. Not for all the money in Duckburg.

I think, more than anything, what I found so incredibly offensive about this article is the part where they said:
Twilight fanfic is  considered the most creative and prolific area of fanfic, with popular stories recasting the relationship in new settings and often dropping the vampire element completely.
Considered "the most creative and prolific area of fanfic?" REALLY? By who? People who have never heard of Star Trek? Pfffffffffffffffffff. Whatever.

So, I'm officially putting away my pitchfork and dousing my torch on the subject of Beautiful Bastard, until it releases and we all get a look at it. I apologize to everyone involved on the project for my knee-jerk reaction yesterday.

1 comment:

  1. ... They've clearly never heard of ponies. Have you seen that fandom? It's insane, and I'm not even talking about the actually crazy parts, which are a well of darkness I don't dare approach. They have epic tales, horror, post-apocalyptic settings, comedy, adult tragedy...

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