Amy Fox

Writer. Editor. Bad at blogging.


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The Fifty Shades dilemma: it is all our fault

So something pretty terrible has started happening to me recently, and when I was asked if I wanted to do another guest post for Bad Books Good Times (cheers guys!) I decided that this would be a pretty good chance to get all these confusing emotions out.

By now, I’m pretty sure everyone is sick to death of Fifty Shades of Grey. I am, and I’m not even reading the stupid things, I’m just reading a blog about reading the stupid things (it’s pretty good, you should check it out).

But I have, nobly, been keeping up the good fight anyway. I am a student of literature! There are so many great books in the world! It is basically our responsibility to warn people away from being sucked in by this nightmare. Besides, everyone is acting like erotica has only just been invented. But Mills & Boon has been around for decades, Lady Chatterly’s Lover was first published in 1928, the ancient Greeks weren’t shy about it at all, and there are Paleolithic cave paintings which are positively filthy. So pointing out to everyone you know that EL James doesn’t even write good erotica seems like a pretty decent way to pass the time.

Also, doing dramatic readings for your friends in the middle of a bookshop and watching their horrified reactions is kind of hilarious too.

But I’ve started noticing disastrous consequences. Despite reading a passage aloud in Waterstones during which Ana referred to Christian as “Mr Orgasmic” and my friends promptly vomited everywhere, a few days later I received a Facebook message from one of them, excitedly announcing that she had bought the books (and continued to want to vomit everywhere). It happened again with an entirely different set of friends. One day we were laughing about how Jose totally isn’t Jacob. The next it was “But it only cost me £9 to download all three onto my Kindle! And I kind of got really into them!”

I was appalled.

Instead of dissuading all my friends from falling into the trap, I seemed to be actively pushing them towards it.

Not even Admiral Ackbar could help them now.

There are many articles all over the internet trying to explain why Fifty Shades has become so popular so quickly. Some theories include:

  1. The ebook form which meant it could be bought and read without anyone ever knowing (this may have been true at first, but now the paperbacks are everywhere and no on seems bothered about reading it in public AT ALL).
  2. It is a slower build up than most pornography, so women respond to it better (thank you, internet, for telling women what we want).
  3. It helps to articulate previously unexpressed female fantasies (okay. I am all for women being able to explore their sexuality freely and openly. Obviously, that is not a bad thing. But see above, re: not the invention of erotica. Maybe studying an arts subject at a liberal university makes me totally biased, but come on, this is not the first time female sexuality has ever been discussed. I mean, did no one listen to Rihanna’s S&M? It’s right there in the name, you guys!)
  4. The recession means that cheap, escapist novels are more popular than ever (after all, reading about wealthy businessmen who casually own helicopters certainly makes me feel better about my life!)
  5. The most obvious, and probably the most true: no one will shut up about it.

And it’s this last one that got me thinking. I am absolutely complicit in that reason. I am writing a blog post about it. Right now. That is what I am doing. I am adding to the 88,800,000 results which turn up when you google “why is Fifty Shades of Grey so popular?” Of course my friends went out and bought it! They want to be part of the discussion too! Not being able to talk about Fifty Shades of Grey is probably now an official handicap during conversations at parties. Or at work. Or on the bus.

Plus, making fun of things is hugely entertaining. It’s an easy way to get a laugh, and it indulges that part of you that likes to feel smarter than everybody else (although it just occurred to me that “indulging the dark secret parts of your psyche” is another alleged reason the series is so popular, so if our making fun of it does just that, we are actually proving it’s own intentions true, just not in the way it expected. Balls.)

In conclusion, based on pretty much no evidence at all, the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey is all my fault. It is all of our faults for talking about it in the first place. The more we talk about it, the more the entire phenomenon spreads. The more we retweet jokes by 50 Sheds of Grey, the more people wonder what all the fuss is about. And the more people wonder that, the more it outsells Harry Potter.

I’m not saying we should stop doing those things. Making fun of Fifty Shades of Grey is basically an entire sub-genre of comedy now, one that I don’t really want to give up. There are just so many good jokes to make.

I just hope we can all live with the consequences.

Yes. This is a Fifty Shades cufflink. Whatever point I was trying to make, it has now been made.

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Fifty Shades of Awkward: a defence of fanfiction

I have a confession to make. Once upon a time, when I was but a wee twelve-year-old pariah, with a nose too large for my face and no social skills to speak of, I would take my escape through other worlds. That itself is not the confession; “gawky kid does lots of reading and goes on to study literature” is not exactly a revelation.

However when – like millions of others – I was going out of my mind waiting for the next Harry Potter, I decided – like millions of others – to try my hand at writing within the world I enjoyed so much.

In other words, I bloody loved fanfiction.

I wonder what to do next. There are still a few days until we go home and nothing in particular to do until then. Most people are spending time with their friends, enjoying the sunshine … but I have no one to do that with.

(Instead of pictures, I have decided illustrate this post with relevant quotes from my own bad fanfic writing for your amusement.)

Just like porn, pictures of cats, and your crush’s holiday photos from five years ago, the internet has made fanfiction more accessible for everyone. However, like all of those things, it existed long before computers.

History lesson! According to Wikipedia, it has been around since people became impatient for the next Don Quixote in 1614. By the 20th Century, all the big writers were at it: E Nesbit revised Lewis Carroll, CS Lewis ripped off JRR Tolkein. It was a literary bloodbath. When Star Trek arrived in the 1960s, things really got crazy.

The thing is, fanfiction is excellent at fulfilling its purpose. Bored kids can read and write about their favourite universes to their hearts’ content. Okay, it’s never going to win any Pulitzer prizes (although I’ll have you know I was once runner-up for the 2008 Marauder-era Quicksilver Quill award on mugglenet.com) but that’s not what it’s trying to do.

If it’s good writing you’re after, of course fanfiction is not the place to start.

What?? Why?? James told her, didn’t he? Bloody hell, I’ll kill him. Oh, he’ll be sorry that he ever crossed paths with Lily Evans, mark my words! But how can I inflict juicy, juicy revenge? It needs to be painful … Oh yes, it will be painful, I can tell you!

Note the abundance of punctuation, awkward repetition, and general bizarre phrasing of the above.

Thankfully, if they’re serious about writing, most authors will eventually move on to bigger things. Writing in someone else’s universe becomes too restrictive, and the time comes when you want to create your own. And now that you have practiced plot development, dialogue, and not-sounding-like-a-total-idiot, it might be that much easier.

At the very least, you will have learnt how to string a sentence together.

She now had the respect of much of Gryffindor, but was still striving for something more – her ambition to be liked seemed to have no limit, although she would not change herself for it.

The problem is when a writer (all right, let’s just drop all pretences, EL James) is told so often that their work is “good enough to be published”, that they go ahead and actually do it. Fifty Shades of Grey, in all it’s totally-not-Twilight­ glory, becomes the result.

“What about her?” Sirius demanded, sharply, his reasonable mood suddenly being replaced by a fire of hurt and anger roaring to life in the pit of his stomach, just at the mention of her name.

Fanfiction just isn’t in the same league as published writing. It’s unedited (although some do make use of amateur volunteer “beta readers”), often extremely episodic, and it can never be truly your own. Not even if you change Bella Swan’s name, remove the vampires, and relocate her to a university in Seattle, where apparently you can study English for four years without an email address.

Which isn’t to say that people who write fanfiction are all bad writers. Once they have used it as a practice tool, they can go on to do better things. Jaida Jones, for example, started with Harry Potter fanfiction, and went on to co-author her own fantasy series which, although I haven’t read it, at least has four stars on goodreads if that is your thing. Then again, so does Fifty Shades.

However, as fanfiction does not show any signs of going away, Jones won’t be the only one who finds her feet using other people’s characters. At time of writing, the top 25 books on fanfiction.net have 1,015,606 fics between them, including 3296 about the Bible (which I couldn’t resist checking out – my favourite by far comes with the summary “So what was high-school like for Mary and Joseph?” I guess there is only one way to find out).

And there are hundreds of other book categories besides these, not to mention the entirely separate sections dedicated to films, TV shows, comics, games, animes/mangas, plays/musicals and miscellaneouses. And that’s just on the one website.

“everything else just seems to … fit, you know? It’s like where you’re wacky, I’m ordinary and where you’re scared, I’m strong. But where I’m scared, you’re the one that’s strong. Where I see a problem, you see a solution. Everything bad about me is good about you and the other way around. You know, together we almost make a whole person.”

In conclusion: although undeniably bad, fanfiction is not all bad. Sort of like the sentence I just wrote. It enables you to practice writing, gives you something to read if you want it, and stays largely off your radar if you don’t. The problem is that it’s only the really bad stuff that breaks that last rule.

Still, there’s nothing funnier than finding the most truly awful and bizarre story out there, then doing a dramatic reading with your friends. And I haven’t even mentioned slash fiction.

“Oh, Minerva,” Dumbledore chuckled, “You just don’t understand teenage boys, do you?”

McGonagall smiled, and went back to reading through Ministry education reports, as Dumbledore leaned back in his chair, and reminisced about his own days as a daring and ruthless teenage miscreant, smiling jovially, and chortling to himself.

Also: This post is also featured as the guest post on this week’s Bad Books, Good Times! Where Matthew and Ariel are reading Fifty Shades of Grey so we don’t have to!