The Submissive, released this month as an e-book, chronicles the BDSM relationship between a wealthy CEO and young librarian. Sounds familiar? Catherine Scott despairs as publishers put profit before originality.
by: Catherine Scott
The news that publishers Headline have acquired a new trilogy of BDSM-themed Twilight fan fiction brings with it not only a wearying sense of deja vu, but also the conviction that even the pretence of originality is now superfluous to getting published. I seriously wonder if I’ve travelled back 12 months in time when I read that Tara Sue Me’s The Submissive depicts “a BDSM relationship between a wealthy CEO and a young librarian”. And yes nitpickers, I know that E L James’ ingénue in Fifty Shades of Grey was a student and not a librarian, but am I to believe this is the only detail one needs to change in order to score a three-book publishing contract?
The Submissive, published as an e-book this month and in print in June, actually pre-dates Fifty Shades... by a couple of years, first appearing on Fanfiction.net in 2009. But even the question of who is aping whom feels pretty irrelevant as we witness publishers abandoning all attempts to nurture original talent, and instead simply trawling the internet for the latest derivation of an already derivative work.
In this brutal market, perhaps I shouldn't blame Headline for being thrilled at the chance to replicate E L James’ sales figures. But where’s the thrill for readers who seek fresh ideas, innovation and at least an attempt at originality? And will publishers who dare to champion those qualities also see themselves fall by the wayside as others who wish to stay profitable increasingly turn to fan fiction as a "safe bet"?
To take entirely against fan fiction is pointless, not least because it’s clearly here to stay. (And, as the novelist and cultural commentator Ewan Morrison has pointed out, it has existed in some form throughout history – weren’t Matthew, Mark, Luke and John simply “non-professionals retelling the same story about the same character?”). Nor is being derivative necessarily a sin – after all, the writer who tries to create work from inside an influence-free vacuum would probably never type a single word.
However, as Gladstone of Cracked.com points out: “Using influences in a novel is a lot like using sampling in music. It’s absolutely fine to lift riffs and hooks from other songs as long as they are reverential building blocks of your work instead of being the appeal of your work.” And therein lies the difference between writing that pays homage to another’s work, and writing that robs that work wholesale of plot, theme and characters.
Game of Thrones author George R R Martin does not allow his work to be used in fan fiction, advancing on his website a domino theory whereby “once you open that door, you can’t control who might come in”. Fan fiction seems fine when its authors are “motivated only be sincere love of [an author’s] world and characters,” says Martin, “but Bill B. Hack and Ripoff don’t give a damn. They just want the bucks.” And that cold hard eye on "the bucks" is exactly what’s leading to the kind of audacious recycling that we’re seeing Headline perform with The Submissive, and eroding any chance of freshness or risk-taking amongst major publishers.
Perhaps we should blame Stephanie Meyer for not taking a similar stance to George RR Martin and calling her copyright lawyer the moment the tedious deluge of Twilight homages emerged. Instead Meyer has remained diplomatic, stating that although Fifty Shades “might not exist in the exact form that it’s in” if it weren’t for Twilight, E L James “obviously...had a story in her, and so it would’ve come out in some other way.” Writers who have been sweating blood to get a publisher to notice them may rightly bridle at the notion that writing fan fiction is automatically a sign that you "have a story in you" – surely the fact you’re using someone else’s story as a template implies the exact opposite.
Whether we view fan fiction as derivative or democratic, personally I’m just dreading another summer of teeth-grindingly awful prose and tired tropes of submissive women and powerful men. So, maybe it’s time to start writing some Hunger Games fan fiction and see if that gets picked up – either that or sit back and wait for another three-book contract to be awarded to "exciting new fan fiction based on the fan fiction of the fan fiction of Twilight".