Tuesday, April 17, 2012

50 Shades of Wrong

I am in the throes of an ethical dilemma. I want, very badly, to discuss my thoughts about the novel Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James. However, my problems with the book prevent me from actually purchasing it, there is a 88-person deep hold list at the local library, most people only have a downloaded copy on an e-reader, and I feel weird asking people to borrow porn.

Why do I refuse to pay money for it? The answer is simple - I believe the author has engaged in intellectual property theft (as hard as it is for me to call the origins of her story "intellectual" in any respect) and that any dollars I spend will feed the idea that it is perfectly acceptable to steal others ideas and publish them as your own.

For those of you who are unaware, the novel Fifty Shades of Grey (FSoG) and the other two books in the trilogy are based on the novel Twilight and the other books in that series, written by Stephanie Meyer. Now, I do realize that many works of art have been based on the works of others. I will use Shakespeare's plays as an example. Romeo and Juliet has been turned into everything from a musical about gang warfare, to cartoon gnomes, to bad-ass action movies. TheLion King was based on Hamlet. So many books have been loosely based on King Lear, from A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley to Fool! by Christopher Moore that it becomes hard to keep track. But the difference is that all of the Bard's work are in the public domain. Gregory Maguire series of books (and musical) based on the works of L. Frank Baum are a revisionist telling of tales. Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a parody. While Jane Austen may well be spinning in her grave (or may be cheering along, who knows), she isn't being cheated.

That is very different from what is happening with FSoG. This particular novel was originally published as Twilight fan-fiction on a website devoted to such artistic endeavors (and wow, do I use that term loosely). Turns out, there are thousands of such sites devoted to all sorts of different books. J.K. Rowling is fine with fans testing their writing skills in the Harry Potter universe. George R.R. Martin is far less tolerant of those dabbling in the politics of Westeros. To each his own. As authors of current works of literature, they should be allowed to say if someone else can come play in their garden of fictional delights. After all, they created everything inside of it, nurtured it, wedded it, and presented it, fresh and clean, ready for our consumption. To let someone else come by, pluck some of your hard grown fruit, then cut it, chop it, throw in additives and filler that change the taste, texture, and flavor, but still say it came from the same garden? Well, I can see how some would find that unpalatable. To torture a metaphor to its painful conclusion, what is worse for EL James is that she not only plucked the forbidden apple of Twilight but is now trying to sell it as exotic pulp, churned and sugared for our pleasure while denying that it was ever an apple at all.

You see, even though she posted the entire FSoG manuscript on the fan-fiction site (though its name at the time was the completely unsubtle Master of the Universe), she is now trying to claim that she changed so much of that old book into the new book that they are almost completely different. Well, others tend to disagree.
Blogger Jane Litte used the Turnitin plagiarism detection program to measure similarities between the two books. She reported: “According to Turnitin, the similarity index was 89 percent. There are whole swaths of text wherein just the names were changed from Masters of the Universe to 50 Shades.”

In the original version, all of the names were those of the Twilight characters. While facts of the story were different (vampires was changed to wealthy entrepreneur and the wolves were excised entirely, as two big examples) the basic bones were the same. The biggest change was the most controversial. While Meyer is a devout Mormon and wouldn't allow her characters to have sex until marriage, James decides to turn Bella and Edward's gentle cuddling and kissing into full blown bondage with sadomasochism. Personally, I don't have a problem with that. How two consenting adults get their kicks in the privacy of their own bedroom is their business. However, it does place the shy and religious Meyers in the precarious position of having to talk about pornography publicly. To my knowledge, she hasn't and is choosing to ignore the controversy entirely. My bet is her lawyers are paying a bit more attention.

Part of what has made the FSoG books so inviting to the media to talk about is the sex. But again, EL James isn't exactly casting a new mold. While various articles have used The Story of O as an example of a well-known work of "erotic fiction", I really doubt it was assigned in many lit classes. If books have been banned from schools that even use the word "fuck", how many exactly do you think have a book entirely about fucking on their syllabus? My bet is that Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty trilogy or even VOX are more well known. (Fun fact: My mom actually bought me both of the above books without either of us knowing what they were about. How's that for awkward?) I'm sure there are thousands more books out there that delve into the topic, but none of them bring the second-most famous characters in modern fiction into the story. (Or don't, depending on which version of James history of the book you believe.)

Now, the mainstream media gets to use the phrase "mommy porn" with lavish abandon, never mind that fact that it is completely belittling to women. Why does it have to be mommy porn? Why can't it just be porn? Yes, women are reading it, but don't women read most porn? Aren't women the ones who are more cerebral about sex and men are more visual? Isn't that why strip clubs are a dime a dozen but the only all-male revue anyone can name is Chippendales? The author also gets to act all "aw shucks" and "little ole' me" (or the British equivalent) about all of the attention, but managed to sell a practically Rated X movie rights for a staggering $5 million and shrewdly secured casting rights as well. I'm pretty sure she isn't the innocent lamb, but is instead the cowardly lion.

So, if anyone has a copy of the book they want to discreetly leave in my mailbox wrapped in brown paper so I can write a proper blog about the similarities or lack thereof between the Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, then that would be awesome. Until then, I will be that annoying person who shakes her first at the world about a book she hasn't read.