- Fifty Shades and the Archive of Women’s Culture
Fifty Shades of Grey: Fan Fiction’s “Sugarhill Moment.”
In my 2009 “In Focus” essay “Should Fan Fiction Be Free?” I predicted that Internet fan fiction communities would soon experience a “Sugarhill moment.”1 I defined this as “the moment when an outsider takes up a subculture’s invention and commodifies it for the mainstream before insiders do.” I was extrapolating from the history of hip-hop music, which began, like fan fiction, as a subcultural, appropriative, copyright-defying genre (hiphop’s musical tracks often incorporate, or consist wholly of, samples of previously recorded music, and sampling has engendered an untold number of lawsuits for copyright infringement). Hip-hop’s core elements were pioneered and refined by innovative DJs presiding over Bronx block parties and dance clubs throughout the 1970s; then hip-hop broke into the American cultural mainstream with the 1979 release of the Sugarhill Gang’s single “Rapper’s Delight,” a novelty record produced by a band of performers who had nothing to do with the Bronx scene. I quoted Vanity Fair’s Steven Daly, who reflected on how hip-hop was introduced to the US market by novice imitators rather than by the masters of turntablism who invented the genre: “Whenever the key players of hip-hop’s ‘old school’ look back on the pregnant moment when the Sugar Hill label blazed a trail for rap, there remains among them the nagging sense that it all went down the wrong way.”2
When E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey was published by Random House imprint Vintage in 2012 and became a massive hit with readers (as of February 2014, it had sold one hundred million copies worldwide and spent one hundred weeks on the New York Times bestseller list), I realized that my guess about what fan fiction’s Sugarhill moment would look like was off target.3 Rather than fan fiction being [End Page 116] co-opted and commercialized by outsiders, fan fiction’s first major marketplace success was an inside job: Fifty Shades began as a fan fiction based on the teen vampire Twilight novels by Stephenie Meyer that James wrote under her fan pseudonym, Snowqueens Icedragon; James removed all references to Twilight’s universe and characters from her fan fiction before the text’s publication as Fifty Shades.4 Although it originated in the Twilight fan fiction community, Fifty Shades is indeed fan fiction’s Sugarhill: it effectuated fan fiction’s breakthrough into the general public’s consciousness, drawing attention, notoriety, and controversy to the fan fiction genre by virtue of its extraordinary fame, without acknowledging the vast communities and long tradition in which that genre emerged and developed. And as with hip-hop and the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” members of fan fiction’s old school—those active in fan fiction communities long before Fifty Shades—have the nagging sense that it all went down the wrong way.
I am not referring here to the literary quality of Fifty Shades, however that might be judged. “Rapper’s Delight” may have sounded strange to the ears of hip-hop initiates in 1979, but it played well to the masses and still does, even now when most people grasp that the upbeat, poplike stylings of the rappers and the thrumming, repetitive sample of Chic’s “Good Times” (1979) on the Sugarhill track could not have been more different from the intricate rhyming and complex technicity that Bronx hip-hop artists were cultivating at that time. Similarly, Fifty Shades has earned a positive reception from millions of readers, but longtime members of online fan fiction communities wonder at the fact that the James book has come to represent the entirety of fan fiction, a multivalent and highly collaborative genre of writing, to mainstream audiences. That Fifty Shades now stands for all of fan fiction in the eyes of many seems incredible, even lamentable, to those who feel that they have a deep knowledge of what makes the genre remarkable and interesting.5 What the Fifty Shades phenomenon has failed to adequately communicate to the general public about fan fiction...