Fifty Shades readers turn writers

Some fans of the erotic novel recast it from billionaire Christian Grey's point of view before author E.L. James did

A woman (above) reads a copy of E.L. James’ new book, Grey, outside the Barnes and Noble store in Fifth Avenue, New York, as she waits to have it signed by the author.
A woman (above) reads a copy of E.L. James’ new book, Grey, outside the Barnes and Noble store in Fifth Avenue, New York, as she waits to have it signed by the author. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCEPRESSE
A woman reads a copy of E.L. James’ new book, Grey, outside the Barnes and Noble store in Fifth Avenue, New York, as she waits to have it signed by the author (above).
A woman reads a copy of E.L. James’ new book, Grey, outside the Barnes and Noble store in Fifth Avenue, New York, as she waits to have it signed by the author (above). PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCEPRESSE

New York - In a note to readers on the dedication page of her new novel, Grey, E.L. James sounds a bit like the exasperated mother of whiny, demanding children.

"This book is dedicated to those readers who asked... and asked... and asked... and asked for this," she writes.

Grey is a 559-page retelling of James' blockbuster erotic novel Fifty Shades Of Grey, this time from the perspective of moody billionaire Christian Grey. Readers who tore through Fifty Shades Of Grey and the other books in the best-selling trilogy have been badgering James for this version since she published the books in 2011.

For many fans, the wait ended last Thursday with the publication of Grey, which rehashes Christian's seduction of the demure college student Anastasia Steele as he draws her into a dominant-submissive sadomasochistic relationship.

But others refused to wait for James to write more. Instead, they created versions of Christian Grey's story and posted them online, where they are drawing huge audiences of their own.

Gillian Griffin, a married 58-year-old mother of three who lives in Surrey, England, was so smitten with the enigmatic, controlling character that she rewrote all three Fifty Shades novels from his point of view and posted them on her blog, Meet Fifty Shades, under the pen name Christian Grey. It was mostly for her own amusement, she said, but others noticed. The novels, which took her a year to complete, have been viewed 8.8 million times. Griffin said she was eager to see what James has done with the same material.

"I'm very curious to see how her story is different from mine," Griffin, who has also written Downton Abbey fan fiction, said in a phone interview. "It's a little bit weird because it's her story, her work, her characters. I was just borrowing them for a bit of fun."

Fan fiction usually follows in the wake of a popular franchise as readers take ownership of the characters and create their own stories. But in an unusual twist, James' followers got out ahead of her, recasting Fifty Shades from the smouldering billionaire's point of view well before she announced plans to do so herself.

James said she was flattered that readers have found her characters so engaging.

"I'm delighted that people are writing fan fiction based on Fifty Shades, though I haven't read any of it," she said, responding to questions through her publisher. "It's a huge compliment."

And these writers are just following in the footsteps of James herself, who started writing Fifty Shades as free fan fiction, based on characters Edward and Bella from Stephenie Meyer's Twilight. She changed their names to Christian and Anastasia, deleted her original fan fiction and published the books with a small press in Australia.

After Vintage acquired paperback rights to the trilogy and published it in 2012, the books went on to sell 125 million copies in 52 languages. A feature film released in February generated nearly US$570 million (S$760 million) in global ticket sales. The series even spawned an unlikely line of merchandise, from Fifty Shades branded wine and handcuffs to lube and massage oil, vibrators, bondage rope and something called After Spanking cream. Forbes named James the highest-earning author of 2013, with an estimated income of US$95 million.

Grey is already the most pre-ordered digital book of this year on Amazon. Vintage planned a 1.25 million-copy first printing and ordered two more printings based on demand, lifting the total copies in print to 1.6 million.

Some fans are not impressed. Last Thursday morning, just hours after the book's release, a sprinkling of negative reviews on Amazon and Goodreads took aim at Grey as a lazy and unimaginative follow-up with little in the way of an original plot. "All I got out of this book was a repeat of the original," a reviewer wrote in a two-star Amazon review.

For many, though, more of the same is exactly what they want.

"We fell in love with the story of Christian and Anna," said Ms Penny Brueggemann, 56, who lives in Illinois and works for pet food company Purina. "We all wanted more."

She found it online, in the writing of Ms Emine Fougner, 42, who lives in Mesa, Arizona, and works as a freelance linguist and translator for the United States government. About four years ago, Ms Fougner and a couple of friends were dissecting the plot and characters in Fifty Shades. They agreed that Christian was the darker, more interesting character. Ms Fougner's friends urged her to write her own version of the story from his point of view, so she started a blog. "They said, 'We don't really care about Ana; we want to hear what he thinks,'" she said.

So did a lot of other people, apparently. Her blog, A Walk In The Clouds, has been viewed more than 14 million times. She counts readers in 187 countries. Volunteers have translated her writing into six languages.

At this point, Ms Fougner, who has published the equivalent of five novels totalling some 3,500 pages, has written far more about Christian and Anastasia than their creator has.

"I prefer her writing to E.L. James' writing," Ms Brueggemann said. "I don't think anything can compare."

Another one of Ms Fougner's devoted readers, Ms Krystal Shores Bailey, a 32-year-old stay-at-home mother who lives outside of Birmingham, Alabama, said that she read Grey when it came out last Thursday and found it lacking compared with Ms Fougner's version.

"I've already read it through Emine's eyes and I honestly don't think E.L. James can touch her version of Christian." New York Times

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2015, with the headline 'Fifty Shades readers turn writers'. Subscribe