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How the #AskELJames fiasco revealed what people really think of fanfiction writers

Last week, the #AskELJames hashtag, intended to spark a Q&A discussion for the author of Fifty Shades of Grey, trended for hours as critics of her work used it as an opportunity to point out issues in her work related to abuse, rape culture, and inaccuracies in BDSM culture.

Many took a schadenfreudesque delight in James’ public shaming. But while I agree with much of the valid criticism of her writing, I take issue with others who used the occasion to mask ageist, sexist, and anti-fanfiction opinions in a trendy bashtag.

Fanfiction writers already battle the perception that their writing isn’t “real” writing (psst: yes it is), or that if they were any good they would be writing “real” books. These misguided opinions came to light again and again on Twitter.

Of course, fanfiction is as much real writing as any other piece of fiction. It takes time and dedication to produce, and much of it is incredibly well-written. If 50 Shades of Grey is a poor piece of prose, it’s because it’s a poor piece of prose, not because its fanfiction.

Many on Twitter slung the word “fanfiction” like it was a slur, as if the category of “fanfiction” weren’t so vast and varied to include everything from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead to the new Star Wars movies, depending on who you ask. But many still seem to think the very mention of the word is enough to elicit a snicker.

Expand on the “messed up” part of your critique if you like, but let’s leave the fact that it started as fanfiction out of it.

If it’s not for you, it’s not for you, but that’s not a valid criticism.

Fanfiction isn’t a “rip off”. It’s an original transformative work protected under copyright law. If you’d like to write a Game of Thrones fanfiction, you’re free to join any of the thriving communities built around just that.

Other tweets attempt to use James’ age (52) to dismiss her writing, or imply that a middle-aged woman should not be sexual.

Lol good joke, get it? Because she’s old and Twilight isn’t for old people.

Oh good, this one includes not just ageism, but hinges on the tired stereotype of the older, undersexed spinster “cat lady”.

At what point did you decide that it was acceptable to invalidate a woman’s work because of her age? Do that again, and Imma sic 82 year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg on you. EL James has as much right to write erotic fiction as you do, and given her age, has probably had more sex in her life than you as well. (Not that that’s a prereq for writing erotica, but it helps.)

The tweets go on and on. The message is clear: EL James shouldn’t be doing what she’s doing. She’s writing fanfiction, which is a joke. She’s writing about sex, which she shouldn’t be doing because she is old. Again and again she is dismissed for her gender, her age, her genre.

This needs to stop. There are plenty of important, valid questions about James’ work. Let’s not drag this conversation down by condemning fanfiction in the process.

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