SMUTTY blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey is remarkable for a host of reasons. To its millions of fans, it is intensely erotic. To its hundreds of appalled critics, it is intensely emetic. To its author, Erika Leonard, it is Eldorado.
To publishers and booksellers, Fifty Shades is, perhaps, most remarkable. The story of dazzling sales is far more arousing than a narrative that fails to deliver its first sex scene until chapter 10. Each sales day seems to bring a new climax.
Leonard's is both the fastest-selling ebook and fastest-selling paperback in publishing history. It is one of the very few books in Australia to have sold more than a million copies, a feat achieved in just weeks. It has already outsold the best-selling works of J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown and has now been purchased in 37 shades of currency. At last count.
On the face of it, this book is a good-news sensation for the book trade. Not only has it established the cliterature genre, it has people buying books again! What a marvellous rebirth for the industry.
For many critics, though, Leonard's success is the death rattle for original fiction as we know it. And not just because some of its passages make the lyrics to Who Put the Bomp (In-the-Bomp-a-Bomp-a-Bomp) seem Joycean by contrast.
This is for several reasons, not the least of which is that the initial act of publication for Fifty Shades was, as it is so often these days, push-button. Here, it was not publishing houses but amateur writers who cracked the code for the next big thing: derivative kink.
To cast a little light on the origins of Shades, look for a copy. You won't need to go far before you find one and see on its initial pages: ''The author published an earlier serialised version of this story online with different characters as Master of the Universe under the pseudonym Snowqueens Icedragon.'' Master and Shades, as Leonard's US publishers have since told Associated Press, are ''two distinctly separate pieces of work''.
There are those who would dispute this.
Leonard, aka Icy, aka E.L. James, had published long before rights were sold, reportedly in seven figures, to Random House imprint Vintage. As is fairly broadly known, this work by a fan-fiction superstar known as Icy for short, began life as a ''TwiFic'', an amateur online work that takes characters from Stephenie Meyer's popular series of vampire novels and refigures them in new settings. Very often with their trousers down.
This is what Icy did and it is an act more common than you may suppose. ''Alex C'', an ardent consumer and writer of TwiFic, explains that there are thousands of Bellas and Edwards online going at it hammer-and-tongs.
Thanks to Meyer's coy fade-to-black in the original Twilight saga, ''many people like myself flocked to FanFic to sort of fill in the blanks'', she says. Leonard was certainly not the first, Alex C tells me, to replace Edward Cullen's lust for blood with a penchant for BDSM. Icy, she tells me, got her idea from another wildly popular FanFic piece called The Submissive.
To many in the fandom, Leonard has acted reprehensibly. The story is starting to hit more traditional media.
Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported the assessment of one online ''plagiarism detector'' that had the similarities between Icy's Master of the Universe and Leonard's Fifty Shades set at 89 per cent. Despite Vintage's statement about the ''distinctly separate'' character of the two works - one derivative and one purportedly original - suggestions I have received from two TwiFic readers insist that it is just eye-colour, names and a few baubles of American English that have been changed. Also reported last week in the LA Times was the cleansing of the online history of Fifty Shades, possibly to avert further comparisons between this work and its Master.
There's no hiding it from the memories of the TwiFic community, though. Icy/Leonard has raised the hackles of many twi-hards not only for what is perceived by some in the TwiFic and erotic FanFic communities as terrible writing but as an absolute violation of the principles of transformative fiction practices. These derivative works - those that use characters that are the creation of other authors - are seen as nobody's property. And as nobody's pool for profit.
Mary Borsellino, a Melbourne non-profit worker and author of erotic FanFic, is no admirer of Fifty Shades. She feels nonetheless that TwiFic writers have been unfairly begrudging of Leonard's success. ''When someone like Icy comes along and says, ''Actually, I'm worth a shitload of money,' '' a happily amateur group accustomed to taking a ''defensive posture'' within the literary culture really feels as though it has taken a battering.
Borsellino concedes that Leonard has lifted substantially from Twilight. Nonetheless, ''I don't think it's immoral to be heavily inspired by other works; she's clearly brought something of her own to the table too.''
It may not be immoral and, in all likelihood, it is not illegal to re-imagine Meyer's Beauty and the Beast paradigm in a pornographic setting. But, given Leonard's extraordinary success in giving familiar characters a disguise and a few restraints, one wonders what might happen with those future erotic FanFics that will now almost certainly be turned into novels.
Alex Farrar, senior associate at Shiff & Company, has an interest in copyright. She has not read either Twilight or Fifty Shades but finds the question ''really interesting, and one I would expect to see emerge more commonly as the publishing industry adopts and somewhat legitimises fan fiction''.
Legally, she says, there are at least 50 shades of grey.
Appropriation in literature is nothing new. Nor, for that matter, is bloodless porn. The only thing that is new is a practice such as online fan fiction that allows us to see an origin of an idea. But we always suspected writers of vampire genealogy.