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University of Utah English professor Anne Jamison has a doctorate from Princeton and a serious literary background, specializing in Victorian literature and the influence of Czech culture on writer Franz Kafka.
But it's her academic study of fan fiction, particularly the "mommy porn" of Fifty Shades of Grey, that has launched Jamison as a media commentator for sources ranging from National Public Radio to the Galleycat website.
Jamison said she never lacked for talented, industrious students while teaching English and comparative literature at Princeton University. "It was full of professional students you wished were just a little less professional and a lot more passionate," she said.
Jamison found literary passion, and all its steamy counterparts, after moving with her family to Salt Lake City in 2004 to take a post as assistant professor at the U. In the past few years, she began studying the phenomenon of fan fiction, the practice of amateur authors rewriting favorite characters and stories for fun and following, which has hit the Internet in a big, big way.
The celebrated example of the moment is Fifty Shades of Grey, by pseudonymous author E.L. James. Taking Stephenie Meyer's Bella Swan and Edward Cullen as a loose template, James transformed them from young virgin and reticent strong man to Anastasia Steele, a fresh-faced college graduate, and Christian Grey, a billionaire haunted by childhood abuse. Together, they engage in steamy bedroom scenes of sexual bondage.
With that "mommy porn" label, the book rocketed to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list last month, and stories reporting on the phenomenon rocketed across the Web. The author said to be a television producer who is guarding her identity inked a major publishing deal with Vintage Books, with film rights sold to Universal for $5 million.
Jamison was on the case long before that, adding Fifty Shades to the syllabus of her pop-culture course last year. Even years before that, she was fully tapped into fan fiction, thanks to her passion for the popular television show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." "Buffy" has generated more than 44,000 fan story entries on fanfiction.net, the online compilation and index of works written by the international fan-fiction community from a dizzying menu of books, classic novels, plays, films and television series.
Focusing her scholarly eye to the phenomenon was a departure from the norm for the 42-year-old professor, a native of Albany, N.Y. Yet fan fiction fed her longtime interests in female writers and genre fiction, and she's in the process of compiling and editing articles for a scholarly anthology on the topic.
"I told everyone I knew that [fan fiction] is a global connective of housewives and professional women exchanging erotica and writing advice online," she said. "Everyone yawned. I thought it was very interesting."
Two online publishing houses, Omnific and The Writer's Coffee Shop, share Jamison's sentiments, hoping to capitalize on a fast-changing publishing landscape where self-published authors garner digital page views and feedback as a prelude to big-time deals.
Whether fan fiction violates author copyright is an open question that has yet to be tested in court. Best-selling authors such as Diana Gabaldon and Anne Rice have warned fans against spinning stories off their material.
Jamison said there's any number of ways fan-fiction creations can pass the legal test through fair use or satire, yet the genre calls into question notions of originality regarding plot lines and characters.
The vast majority of fan fiction is created not to make money, but for fun and recognition.
"Kathy," a Sandy woman who writes fan fiction based on mostly Meyer's Twilight series, said the main motivation is the community she's found writing fan-fiction entries. She meets other Salt Lake Valley women who write or read fan fiction every Thursday at a rotating series of coffee shops, and requested her last name be withheld from publication due to the erotic nature of stories she posts on fanfiction.net, with titles such as Prostrate in Prada and Paper Moon.
"Once you start writing and find your work embraced, there's a kinship that you've never felt in your life," she said. "But I don't care to broadcast what I do to my broader social circle. Women writing erotica is not socially acceptable on a broad scale yet."
Not all fan fiction has steamy intent. Dai Newman is a practicing Mormon who took Jamison's class on popular culture before moving on to graduate school in Syracuse, N.Y. For a class assignment, he rewrote the Book of Mormon story of Corianton.
"I wanted to rehabilitate the story among Mormons more broadly," Newman said. "The idea of tackling fan fiction was really interesting to me. It's something that hasn't been worked over to death, unlike so many other things in literature studies have."
Online resources for fan fiction
O fanfiction.net • The largest clearing house for fan fiction internationally, indexed by source material, including novels, plays, films and television series.
thewriterscoffeeshop.com • From Australia, an online and e-books publishing site that maintains a library of works, original and fan fiction, with an open submissions policy.
omnificpublishing.com • Not fan fiction per se, but for fan-fiction writers ready to submit original work with an emphasis on romantic and paranormal romantic fiction. Accepts submissions from developing writers looking for opportunities apart from traditional publishing. The site's working motto is "without formulas … without guilt … without cliché."