The Age of Ficsploitation?
You might have already heard about the story of Abigail Gibbs, covered here by The Bookseller and here by For Book’s Sake. The essential gist of this story is that a young writer posted her vampire tale, The Dark Heroine on Wattpad and secured a six-figure book deal with Harper Collins. On the surface, this is a success story that attests to the talent of the future and the power of books that were born on technological platforms. But is it masking an uncomfortable truth?
The issue is immediately riddled with traps for anyone attempting a sensible critique of both the situation and Gibbs’s work. The story ostensibly gives hope to other young writers. In addition, the issue is fronted by media-friendly facts about the author. It is impossible to read about Gibbs without being informed that she is eighteen and at Oxford. Then there’s the fact Amazon reviews page is littered with taunts in the same vein as, “You’re just jealous”. By writing this article, I am risking my very street credibility among tweens across the internet.
First, then, decoding. Yes, being discovered online is an exciting prospect. However, a good backstory (off the page, anyway) does not a publishing success make – even if we bring a standard comparison into this, we can see that J. K. Rowling did not capture the imaginations of millions with her sob story. The same goes for the education/age pushing: Gibbs is clearly bright, and clearly young. But those aspects have very little to do with the choice of book topic. Wouldn’t it be more impressive if there was no second-wave-sexy-vampirism involved on any level? That jealousy, then – well, customer reviews on Amazon are rarely to be trusted. But they do betray some of the disgruntlement towards Twilight copies and mutations. I’m sure that other undiscovered authors will certainly be envious.
In the course of one summer, so it seems, we entered an age of glorifying adapted fanfiction. This miasma of laziness incubates and spreads online, undergoes a transformation at Publishing HQ, and breaks out with renewed virulence into bookshops. E. L. James is the obvious figurehead for this. Her own works have spawned copies and parodies – the idea that “writers are thieves” stretched to monstrous lengths.
Gibbs does not quite fall into this set so extremely, but she is part of a related web. She wrote a vampire story that inevitably answered Twilight in some way, and it was popular. The fanfiction phenomenon predicts this trend already. So why did Gibbs’s version of teen vampirism – The Dark Heroine – get picked up for publication?
It is rather standard fare – admittedly, quite sumptuous for teenage girls. A teenager with supernatural powers, fluent, as all girls wish they were, in sarcasm (oh, the sarcasm)… It is written competently and is probably very entertaining to girls who want more of the same.
I have, of course, answered my own question. The Dark Heroine, with its financially safe subject matter and well-established fan base, is not a publishing triumph, but another symptom of a simple, saddening fact: that books are now becoming ways of taking pot-shots at the success of others of the same genre. It’s like a cheap B-movie phenomenon – an undesirable occurence of ficsploitation. As one of the comments on this article notes, books are in danger of becoming increasingly “Hollywood”. “We all want a good story, told well,” writes Jonny Geller in the aforementioned piece, but the example of The Dark Heroine seems to show a bypassing of “good” on “good”‘s own merit. It shows that publishers appear to be arming themselves with tried-and-tested weaponry to fight the good fight out in the charts.
Gibbs herself could well go on to write other, more original work. After her degree, she will have improved in all corners of the writing field. But what of Wattpad and its ilk?
It’s a tense time for publishing – I don’t need to reiterate the self-publishing/ebook siren call sending literary agents scrambling below decks. A bit like Frankenstein, a powerful creature like Wattpad needs a strong master to guide it for good. It may have found one already in the shape of Margaret Atwood and her pet project, The Attys. The dedication to finding true literary gems is clear in her purpose. Wattpad and its peers could revolutionise – or at least add a great new dimension to – publishing, especially where the young and unrepresented are concerned.
In conclusion, the story of The Dark Heroine has flagged up an emerging problem within the publishing industry. Publishers need to strap down and continue taking dives into new, original work, instead of staying on shore. Laziness is not acceptable in writing, and it should not become so in the next stages of book production. But with some planning, some guts and a few stakes in the heart of ficsploitation, publishing and its technological children can keep going for good.