After — The Worst Thing to Happen to Books since Fifty Shades of Grey


Image from Simon and Schuster

Back in 2014, a 1-Direction fanfic became a bestselling series from Simon and Schuster. Honestly, I am not active on Wattpad and I was never in band fandoms/bandoms to begin with. I was vaguely aware of it because my sister is a 1-Direction fan and knew I’d written fanfiction in other, TV-based fandoms and joked that I should try and make money at it too as Anna Todd was doing. It sort of passed my radar after that, until I saw the previews since November and fell down the rabbit hole of this series.

The trailer felt to me like that 1990s movie Fear with Reese Witherspoon, except instead of being a thriller, we were supposed to be swooning for the violent “bad boy” the heroine was falling for.

A couple of talented Booktubers, Itsdivya and readwithcindy have broken down the trailer with more humor an panache than I can, but it definitely feels like a Fifty Shades of Grey for teens. Frankly, since Ana is only 22 and a college senior in Fifty and Tessa in After is 18 and just starting college, they both actually fit more into the New Adult age group for books and films, but it still feels marketed like Fifty Shades, Jr. Granted, there is no BDSM in the course of the four novels and the prequel story told from Hardin’s point of view and, creatively enough, called Before. However, there are a lot of similarities. Author Jenny Trout recapped the first dozen or so chapters with a running tally of Fifty Shades/Twilight similarities.

So that’s I think where my first real problem with After comes in. It’s like a copy of a copy. Fifty Shades, after all, is infamously a fanfic copy with some of the names changed…etc. of Twilight. To be quite blunt, After reads like someone copied the successful parts of Twilight, Fifty Shades, and also just of Harry Styles’s likeness and created this crap. It also reminds me of a line from the Michael Keaton comedy Multiplicity where a man clones himself to have more time for his family and then the clones make a clone of themselves…well, once you get to a Xerox of a Xerox, you have some real quality issues.

I don’t have a problem with “P2P” or pulled to publish fanfiction or “filing the serial numbers” off fanfiction to publish. I know a lot of people who have done it both as indies and in small presses. I think when you take an idea and rework it with your own original characters and world building to really expand what used to be fanfic, that’s a great option. However, there is so much cut and paste in After from, especially, Fifty Shades that it honestly makes James’s work look good, which is quite the feat.

A few of the seemingly ripped off ideas include

  • Tess is a virgin when she gets to college to the point that, even though she has a boyfriend, she’s never even touched herself
  • The early sex scenes in the first After book have her unable to say more than “down there” about what she wants during sex
  • Hardin (Harry) is the emotionally damaged bad boy who treats her like shit but really is romantic deep down (in this case instead of piano playing as symbolized by him having read deep novels). Then again, this seems to be a trope of dark romances in general.
  • The book is set in Washington State and in Seattle
  • Tess loves literature especially books like Wuthering Heights (used as a motif in one of the Twilight sequels as well) and it’s basically the one thing she does for fun — read literature, like Ana or Bella.
  • Tess wants to work in publishing after graduation so Hardin gets her a job at a boutique Seattle-based publisher.
  • Hardin has deep man pain from his childhood (in this case witnessing his mother being abused and also being beaten by his alcoholic father) and that seems to excuse him being abusive now.
  • Hardin also cannot sleep without Tessa beside him. This feels a bit more like some aspects too of the Crossfire series, but, either way, the fact that being near Tessa makes his nightmares go away is used by Hardin many, many times over the 2000+ page course of the series to justify him needing her.
  • It’s revealed in the final book, After Ever Happy, that Hardin was sexually abused and coerced into a relationship at 14 or 15 with his mother’s neighborhood friend.
  • Again, once his mother found out about the sexual abuse from her friend, she shoved that woman out of her life just like Grace Grey and Elena in Fifty Shades.

But of course, there’s more to that. It’s not just that it’s basically Fifty/Twilight with a thin coat of peeling paint and carries with it the dangerous relationship dynamics (more on that later), but it’s also clearly written to exploit the 1D fandom. Wattpad has been a popular haven of Harry Styles and 1D fanfic, even now with the band broken up. That happens. However, it is odd to me that the book series After, once it became its own series and was traditionally published, still leaned so heavily on the 1D fandom connection for publicity. As critical channel, Folding Ideas, pointed out in a review of Fifty Shades Freed, E. L. James took great pains to scrub the fanfic history of Master of the Universe from the internet once it was sold and set to be published as the Fifty Shades Trilogy. Conversely, it seems that After has leaned heavily into its fandom roots.

The cover of the U.S. edition of the books says “from Imaginator1D,” which is a clear link to Anna Todd’s fandom name and the 1D fandom. Second, the tag line on the book talks up how it’s a Wattpad sensation with “1 Billion Reads” (note: not individual user reads). It’s still even up on Wattpad, which, I assure you, you cannot easily find actual copies of Master of the Universe after it was scrubbed from the internet about six years ago. Even the movie press image from above says “there’s only one direction” as part of a slogan. It’s not subtle. It’s also brought up in press and in interviews.

In a Texas Monthly piece, she commented:

“I love Harry Styles,” Todd insists. “He’s one of the nicest people in the entire world. I wrote a story about a character who looks like Harry Styles. But it has nothing to do with Harry Styles at all.”

Which is definitely akin to admitting that she used his image and likeness to make her fic more popular and to give Hardin appeal beyond just his own as a character in the finished, traditionally published version. I honestly don’t have a dog in the 1D fight. I’ve never cared about boybands and I’m well into my thirties so I never was the right age to care about One Direction, but I do agree with some of the fans who insist the book and coming movie and the publicity around it are misuses of Harry Styles’s image. It’s one thing to use a likeness and really not something you should do at all without the celeb’s permission, but it’s still one thing if the portrayal is flattering. When it’s literally of an abusive, violent arsonist and drunk who hurts person after person emotionally and physically, well, if I were Mr. Styles I’d be irate. I assume that he just wanted to try and let it die down or not deal with it, but it baffles how far the misuse of his own image has gotten.

Granted, there are some mechanical and writing reasons to hate After. It was something often typed on a phone so the original Wattpad story is rife with typos. Moreover, Ms. Todd didn’t often go back in her work or write from a plan so it’s often repetitive, slow, and has similar scenes, which tend to echo the way that some longer “zombie” fanfics can drone on. If Simon and Schuster and her editor had seemed to actually edit the books down into more structured, novel-paced works, then that problem could have been fixed in subsequent drafts. However, after comparing the book form and the Wattpad versions of After, it appears there isn’t much editing there. It seems shameful to charge people so much for a fanfic literally free online and one that is basically in maybe second draft form at best. It also reads with complete zig-zags in characterizations with twists written as seemingly thrown in to help subvert real-time audience expectations in Wattpad. However, that’s not my biggest problem with all of this.

No, of course not. Having the DNA of Twilight/Fifty Shades means that this is another tired narrative that glorifies abuse as love and that asks its mostly young female audience to accept that it’s okay for a man to manipulate and abuse you emotionally if he harbors his own dark childhood pain. Moreover, it’s really also your job to help fix him emotionally, no matter what it costs you.

A still from the upcoming film

It would be impossible to point out all of Hardin’s (Harry’s) faults over the course of over 2000 pages. Also, it would be hard to record everything Tess does to deliberately hurt Hardin back. However, I’ll try and hit the low points. Hardin never intentionally physically hits Tessa. That’s pointed out over and over again through the four books as if that nominates Hardin for sainthood — he won’t hit a woman! However, he grabs her when she doesn’t want him to, manhandles her when she asks for space, takes advantage of her one night when she’s drunk in the sequel and they’re on a break to have sex with her, and he does get so drunk that during a fight he does accidentally push her back and she lands hard on her tailbone. Again, never “intentionally” hitting her, but he’s not exactly a prince among men either. He engages in endless psychological abuse, often blaming her for his own actions. In the first book, they eventually move in together and he yells at her for even asking about his day and says “she’s not entitled to know everything about him” even when she just was trying to make conversation over dinner.

Worst of all, their relationship only started because of a bet between him and another fraternity brother of his, Zed (Zayn). In order to win the bet, he has to take her bloodied sheets back to his frat friends to prove he “won” the bet and that Tessa has lost her virginity.

Granted, poor gullible Tessa takes him back even after he reveals that he really, really fell in love with her during the bet and didn’t mean to humiliate her. In book two, he gets too drunk to drive home and platonically spends the night at a female bartender’s house and on her couch but when Tessa finds out, they do break up. In the third book, he uses flirting with a friend (who’s a lesbian) to make Tessa mad and deliberately make her feel worse about their “break.” He also sabotages her ability to get an apartment in Seattle because he doesn’t want her to move away from him and campus. Finally, after finding out who is real father is, he gets so drunk that he sets fire to a house that Tessa is in.

He also is the type of guy who won’t let her be friends with any other man, except for his stepbrother Landon (most of the time). He beats up at least two different frat brothers for kissing and flirting with her. In book one, Tessa is even relieved during a fight that they’re not on the concrete flag stones because the guy Hardin is beating up could end up dead that way. Similarly, further along in the series, he breaks Zed’s nose and destroys school property after a fight with him over Tessa. Granted, Zed also sucks, but Hardin is violence personified.

Tessa is no saint. She’s not usually physically violent, although she has slapped Hardin at least once. She can be judgmental too and dig at him. She definitely tends to flirt with other guys and entered into a relationship where it felt like she was leading Zed on to make Hardin deliberately jealous at times. Also, true to her fiction progenitors — Ana and Bella — Tessa is jealous of literally every woman (even the queer ones) that Hardin even speaks with.

Overall, the two of them are trapped in a cluster fuck of a co-dependent relationship that would make Sid Vicious and Nancy look tame.

If this series was presented as a dark romance and a presentation of an abusive relationship, then, honestly, even with its technical flaws it would be a good book. If it were condensed for repetition, it could totally be used to instruct people about red flags and about how the emotional tolls of an abusive boyfriend affects a victimized partner and, also, about the characteristics and probable personality disorder inherent in an abuser like Hardin (who, by the way, always has an excuse so it’s never his fault). Dark Romance is totally a valid form of fiction and it’s got its own explorations of kinks and tropes that aren’t for me, but I understand that it appeals to some people. But this series isn’t presented as that.

This is a book that appropriates the quote from Wuthering Heights about their souls being made of the same material. This is the book with a movie that implies that “after” your first love and first sexual experience, your life is never the same and you’re irrevocably bonded to that person.

In fact, the final books After Ever Happy goes oddly meta to address complaints people have had about the emotional abuse in this book. Hardin has written a journal all along about his relationship with Tessa. He eventually converts it into a novelization of their relationship and starts shopping it around New York publishing houses (without asking Tessa first, of course). When he has interest in it and when she discovers a copy of the manuscript and fights with him, he says that he believes their story can help others. It matters because not all love stories are perfect or happy and theirs is a love story for those who have imperfect lives. But there is a huge range between “not perfect” and so emotionally manipulative and abusive that it puts Tessa literally in a catatonic state for part of the fourth book after the pressure from walking in on Hardin with another woman and finding her dead father in about the space of a week apart breaks her. Again, their love story is a great “don’t” and would be the perfect example of what to look for to avoid a co-dependent, mutually abusive relationship.

Seriously, in the course of just the first book, Hardin manipulates Tess to win a bet. Yes, a la She’s All That, he apparently also falls in love with her but he basically forces her to break up with her boyfriend, alienates her from her (okay overbearing mother), and basically leaves her homeless all for what he wants. WHAT part of that is healthy? And that’s light years beyond the broken state she’s left in by the middle of After Ever Happy.

It’s more maddening when the final book, After Ever Happy, skips over what could have been a legitimate recovery process. Hardin and Tessa spend great chunks of the novel split apart on different coasts (there are time jumps over a year or several at a time as they touch base with each other at different family events as she’s still very close to his stepbrother Landon). Hardin gets into “self recovery,” which is unclear to me what that even means since he has a psychiatrist and seems to be going to group therapy so he’s not “recovering alone.”

However, off-the-page, Hardin is getting psychological help. I do applaud Ms. Todd for addressing this part at all. Christian Grey never really gets help or even admits he has problems and his current psychiatrist is only seen once in the book series and only to praise Ana for all the great progress she made with him in three weeks. Of course, it’s not like Edward Cullen ever got therapy either. Again, it’s progress that Hardin by book four does hit a bottom bad enough that he does get help. However, I dislike how it’s handled. After literally thousands of pages of his abuse, his anger, and why he’s terrible for Tessa (and some of her habits and jealousy making her bad for him), we don’t get to see him on the page do the work and actually get better. It’s unfulfilling to just be told that “oh time has passed and he’s way better.”

Master of Self Recovery

More insulting, it’s later mentioned by Tessa as an afterthought that after his best selling book came out about their relationship (thus a meta back-pat to how good After is) he’s written up in Time magazine as an inspiration and poster boy for “self recovery.”

It’s just too much. This series spends all its time showing us why these two people are terrible for each other and why Hardin, as written, is a terrible, abusive, violent person with substance abuse issues. However, because the final book has Hardin speed through off-the-page recovery to become a healthy person without being SHOWN that, it’s okay that he and Tessa end up together with a family.

Sure, right.

Overall, I’m just so very tired of seeing books that glamorize abuse as true love and continue the same narrative of “we must be sorry for the abuser because he was hurt as a child” become successful and be sold to young girls and women as the be all and end all of (usually heterosexual) romance. It’s exhausting, depressing, and damaging. As The Mary Sue pointed out, there are so many better stories and worlds being created in fanfiction and not the same old abuse-is-love lie. Can’t they become movies too?

Or, in other words, I’d at least rather read about Tessa and Landon where she realizes that it’s better to date a man who is supportive and kind than an abusive liar like Hardin.

I do not own the images used above. Most come from either Constantin Films or Simon and Schuster. I do not profit from their use or from this blog.