In TV's Dull Summer Days, Plots Take Wing on the Net

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News Media Commentary
Title: In TV's Dull Summer Days, Plots Take Wing on the Net
Commentator: Amy Harmon
Date(s): August 18, 1997
Venue: The New York Times, print
External Links: In TV's Dull Summer Days, Plots Take Wing on the Net -, Archived version

Page 2 - In TV's Dull Summer Days, Plots Take Wing on the Net -, Archived version
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In TV's Dull Summer Days, Plots Take Wing on the Net appeared in the New York Times in 1997.


In this season of their recurring discontent, fans of TV shows from the critically acclaimed drama "E.R." to the campy "Xena: Warrior Princess" have already moved on, coloring cyberspace with back stories, subplots and character arcs that veer gleefully astray from their creators' more predictable plans.

Unfettered by formula or the strictures of internal consistency, fan fiction traces its roots to the photocopied pamphlets passed around in the 1970s by the notoriously cultish "Star Trek" devotees at conventions and through the mail.

But the recent outpouring of digitized fan scribbling -- one "X-Files" Web archive has accumulated 6,000 stories in its 18 months of existence -- seems to signal the genesis of a cultural movement with a much broader appeal."

"If you go back, the key stories we told ourselves were stories that were important to everyone and belonged to everyone,"said Henry Jenkins, director of media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk."

So far, the fan fiction phenomenon has unfolded with the forbearance of the television industry. While several studios have threatened to press charges against people who set up Web fan-club sites that use pirated pictures and trademarked logos, the networks have allowed fiction sites to proliferate in peace.

As long as somebody's not out there trying to make money with it, I don't think anybody wants to shut them down, said a spokesman for 20th Century Fox, which produces The X-Files.

The thing that scares all of us is that NBC is going to call us up and say 'cease and desist,' said a writer in New York City who asked to be identified only by her nom de Net, Kitt Montague.

Ms. Montague taught herself a Web programming language so she could publish her five novel-length stories based on the police drama Law and Order on her home page earlier this year. One popular 10-part story brings Ben Stone, a character who left the show in 1994, face to face with his replacement, Jack McCoy: He was about Ben's age, perhaps a year or two older, lean, with a rakish head of salty gray hair and heavy eyebrows, but he was handsome in the way some large birds are: stately and angular.

Standard fan-fiction form nods to copyright law by acknowledging up front that others own the characters. But several television producers, worried about their own potential liabilities, said they avoided reading fan fiction -- in the same way they ignore unsolicited scripts -- so that an amateur writer could not later contend that a story was stolen.

The professionals who do acknowledge sneaking an occasional on-line peek evince a faint hostility toward the Internet scribes.

I've seen some fan fiction from certain female Internet users that seems to be elaborate fantasies involving them and one of the characters, said Rene Balcer, executive producer and head writer for Law and Order.

The vast majority of fan-fiction writers are women, and most are younger than 40.

I can tell you what drives me to write it -- absolutely guaranteed audience, said Nina Smith, 36, of Yonkers. I've got a mailbox with well over 200 pieces of fan mail.

Ms. Smith, an unpublished author of three novels, has made a name for herself in one of fan fiction's more difficult genres: the crossover, in which some or all of TV land exists in one surreal place.

Plucking characters from The X-Files, E.R. and Chicago Hope, Ms. Smith devised a crime, set in Chicago, that was medical in nature with paranormal overtones. The widely circulated result, A Dark Smear in the Sky, has even been translated into French by appreciative readers. Its sequel, Black Sail, has also won acclaim.

Most people think of television as mindless consumption, and I like the fact that there are people turning around and using it as a springboard for all sorts of personal creativity, Ms. Smith said.

It is in crossovers and other fan-generated genres like slash -- in which the sexual orientation of all the main characters has been switched (the police officers from Starsky & Hutch are a favorite topic here, as are Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock from Star Trek) -- that fan fiction begins to depart markedly from its source material.

The creative chaos has given rise to terms like canon to distinguish events that were actually portrayed on TV, as opposed to those that transpire only within the alternate universe of electronic fan fiction.

If you read enough, posted one reader to a fan fiction discussion group, they blend.

Consider the case of Sheryl Martin, a security guard in Toronto. She created a character named Jackie St. George who accompanies the F.B.I. agents Mulder and Scully in her X-Files fiction. I get E-mail saying, 'Which show was she on?' Ms. Martin said of Jackie, about whom she has written some 200 stories. That to me is the ultimate flattery.

Well, maybe the ultimate flattery was the man who fell in love with the on-line Jackie St. George but settled for becoming engaged to the real-life Ms. Martin.