Out Of Character: Online Fan Fiction Lets Devotees of Movies and TV Shows Boldly Go where Hollywood Fears to Tread

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News Media Commentary
Title: Out Of Character: Online Fan Fiction Lets Devotees of Movies and TV Shows Boldly Go where Hollywood Fears to Tread
Commentator: Elissa Klotz, Additional reporting by Zack Stentz
Date(s): December 4, 1998
Venue: online
Fandom:
External Links: reposted at Out Of Character: Online Fan Fiction Lets Devotees of Movies and TV Shows Boldly Go where Hollywood Fears to Tread and here
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

Out Of Character: Online Fan Fiction Lets Devotees of Movies and TV Shows Boldly Go where Hollywood Fears to Tread is a 1998 article by Elissa Klotz and Zack Stentz for Entertainment Weekly.

It includes MANY links to fanfic sites.

While it is the usual rundown of a journalist trying to explain this crazy thing called fan fiction to the masses, complete with some short background about the subject, it is much more balanced (at least in its reporting of slash and the sexual elements of some fanfic) than Vulcan Love Slave: Fan fiction on the Internet allows viewers to project their darkest fantasies onto their favorite shows. An article written by Zack Stenz six months earlier.

Both articles included the same fanfic excerpt.

Some Topics Discussed

  • the legality of fanfiction
  • the quality of fanfiction
  • Mary Sues
  • "In a world in which entertainment conglomerates often treat audiences as afterthoughts, fan fiction is about regaining control"
  • "ongoing Homicide and Pretender "webisodes" on NBC's official site (nbc.com) are an intriguing corporate response to the alternate-narrative concept"
  • quotes from John Ordover, whom the journalist says "may be missing the point"

A Fic Quote and Comment

It starts with a quote from an X-Files fic:

"I don't know why in the world you think this is hot, Mulder," Walter Skinner laughed mockingly. "This is not hot, this is pathetic." He wrapped his arms tighter around Fox Mulder, pulling him closer, and lightly nuzzled the back of his neck." --from "Harder Than It Looks," J. Bast

No, that little scenario wasn't on the Fox network last Sunday. It's on the Web--and welcome to the world of "fan fiction.""

Excerpts

Hovering online, just out of sight of the mainstream, stories written by die-hard aficionados of TV shows, movies, even musicians, have grown into an ongoing online wonderland, one in which T.J. Hooker has coffee with Captain Kirk, Agents Mulder and Scully investigate strange happenings in Sunnydale, and Buffy and the gang solve a mystery with Scooby-Doo.

Is it illegal? Yes--but most TV networks ignore the fictional happenings of their characters as long as the writers credit the proper sources and don't ask for money. For instance, while the studio may own the copyright on Buffy and her pals--and your story about her running for President is technically an infringement--in reality, the rule is hardly ever enforced. Is fan fiction immoral? Well...sometimes; the sub-subculture known as "slash" specializes in graphic sexual encounters (usually gay, often written--as is most of fanfic--by women) between characters that are officially "just friends."

The majority of fan fiction is far less steamy, though. Most of the stories written about the musical group Hanson, for example, fall into the genre informally known as "Mary Sue," in which the author, a teenybopper, happens to meet the boys and starts a Disney-like innocent romance. Even stories at The Princess Diana Memorial Fiction Library (www.mmjp.or.jp/amlang.atc/fiction) have a romantic feel to them.

In a world in which entertainment conglomerates often treat audiences as afterthoughts, fan fiction is about regaining control. "People love to fill in the blanks," says Babylon 5 fan-fiction writer Pam Buck, "or if a show goes in a direction they don't approve of, they'll write stories about what they wish would happen." In some cases, fanfic keeps the soundstage lit well after the network has pulled the plug. How else do you explain healthy sites for moribund television shows like Quantum Leap (members.xoom.com/gcalvarez/ql.html) and Highlander (www.seventh-dimension.simplenet.com)? And some groups, like the folks at the Forever Knight Fan Fiction page (www.fkfanfic.com), keep writing stories in hopes that they'll convince the network to resurrect the show.

How popular has fan fiction become? There are fanfic sites devoted to such hit shows as ER (www.willamette.edu/ jhadden/er.html) and The Nanny (www.geocities.com/televisioncity/studio/8064), and ones that continue the plots of movies like Titanic (countingdown.com/c2t/absolution) and Star Wars (www.fanfix.com). There are even some Jane Austen sequels out there (www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Boulevard/5436/ fanfiction.html). But the royal family of the medium is Star Trek: The Definitive Guide to Star Trek Fan Fiction on the Web (www.erols.com/imppub/fanfic.htm) lists more than 100 fan-fiction websites based on Gene Roddenberry's original series and its endless permutations. It's not surprising that frustration over Trek's 1969 cancellation was the seed from which all fanfic ultimately grew: Whereas writers first explored bizarre plot twists in original stories printed in fanzines, the rise of the Internet allowed fans to post their efforts on bulletin boards and to a devoted Usenet group (alt.startrek.creative).
As the Web widens, fan fiction is slowly leaking into the mainstream--and into mainstream television itself. Last season, a fan-fiction-like comic book was used as a plot device in an X-Files episode, and ongoing Homicide and Pretender "webisodes" on NBC's official site (nbc.com) are an intriguing corporate response to the alternate-narrative concept. As sad as it is to report, they're also better written than the majority of fan fiction. Passion is the motivating factor in this medium, not grammar, spelling, or scintillating banter. Here's Dawson Leery entering a jewelry store in a typical Dawson's Creek fan tale: "Looking around everything costed a bundle of money, which he didn't have, looking through the glass casing he spotted something that stood out a thin necklace with a heart hanging off it." At least the author didn't break the three most important rules of fan fiction: spell-check, spell-check, and spell-check.

Most fanfic authors write for one reason: feedback. But there are those who, dreaming of going legit, submit their work to publishers or to their favorite television shows. Their efforts aren't well received. "We get tons of terrible stuff," says John Ordover, editor of Pocket Books' lucrative Star Trek novelization series. "Fan writing is not the farm team for the legit novels, and should be abandoned at once by anyone who wants to be a pro writer of any kind."

Ordover may be missing the point, though: As with so much about the Net, fanfic is about community. Jacque Whitworth, a student at Ball State University, describes the people who write the stories for her Tommy Lee Jones Fan Fiction website (www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Studio/5841/fanfic.html) as "the most creative, hardworking, intelligent, and friendly bunch of people I've ever had the pleasure of working with." Over at The X-Men-obsessed Subreality Café (shifting-sands.la.ca.us/ darqstar/scafe/subrc.htm), members use a chat room for 24-hour support in times of personal crises. Site creator Kelly Newcomb testifies to the notion that "for some, fanficdom can become almost a surrogate family." Now, why can't someone in Hollywood make a TV series about that?

Fan Comments

The comments below are from discussion at in 1998 shortly after the article was published. These comments don't have so much a focus on the article itself, but on fanfiction in general. This is mostly due to John Ordover, one of the people the article quotes, inserting himself into the conversation. See [EW Article.

Teddi Litman: Very well researched it seems....NOT! Erotic fanfiction is *usually* homosexual sex. (Can't say "slash" since they got the *current* working definition wrong. And what's with the "immoral" stuff?! Did that make anyone else here squirm? It almost seemed like a thinly veiled troll attack on fanfic. It seems EW has some real bigots writing for them.) *Most* of the stories are about the rock group Hanson. Really, I think we're all better off if the mainstream media would just ignore fanfiction totally.
[StarGzrCMC]: JJO has often held this line, but you would think that he would at least acknowledge that there are talented fanfic writers out there. Especially since Pocket Books sponsors what equates to a Trek fanfic contest with their Strange New Worlds anthologies.
Laura Shapiro:

While I don't agree that the article was a "thinly veiled troll attack" (it looked to me like the writer enjoyed the fic she read, and was hoping even to put a positive spin on it), the "immoral" comment definitely pissed me off -- much more than the incorrect definition of slash. I don't need to read EW to learn that "gay sexual encounters" are "immoral" - I can get that bullshit from the Wall Street Journal, thank you very much.

Feh.
Shannara: Exactly! Strange New Worlds was ORDOVER'S idea! And the whole thing was to attract the fan fiction writers. I've no doubt they have a huge slush pile, but quite frankly the best TV series and movie-based fiction I read is FAN FICTION, not pro fiction. Some fan fiction is really bad, true, but quite a lot of it is really, really good.
[perelandra]: I think if the mainstream media did their homework better (i.e. actually *talked* to some fanfic authors and readers, or maybe actually *read* some fanfic) they could get their terms straight; maybe even lighten up on their thinly veiled anti-fanfic leanings. *obscurity cultists sigh* We're so misunderstood... :)
[Maureen S. O'Brien]: It's also disingenuous. Most science fiction and fantasy writers alive today started in fanzines (although not necessarily in mediafic). Including many of the Trek novelization ones. Maureen, shaking her head at the ignorance of Ordover.
[John Ordover]: As I responded in another newsgroup, no, they didn't. List of names for verification, please.
[Paula]:

What's really disingenuous is telling people that whatever they're writing is worthless, or worse, counterproductive to their writing careers. I seem to recall writers from the 40's and 50's being told the same thing about their science fiction stories. How the times do change. I, for one, seriously doubt that *anybody* in the medieval history field who reads my thesis on the Templars is going to give a rat's butt that I write fanfic. Nor do I expect my posting on alt.startrek.creative to interfere with my successfully defending said thesis, or getting into a doctoral program, in any way. So, please, let us get a grip.

Fanfic has helped me hone my writing skills. It has also introduced me to some very nice people (not all of them fans) who have given me good feedback on my writing. I'm sorry that Mr. Ordover finds slush piles so distressing, but let's face it, slush piles are part of the job in the publishing industry. They're one way of helping a publisher determine its profile in the market. If people know of you from reading your stuff, they're more likely to submit stories to you. If more writers submit to you, then you're more likely to get that contract for Stephen King's latest meganovel, or discover a new Stephen King-like bestselling cashcow. If the publishers at Pocket Books didn't have that huge slush pile of fanfic, they might just decide that Star Trek isn't quite as popular as they'd hoped, and cancel the line. Then Mr. Ordover would be out of a job.
[Maureen S. O'Brien addressing John Ordover]:

Sorry about the disingenuous part, seeing as you apparently don't know.

Seeing as how I work for a living, a list may take a few days. (In high school or college, I would have stayed up all night, verified my facts the next day, and woken up with no ill effects. Alas, I am not what I was....)

But let's start with Numero Uno. The very first Star Trek novelizer was James Blish. Who started, like a sensible fan, by pubbing his own zine and writing stories for others as well. (Not having The Immortal Storm or any other fannish history by me, I'm vaguely remembering a date in the 1930's.) Of course, he's best known not for his Trek novelizations or novel, but rather for his famous Cities in Flight series -- but I know what most concerned me, when I read The Immortal Storm in high school!

And lessee. The first Pocket Books Star Trek book editor was Frederick Pohl, wasn't it? And where did he begin, as writer, editor and agent? You guessed it -- in fandom, with his fannish fanzine friends.

You probably already know which of the original Trek writers started in fandom before becoming professional writers, so I won't bore you. Harlan Ellison was a Big Name Fan long ago; some of his old fanzines are listed online at www.fanac.org.

Being as I'm from Ohio, I'll take the opportunity to mention that a fannish lady from Marion by the name of Lois McMaster Bujold seems to have won quite a few Hugoes with her Vorkosigan series. Which, incidentally, started as a Trek daydream. "The initial Aral Vorkosigan was a Klingon," says she. ("Lois McMaster Bujold: In Her Own Words", Bill Unger, _Lan's Lantern_ XXX, 1989.)

(Oh, and let's not forget Sarah Zettel, who was a Del Rey Discovery not long ago. I discovered her when she was writing very good Dr. Who/Next Gen stories for _The Console Room_, the house organ of TARDA Squared in Ann Arbor. But then, I'd better not mention the whole Doctor Who thing, 'cause those novels are being written and run by folks who started in fanzines and still post fan stories on the net over in alt.tv.drwho.creative. And let's not mention the Highlander novel writer, either.)

If you really want me to go from Adams to Zettel, then I probably can. (With a little help from fannish historians, that is -- I'll post this to rec.arts.sf.fandom, too, so they can help out.) It'll take longer with the newer folks, but histories are easier to find the further back you go.

Presently, fanzine fandom is not the nearly all-encompassing cradle of science fiction and fantasy writers (and editors) that it once was. But since on-line fandom has ballooned, introducing fanfic to unprecedented numbers of new fans, I suspect that trend will reverse. Not every fanfic writer will go professional, nor should they. (Nor will many of us want to, necessarily.) But some of them will, and they will probably outnumber those who go directly from school to professional writing without netwriting first. And of those, many will have written -- or at least daydreamed -- some media fiction at some point.

Is this a bad thing?
[John Ordover]:

I'm afraid the preceding is nonsense. It's not how publishing works. The amount of unagented slush you get has nothing whatever to do with the health of your publishing line. Geez, I can't remember the last unagented -anything- I heard of a publisher buying. The time/reward ratio of digging through a slush pile is not cost effective (especially since word processors came in and made our slush piles 10 times larger than they were), so essentially we let the agents weed stuff out for us. And considering the low quality of the stuff I get from a lot of agents, no one who has a viable Star Trek novel will be unable to get it to me if they are willing to put in the effort.

Again: Fan fiction is not the route to take if you want to be considered a serious writer. Among all the people posting here about how valuable fan fiction has been to their writing skills, how many are successful professional fiction writers, with dozens of stories or several original novels behind them? Once you have those credits, come back and talk about how valuable Fan Fiction was. Until then, you don't know if it was or wasn't.
Lee Burwasser:

- a quick sampling of fans-into-pros. Thanx for beating me to it; I couldn't have done near the job.

It's the old story, exacerbated by the fact that newsgroup fanfic has no faneds:

1) Sturgeon's Revelation: 90% of everything is junk. Fanfic and pro fiction; SF and mainstream; commercial and lit'rarah. Everything.

2) Fanfic is written by people learning to write. Ergo, fanwriters make a lot of learners' errors.

3) Newsgroups have no editors, so lurking a fanfic newsgroup resembles wading through a hardcopy 'zine's slushpile. Websites with "My Picks" pages are more like the hardcopy 'zines; somebody wades through the slushpile and pulls out goodies for you.

Which is not to say fanwriters don't need the occasional kick in the pants. Hey, an aspiring wordsmith who thinks spelling and grammar don't matter is either *very* confused or in the wrong pew. But nobody needs a hatchet job from an ignorant ax-grinder.

I'm making a little bet with myself, which frankly, I hope I lose. I'm betting that when presented with a list of fanwriters who became successful pros, Ordover will come up with some variation of "that's not fanfic." Why am I expecting this? History.

Mundane critics used to say "Name me one good sci-fi story!" (They meant SF, but didn't know the difference.) And when given a list of titles, would say "These are not sci-fi." It even happens within SF fandom. Back before filking got respectable, anti-filkers used to say "Filkers never write their own music." Given a list of original-music filk (there was some, even in the earliest days), guess what they said? "That's not filk."

Perhaps Mr Ordover will be an exception. I hope so. But I'm not holding my breath.
[Shannara]:

Don't know about "most," but I know of at least six pro authors who are either highly successful or mildly successful. And I've no doubt there are other people who can name even more. Peter David, Jean Lorrah, Melanie Rawn, Della Van Hise, Roberta Rogow, Leslie Fish.

All of these started out writing Star Trek fanfic in fanzines. I have SEEN the stories in the zines that these people wrote for. No, we're not saying that just because you can get published in a fanzine you're necessarily ready for the pros. But it can be a good training ground and there are a lot of very fine fan fiction authors who are good enough to be pro but enjoy just doing fan fiction.
[Shannon]:

Fanfic is *also* written by longtime professional writers/editors in need of a diversion -- something to write because they want to, not because it's been assigned to them, or because some editor/agent/publishing company tells them they should, or because they have to make a living. Writing for a living is hard work to get and even harder to keep up, and the wrong kind of writing can siphon away all your creativity and love of writing if you're not careful. (I know; I've been there.)

It's true that many, many fanfiction writers are relatively new writers who have a lot of learning to do. But it's just as true that even professional, highly-paid, top-of-their-game writers should always be learning and growing in their craft. If they're not, their writing will grow more and more stale, and the public will eventually lose interest.

I write fanfiction partly for the practice, but mainly just because I love to write, and fanfic gives me the freedom to go just about anywhere I want with a story. I don't expect it to lead directly to any kind of writing job; I believe the web design experience I'm getting thanks to fanfic will do me much more good in any future job searches than the actual writing.

So my advice to any fanfic writers who want to "go pro" with it? Don't let the lure of money drain your love of writing. If I had to choose, I'd take the writing over the cash every time.
[Katherine Verleger]: Notice, that a quick review of titles and authors over at Amazon online reveals that Mr. Ordover is listed as -editor-, but not author, of more than a few works. Now, I've worked as a copy-editor, typesetter, and, as several authors will here verify, have beta-read (or offered critique and the general work an editor does) more than a few pieces in my day. I have also written more than a few pieces of (a) 'straight' fiction, (b) science fiction, (c) literary analysis (that has gotten as far as peer review). I am thus able to put myself in the position of both writer and editor. They are two -entirely- different jobs. And the person who is an excellent editor may or may not have insight into the creative process. Given that Mr. Ordover has gotten listed -as- editor on the cover of no few books, I suspect he has put substantial contribution into the works he has his name on. He is, of course, entitled to credit for those works.

But not one of them is 'original.' Rodenberry came up with them, Rodenberry copywrote them, and Rodenberry brought them to the TV.

Gee. Does this sound like a DISCLAIMER, maybe?

So, in fact, might one even call it fan fic?

I have had the honor and pleasure of corresponding with a lot of the authors Ordover would like us to believe never even dreamed of writing fan fiction.

And he is dead wrong. A comprehensive list has already been put together by other members of this ng, and thus I will not repeat it.

I've attempted to get unsolicited fan fic (QL) published. It didn't get anywhere; not because it was unsolicited, but simply because it was not what fit the list needs of the time. I enjoyed writing the work; I learned a lot about writing with a co-author, and I learned even more about my capabilities as a writer. Among other things, I learned that I -CAN- write a book. I've since written another, and I'll have to write yet a third to finish out my graduate degree. Knowing this about your capabilities is INVALUABLE to any writer of any form or genre. Not being sure of whether you can write a book is the surest way to _NOT_ get anything written I know.

This 'capability' knowledge was supplemented by a 'quality' knowledge when the first response we got from our alpha reader -- a freelance editor, copy-editor and typesetter who has been in the industry for almost 20 years now, was "There's more. Isn't. There." (We left her with a cliffhanger)

I would like to conclude by asking Mr. Ordover one leading question.

Sir. You are in the business of selling books.

Do you really believe the demand functions of your consumers are negatively effected by whether the book was written by a so called 'professional' or by a fan fic author? And, if you so believe, can you back this claim up with empirical data? I remind you that the leading signs of a drop in demand are a decrease in the real price of the commodity sold (which we have not seen), and a decrease in the quantity of books sold (which we have also not seen). Given this information, as a rational, profit maximizing executive editor of a major publishing house, does it perhaps not seem to you that you position may not be sound from the point of view of economic theory and common sense -- and that by putting your name to such posts as you have recently, what you have undoubtedly accomplished is a marked preference among X-files [tm] fans who -had- read works published by your house to not do so any longer.

This change of preferences -will- shift the demand curve your firm faces. It will shift it to the left, decreasing the quantities of books you can sell. As publishing is a competetive, not monoplistic industry, this change will not effect the price at which you can sell your books -- but the change in quantity will be sufficient to decrease your total revenues, and thus your profits. You may wish to consider whether this was the effect you desired to elicit from your consumer public with your comments.
JourneyToX:

So, Mr. Ordover, I understand your realm is Star Trek books. Ever read any of Kevin Anderson's work in the X-Files universe?

My position: The best of the best of fanfic written by people right here on this newsgroup outstrips anything Kevin Anderson has done.

Before you reply, yes, I do know the constraints that 1013 probably puts on Anderson: no backstories, nothing can happen that can change future possibilities for the show or films (characters dying, characters Doing It, etc.). Anderson's stories are MOTWs with no impact on the Mytharc.

All that said, I stand by my assertion that the best of the best of fanfic writing here eclipses Anderson's work. Crackling plot, dialogue, richness of characterization, texture and mood. Any number of these I could name would also make novels that met the 1013 constraints listed above.

Anderson is pablum. But, hey, he's a Professional and you're a Professional and you both know the Secret Handshake and the rest of us are wannabes, right?

Right.

Think I'll spend, uh, nothing, aside from my $21.95 a month to Steve Case, to read some fanfic, instead of spending $$$ at Barnes & Noble to pick up a Trek or X "professional" work.

Could it be that you have a vested interest in putting fanfic down? Sure some of it's crap. Some isn't. We both know that.
John Ordover:

Sigh. That someone once wrote fan fictoin [sic] doesn't mean they "started out" in fan fiction. In the case of Peter David, he also "started out" as a journalist, and as a sales and marketing copywriter.

And he didn't become a professional writer until he -stopped- writing fan fiction.

No one has ever, to my knowledge [sic], been hired to write a media tie-in novel withouth [sic] having been first professionally published on their own.
Paula Graves:

True. But that wasn't necessarily the topic of discussion, was it? We were discussing whether or not fanfiction writers could be professional writers. The answer is obviously yes, since we know of people who wrote or write fanfic and also write professionally.

I don't think anyone is suggesting that fanfiction is a natural and success-building stepping stone toward a professional writing career. We're only suggesting that the writing of fanfiction isn't necessarily a career-ending indulgence.

References