A Brief Lesson in Content, Courtesy and Not Jumping to Conclusions…
There was a certain amount of comment prior to Episode 8 (from Season Two of the Starz Outlander TV series) about my having referred to a script element as "jumping the shark" and a lot of speculation as to where and what that was. I didn’t want to go into this prior to the episode’s airing, because I didn’t want anyone to be distracted from the virtues of the episode, which was very enjoyable in itself.
But I thought I’d take a moment now to explain just how all that speculation came about. It might be enlightening to some of you with less experience in the Ways of The Internet.
Now, I love to explain things to people (you may have noticed) and share experiences and perceptions. Working with and on the show has been a fascinating experience, and one I know many fans are deeply interested in. Ergo, I’m always willing to explain or discuss things about the show that aren’t confidential or spoilers.
I first came online in 1985, long before the internet as we now know it existed. I was doing a software review for Byte magazine, who provided me with a trial membership to something called Compuserve, so I could include mention of the software’s "online Support Forum" (this being the coolest, sexiest thing anyone ever thought of at the time….). I wrote the review, and while poking around Compuserve, stumbled into a group called the Literary Forum—basically, a 24-hour cocktail party of people discussing books (and for someone with two full-time jobs and three children under six, the ideal social life).
I signed up with Compuserve and have basically regarded the Forum (in its various iterations) as my electronic hangout ever since. For quite a long time, Compuserve was a members-only place; you had to subscribe to get in (it didn’t cost anything, but you did need to be a real person with a real name—not an avatar, a handle or anything of that sort). This meant that it was also a pretty private place, with a relatively small population.
Well, the Internet evolved, and so did Compuserve. It’s open to the web now, like everything else, and has grown somewhat in size. At the same time, the forum (now called the Books and Writers Community) has kept its character as a place where well-organized discussions and conversations take place. We actually have rules of civil discourse, and while discussions are honest and occasionally heated, we rarely have trolls and when they appear, they don’t last long.
So, naturally when the show became a reality three years ago (that’s when the contracts for it were signed), people in my folder on Books and Writers started asking questions about it, which I’ve answered and discussed as I could, ever since.
Since I was writing an episode for this season—my first foray into scriptwriting—naturally people were interested in that; the nuts and bolts of the scripting process, my own feelings about it, the how and why of the show’s content, and so on. So, I explained how the Writers Room works, and the collective/collaborative nature of the material that ends up in scripts, what happens to them then, and so on.
Someone asked if I always agreed with things that were done on the show (because they sure didn’t!), and I explained (not for the first time) about adaptation, how I regard the process, why I’m fine for the most part with changes made for television, why you can’t do some things that the books do, and you can do some things the books can’t, and so on. I said that of course there were some things I didn’t agree with, but that when they occurred, I’d mention them to Ron and Maril and the scriptwriters, we’d discuss them and usually something could be worked out.
Someone asked, did some things not work out, did they ever do stuff I really didn’t like? I said—quite casually—sure, that’s bound to happen and it’s not a big deal. But I added (since it was fresh in my mind) that they had insisted on doing one thing that I’d told them I thought was "jumping the shark"— adding that they’d laughed when I said that. (I was actually in the Writers Room at the time.)
Now, a brief digression—I don’t actually watch television. (I love TV; it’s just too addictive for me to watch anything on a regular basis and still get enough work done. And I do watch the show’s daily footage, which takes up any time I might spend on regular TV.)
After a major book or other project is finished, I’ll take a few weeks and binge-watch a show, a couple of episodes a night. But I don’t watch television the way most people do, and frankly, while I did know the term "jumping the shark" and what it referred to (the incident with Fonzie and Happy Days), I’d always taken it in the sense of "something exaggerated and/or strikingly unlikely in context"; something that goes too far or is inappropriate.”
One of my more culturally-informed offspring, hearing about the subsequent controversy, told me kindly that I should really have referred to what the writers had in mind as "screwing the pooch," as "jumping the shark" had to do with some outre move introduced to get eyeballs for a failing show—which was clearly not the case here (Outlander’s overall ratings have put it at #1 on the Neilson Twitter list more than once, and it’s Starz’s lead show). I have no idea whether that’s right, either, but I really don’t use that kind of language…
Still, that’s what I said, and no harm done, though a few of the people I was talking to naturally wanted to know what this striking element might be. I said that I wasn’t going to say more about it, because—spoilers aside (and I don’t give away things ahead of time) people being as variable in their tastes and responses as they are—probably not everyone would see the element in the same light I did, and I didn’t want to influence anyone’s response ahead of their actually seeing the episode in question.
So… imagine my surprise, a couple of weeks later, to find that a Scottish newspaper (with a website and Twitter feed) had published an article in which "Outlander Author Denounces ‘Shark Jumping’ in Show"— or something similar. This headline was followed by an article in which I reportedly "announced," "insisted," "iasserted," (and other silly verbs) my objections to this unspecified shark-jumping.
Now—having been online since 1985, I understand very well how the internet works. It’s All About Content, because that’s all there is. Consequently, bloggers and news outlets are in a constant competition to grab (or make up) anything that looks faintly like "content."
I’ve pretty much been "content" for the last ten years or so, and this perception of my online value kind of sky-rocketed with the advent of the TV show. This is all well and good; the content business works (generally) to the benefit of both sides. The media gets the content that makes people look at their ad-clogged sites, and the actual creator of said content gets free exposure for whatever their product or association is.
I’m accustomed to having anything I say in public online picked up and repeated in all kinds of quarters. Usually this is fine; sometimes it leads to careless (or silly, or unscrupulous) misquotings and misunderstandings, but I have a website, a Twitter account, and a Facebook page, and can always post a clarification—which is what this is.
Quoting something I’ve said is fine. Deliberately misrepresenting something I’ve said (as in making it appear that I "went public" with my thoughts on shark-jumping, and went so far as to give this publication an interview in order to say so)… not so much.
God knows, I don’t expect them to ask my permission to use anything—but for something this noticeable, I think it’s a trifle discourteous to neither inform me that they were using it, or ask me for my own comments.
I was mulling over what I might say to the news outlet in question (you’ll notice that I don’t name them)— I wanted to make it clear that I didn’t like what they’d done, but acknowledge that it’s good for both sides if we maintain a good working relationship, and suggest ways in which this might be improved—when I got an email from an editor at this publication, with whom I’m familiar:
Hope you are well. I have been alerted to the chat thread about your ‘jump the shark’ comments and the story [news outlet] carried yesterday which has gathered some interest.
The original version of this story actually came from [unscrupulous blogger whose name I won’t mention because damned if I’ll give them any exposure] who contacted us and asked us to carry our own version with links back to their original story— which we did (see below for the source they sent us).
We don’t monitor the many Outlander chat forums (and also don’t want you to think we are stalking you!!) however we are always grateful when a fan group alert us to a potential story.
Although it does look like this one has backfired if your comments have been used out of context.
Should I explain myself on the AOL forum?
Hope it hasn’t caused you too much upset.
This was very thoughtful of the editor, and I’ll chat with them and get things on a better footing for future stories that might emerge (as in, "if you get a good story, ask me if I actually said it, and chances are good you’ll get a better one").
But I did want to point out to all and sundry that if you ever see a headline or article stating vehemently that I "revealed" something (especially in the U.K. press, whose style this frequently is)… I probably didn’t say it, and/or I sure didn’t say it to them. (Especially if the article is posted with a particularly unflattering photo. <g>)
[I do want to add that there are many excellent, conscientious online-media outlets—mentioning specifically vulture.com, access.hollywood, ewonline, and threeifbyspace—who not only ask for legitimate interviews, but who also check quotes, and come and ask for followup comments, if needed.]
This blog content was first posted on my official Facebook page on Saturday, June 4, 2016.