The World of Reality Fiction

In Convergence Culture, I included a sidebar about the remarkable fan fiction produced by Mario Lanza. Lanza is a fan who gets to consult with and often receive fan letters from the characters who populate his stories. Lanza writes fan fiction involving the contestants featured on Survivor -- a series of engaging, richly detailed, psychologically nuanced original "seasons" cast with "all stars" known to readers from their previous appearances on the series. At the time he started writing reality fan fiction, the idea of combining elements of reality television with narrative fiction might have seemed more than a little odd. Today, though, there is a growing body not only of amateur but also professional fiction which borrows elements from reality television. I asked my son, Henry Jenkins IV, to share with my readers some of his impressions about this emerging genre. Henry recently graduated from the University of Arizona where he studied media and creative writing. He has already published several essays of his own media analysis, including one in Nick Sammond's anthology, Steel Chair to the Head, which traces his experiences growing up watching professional wrestling, and another -- a father/son dialogue on Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- which is included in my new book, Fans, Gamers, and Bloggers. He has been very active in the spoiling and fan writing communities around Survivor through the years and so brings an insider's perspective to this topic.

What follows are his thoughts about reality fiction:

To the impartial observer reality television fiction sounds about as reasonable as tofu turkey. Both are wince inducing contradictions of an irreverently modern consumer culture in which seemingly clueless marketers cater to niche audiences with a cheeky disregard for tradition. The same literati crowd who rolled their eyes and sighed when CBS producers borrowed George Orwell's phrase to create the low culture Big Brother would probably sniff indignantly at me if I told them about my efforts to write an original Survivor novel. "Reality cannot be fictional. Please, go away."

But on the Survivor Sucks message boards, by far the most active for reality television fandom, dozens of amateur writers have tried their hand at penning the next great American Survivor novel. Only a few have produced novel length works of any real literary value but much like science fiction fandoms, for which zine trading has at times been a viable cottage industry, the interest is there and a cannon of great fan authors, archived works and literary conventions has been compiled by consensus.

The earliest Survivor fan fiction, not surprisingly, was badly written pornography. But Mario Lanza, a family man, computer programmer and aspiring comedy writer from Southern California, was the first to really popularize fan fiction in reality television circles. His four novels, All Star Survivor: Hawaii, All Star Survivor: Alaska, All Star Survivor: Greece and Survivor: Okinawa, were all of a Stephen King-esque length (about six hundred pages) and are still considered the gold standard by which all other authors are judged.

The All Star novels speculated about what might happen if the best and most memorable characters from the early seasons of the show were put into competition with each other. They were sort of the equivalent of comic book fans speculating "Who would win in a real fight, Batman or Aquaman?" They could also very easily be perceived as having generated the fan buzz producers' cited in their decision to try the concept out during their eighth season.

Mario's fourth novel, Survivor: Okinawa, cast real fans (including myself) in the role of the castaways, chronicling a month long game that took place online. The contestants competed in real time with the conditions mirroring those of the real competitions as closely as possible considering that we were all stationed thousands of miles apart. Daily reports were required explaining how we had contributed to the work around camp, strategy meetings took place off and on all day, a certain number of points could be allocated or reserved from each competition and most importantly the tribe that lost the Immunity Challenge would have to vote one of their members out of the game.

The mood of the game was surprisingly, at times almost disturbingly intense with real egos at stake. The knowledge that every word one said had the potential to be judged by the entire fan community put a lot of pressure on people to avoid being played for a fool and the result was a constant atmosphere of paranoia. Almost all of the contestants participating ended up with very mixed feelings about having done so. The ones who were voted out early were embarrassed and the ones who lasted the longest endured such prolonged angst that they needed a vacation by the end of it. Mario unflinchingly turned thousands of pages of conversation transcripts and emails into his most ambitious novel yet and the competing fans developed fans (and detractors) of their own.

As a side note, Mario was not the first to hold such a competition. He himself had only recently been a competitor in Survivor: Tonga, a game run by a Brown student named Rafe Judkins who would shock everyone when he himself was chosen as a contestant on the real life Survivor: Guatemala. Many both in the online community and the cast of the show consider Judkins the best strategist of his season and his online game no doubt allowed him to run an insightful simulation of what might occur on the island

Afterwards many tried to follow in Mario's footsteps but very few succeeded because no template was established for what Survivor short fiction would look like (nor for any other reality series) and the commitment and endurance necessary to write a six hundred page novel was simply beyond most of the amateur writers. Countless projects were begun and then abandoned a few chapters in (to a chorus of boos). A climate of cynicism reigned among readers who had been suckered in once too often and the low readership further discouraged fan authors.

One of the few truly successful efforts to follow Mario's was a series started by a young fan known only as GuatemalaFanfic or GF. He used a different template than the All Star model that many had attempted to emulate and instead of writing the story as literature he attempted to recreate the style of the show as accurately as possible. He wrote his episodes in sixty minute script format, throwing in moments of inaudible dialogue, background conversation and song cues. He also took careful analysis that other fans had done of the way that the producers told stories - when they focused on the characters that would succeed and when they focused on those who would fail - and challenged his readers to observe what templates his was using and how the game would play out. He also differed from Mario's formula in that instead of bringing together characters from different seasons of the show he used all of the characters of the season that was currently being broadcast, writing a kind of alternate history with a different set of storylines and outcomes.

Much like GuatemalaFanfic I had been an avid fan of Mario's All Star novels, enjoying them at times more than the actual series, and like GuatemalaFanfic I was determined to beat the master at his own game. So I began writing Survivor: Belize, a novel adhering as closely as possible to what I imagined the standards and specifications of original television novels to be, with the hopes of selling it for publication to CBS' publishing company. Because it would most likely have been perceived as slander to put words in the mouths of real life individuals I created a completely original cast of characters.

My biggest challenge came in introducing sixteen characters at the same time without the audience throwing up their hands in frustration. This is, of course, a challenge any reality series faces but I didn't have the benefit of using audio/visual clues such as contestants' faces and voices as memory jogs. I eventually decided on a two pronged approach for tackling these issues. First, I wouldn't try to familiarize audiences with all sixteen characters at the same time. I would take a page from the series' book and focus only on a manageable number of characters in each episode, working everyone in eventually as the numbers began to dwindle later in the story. Secondly, I would use visual clues by inserting a section of my contestants' headshots and biographies, mirroring the website in style and content. Since most of the characters were based on people I knew, anyway, finding appropriate models wouldn't be hard.

I was in the middle of working on my project just before Christmas last year, toggling between my word processor and my online shopping, when I ran into a product line that made my jaw drop -original Survivor novels. There they were on, recently released. Not sure whether to be encouraged or discouraged I ordered a set to put under the tree.

This set of novels differed significantly from my own idea in that they were aimed at preteen readers and they followed a Choose Your Own Adventure format. Since I'd been a huge fan of the Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was in grade school these provided a charming bit of nostalgia but my concern that making the castaways all ten or twelve years old would really water down the story proved valid. Not only did the writers' take the teeth out of the game - providing the contestants with lots of kid friendly food, having them compete in little mock challenges and leaving strategy simple if explained at all - but the character development was wafer thin.

The most interesting thing about the books was easily the format, which allowed the reader to flip to one page or another depending on who they wanted to be booted from the game or which challenge they wanted the castaways to compete in. But because the writers tried to cram so many different possible routes into a 120 page book they had to cut each version of the entire game down to a miniscule number of pages that could not sustain a solidly built story. While aiming the series at younger readers is a surprising but not inherently stupid idea I feel like the series' editors choice to low ball the series was ill advised. A notable percentage of Mario Lanza's All Star novel fans were of the age that these books seemed to be aimed at but they never complained that they were overwhelmed by the difficulty of the content or bored by the grown up nature of the contestants.

A few weeks ago I ran into a book review in Time Magazine for Carolyn Parkhurst's Lost and Found, a literary novel about "an Amazing Race style reality show" which, we were told, explored the human condition in a way "crappy" reality series never could. Despite being annoyed at the anti-popular culture bias of the review and mildly disappointed that someone else had once again preceded me I was dying to pick up the book on my next trip into town. I wanted it to succeed where the young reader novels had failed, to capture the sense of excitement of great reality television, the immediacy and unpredictability. I wanted to see how Parkhurst tackled all of the questions I'd been working through in the first hundred and fifty pages of my spec novel. Would she capture the impression of reality with adverbs and imagination?

The answer? Only somewhat, but Lost and Found is a pretty good book anyway. Where it succeeds is in vividly portraying a small number of core characters' psyches, a crucial aspect of almost any story. Where it fails is in capturing the appeal of reality television as distinct from other forms of storytelling. There's virtually no suspense about the outcome of the game in the entire novel. A lot of the supporting characters are never so much as given a chance to speak. That obviously isn't a goal the writer sought and failed at, it's something they never tried to do.

The book's ambivalence towards the subject matter was fairly interesting and from my vantage point seems frank without being unfair even if it came across as slightly apologetic. Parkhrurst's reality television producers are cold blooded and opportunistic but her other characters understand that and, in all but one case, don't seem offended by it. They all have motivations of their own for taking part. Just like in real life some, such as the so-called 'ex-gays', compete in order to present a sociopolitical agenda before an international audience; others, such as the former child stars, do it to gain visibility in the entertainment world; while still others, such as the mother and daughter team, do it for the adventure and the escape from their ever day lives. In order to gain a sense of perspective on the industry Parkurst collected stories from two former competitors, Shii Ann Huang (Survivor:Thailand and Survivor:All-Stars) and Zachary Behr (The Amazing Race); and consequently some of the details, such as the camera operator who no one wants to work with because of his offensive smell, ring true.

One creative choice Parkhurst makes that seems a central issue of such novels is to focus on the mechanics of the production directly (and constantly) rather than avoiding the subject. Crew members such as camera people and handlers are supporting characters. The host is frequently described while she prepares for her next monologue. A production meeting is transcribed at one point. The Survivor Choose Your Own Adventure novels, by comparison, act almost as though there was no television production, focusing exclusively on the action 'inside' the TV box.

I myself found it useful at points to reference stages of the production that didn't appear on screen such as the casting interviews and the airing of the episodes but considered that level of self-reflexivity fair game because the show's host, Jeff Probst, talks openly about such things in media teleconferences and at the live reunion shows. Parkhurst tends to use descriptions of the production primarily in the pejorative sense to talk about the artifice of reality television where as I am more interested in the dual experiences of the castaways who are both experiencing some very real challenges such as hunger, exhaustion and the social game and at the same time going through the emotional mill of being put on display in front of seventeen million people.

At one point one of my characters is really torn between voting out a woman who shares her mother's cultural values or one who's everything her mother is against. She knows that her family and their entire neighborhood is going to one day be watching this play out on television and they're going to judge her for the choices she makes; and that leaves her sleepless at night. To me putting the game in such a context doesn't detract from the reality of the emotion, it adds to it.

Reality television fiction is at a really interesting point right now because the rules haven't been established yet. Does one use the same number of contestants as you would on a reality series or is that too many to keep track of? Do some shows work better for prose than others or not at all? If a short format isn't going to try to cover an entire game then what should it look like? How does one write a novel covering an entire game without exceeding a standard 350 page book length? Can new series be created for fiction and, if so, could a work of reality fiction ever be optioned for television production? With Battle Royal and Series 7 we're already starting to see how movies could recreate reality TV. But what other types of movies could be written that playoff of that idea? The opportunity to shape the conventions of the micro-genre is there for whoever steps up to the plate.