One of my recent blogs spurred some interesting discussion in the comments. I really appreciate the time people take to reply, especially because discussion can often bring about understanding. I didn’t want this particular discourse to get lost in the comments, though, so I’ve brought my responses up into a blog post.
In commenting on Teasing the Fate of the EU, Star Wars Fan said:
To use a fanfiction example – maintaining continuity of characterization is generally regarded as a good thing.
I’d like to point everyone back to the TFN Fan Fiction Resource discussion thread Listening to Fanfic I started last month. Feedback from all types of fanfiction writers regarding the EU generally fell along the same lines – the EU needs to work on maintaining and building characters most of all, and establishing more friendships and romance. Considering how varied the interests in Star Wars are among the individuals who’ve posted, I think it’s quite remarkable that for the most part there was a real common thread to the feedback.
In response to my statement that “The storytelling has gone downhill in the EU since the editors have begun to rely too heavily on uberfanboy input.”, Star Wars Fan asked:
I’m not disagreeing with this point, but – out of curiosity, at which point do you think this occurred? Can you point to a specific series where the shift began, what were the first signs, and what are the continuing signs of too much of a “uberfanboy” influence? And if we’re speaking to the post-NJO – are you sure that wasn’t the work of Troy Denning*?
Besides, I think his (?) point was less geared towards bringing in “uberfanboys” and more geared towards bringing in people who genuinely care about the EU. I don’t recall this blog objecting too much to “uberfanboy” Dave Filoni’s influence over The Clone Wars.
Sorry, bit of a devil’s advocate over here…
There are two key items here that are really important, and I do want to discuss them both at some point. The first is what I mean by “uberfanboys” and what defines them as different from other types of Star Wars fans. The second is the issues of when a shift in the EU began, why it began (was it indeed due to uberfanboys?), and if uberfanboys still have too much influence. For today, I’ll talk mostly about the first item and make a stab at giving readers a few specific examples on the second. I’ll leave the more detailed analysis of the second item for another blog post, because those ideas will fit in better with some other ideas I also want to blog about.
So, the uberfanboys. Who are they, and what is it about them that makes them “uber” in my mind? In his comment, thesithempire made the suggestion that Star Wars needed more people like Pablo Hidalgo to help keep the EU afloat; he named Abel Peña and Dan Wallace specifically. These are exactly the kinds of fans I have in mind when I say “uberfanboys.” In fact, they’re actually a part of a fan group called the Star Wars Fanboy Association:
The Star Wars Fanboy Association is an e-mail discussion group that includes Star Wars experts who specialize in addressing continuity problems in the EU. The group shares some of their discussions and knowledge on their website which features varied Star Wars articles and essays from members such as Pablo Hidalgo, Abel G. Peña and Daniel Wallace. Many SWFA members went on to contribute to the Expanded Universe.
That description comes from Wookiepedia, a fansite whose administrators and major contributors for the most part share this uberfanboy mindset. On the same Wookieepedia page, Abel Peña is quoted as saying that SWFA members “tend to dissect Star Wars topics endlessly.” Now, it’s not exclusively a boys’ club, but you won’t find too many women in the club. Certainly none of those women are held in such high esteem as Abel, Pablo, or Dan when the continuity-minded fans are clamoring over the things they like to clamor about.
Take a look what the members of the SWFA – those who’ve been lucky enough to get official work from Lucasfilm – have contributed to the Expanded Universe. With few exceptions, it’s in the form of RPG source books, encyclopedias and other guidebooks, Star Wars Insider and Star Wars Gamer articles, and online supplements of various “nonfiction” types. Which, in a nutshell, shows what the problem really is with the uberfanboys: they’re obsessed with the minutiae of the nonfiction factoids, and have lost touch with the actual underlying core of Star Wars – the story. Ultimately, though, they’re only partly to blame for cultivating fandom fame for their fixations in this regard. Rather, much of the blame lies with Lucasfilm itself.
Personally, I believe Lucasfilm made a serious mistake when they created their original continuity and canon policies back in the early 1990s. What they determined was that everything in the Expanded Universe, no matter its nature or source, was equally part of the EU continuity. In my view, the policy that should have been adopted is that only information that appears in the stories would be canon.
Story is the heart of Star Wars, not factoids and minutiae. But by making the RPG’s Dark Empire Sourcebook just as canon as the comics, or The New Essential Guide to Characters just as canon as the novels, Lucasfilm created an environment in which factual continuity and world-building continuity was placed on equal footing with characterization continuity, thematic continuity, and other aspects of storytelling. For one thing, this very policy has created a lot of the fan outrage that we see today – many of the fan complaints leveled at Lucasfilm involve factual contradictions alone, yet those contradictions would not exist if the materials being contradicted hadn’t been canon in the first place. Sourcebooks, character guides, and articles in the Insider should supplement our enjoyment as fans, especially when a majority of the fans haven’t the time or the inclination to read encyclopedias for fun. Not to mention, real world encyclopedias get rewritten all the time as new research changes our understanding of our history, so it shouldn’t be too troubling that Star Wars history sometimes get rewritten, too. That’s especially true for the Expanded Universe stories, which are almost always told from individual character points of view rather than an omniscient perspective like the movies.
Currently there exists a significant missing-the-forest-for-the-trees problem within the fandom, because the fan complaints about story continuity get lost amid the constant flood of factoid complaints. And what’s got the EU in such serious trouble lately? Bad storytelling. I think if Lucasfilm had been more focused on storytelling, and less concerned about uberfanboy factual minutiae, they might have seen the iceberg coming before the ship struck it. If Lucasfilm is going to make more hires to bolster the EU staff, there should be an overseeing storyteller, not an overseeing fact checker. So before they hire any more uberfanboys, they should focus on finding a writer – or storyteller from another medium, like Dave Filoni was – who understands George Lucas’ vision for Star Wars, and hire that person first.
Of course, I realize it’s too late to change the canon policy now, and I’m not at all meaning to argue that Lucasfilm should retroactively take the nonfiction materials out of continuity. Rather, my point is that the Powers That Be need to get back to looking at the forest. If the uberfanboys want to focus on the trees, let them at it – but don’t forget what a tiny fraction of the paying customer base they actually are.
One of the reasons I chose the name “Fangirl” for my blog was because I wanted to express a different mentality that I knew existed among many fans – mostly female, but not solely so, as evidenced by the TFN Resource discussion I highlighted earlier, and Lex’s guest blogs here. This different mindset doesn’t get bothered too much by factual continuity discrepancies and thinks good storytelling and character development has been sacrificed to soothe the sensibilities of a small subset of fans.
Interestingly enough, Dave Filoni is not listed on the SWFA member list. I doubt at this point he would ever be invited into the club, now that he’s messed up too much of what some consider “their” continuity. True, Filoni has admitted to being a long-time Star Wars fan, including parts of the EU as well as the films. But his path to working on the The Clone Wars came about after several years spent working in the business as a storyboard artist and animator outside of Star Wars. If you’ve ever sat and listened to him – I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him multiple times between Star Wars Weekends and Celebration V – he’s a fan, but more importantly an experienced storyteller. This alone sets him apart from the uberfanboys. To top that off, he’s had the benefit of working for one of the greatest storytellers in the last century, George Lucas. Sure, Lucas has gotten a bit wild at times within his own universe – let’s remember, he’s apparently unfazed by changing his own films, most notoriously by altering A New Hope to have Greedo shoot first –but it is his bus and we’re just the passengers.
While there has been a lot of teeth-gnashing over recent blips in continuity such as Master Piell’s death in TCW, nothing about that event changes anything specifically about the Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker or his character, which is the big-picture story of that era of Star Wars. Nor does Master Piell’s death really alter the character of, or story surrounding, Jax Pavan in the Coruscant Nights trilogy; Master Piell had only a cameo in the first book anyway, and nothing significant about Jax’s story requires it to have been Master Piell in that role. Looking at the broader base of fans, most people don’t have a clue that a one-eyed alien Jedi Master’s death is causing a rift in the time-space continuum – because it’s not. They just saw a good story about Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Ahsoka Tano.
My first experience with this type of one-track thinking – the facts must align or Star Wars is doomed!11!1, I call it – came early on as a fanfic writer. Somehow I made the mistake of thinking a Nubian space-ship was from Naboo. It might have been because, you know, the names were so alike, and Qui-Gon called the Queen of Naboo’s ship Nubian right there on screen in The Phantom Menace. (What the heck was Lucas thinking? He couldn’t have called it a Chubian space-ship and saved me and a few hundred thousand other people the confusion?) So I write an intense emotional scene, toiled over it for days, and I get lots of responses. And then there was one reader who posted to make a single comment – not about the story or the characterization or the emotional power of the scene, but rather to correct my misunderstanding of Nubian versus Naboo. Seriously? Sadly, yes. I chewed on it for about a day, then realized it didn’t really matter. If that was all he took away from what I wrote, then it was his loss, not mine. Fear of inconsequential continuity flubs, in my opinion, paralyzes the novelists and prevents them from taking risks to just tell a good story even if it might get the number of turbolasers on a Star Destroyer wrong.
A good example of this same dynamic from the published EU is the short story Red Sky Blue Flame, written by Elaine Cunningham for Star Wars Gamer. It tells the story of how Jagged Fel got his signature scar and lock of white hair, and it also got some fans all twisted up about continuity. From the outside, it’s clear that Cunningham knew when and where the story was set, but she made a math error when calculating what Jag’s age would be at that time. The obvious solution, of course, is to treat that single, off-hand reference to his age as a goof. But instead, some fanboys wanted to take the age as a given, then spin out all sorts of supposedly continuity-saving retcons that had Jag in a different location, or studying at a different training academy, or a host of other things. But if you asked them how any of those retcons would really improve the story of the character of Jagged Fel, the only answer they’d have is, but we have to fix the problem with his age. But that’s just the thing – no, you don’t. Red Sky Blue Flame is a great tale about a young Jag, and with Jag going to end up as Emperor someday, one might think this story of his youth would be a good one to keep fans reading as we head toward that plot point. Instead, Cunningham’s story has apparently been relegated to the dustbin of EU history because of this not-at-all-important continuity blip. I mean really, can’t it just be about the joy of reading about a good character?
And that’s pretty much what still happens to this day throughout the Expanded Universe fandom. Some fans get so involved in factoids and details that they forsake the story. In fact, there are even some fans who read the books with the primary goal of making updates to Wookieepedia pages. That’s fine if that’s what they enjoy as fans – but it shouldn’t be the perspective that Lucasfilm has on the EU, and those uberfanboys certainly shouldn’t be the target audience of the stories.
The irony is, “the moral of the story” tends to trump factual details in the real world, too. During my time at Duke University, they forced us enginerd types to take a few liberal arts courses to make sure we were well-rounded human beings. (Or something like that.) I actually rather enjoyed the opportunity to step away from the science for a while, since I’m sort of an artsy fartsy, dual-sided brain type of gal. I studied writers from The New Yorker and art forms from across the world – and, since Duke has a divinity school, I also had the chance to take classes from some of the leading authorities on the Bible. Before I say any more: I’ll be straight up in admitting that I am not a religious person, but rather a spiritual person. So I’m not promoting any particular beliefs or a religion by what follows; I simply think the story of the Bible is an easily accessible example to make my point.
One of the interesting things I picked up in these divinity school classes was that whether it was the Old or New Testament, the message of the story is the most important thing to take away from what’s presented. Over the centuries, theological experts have fought over whether the world was made in 7 days or 7 million days or something metaphorical; but a storyteller will tell you the number and the duration of time doesn’t matter – the point of that passage is just that a higher power, what the original storytellers call God, was responsible for creating the world, and did it in an awesome display of power that ordinary mortals can’t possibly understand. The gospels of the New Testament are even trickier, because each one – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – relates a different telling of the events surrounding Jesus’ life. Do we need to do mental or historical gymnastics to reconcile the competing accounts? Not really. In the end, Jesus is still the hero of all four versions of his story, sacrificing his life because he had hope for the people of the world. Getting too tied up in the facts only inhibits the message of what Jesus really stood for.
The Star Wars EU certainly isn’t the Bible any more than the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, but there’s certainly a similarity in terms of looking at a “canon” (which, by the way, is a theological term) and continuity, and trying to achieve interpretations that are true to the meaning of the story. The same sorts of struggles occur when we try to read, understand, and interpret the U.S. Constitution. (Or so Lex tells me; he writes about and teaches those issues, so I’ll take his word for it.) So when continuity errors start to muddle the message that’s meant to be carried through in the stories of Star Wars, that’s when we need to start worrying. I’m not so sure we’ve seen that, yet.
But this kind of perspective is not what the uberfanboys want. They want to keep creating RPG sourcebooks and Essential guidebooks, the very things that are painting the EU stories into corners. What I see as the biggest problem within the recent EU novels is that they’ve forgotten the much larger numbers of fans who just want to be told a story, and who don’t want or need sourcebooks and encyclopedias to make it valuable. Literally the most ridiculous criticism I saw about Vortex shortly after its release was a fan at TFN who took issue with the number of torpedoes Jaina had armed in her starfighter. (It was so mind-bogglingly inane the specifics elude me.) The author, Troy Denning, actually posted in TFN Lit to address the criticism, and the fan ultimately realized he’d counted incorrectly in the first place and there was no error. This is the type of feedback that is getting attention from the folks in charge of the stories, and it seems to me that they’ve started writing to avoid it. If they want their stories to get better and their sales numbers to improve, they need to tune out the uberfanboys and start listening to other voices. That’s why I’ll continue to make my voice heard here at Fangirl Blog.
Ultimately, I think there are some things we all need to keep in mind, and these are things the Powers That Be of the EU have forgotten. The message of Star Wars is simple – there is the tragedy of Anakin, the faith of Padme in Anakin, the hope and heroism of Luke, the patience and obedience of Obi-Wan, the love of Han and Leia, all painted against a backdrop of good versus evil, right versus wrong. The Jedi are good – sure, they are flawed, but they’re the heroes of the saga. The Sith are bad – and it’s almost better if we don’t know their flaws, then they seem almost undefeatable. Since the original trilogy, Lucas has painted more vivid colors on the canvas, but he doesn’t waver from this vision. Without a doubt, the EU has.
And now on to comments from another reader, thesithempire, who shared some of his thoughts, too. He said:
Hey Tricia: I don’t disagree with many of your points. Both uberfanboys are needed, as you noted, as are the uberfangirls. That’s why I want to see Lucas give Lucasfilm the budget it needs to do what it takes to maintain quality and continuity (which includes proper character and story development).
While I’m quite supportive of the idea of maintaining quality and proper character and story development, fanboy influence has been by far and large the overarching pressure on the Star Wars EU since about the turn of the new millennium. I have thoughts on the how’s and why’s, and I’ll get to those in that same subsequent blog post I mentioned above.
To go slightly out of order for moment:
With an rough estimate of 100,000 EU fans worldwide buying the books, we’re not the insignificant minority that theforcecast would have everyone think, nor are we the “kooks” and “fanatics” they’ve claimed.
I wouldn’t worry too much about what they say; they are a couple voices among hundreds of thousands. I’m curious, though – Did they really use the words “kooks” and “fanatics”? I have friends and acquaintances of all different types: some are Star Wars nuts like myself, others are pretty geekified engineer types, and still others are from the horse showing circles who still can’t figure out my horse’s name (it’s Ganner, after a Jedi, of course, but they often think I simply misspelled Gunner). If I told any number of these friends from varying social groupings about a couple grown men who created a podcast for Star Wars fans that discussed, among other things, a Cartoon Network cartoon and collecting children’s toys in pristine unopened condition, a lot of them would think those guys were the “kooks” and “fanatics.” I’m not saying that’s what I think – but the old saying about stones and glass houses does come to mind…
I’ve listened to the ForceCast on occasion, like when they have a Dave Filoni interview or breaking news about upcoming conventions. I know those guys are quite willing to take credit when they believe they have spoken out and affected change in the Star Wars universe. So I’m not sure why they wouldn’t be understanding when another group is starting to feel disaffected and speaks out. You’re entitled to your opinion and to express where you think the franchise isn’t meeting your expectations, just like they do. If your criticism is valid, the franchise will listen.
Thesithempire also said:
One problem we’ve recently faced, even more so than Even Piell’s death, was losing Karen Traviss. I don’t know if you consider her an appropriate fangirl/author, but I’m disappointed in losing her, as well as her series, which is now left dangling, and potentially irreconcilable with Lucas’ reworking of Mandalorian history/culture. Other great female authors (and male — because it’s not only female authors who can write realistic character development and relationships) may not be so willing to tread into the EU if they see that their works are subject to being rendered null and void by a seemingly capricious whim for the sake of an episode or two.
First things first: Personally I think Lucas’ decision to use Mandalore in TCW was ill-conceived. The story could have been told using any fictional planet his mind could have mustered up, and we all know he has a lot of names still in the wings. Until we see some actual storytelling reason why Satine and her people had to be Mandalorians, instead of some other planet endangered by the Mandalorian Death Watch, I’m willing to say that overwriting so much pre-TCW canon on Mandalore possibly ranks up there with Jar Jar Binks on the What in the Blazes was He Thinking? scale. Absolutely, fans should call him out on that. In fact, it probably deserves a t-shirt or something.
As for Karen Traviss, I’ll start by saying that I really like Traviss’ original Wess’har series and she is an extremely talented writer. I started out a huge fan of her Republic Commando books, but the last one lost me. Either way, though, Traviss has never proven that she can draw in a significant chunk of female fans with her own stuff or within the franchise work she’s done (including after leaving Star Wars). In fact, I think her personal vision of storytelling is far too dark for Star Wars, especially to have been writing in the flagship series, unless – and I’ve pointed to the issue of editorial control before – the editors were willing to take the reins and keep her on the best course for Star Wars as a whole.
The biggest problem with Karen Traviss, though, was how poorly she wrote the previously existing female characters in Legacy of the Force. I have no doubt this can be attributed to her profiling method of characterization. At the time, she defended her choice to not read all the books and instead rely on profiles, but the proof is in the novels: she simply didn’t understand those female characters. Ever wonder who wrote those profiles? Traviss said she did some of the research herself, reviewing the nonfiction sourcebooks and the official Holocron database. But that just gives objective facts and information; where did the subjective elements of personality, beliefs, and values come from? Who talked to Traviss about how those factual experiences shaped the souls of the main female characters? I highly doubt it was the two female editors, Sue Rostoni and Shelly Shapiro, and at this point they haven’t proven they can put a finger on the pulse of what most women (and some men too) want from a story and have lost that audience. More than likely, it was some combination of uberfanboys such as Pablo and Leland, who have both sat on multiple discussion panels for Legacy of the Force books, as well as input from her fellow authors Denning and Allston. In addition, her associate and confidante James Gilmer repeatedly implied that he had a hand in relaying the intricacies of the EU to her while she was in the process of writing the novels.
What happened in the end was that Traviss got some facts and data, but she didn’t get the essence of some pretty crucial characters, including Mara, Jaina, and Tahiri. I can’t fault her for her characterization of Han, Luke and Leia, but she just based them on the movies; Darth Caedus and Ben Skywalker, both in essence original characterizations, were spectacularly written. As a fan of the female characters, though – no, I don’t want to see Traviss back.
One other thought about Traviss: let’s not be too quick to put all of the blame on TCW for leading her to leave. I’m not so sure some of the uberfanboys didn’t have a hand in shoving her out the door. Maybe Del Rey thinks we’re clueless, but it hasn’t gone unnoticed that one such continuity-minded uberfanboy, who harassed Traviss unmercifully online about the number of clones and other supposed grievances in her Republic Commando books, has now been named by Jason Fry as a credited author on the upcoming Essential Guide to Warfare – ironically originally planned to have been written by Traviss before her announced departure. The fanboy’s behavior at the time was reprehensible; I’m honestly perplexed that Del Rey doesn’t realize that now rewarding such behavior will only encourage the mindset that standing up for continuity will garner official Star Wars distinction.
Finally, on the last point: I don’t believe that authors will avoid treading into the EU for fear of having their effort nulled and voided by capricious whims of TCW. First of all, there are plenty of examples of that exact same type of nullifying, or at least undermining, of previous works going on often enough in the EU on its own. (To be clear: I don’t think it’s okay when the EU does it, either. My point is that any author considering writing for the EU actually has a much greater chance of being overwritten by another EU author than by George Lucas or TCW.) For example: What if you were Tim Zahn? He had no say in the handling of Mara’s death sequence, when she acted somewhat out of her established character, if not in a downright regressed fashion. Should he walk away from Star Wars over it? Has he? What if you were Aaron Allston, who saw all the potential in Jagged Fel, especially as a romantic foil to Jaina Solo? What if you wrote that in the New Jedi Order series, then continued on writing in the Legacy of the Force series where they were struggling in a tense relationship-triangle before reestablishing their great bond, only to have it dismantled again for cheap melodramatic angst in one poorly conceived and horribly edited book in Fate of the Jedi? (If there is any doubt whether he thinks Jag should be with Jaina, let me offer this picture of the Team Jagged badge presented to him at Celebration V by members from The Cantina. He put it on his lanyard and proudly displayed it throughout the convention.) Should he walk away from Star Wars?
One of the things we can’t forget is that these authors are working in a franchise. This is their job, just like other people do their jobs every day while their own corporations make moves that sometimes thwart them. It’s just how things work. In fact, as I’ve argued previously, I think the Powers That Be have allowed their authors too much liberty to write self-indulgent stories that service only a small subset of fans rather than the broader appeal of Star Wars as a brand – which is basically what’s also happened with the uberfanboys overindulging in creating new canon through sourcebooks and encyclopedias – and that’s why they’re losing business.
I want to close by reiterating what thesithempire said: realistic character development and relationships can be written by both male and female writers, but we’re not seeing that right now in the EU. I don’t care who they get to write so long as it’s got character development and we get some inclusion of relationships – friendships and romances – between the characters. Although at this point it would be nice to see them change up the roster a little bit; it’s not like the Star Wars EU is hitting it out of the park these days with their current roster. Sadly, the two female authors they have brought in recently – Golden and Bohnhoff – have managed to do plenty of their own damage with female fans. So it seems we still have a long way to go.