AUTHOR: Henry Jenkins
DATE: 1992 (both hardback and paperback still in print)
LENGTH: 343 pages in paperback
GENRE: nonfiction; communication and cultural studies
And now for something COMPLETELY different – it's a book about …. US!
Oh, it's not the first book ever written about media fandom, and with all the changes brought about by the Internet, I definitely doubt it will be the last. But, Henry Jenkins' “Textual Poachers” is the first one I would recommend to anyone. The others that I have read have been rather depressing. They generally focus on Star Trek fans, and the extreme Trekkies at that, and tended to show them as obsessed, overgrown children with no idea of the difference between fantasy and reality, loons and misfits who steal the creations of others because they can't create anything of their own. If the writers of these books even bothered to explore the world of fandom on their own, rather than depending upon other outsiders for all their information, they maybe went to one or two cons – usually Star Trek 'events' -- attended one or two meetings of a Star Trek club, maybe condescended to read a fan story or even – horrors! – one entire fanzine, and then proceeded to make sweeping generalizations about the entirety of fandom.
After reading several of these unfortunately widely accepted texts, I wasn't originally all that interested in prowling through another, so I ignored “Textual Poachers” when it was first published. Then, a few years ago at MediaWest*Con, an annual media convention in Lansing, Michigan, I noticed people wearing T-shirts with interesting quotes from this book, so I finally purchased it. Joy Joy Happy Happy! This one really does explore fandom in depth, with understanding and appreciation. It turns out that, not only is Henry Jenkins an assistant professor of literature at MIT, he's actually participated in fannish activities, and is married to a fan, so he began his research unburdened with academia's general misconceptions. In fact, debunking some of these myths was apparently one of his chief goals in writing this book, as stated in his introduction:
“My motivations for writing this book are complex and bound to my dual role as fan and academic. As a fan, I feel that most previous academic accounts of fan culture are sensationalistic and foster misunderstandings about this subculture. From talking to fans, I recognize that these misconceptions have material consequences in our lives and contribute to often hostile treatment from workmates, friends, and family members. I want to participate in the process of redefining the public identity of fandom, to use my institutional authority to challenge those stereotypes, and to encourage a greater awareness of the richness of fan culture.”
Make no mistake, “Textual Poachers” is a textbook. It is not a work of fiction, designed primarily to entertain. It is, however, quite interesting, and in my opinion, it is as understandable to laymen as to professionals in the fields of communication and cultural studies. It helps to have had some experience with organized media fandom – conventions, art shows, fanzines, filksinging, costuming – but it could also serve as an introduction to these aspects of fannish culture, especially for people like many of you, who are just within the fringes because of an overwhelming interest in one performer and/or one series, and haven't as yet encountered organized fandom.
Jenkins explores many different issues, as shown by the chapter headings:
“Get a Life!”: Fans, Poachers, Nomads
Personally, I was most intrigued by the chapters on Fan Critics and, oddly, on Slash. I say “oddly” because I am not at all fond of “slash” fanfiction. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, let me explain, or rather, let Jenkins explain. “The colorful term, 'slash', refers to the convention of employing a stroke or 'slash' to signify a same-sex relationship between two characters (Kirk/Spock or K/S) and specifies a genre of fan stories posting homoerotic affairs between series protagonists. Slash originated as a genre of fan writing within Star Trek fandom in the early 1970s, as writers began to suggest, however timidly, that Kirk and Spock cared more deeply for each other than for any of the many secondary female characters who brush past them in the original episodes.” As I said, I don't like slash; I have never written it – I don't feel a need to explore the possibility that Luka or any of my favorites from other universes are actually bisexual – and I don't particularly enjoy reading it, but Jenkins presents some very good, and probably quite valid, reasons why some fans do enjoy it, handling this difficult and sometimes controversial subject with ease and no sign of disdain or contempt.
On the Forum, we usually touch upon aspects of Fan Criticism, when we discuss each episode and why it worked or didn't work, and when we analyze why Luka is behaving as he is. We have the pleasure of writing and reading the stories posted to Jo's excellent Lukafic site. At MediaWest, in the past two years, I have participated on several ER-related panels that have also explored these things, and I keep prowling the Art Show hoping to find a portrait of our favorite doctor done by one of the excellent fan artists who frequent this con. These are some of the things that identify us as members of Media Fandom: we participate; we are not merely passive consumers, we engage in activities related to what we view, and in doing so, move beyond just watching. We have taken the character of Luka Kovac, because of our interest not only in this character but also in the performer who brings him to life, and made him, in part, ours. We have come to know this character as an individual, as a friend, and we are concerned about him. But as Jenkins so capably demonstrates in “Textual Poachers”, this has not diminished our capacity to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, nor does it show a lack of creativity on our part. We have used our interest in Luka to enhance our individual realities, learning more about the world and about ourselves as we go. This is shown by the simple fact that the GV site is so very much more than an online fan club for Goran – we have made friends, we discuss national and international issues, with Aziel's encouragement and inspiration we have begun the Global Village. We are neither misfits nor loons; we have simply found a way to let media enrich our lives far beyond the simple weekly viewing of a one-hour show or attending the far-too-occasional movie.
William Shatner once told Star Trek fans to “Get a life”. What Jenkins does in this book is to show that fans already have a life, one that is rich in culture, creativity, and friendship. “Textual Poachers” is a celebration of media fandom and what it has to offer, but it was written at the very dawn of public use of the Internet. As we can testify, the Net has given us all a greater accessibility to other fans, and as a result, the face of media fandom is changing. It is no longer limited to weekend conventions and print 'zines, and it's growth is beyond amazing. At some point, it would be interesting for Jenkins to re-explore this subculture, taking the Net into account and demonstrating how this new accessibility has altered both sides of the equation, changing not only how fans interact, but drawing more and more people into the fannish world. Fan Fiction alone has expanded drastically, and fan artists are now making use of this new outlet for their talent and their interest. At the very least, another edition of the existing book with a few new chapters would be a welcome addition to my shelves!
You can find a copy of Textual Poachers : Television Fans & Participatory Culture (Studies in Culture and Communication) at amazon.com , your local book store or library
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