Fan Fiction Oral History Project with Henry and Cynthia Jenkins

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Interviews by Fans
Title: Fan Fiction Oral History Project with Henry and Cynthia Jenkins
Interviewer: Abigail De Kosnik
Interviewee: Cynthia Jenkins, Henry Jenkins
Date(s): August 14, 2012
Medium: audio, print transcript
Fandom(s):
External Links: Fiction Oral History Project with Henry and Cynthia Jenkins
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

Fan Fiction Oral History Project with Henry and Cynthia Jenkins was conducted in 2012 by Abigail De Kosnik and archived at the University of Iowa Libraries.

This interview's medium is audio (length: 2:21:31), and it has a written 66-page transcript.

It was part of the series: Fan Fiction Oral History Project also referred to as "a Fiction and Internet Memory Research Project," "the Fiction and Internet Memory Program," and "Fan Fiction and Internet Memory."

The interviews conducted for this project were used for the book by Abigail De Kosnik called Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom.

Some Topics Discussed

Excerpts

[Henry]: I mean, my story would start out like the classic fanboy narrative. So I was fannish from quite early on. Backyard play would definitely be part of the beginning of that narrative. And a lot of that would have been around the Batman television series, and not too far after that, the stuff that I was reading in Film Monsters in Filmland, which was my point of entry into an awful lot of fannish stuff. I just got through writing a memoir essay about Famous Monsters that's going to come out, so this is all very, very fresh in my mind, I could go on at some length there. But essentially, Famous Monsters published photographs from vintage horror films at about the same time that a lot of us were having access to those films on after school strips, because of the way syndication packages were working, and so forth. Suddenly those films were available, so we'd race home and watch them. But we had no control over which films we'd see, didn't always know what film it would be when we got home from school. And so a lot of films we knew from the photographs probably more from actually seeing them. And we also had the monster models. Over there is my Wolfman model from that period. So these were characters we knew as much from still photographs and models as we [did] from any actual narrative. But that group of boys I was growing up with would play in the backyard and we would play superheroes one day and we'd play monsters the next. We all had characters that were sort of embodiments of our fantasy lives. So I tended to be Dracula or Green Lantern...

[snipped]

And so the writing I would begin to do would be writing scripts for the Super 8 movies we would make if we ever got our hands on a camera. So they would be written with an awareness of the personalities of the cast, and with the need to create a new story that had a frame that contained all of the monsters in it, which meant they were heavily influenced by House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein, which were the ensemble cast films that Universal produced during that period of time.

Yeah so the plot structures borrowed heavily on the original[s], and I know we would go back to origin stories a lot and retell them, but there would always be twists, in part because of the personalities of the actors, because of the locations of the sets, and so forth. So I don't know whether we call that fan fiction or not. It's somewhere in between fan fiction and pure performance. But it was written down at least, and written down certainly by eleven, twelve, thirteen, I was writing this stuff up.

... whatever I could get my hands on, but mostly notebook paper, probably. Even somewhere, I have the contract I drew up for my production company on the back of cardboard that came in a shirt that one of the boys—who now is a corporate lawyer—drew up the contract that we all signed and gave everything that we were ever going to create to me, because I was the head of the production company.

[Cynthia]:

I think it's the viewer's embodied experience. I think when we watch characters ... you know, if you've ever read three fan stories, you know that three people can watch exactly the same scene, and think three totally different things happened. And I think that if you take the meaning of the scene to be what the author intended—this is a traditional male critique, that we're all taught in school. And I think if you want to construct your own explanation of what happened from the evidence you're given within the story, that has been something that more girls I've known than boys I've known have done... The viewer will construct their own understanding of the character from evidence within the story, not evidence involving authorial intent.... The author may not know what the hell they wrote.

[Cynthia]: Well, Blake's 7 fandom was a very happy, very successful fandom until the point that the creatives started being invited over to cons and I guess there were two problems. One, they were not happy about the things that fans were doing with their characters. And two, some of them got a little greedy, and started thinking, Wow, my God, look at what they're paying at that art auction! Maybe we can make money. So between wanting to, I don't know ... wanting to participate ... wanting to get into the organizational end in ways that I don't think fans really wanted them there, and trying to think how to make this pay. And feelings ... and fights that grew largely out of discovering that people had been writing slash. You know, "How could you do this to me? I thought you were my friend, you betrayed me." The fandom basically blew up. Producers that wrote a "You're either with me or against me" letter, and well it turned out to be a hot topic in fandom, and a lot of fans just got tired of the fighting, and a good chunk of the writers flowed over to Professionals at that point, and a good chunk of the readers who liked reading their stories sort of followed behind them. But I think it was a significant moment for me, because up till that point, I'd had a very limited number of fandoms that I was very passionately attached to singly, and when the fandom sort of splintered at that point, I don't think I was unique in this, but I started following writers as much as I started following fandoms. And so suddenly I was kind of a whore as opposed to being monogamous with my fandom. So I think that was a moment at which I stopped ... the moment at which I became less monogamous and more polyamorous when it came to fandoms—

[snipped]

[Henry]: Anyway, you were at a con where the producer called in a bunch of fans and chewed them out in very direct and public and very personal ways, that was just like the beginning of the fraying of that fandom.

[De Kosnik]: Live. I mean, he was physically there?

[Henry]: He was physically there. There were stories of Paul Darrow calling fan writers in the middle of the night from the UK.

[Cynthia]: I thought that was a letter.

[Henry]: I'd heard that some people had gotten a late night phone call. Because he got so angry and picked up the phone in the UK and called people.

[Cynthia]: Anyway. Big mess. Late '80s.

[snipped]

[Cynthia]: I was not in the "inner circle" at that point. I was not one of the fans who spent a lot of time socializing with actors or producers. I mean, it's not that I haven't enjoyed meeting actors, but on the whole, I really don't care about the actors or producers. To me, it's about the stories. And, after that experience, I would much rather go to cons that had no creatives there at all. Because, to me ... There were a whole series of situations ... There was another con where one of the Professionals stars allegedly got drunk and wound up on the hotel roof the night he allegedly found out about slash, and allegedly worried a lot of fans ... being drunk, depressed and on the roof. But I wasn't there, I hear gossip ... but it was sort of a repeating ... you talk to the fans, you talk to the producers, "Oh shit, everybody gets their feelings hurt" moment. I don't think you could repeat that moment today because I don't think there is anybody making or acting in the shows who at this point don't know that fans play in their backyard.

[Henry]: Well one of Darrow's responses was to write his own novel about his character, which demonstrated so little understanding of who his character was compared to most fan fiction.

[Cynthia]: Yes but Darrow—one of the lead actors of Blake's 7, Paul Darrow —also wanted to assert that he was the creative force behind the development of his characters. That he made the writers do this, that he persuaded them to do that, and ... some of us give the writers more credit than he does.

[snipped]

[Cynthia]: This is where two-plus decades is not your friend. I am remembering it as having more to do with slash. I would really not want to stake my life on it without going back and rereading that ... exactly how it was phrased. Because it was just one of those moments that became very painful and, like childbirth, you kind of block the details from your mind and move on. I don't ... I hesitate to make ... I feel really stupid because I sat through the whole thing, and I should remember it all better than I actually do.

[De Kosnik]: Well, you're making reference to it as a traumatic event.

[Cynthia]: Oh it was! It killed the fandom.

[Henry]:

I've only actually completed two pieces of fan fiction in my life, and one of them was a piece of Blake's 7 fanfic that was going to be published and then the whole zine fandom disintegrated over this, so it never actually was read by anyone other than the editor of the zine and my wife and a few friends. But it was me working through my dissertation, which you may recall was on early sound comedy and vaudeville, and so it was treating the characters of Blake's 7 as a vaudeville troupe, and the turn ... and sort of rival street gangs and all kinds of stuff around the early history of American show business. So it was sort of parody but also a little bit of alternate universe versions of Blake's 7 and ... So that was, like, when I kept hitting my head against the wall writing the dissertation, I worked on the story and produced something that I was ... It was good enough that one of the top editors in the fandom wanted to put it in her zine and one of the top artists wanted to illustrate it. But it just never happened....

To some degree [this desire to write was motivated by stress]. Or by just the desire to prove to myself that I could do—you know, it was about mastering the literacy fully. But also just having an inspiration that I saw some possibilities for the characters that I could explore this way that I couldn't any other way. So that was ... I've never written much fanfic, but that was ... and it was a good decade after that before I wrote the one fan story of mine that is published.

[Henry]:

Yeah, so I was going down to the war office, and staying after work an extra hour or two and reading this stuff. By that point, I'm starting to research Textual Poachers, and so I connected with a local [[Beauty and the Beast]] group, and the Beauty and the Beast group met not too far from where we were living, so I started hanging out at their meetings. I was the only guy who went to these meetings, between it being fan fiction-driven and a fandom particularly noted for being overwhelmingly female. But when I'd go to those meetings, there were two or three people there who were using the Internet at that point at work, and who were printing out any of those discussions around Beauty and the Beast on long dot-matrix paper and bringing it in notebooks to the club meetings and passing them around...

Every month, people would bring in—they'd read highlights, people would sit around the whole meeting, and flip through, and read the discussions, and so forth. But it was moving from the digital back to the physical because most of those people didn't have access to networked computers...

So I always think of it as like, say, the stories you hear of factory workers who hire one person to read aloud to them while they're working. This was particularly of Lower East Side Jewish factory workers at the turn of the century, that they would pool their money to have someone at work who read. And one of them would have an access to literacies the others benefited from. And this is that transitional moment where the half-digital, half-not phenomenon really comes in.

[Henry]:

I remember this Escapade [in 1994] that we went to in Santa Barbara, where people were just ripping into each other over whether they were being robbed of their fandom as it was migrating online. And the sense that the action was shifting and they were being left out was a very intense thing. But also, there were women who were giving old computers to other women and helping mentor people over how to cross the digital divide— there was a lot of action going on at that point as the tides started to shift.

[Cynthia]: Well, not just the Beauty and the Beast community. But any given fandom had a couple of thousand active members, except Trek that probably had a larger group. But the point is, it was still—you could count them. And there were more people that read the stories and whatnot, but it was still ... I mean, it was still a finite group that was really actively involved in shaping the culture. You dumped it into the Internet and a year later, it was a hundred times bigger, and a year after that, it was hundred times bigger, and a year after that, it was a hundred times bigger. The growth was so exponential that the culture that had been transmitted was swamped by the newbies. And everybody felt like they had just lost control of their culture. Because in the past, you'd brought people into fandoms and cons a few at a time, so if you had a con with a hundred people, and you had ten new people, this was fabulous, but the ten new people didn't get to define what the con was. As opposed to having a con with a hundred people and having a hundred thousand people suddenly show up. You can't control that. And I think that there was a sense that everything was out of control, and that none of the assumptions that had come to be central to the culture could be taken for granted anymore. One key example here would be Real Person Fic. Because for a long time, I guess growing out of conversations like those with the actors in the mid '80s, there was a very clear sense amongst the fandom, "We're writing about the characters, we're not writing about the actors." RPF existed, but it was underground and it was acknowledged as a little transgressive, because you were really crossing a line there. And people enjoyed crossing that line maybe, but they still would pass the stories to their friends, they didn't publish them in zines. There was an assumption that there was a line. When everything slam- dunked the Internet, that assumption went out the window. And suddenly, people were writing stories about real actors as if they were characters with no sense that there could be a line. And I think, say, the old members of the community were looking in horror and thinking, you know, "Oh my God, they don't understand."

[Henry]: Because I think the actors who flipped out in Blake's 7 flipped out in part because they were anxious about how people perceived their sexuality as human beings, and were they showing too much of who they really were, I think there may have been some closet cases among some of those actors, it's hard to know. But the freakout was a very personal thing for them. And the fans had kept saying, "We're not writing stories about you at all. We're writing about our version of your character." And that line was very, very clear. And when writing Textual Poachers, people would slip me a Real Person Slash story every now and again, but I was absolutely told, "Don't write about this. This is the secret of the community." And I respected those secrets. There was no reason to reveal those secrets. And the taboo was there for reasons. I'd lived through the Blake's 7 blowup. I understood why people were so—why that was a very sensitive area. Then, suddenly, a decade later, this is all over the Internet, and people are starting to write about it, and other academics have published about it, and it's just like—the side of me that lived through that history, I cringe. And more and more, when this stuff comes out, and I still have this kind of reaction.

[Cynthia]:

I want to actually introduce another digression here. Because you talk about women who were stopped from participating in fandom, who were not able to, because they did not have the technological capabilities. But I think ... my relationship to fandom shifted profoundly at that point. Not because I didn't have a computer, but because I found LiveJournal to be the most boring place on the face of the planet. I don't know. I just ... The signal-to-noise ratio was very different than it was when we had face-to-face conversations or when we were writing APAs. And I know so many people who moved to LiveJournal and loved it, and spent all day talking about how their cat threw up, and ...

I just don't care. So ... I tried, honestly I tried, and I just ... I don't know. I never made LiveJournal work.

[snipped]

But I think fandom is a lifetime commitment. And it's something that our relationship shifts to over time, it never goes entirely away, but I think you can drift and come back and drift and come back without ...

References