Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture

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Academic Commentary
Title: Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture
Commentator: Henry Jenkins
Date(s): 1992
Medium: book
Fandom: media fandom
External Links:
original edition of Textual Poachers, cover art by Jean Kluge: "The Quest" [1] Henry Jenkins writes that it "was constructed around a wonderful piece of Star Trek fan art by Jean Kluge, which my wife, Cynthia, had bought for me as a gift at MediaWest and which had been close at hand throughout the process of drafting the book. [2]
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Contents

Textual Poachers, written by aca-fan Henry Jenkins, was massively influential in the development of fan studies and coincidentally introduced many new fans to media fandom.[3] The book was unusual in that it celebrated fandom instead of pathologizing it. Though, being pre-internet, somewhat outdated now in its focus on old-skool slash fandom, it remains a sympathetic and insightful book about media fans and our creative community, and features chapters about fanac like fanfic, fan art, vidding, and filk. One of Jean Kluge's ST:TNG drawings was used as the cover for the book.

The book's focus is on media fans as an "interpretive community" that "poaches" media texts in order to subvert their intended meaning and reclaim ownership of popular culture from massive corporate interests. In Jenkins' words, the book "documents a group insistent on making meaning from materials others have characterized as trivial and worthless."

cover of the 2012 edition -- "One of the challenges of producing this edition was the struggle to come up with the right approach to the cover design. To be honest, it was very hard for me to let go of the original cover... But, in the end, we were able to produce a cover I am really very proud of — in collaboration with a contemporary fan artist who has chosen to go here by the name of GLM.... The selection of these figures was a challenge: we needed characters that were likely to be recognized by non-fan readers but which also had a rich role in the history of fan culture, and the press was a little nervous about certain rights holders who had a reputation for being a bit litigious in going after infringers (so no Disney, no Harry Potter…). So this is what we came up with... The book also includes a detailed artist’s statement in which GLM explains the process of photographic manipulation through which she generated the core image. The finish image, she tells us, involved 200 layers and 242MB of data. [4]

Glimpses of Fannish History

In his discussion of various fan activities, Jenkins used examples of then-current fandoms and fannish moments that now offer a glimpse into history:

Regarding the Art on the 2012 Edition

From the book:
My hopes for the new cover were that it should represent, as the original did, the work of a fan artist and it should employ an aesthetic that grows out of the fan community’s own modes of cultural production; that it should represent a transformative use of existing source material; and that it should suggest the dynamic nature of fandom, which has absorbed new content and embraced new forms of production since the original book was published…. This cover embodies the new aesthetic of photo-manipulation, which remains controversial among some fans but which has also represented a clear demonstration of the way that fans turn borrowed materials into resource for their own collective expression. While the original cover was based on a pre-existing fan work, this new cover was commissioned from and developed in conceptual collaboration with the artist. As with the original, we wanted to suggest the play with alternative universes, which is a staple of fan fiction. We chose four characters — Spock, Darth Vader, Buffy and Xena — who represented four key fantoms that span the past two decades, and we positioned them in an alternative reality fantasy that allowed us the chance to imagine interactions between them. Keep in mind that Jean Kluge’s original was an alternative universe version of Star Trek: The Next Generation read through the lens of Arthurian romance. These characters are meant to stand in for the hundreds of fictional figures who have inspired fan devotion and creativity since Textual Poachers first appeared.

Reactions and Reviews

Textual Poachers could have been even dryer than it was, but Henry Jenkins wanted the book's subject matter to be able to read the book as well as the academics. I'm hoping he'll do another book. [5]
I just finished Textual Poachers and enjoyed the book very much. It's a good complement to Enterprising Women. In this reviewer's opinion, TP addresses Slash the better of the two books, while EW is best on the Mary Sue question and the sociology/politics of developing fandoms. TP seems to place fandom more securely in greater society, too. The author is quite comfortable as a fan himself, while EW seems to be a bit hesitant when confronting some aspect of fandom that seems - er - unusual to her. I definitely think they should be read as a pair; I certainly wish someone would gather together all the articles on fandom that they refer to in their texts. [6]
the art, by Jean Kluge, on the cover of the zine Sub Space Chatter
I have recently found a fanzine-related topic worth discussing: a book, issued July 31,1992, called Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins. Don't be misled by the title—this is a highly sympathetic and insightful discussion about fandom and fanzines. I must warn potential readers, however, that this is a book for mature individuals—and not simply because one chapter covers slash (K/S), and not just because the author occasionally quotes sources using four-letter words. The language is unabashedly college-level English, written in academic style, and there is a detachment from the subject matter, which, in a couple of places, I found shocking. Beyond those drawbacks, however, there is a lot of fascinating material in this book. The title comes from an analogy made in academia about producers and consumers of popular culture. The movie, television, and book industries manufacture a text (in our case, Star Trek), and "the text becomes a cultural weapon, a private hunting preserve." The author goes on to elaborate:

Like the poachers of old, fans operate from a position of marginality and social weakness. Like other popular readers, fans lack direct access to the means of commercial cultural production and have only the most limited resources with which to influence the entertainment industry's decisions. Fans must beg with the networks to keep their favorite shows on the air, must lobby producers to provide desired plot developments, or to protect the integrity of favorite characters. Within the cultural economy, fans are peasants, not proprietors, a recognition which must contextualize our celebration of strategies of popular resistance."

Much in this book is made of the struggle between fans and producers for possession of the text. Part of the strategy fans use to mold the text to their own needs is the production of fanzines, and a lot of the book is dedicated to the analysis of fan publications. Another substantial portion of the book deals with the discussions fans have with each other through letterzines and the impact of these discussions upon fans as well as producers. Most of all, the author thoroughly debunks the myth that fans are "cultural dupes, social misfits, and mindless consumers," and instead presents fans as mature, intelligent, socially responsible individuals. This book also presents a concrete answer to the eternal question, "Why is Star Trek attractive to so many people?" Although this book covers many "media" fandoms, not just Star Trek (for instance, there is an entire section of Beauty and the Beast fandom as well as Alien Nation fandom), Star Trek is well covered, and many of the general points apply to fans of ST and ST:TNG as well as fans of other shows... I would be interested in reading the reaction of other fans to this book. [7]
'Enterprising Women' brought back a lot of memories, both good and bad, about my early years in fandom. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in a women's persecutive of media fandom. If you would like to read a book that takes a wider selection of media fandom, you might want to read Textual Poachers. This book looks at everything from fanzines to filk and covers more genres than 'Enterprising Women' did. These two books make good companion pieces to each other. A note, however. Both of these books look at slash fiction in detail, with 'Poachers' using explicit excerpts. If you are offended by slash, you might want to skip those chapters. [8]
... every fan should get a hold of a copy of Textual Poachers. (I love that title!) Every time one of my political friends bugs me about bring into popular culture, and fandom, I trot it out to show them that, unlike most TV viewers, fandom is made up of people who are active critical consumers, who work to improve their favored product. [9]
As a teenager, I'd read Star Trek: The New Voyages and had adored my Star Trek Foto novels. But even by 1992, I'd never heard of this thing called fandom. Then the newly-published book, "Textual Poachers," arrived at the university library where I work. I was intrigued by the cover but even more intrigued by the contents. As I paged through it and arrived at the slash section, I felt my face start to burn. Kirk and Spock? Starsky and Hutch? Kissing? And, like, doing other... stuff? I looked up and studied my co-workers. Could they read my mind? Did they know that I was horrified... wait, wait, no... not horrified, rather very, very intrigued by this possibility? It took me another two months to work up the courage to officially check the book out on my library card so I could read it in the privacy of my own home. When I went up to the library stacks to find it, I discovered someone had stolen it. Rats. [10]
Are you a textual poacher? Anyone of us who has attempted a Star Trek poem, story or filk song qualifies to be called a textual poacher according to Henry Jenkins. A textual poacher is someone who takes a TEXT, in our case Star Trek, and fashions it to fit his or her image of what the characters and story should be, so we POACH the TEXT from the original. Just where we English/Aussie fans fit into this academic exploration of television fandom is a bit ambiguous as it largely concerns fandom in the United States. Jenkins is careful to distance himself from other academic examinations of fandom; in fact, by being a fan himself he has had to work hard at NOT identifying too closely with any particular fan group or text. However, it is that distance which annoys; a book of this nature will be used as a reference in years to come, but the people who want to read it may not do so because its slant, language and presentation alienates them completely. As a person without a media/communications/academic background I found it hard going but did manage to finish it completely. In fact, this was made easier by the last two chapters being less awkward; Jenkins actually relaxes with the video and filk song sections because his fascination with both mediums takes over and he becomes more fannish than observer. There are few errors; he gets most things right, if in a somewhat dry and structured way. Most of the quotations, songs, story examples and illustrations come from a small group of well established fans, those who are both articulate and comfortable within fandom and its various sub-groupings. It is a pity then to find that he uses that 1989 Saturday Night Live 'Get a Life' sketch for the introductory chapter. Academia may understand but J.Q. Citizen may not; straight away he places understanding of fandom in a tenuous position. However, having seen this particular sketch, in fact all of that programme, I know why it was cited. There are aspects in the sketch that are true and it could be said that fandom can be a millstone around any actor's neck. What I deplore is the fact that Jenkins didn't chose to contrast this particular Saturday Night Live sketch with the earlier one starring Elliot Gould, but then that particular one was about the programme, not its fans and therefore not useful for this study. By its very nature, this book will end up on some sociology/media studies list and I expect it will cause much discussion among those quick enough to grasp its implications and meaning. As much as I am interested in stories, character, discussion, song and video centered around favourite television programmes, this book also leads me to say: "What's the use of having a hobby if all it's going to lead to is dissection, microscopical analysis and dissertations by budding Ph.Ds." No thanks, think I'll join the Space Marines. Despite this gloomy prediction, I did find the book interesting, yet at £35 a copy it's not exactly "must buy' material. Try your library. [11]
Has anybody read Henry Jenkins' book Textual Poachers? Jenkins is an Assistant Professor at MIT, and a fan. He examines fandom as a valid social phenomena, and constructs arguments for fans' motivations that take us well beyond the "geek" and "nerd" stage. There's an interesting chapter on Slash, entitled, "Welcome, Captain Kirk, to the world of bi-sexuality.' Other chapters cover filks, songtapes, and general fan writing. I think Jenkins comes very close to understanding what fandom is about, although I disagree with some of his conclusions, and the emphasis he places on some motivations. For instance, I don't consciously write K/S because I'm striving to create a new version of sexual politics, or to "thumb my nose at the world." Both those motivations are present, somewhere way down deep in my psyche, but really I write because I love these guys and their world, and writing is the best way that I can share that world. Jenkins talks a lot about the difference between male and female fans, and the fact that the slash relationship we write about is really an idealized version of what women wish relationships were like, but he misses the point. Feelings are what its all about. At least, in ay opinion. I'd be interested in hearing from other fans who've read this book. There was quite a discussion of it and other academic works as Revelcon; there was a great deal of resentment of this invasion and analysis of fandom, and a fear that we could lose something very special. I have mixed feelings on the subject. It would be nice to understand what makes me tick, but I wouldn't give up fandom for the galaxy. [12]
... about the Jenkins' book: The other one is Enterprising Women by Camille Bacon-Smith. This is, also, at times, massively off the mark. Despite the intriguing title, the bulk of the text concerns fandoms other than K/S, and at one point, the author refers to slash as "dangerous"! Evidently, she talked to some fans and writers who were pretty far out in left field, who needed a BIG reality check! Textual Poachers shares some similar problems. A treatise needs to be written, perhaps from the "inside", more in-depth interviews done with a larger segment of fans, writers and publishers. But, still, I share [name redacted's] doubtful feelings about having this thing analyzed AT ALL. While it's sort of fun seeing such a book in the mainstream bookstore, lending it an ersatz legitimacy, in truth, I don't want too close of an examination that might destroy the "magic" of K/S. I'd rather DO IT, than READ about IT. I'd rather curl with a good zine than analyze it to death. I'd rather discuss K/S with fellow K/Sers than read some report by an outsider (or maybe "outworlder"?) Sharing it with others is a lot different from explaining it. [13]
I think this would be a fantastic introduction to fandom for non-fans. While Jenkins himself is a fan, he is writing for an academic audience, and an academic audience that has often underestimated and misestimated the power of fandom. In Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers, Jenkins talks about how critics of video games often assume that children are empty vessels we’re pouring content into, and you can see the beginning of that argument here. Jenkins is mostly arguing against Michel de Certeau and Theodore Adorno, who don’t view fannish activities as creative. But his writing is straightforward, warm, and very accessible; there’s nothing obfuscating about it. For instance, in one chapter about how certain texts attract fandoms over others, Jenkins uses The Velveteen Rabbit to explain how texts become real to their fans. He lets fans speak for themselves when necessary—in the chapter that analyzes Beauty and the Beast fandom, Jenkins is careful to point out that some fans have different views on what happened in the conflict over the third season that divided the fandom. [14]
"I read this after people on the list reccomended it, and found it very interesting. It's a heavy read, but Jenkins makes a lot of good points. I feel it is an accurate view of fandom (he's a fan himself, and loves Blake's 7 among other series) His key theme is that fans don't need to "Get a life", because they are making their own life thank you very

much. He sees fandom as a creative process, not just a passive absorbtion of whatever the media produce. Fans interpret and mould their understanding to suit their own purposes. Fandom is a culture in its own right. He also has a very even handed view of slash. "Slash does, however, constitute a significant genre within fan publishing and may be fandom's most original

contribution to the field of popular literature."[15]
"My impression of people's reactions to Jenkins' book is that it is more sympathetic to fandom. There have been reports that he quoted without permission. Jenkins flatly denies this. I tend to believe Jenkins. At least one fan I know liked the book (apart from the necessarily dry academic format) but bristled at the title, "Textual Poachers," as if fans were doing something wrong. Fans have internalized the underground data piracy mentality so thoroughly that the notion of copyright inviolacy simply no longer registers (unless someone bootlegs their fanzines, of course). Jenkins' own aesthetic is so populist that he actually approves of the audience appropriating corporate culture and making it their own, so the word "poacher" in context isn't meant as disapproval, but some fans will take offense wherever they can."[16]
"Just finished rereading textual poachers, there are some parts I feel I do not necessarily agree with any more but I am happy this book exists and happy that it bought so much discussion after it. Yay for this book." (a fan writes in 2013).[17]
When I read Textual Poachers, I was surprised to learn there were fandoms for shows that weren't SF. I'd never heard of The Professionals, but the references to h/c in episodes like DiaG sounded like something I'd get a lot of guilty pleasure from. (I was right.) I asked friends for help in finding episodes to watch, and soon I was welcomed into the great fannish community. I loved it. Both Pros and fandom... I haven't read Textual Poachers since, and I really should. I owe it a lot! [18]
I urge all of you to get a copy. It's a bit academic in spots (I still don't know what a meta-text is) but it's a well thought out, researched, fan-friendly portrait of our sub-culture. Mr. Jenkins has taken care to gain permission and feedback from every fan mentioned or quoted, including yours truly. This book would no doubt provide fodder for many discussions in SE. [19]

References

  1. see the original art here
  2. Confessions of an Aca-Fan, November 26, 2012
  3. In 2001, Jenkins noted, "Textual Poachers has now been passed from generation to generation of fans, it’s one of the things you read when you want to be integrated into the fan community. They say, ‘you want to be a fan? Read this…’ It’s become a sort of ‘how to’ book." (Intensities interview at Console-ing Passions, University of Bristol, July 7, 2001. pdf)
  4. from Confessions of an Aca-Fan, posted November 26, 2012
  5. from Southern Enclave #37
  6. comments by Maggie Nowakowska in Southern Enclave #37
  7. from The Trekzine Times v.2 n.2/3
  8. from Comlink #53
  9. from Multi-Species Medicine #26 (April 1996)
  10. personal memory of Mrs. Potato Head 13:23, 24 September 2010 (UTC)
  11. from Star Trek Action Group #115
  12. from The LOC Connection #52
  13. from The LOC Connection #53
  14. an excerpt from The Literary Omnivore, posted March 12, 2012
  15. Subject: B7 RPG etc post to Lysator by Judith P. dated May 9, 1994.
  16. Subject: Re: Indoctrination and other baggage... post to Lysator by Micky D. dated May 10, 1994.
  17. Just Finished Reading Textual Poachers tumblr post by charlottekath dated Dec 2013; reference link.
  18. 2011 comments at How did you get into Pros fandom?
  19. comment by Tim Blaes, who said he picked up a flyer for it at MediaWest, in Southern Enclave #33
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