Monthly Archives: November 2014

[Reading] Textual Poachers

Jenkins, H. (2013) Textual poachers: Television fans and participatory culture (Updated twentieth anniversary edition), Routledge

First published in 1992, Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers is the other big fandom ethnography, next to Camille Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women. Jenkins is slightly less clear about his methodology and the period his research covers than Bacon-Smith, but broadly speaking his snapshot of fandom is slightly more recent than that presented in Enterprising Women. Jenkins’ fandom is clearly on the cusp of breaking out onto the internet, and he does on a couple of occasions discuss online interactions and their impact.

Textual Poachers starts out on the defensive. Jenkins seeks to rehabilitate the image of the fan, epitomised in popular discourse by the Saturday Night Live sketch Get a life: people preoccupied with media or celebrities to the point of obsession, uncritical consumers whose passion for the object of their fandom has no value or redeeming qualities, and who struggle to form connections or relationships with others. He boldly positions himself as a fan and an insider of the media fandom community – a trick he, in my view, pulls off only partially as he fails to address the obstacle of his own gender in a women-dominated space.

Jenkins’ defence of fandom builds on Michel de Certeau’s concept of textual poaching: the idea that readers borrow elements from mass culture texts and rearrange them to make new meanings that better fit their concerns and their lives. He casts fandom as active, and fannish activities as a site of resistance to mass culture. He traces fannish activities from consumption of and in-depth engagement with the text, through fan critique and criticism of texts, to the various kinds of transformative works fans produce. Where de Certeau’s poaching is always ephemeral and temporary, Jenkins sees in fans’ transformative works a solidity and permanence given to this kind of poached culture.

Jenkins points out that fans develop a range tools and frameworks for analysing mass culture texts. They may be different to the tools and frameworks used by academics for the same purpose, but they are no less sophisticated or systematic. It is interesting that he identifies distinct, possibly gendered, approaches to fan interpretation of texts. Broadly speaking, he argues that men tend to focus on the text itself and extratextual knowledge about the author(s), the production process, etc. They seek explanations for mysteries or gaps in the text within it, in the Word of God, or in external factors such as ratings or actors leaving a show. Women, on the other hand, tend to focus on the text but also bring in personal emotional experience, while generally disregarding information about creators and production. Women tend to read a text as if set in an existing and larger universe that we can only see glimpses of in the actual text, and they tend to extrapolate from these glimpses with the addition of personal experience to account for gaps or interpret mysteries. Building on Elizabeth Segel’s ideas of gendered reading in childhood, Jenkins further suggests that women are particularly good at appropriating texts not necessarily aimed at them by rejecting the authority of the creator in favour of engaging in speculation and centering elements of interest to them which may be marginal in the original text.

Once, of course, you have started started such speculation and rearranging of elements in your own head, there is nothing stopping you from writing it down – or making a video, or writing a song about it. And thus, transformative fan works are born. (Or course, transformative work has a much longer history than modern fanfiction, one disrupted by Enlightenment ideas of authorship, originality and copyright legislation, but that’s a separate discussion.) Jenkins documents the fanzine publishing “industry” and the conflicts within it – conflicts between the desire to become more “professional” while still enabling inexperienced writers to get their work published or keeping costs down; conflicts between respecting a fanfic author or zine editor’s control over their work and making work as widely accessible as possible; and between the desire for financial reward and for acceptance within a community which broadly speaking operates a gift economy. Many of the conflicts Jenkins describes are driven by fandom’s tenuous relationship with copyright, and while technology has made some of them obsolete, many of them still play out in slightly different forms in fandom today. Of the early fandom scholars, I believe Jenkins is the one who comes closest to really understanding the impact of copyright on the fan community, but I would have wished for a more extensive discussion of this in Textual Poachers.

My first brush with fanfiction was with the anthologies of stories set in her Darkover universe which Marion Zimmer Bradley edited and published. However, as soon as I moved beyond that creator-sanctioned haven and out into the wilderness of the internet, one thing became apparent very quickly: this tings we were doing was probably not strictly speaking legal. I grew up in a fandom where every story was preceded by a copyright disclaimer assuring rightsholders that the author was not making any money and imploring them not to sue. It is easy to forget this in a world where the Organisation for Transformative Works’ legal team measures their success not only as “not sued yet” but actively lobbies for copyright exemptions and intervenes in other legal cases, but fandom’s origins as a community on the wrong side of copyright have been profoundly formative not just for individuals but for fan practices and the community as a whole. This is something I actually want to look at more closely in my research, but my gut feel is that this explicit marginality is one of the factors that enable fandom to tackle difficult issues in our fiction that commercial culture simply can’t.

In his discussion of fan writing, Jenkins dedicates a full chapter (delightfully titled “Welcome to bisexuality, Captain Kirk”) to slash. I am going to defer my main discussion of this to another post for reasons which will become apparent but I will note here that I found his engagement with the genre significantly more genuine and credible than Camille Bacon-Smith’s, even though I do not fully agree with his analysis.

A chapter I had planned to skim but ended up devouring was the one on filk. Jenkins puts filk in a folk culture framework which really helps crystallise some of the political potential of textual poaching. He rejects conservative myths of folk culture harking back to an idyllic neverwhere, and resituates folk cultural practices firmly in their context as acts of resistance. He combines this with the textual poaching concept to show how basing a resistive folk culture on imagery from mass culture makes it accessible to a wider audience and allows for the building of community beyond place. While this effect may be most easily visible in filk, I believe it is at play just as much in other fannish practices and works, particularly fanfiction, and this is something I am planning to explore in my research.

Textual Poachers is an overtly political project. Over the years, Jenkins has remarked that perhaps his early view of fans was overly optimistic and focused too much on fan practices as resistance, at the expense of exploring the the contradictions within fans’ relationships with source products. After all, as much as we prod them and poke them and poach from them and transform them, there is something that draws us to the shows, films and books we engage with, and in our own special way we do love them. That Jenkins doesn’t shy away from the political potential of fandom is, however, refreshing. Where Bacon-Smith goes to great lengths to deny that there is anything even remotely political about fandom, Jenkins puts our politics – our resistance – front and centre. To what extent a textual poaching model can be abstracted from fans and applied to wider audiences is still contested territory – and I must admit something I am only marginally interested in. The political potential of fandom, on the other hand, is something I intend to explore in a lot more depth in my research.

Quotes, notable passages, further reading

It is worth noting that the 20th anniversary edition of Textual Poachers comes with some very valuable additional material, including a teaching guide and a 35-page interview with Jenkins looking at the development of fan studies since the original publication of the book. If you want a quick guide to the field, you could do a lot worse than that.

Finally, this is the quote from Textual Poachers that broke me, because it cut way too close to home in terms of the promises that the television shows of my youth made and failed to keep:

The characters in these programs devote their lives to goals worth pursuing and share their hours with friends who care for them more than life itself. (p 282)

[Reading] Enterprising Women

Bacon-Smith, C. (1992) Enterprising women: Television fandom and the creation of popular myth, University of Pennsylvania Press

Camille Bacon-Smith’s book is a highly ambitious project, setting out to produce a comprehensive ethnography of the media fandom community. It covers research conducted mostly in the 1980s and is in many ways a useful time capsule of what fandom looked like before the Cambrian explosion that was the adoption by the community of digital communications. The book is split into three parts, each seeking to take us deeper into fandom until we reach what Bacon-Smith terms “the heart of the community”. A high-level introduction to media fandom, fanzines, fanfiction and material art is followed by a more in-depth look into community initiation practices, different forms of cultural output and the different ways of reading and constructing meaning that fans engage in. The final part looks at risk and identity in the context of what Bacon-Smith identifies as two key subgenres of fanfiction: slash and hurt/comfort.

A few things strike me about this book. After spending half my life with at least one foot in fandom and a significant chunk of that hiding from both rightsholders and the attention of the public, the discovery that there are at least a handful of academics out there who take fandom seriously is somewhat exhilarating; at the same time, being studied by someone who firmly takes an outsider position is a strange feeling. Bacon-Smith has been criticised for her positioning as “the ethnographer”, both by other academics and by the fandom community. There are passages where she comes dangerously close to passing judgement on the community she is studying, and the backlash against that is understandable. Her clear and visible identification throughout her field work as an outsider has almost certainly also had an effect on the levels of trust the participants in her study were willing to extend her and therefore the quality of the data she was able to get. I can understand this approach from a research ethics point of view, but arguably it hasn’t produced either the most ethical or most accurate finished product.

For me, this raises questions about the right and ethical approach to my own research. There are other approaches to fan studies which I am hoping to explore over the coming weeks and months. I feel a strong sense of accountability to a community which has given me so much insight and support over the years, and at the same time a desire to produce high-quality original research. It is still early days, but this has been a concern at the forefront of my mind since the inception of this project and a thread which I hope will continue to guide me over the next three years.

I think it is partly Bacon-Smith’s outsider position and partly her expectation to find a single “heart” that has led her down the wrong path in that endeavour. She identifies hurt/comfort stories as the heart of fandom, dismissing slash as a curve ball participants threw at her to misdirect her away from a more vulnerable, painful place. She sees, incorrectly I believe, slash and hurt/comfort stories as completely separate and independent of each other and, correctly, identifies that many h/c stories originate in the deep personal pain of the author. Here is where her analysis falls down:

But why do women write about the very things they fear? What benefit can be gained from stories that graphically describe pain and suffering, that offer comfort after the fact but do not postulate, do not reconstruct, a society free of deliberate torture? (p. 278)

Bacon-Smith comes close to partial answers to some of these questions but never really finds a complete and satisfactory one. She does, in her own way, explain that writing about our pain gives us power over it. What I think she misses is the crucial role that slash (and other subgenres) play as the flip side of writing about pain. In her haste to dismiss slash writers as single, celibate, divorced or never having experienced a relationship with a man, and extremely obese (p. 247, I kid you not), what Bacon-Smith misses is that slash often is precisely that reconstructed world free of pain, where relationships are between equals.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the book is the persistent denial that there is anything political about fandom. This is especially baffling given the language Bacon-Smith uses to describe fans and our activities. She consistently uses references to oppression and resistance, to power and silencing, and even once (quoting a fan) to terrorism. Through all that, however, runs the refrain of “fandom is not political”. I am not going to speculate on the reasons why she reaches this conclusion, and I’m going to leave in-depth counterarguments for my thesis, but I will say that giving a name to your oppression and imagining a world without it are deeply political acts.

The analysis in Enterprising Women that I found most compelling was that of the Mary Sue phenomenon. Bacon-Smith sees the Mary Sue as an attempt by writers to reconcile the many impossible demands that social expectations of womanhood and femininity put on them, while at the same time retaining an element of agency for themselves.

For the fan woman of any age, her Mary Sue story is her attempt, if only in print, to experience that rite of passage from the active child to the passive woman who sacrifices her selfhood to win the prince. (p. 101)

On the general absence of female characters in fanfiction, Bacon-Smith theorises that writing about women does not give fan writers sufficient distance from which to examine and reimagine their own condition. I would add to this that the dearth of well-written women in commercial fiction and media, and particularly of relationships between women, is another significant factor, on which I plan to expand in another post.

A final aspect of the book which I found fascinating was the time capsule effect. The community Bacon-Smith describes is one of predominantly middle-class, white American women over the age of 25 or 30. With fanzines costing up to $25 each, the expensive video equipment needed to even just access the source materials, and the travel required to meet and get to know other fans, these were the people who could afford fandom in the 1970s and 80s. Digital distribution has driven the cost of access to both source and fan materials to virtually zero, made source products available instantaneously and simultaneously anywhere in the world, and made finding fandom and a global community only a Google search away. The contrast is striking.

I had, briefly, one foot in the pre-digital fandom world. The first time I watched Season 4 of Babylon 5 was on tapes which were the copy of a copy of a copy of an NTSC to PAL conversion. They were black and white, with chunks of static across the bottom which meant I never knew what Marcus said to Ivanova in Minbari. My first exposure to fanfiction (and to delicious, delicious slash!) was through the anthologies Marion Zimmer Bradley edited for her Darkover universe. But as a teenager in a small Austrian town I would never have been able to get involved in fandom had I not been saved by the modem, and reading Enterprising Women has been a useful reminder of that.

Quotes, notable passages, further reading

Results of the AO3 demographic survey (2013/14)

Fanlore page about Enterprising Women

Further reading:

Gilligan, C. (1982) In a different voice, Harvard University Press. Psychological development of women; arguing against notion that women reached a lower level of moral development than men.

Russ, J. (1983) How to suppress women’s writing, University of Texas Press.

Lichtenberg, J., Marshak, S., Winston, J. (1975) Star Trek Lives! Bantam Books. Early fan history effort documenting Star Trek fandom.

Three  early-ish Star Trek het stories exploring power, relationships and consent:

Lorrah, J. (1976) Night of the Twin Moons

Wenk, B. (1980) One Way Mirror

Welling, L. (1978) The Displaced

And finally, my favourite quote from Enterprising Women, simply because it captures the nature of fandom so beautifully:

To speak of the commercial arm of the fan community is rather like discussing the dog subgroup of a particularly impressive tail. From the outside the comparison sounds inappropriate, but to insiders, only a few aspects of the commercial empire surrounding their favourite source products have any relevance. (p.31)