Review: Textual Poachers

Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins

After finishing my last read, I looked at my stack of library books, sighed, and declared, “Bring me Jenkins!”. Nothing perks me up or fascinates me like media studies and particularly Henry Jenkins’ even-handed writings on the subject, and I know it’s time for me to start focusing on the books I can only get at my college library. (Oh, I don’t want to think about graduating. I’m ready and not ready, you know?) So I ventured into the stacks and came out clutching Textual Poachers, apparently the first person to check it out since 1996.

Textual Poachers opens by analyzing the oft-cited Saturday Night Live skit about Star Trek fans. While the skit asks fans to “get a life”, they clearly already have one—a rich and fulfilling way of reading, interacting, and producing texts. While producers and the mainstream might view fans as mindless consumers, they’re anything but, devoting their time and energy to saving the shows they love, even when they rail against developments in them. After all, “fandom celebrates not exceptional texts, but exceptional readings” (284). Welcome to the world of fandom.

On Sunday night, I spent two and a half hours typing up this book’s entry in my commonplace book. I had to break into another thing of Post-It notes just to mark it all down. I spent much of this book in a haze of recognition and a weird kind of envy for not being involved sooner. (But then again, I started at nine in a family where this was utterly alien, so I actually did make a good head start. Calm yourself down, me, you’re embarrassing me.) I will admit to choking up a bit when Jenkins discusses fans flocking to first releases, to ensure that they see that text with people who care as much as they do about it and will be vocal about it. I mention this (as I did for Harry, a History and Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers) because it hits me in a place that it won’t hit non-fans. (Jenkins refers to them as “mundanes”, per fandom practices—you know how I feel about words with built-in judgment.)

But 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.

Jenkins also looks at the political implications of fandom, especially the way media fandom (as differentiated from science fiction fandom, which predates it) is an avenue for women. While academic reading privileges certain readings, especially “masculine” readings that seek out a strong authorial voice, fannish readings focus on more “feminine” readings that focus on the coherent world of a text. (Jenkins, of course, points out that these categories are socialized, not hardwired.) Fanfiction, fanvideos, and other methods of fannish output allow the fans to play with the text to explore issues; even women who don’t explicitly identify as feminist can and have used this as an avenue to explore feminist issues. The same goes for slash, which Jenkins argues allows straight women to explore the possibility of a relationship between two equals. While a lot of what Jenkins writes about remains true to this day, I think his examination of slash is dated. It was true then, yes, but, as Brit Mandelo points out in her review of Joanna Russ’ Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts, the fact that actual queer fans (myself included) are much more represented means that slash is no longer (or no longer solely) a site for straight women to hash out their issues. Things have changed, and I’m eager to see if Jenkins has any writing on that.

Bottom line: For fans, a glorious exploration of fandom through an academic lens. For non-fans, a well-written and warm introduction to fandom and fannish practices. May we forever be renegade readers.

I rented this book from my college library.

  • Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

8 thoughts on “Review: Textual Poachers

  1. I really must read this, or something in the same vein. I’ve read a lot of media criticism that relates to my pet shows (mostly Buffy and Angel, with a little Firefly and Veronica Mars thrown in for good measure), but little that really gets into fandom.

    • I’ve seen those! Ben Bella actually publishes a lot of those… but few seem to come wholly from fandom (although a few essays will be). This is a great primer, although it’s harder to get a hold of, but I always recommend Jenkins.

  2. Sounds wonderful! I don’t think I’ve read anything that specifically talks about fandom — I’m dying to read Harry, a History, but it’s always checked out at my library! They claim to have it in at the library but it’s never on the shelves. Maybe I’ll have better luck with this one.

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