“Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.”

Today we’re continuing our exploration of the classics of fan studies with an early work that is still regarded today as one of the most important of the field: Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins. Jenkins is generally considered to be the first scholar to also define himself as a fan, becoming the first aca-fan (academic fan) before the word had even been invented. 

The work of John Fiske, that I talked about in my last post, is often cited in Textual Poachers where the idea of viewers having an important role in the meaning-making process is very important. But Jenkins also distances himself from the old-fashioned way of studying television viewers that often overlooked fan culture and fan activities.  

The central argument of the book is that transformative fans shape their perception of a text by “poaching” elements from it. In other words, they create their own interpretation by picking and choosing meanings that fit into it. This is a collaborative process that takes place within the fan community:

Fan reading, however, is a social process through which individual interpretations are shaped and reinforced through ongoing discussions with other readers. […] For the fan, these previously “poached” meanings provide a foundation for future encounters with the fiction, shaping how it will be perceived, defining how it will be used.

This also means that the fans are resistant to the authority of the original author(s) and have the power to subvert the intended meaning and reclaim ownership of the text:

From the perspective of dominant taste, fans appear to be frighteningly out of control, undisciplined and unrepentant, rogue readers. […] Undaunted by traditional conceptions of literary and intellectual property, fans raid mass culture, claiming its materials for their own use, reworking them as the basis for their own cultural creations and social interactions.

For Jenkins, fanworks are thus inherently resistant to the dominant reading. The intentions of the author are not necessarily ignored, but they are powerless against the fans’ ability to create their own meanings. 

Though some people have later come to nuance, or even oppose, Jenkins’ ideas, his work is still considered by most to be foundational in fan studies. What do you think?

The Classics of Fan Studies: Henry Jenkins – Textual Poachers