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Previously in American Graffiti:

"Dr. Thompson and the Spirit of the Age" (August, 1997)
Sven Birkerts looks at Hunter S. Thompson's The Proud Highway and wonders whatever happened to sex, drugs, and the New Journalism. Plus, a multimedia interview with Hunter S. Thompson, scourge of presidents, the press, and the politically correct.

"Thank You for Coming and La La La" (June, 1997) by James Surowiecki
"Dismissing [the band] Pavement is only possible if one mistakes irony for cynicism and self-awareness for camp."

More American Graffiti features in Atlantic Unbound.

The View from the Cheap Seats
Low-tech, hyper-personal, and fiercely independent, the zine subculture has a few lessons for the digital nation

by Charles Hutchinson

March 18, 1998

Crap Hound.
Dish Washer.
Farm Pulp.
Fat Girl.
Fat! So?
Temp Slave.

We're talking zines, those smart-mouthed homemade journals that have sprouted up like a million blades of grass in college towns and urban enclaves, staid suburbs and remote hamlets -- wherever, in fact, there's a will and a photocopier.

The zine tradition is some sixty years old, with origins in the science-fiction and comic-book fan worlds of the 1930s. But it took the punk-rock scene of the late seventies, with its do-it-yourself imperative, to give the medium a second wind. Just as punk was a reaction to the slick professionalism of commercial rock, the producers of zines likewise made a virtue out of amateurism, overturning whatever they knew about design and journalistic standards and ignoring the rest.

What most distinguishes zines from the mainstream press -- not to mention such traditions as the political pamphlet, the literary quarterly, and the underground newspaper -- is that they are a hyper-personal medium. Though the ostensible focus of any given zine might be sex, work, gender, or any of the endless mutations of popular culture, the degree to which the subject matter is filtered through an individual personality is enough to make even the most forthcoming New Journalist or confessional memoirist blush. (There's even a wholly autobiographical zine subgenre called the "perzine.")

While this results in a fair amount of BS, readers of zines are exposed to an impressive range of human experience. Sometimes we're confronted with disquieting intimacies, like L Girl's ongoing chronicle of a life with lupus, or the weirdly prosaic details of one man's friendship with a suspected serial killer in Camping with the Zodiac. Other zines move in the opposite direction, documenting the commonplace. 1544 West Grace records the comings and goings in Larry Roth's apartment building and neighborhood, while 20 Bus documents Kelli Williams's regular rides on number twenty-something San Francisco Muni Buses. Everyday consumer life, the realm of "inconspicuous consumption," is wryly examined in Paul Lukas's Beer Frame. Death and taxes, the great inevitables, are perhaps underrepresented in the realm of zines, but the topic of work has inspired a hearty tradition of zine writing: Temp Slave, McJob, and Drive Thru read like dispatches from the front lines of the service economy -- raw, angry, and out-for-blood. In some cases social identity is noisily under construction, as in Fat Girl: The Zine for Fat Dykes and the Women Who Want Them, and Mazel-Tov Cocktail, devoted to one woman's attempts to merge an Orthodox upbringing with a punk-rock sensibility.

Even when zine writers are covering the well-trod turf of pop culture what we get is a refreshing contrast to all the publicity-driven features in the national press. Here is the view from the cheap seats, where fans come before stars. Zine fan-writing is by turns impertinent, prurient, and emotionally honest, revealing the messy ways that we interact with the pop zeitgeist.

zinebk1 picture Looking back over the past twenty years, one realizes that punk (or whatever they're calling it these days) and zines have continued up a similar path. Both have carved out social, informational, and distributional networks outside the conventional channels. Both still define themselves in contradistinction to whatever's flowing through the mainstream. And both, after years of neglect, have become attractive to the corporate barons of the entertainment industry.

In 1997 several major publishing houses banked on talent from the zine world, bringing out nearly a dozen titles by some of the most canny figures in the subculture. The flurry of commercial interest brought to mind the events of 1991, when Nirvana shot up the charts and big-time record labels got busy signing up all the grunge rockers they could find. And while the publishing world has yet to see a comparable success, it's clear that for many zines the days of cozy insulation may be numbered. Predictably, this has generated a fair amount of angst in the alt.zines newsgroup and in the various zines that are either strictly about the zine culture or that in some way self-consciously acknowledge their status as zines, and the shop-worn debates about selling out (what are the risks? the payoffs?) are getting played out for the umpteenth time. The anxieties may be premature. After all, those book publishers cut deals with only the most market-savvy of zine-makers. Just what makes the majority of zines special may not be so easily translated to the marketplace.

"In an era marked by the rapid centralization of corporate media, zines are independent and localized..."
--Stephen Duncombe, Notes from Underground. Read a brief excerpt.
A timely new critical study, Stephen Duncombe's Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture (1997), throws some light on the current state of zines and what's at stake. Duncombe, a professor of American Studies and a zine-maker himself, locates zines within a wider bohemian tradition, and maps out both the potential and the limits of their cultural radicalism. They are unique, he writes, because their ultra-subjective, do-it-yourself ethic makes them "repositories of nonalienated creation and media for nonalienating communication." That may seem a pretty hefty claim to make about such humble products -- after all, it's a cliché of our age that capitalism distorts all facets of social intercourse, including the relation we have with works of art and other communications media. Duncombe cites an astute argument made by Walter Benjamin in a 1934 essay, "The Author as Producer," in which the German critic pointed out that viewers are alienated from even the most knowing and politically engaged works of art. If even the most subversive statements can be repackaged aesthetically and consumed passively as entertainment, Benjamin asserted, the only way that socially conscious art can have an impact is by encouraging viewers to become collaborators and producers of their own art. Of course, participatory culture, like that other quaint notion, participatory democracy, is a hard sell in this age of mass media, when the real message is "let us entertain you." Today, when Corporate America has so fully colonized leisure time, creating your own entertainment has come to seem like a radical gesture.

zinebk2 picture Larry-Bob Roberts, publisher of the zine Holy Titclamps, says, "The message of a zine is 'do your own zine.' The message of a glossy magazine is 'buy this magazine and don't think for yourself.'" He may be right, but the irony is that Roberts is quoted in The Factsheet Five Zine Reader, one of the new anthologies of zine writing brought to you by a publishing conglomerate -- in this case Three Rivers Press, an imprint of Crown Publishing, which is a division of Random House, a wholly owned subsidiary of ... well, you get the picture. Both the Reader and the Book of Zines, a competing anthology from Henry Holt, have a curiously bland, homogenized feel to them: illustrated with generically hip clip-art graphics, they read like Gen-X versions of Reader's Digest. Though compiled from several dozen zines, and representing more subcultures than you'll find on the average college campus, what's missing is the frisson, the sense of discovery. Most of all, one misses the energy that these articles would have had in their original context, where everything bore the mark of a single, idiosyncratic mind. (To be sure, some zines are collectively produced, and a few even boast mastheads that would rival a medium sized commercial publication. But, generally speaking, zines are solitary endeavors.)

"When I think of the typical citizen of this world, I see in my mind Christine Boarts, the 24-year-old editor of Slug & Lettuce."
--Stephen Duncombe, Notes from Underground. Read a brief excerpt.
Just who is likely to read a magazine about, say, eraser carvings or sock monkeys? And where, pray tell, would they find such publications? I'll leave the first question to your imagination, but the answer to the second is the aforementioned Factsheet Five, the great social magnet of all the far-flung perzines, femzines, queerzines, and fanzines. This directory-review was founded back in 1982 by a sci-fi fanziner named Mike Gunderloy. A natural proselytizer, Gunderloy was writing to all his friends about the exciting little magazines he kept discovering. Soon it made more sense just to publish a newsletter and tell everybody -- especially the zine-makers themselves, who were largely unaware of one another. From the beginning, according to Duncombe, Factsheet Five was a self-consciously political gesture, a determined effort to harness potential sources of power. Gunderloy hoped that "by connecting up the various people who were exercising their First Amendment rights on a small non-profit scale [possibly] they could learn from each other and this might help generate a larger alternative community." Zine-making was a way of "getting people off their butts and [doing] something."

In the spirit of inclusivity Gunderloy made it a policy to review every zine that came his way and to send a copy of FF5 in return. Thus began the trade ritual, one of the great bonding mechanisms of the community, still largely in force (though no longer at FF5). Gunderloy resisted organizing his collections into categories, and instead forced readers to wade through all the reviews to find what they wanted. If cumbersome and inefficient, this policy also managed to pry open more than a few eyes and minds. In the words of one enthusiastic reader, "Christians, gays, artists, occultists, bowlers, historians, prisoners, diarists. I can't think of a place where one can be exposed to a wider range of thought." Like a low-tech precursor to the Internet, FF5 was slowly plugging the underground into the communications grid.

Today, sixteen years and two editors later, the FF5 mission continues -- although the current editor, Seth Friedman, who describes himself as an "anarchist capitalist," has made the magazine more reader-friendly (categories are back) and, Duncombe charges, has placed the needs of zine-consumers above zine-producers (The Factsheet Five Reader mentioned above is a case in point). Nevertheless, the world of zines remains a thriving hodge-podge of heterodoxies. In describing this state of affairs Duncombe is reminded of a comment by the leftist critic Raymond Williams, who argued, Duncombe writes, that "the strongest weapon in the arsenal of democracy is communication -- not as it is but as it should be: with multiple origins and open channels, and with its goal not to dominate, but to achieve 'active reception and living response.'"

That's a claim that's already been made for another medium, of course -- the one that brought you to this page. In addition to whatever else it is, the Web is zine culture's doppelganger, the j-pegged, java-addled upgrade of a dead-tree, cut-and-paste prototype. As HTML and Photoshop become as accessible as the photocopier, you can expect zines previously published only on paper to move online in droves, and very likely reshape themselves in the Web's image. Even so, don't count on the demise of print zines anytime soon. For one thing, as Seth Friedman suggests in the FF5 Reader, if commercial publications become increasingly Web-oriented, print zines may take on a rarefied air, where handicraft and the one-of-a kind, physical aura of art objects predominate, as they do already in some essentially visual zines.

Although there are countless e-zines and zine-like homepages dotting cyberspace, it seems most paper zines and their readers carry out their business as if they were still living in those halcyon days of 1993, blissfully ignorant of browser wars, streaming audio, and high-bandwidth modems. True, it may not be long before we're all bumper-to-bumper on the info turnpike, but it's important to acknowledge that zines in some crucial sense paved the way. For all its egalitarian promise, the Web remains accessible to a minority of Americans, generally those in the upper economic and technological tiers of society. By contrast, print zines thrive in a medium open to a much larger population, regardless of means and abililties. Paper, pen, copy machine, stamps, and a need to vent -- it doesn't get much more basic than that. Zine-makers have used the rudimentary technology at hand to make themselves heard -- upwards of 50,000 individual titles have criss-crossed the country during the past twenty years. As it turns out, zines may have a few things to teach the digital nation about the ideal of a decentralized, democratic medium.

Charles Hutchinson is a writer based in New York City.

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