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Zines are non-commercial, small-circulation publications which are produced and distributed by their creators. Generally the zine writer is not a professional writer, nor are they being paid for their efforts, so who exactly is producing zines and why? The basic appeal of creating these home-made ‘magazines’ is easy to see the opportunity to write whatever you want and tap into a willing audience, with no restrictions. The drawbacks are just as obvious the time it takes to produce the zine as well as the costs involved. Many zine writers barely break even on their expenses.
Fredric Wertham, a New York psychiatrist, became interested in the fanzine phenomenon in the early 40s, while researching the links between psychology and literature. His work at first focused on the negative effects that popular culture could potentially have on an individual. He became well respected on the subject and invited to give evidence before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in the 1950s. By the 1970s, he began to shift his attention to comic fandom subcultures. He tried to find out why people were publishing their own zines when they could instead be reading the mainstream commercial magazines. Instead of criticizing their work, he became intrigued by the fanzine founders by their lack of commercial motivation and their celebration of the amateur writer. He later published these findings in his book The World of Fanzines1 and is credited as one of the first people to be interested in the psychology of zine writing2 so the man who warned America of the dangers of popular culture became one of the first academics to be intrigued by underground publishing. In his book Wertham explains that: ‘Zines give a voice to the everyday anonymous person. The basic idea is that someone sits down, writes, collects, draws or edits a bunch of stuff they are interested in or care deeply about, photocopies or prints up some copies of it and distributes it. The zine creating process is a direct one, remaining under the writer’s control at all times. Perhaps its outstanding facet is that it exists without any outside interference, without any control from above, without any censorship, without any supervision or manipulation. This is no mere formal matter; it goes to the heart of what fanzines are.’
Zine writers are constantly asked why they write their zine. If they have something to say, why don’t they submit their work to mainstream magazines and newspapers? The reasons are as varied as the zines they produce. Some aim to relieve a sense of boredom or loneliness. Some want to feel part of a wider community. Some want to discuss their personal obsessions. Others want to validate their lives and make people understand their way of thinking. There are also those who use zines as a means of distributing information and resources to others.
Money is rarely a motivation to start writing a zine, as they are frequently created on a small budget and sold for little or no profit. In reality, as many zine writers will not break even on their printing costs, it seems odd that they are willing to invest the time and money into these paper projects.However, after the initial idea to begin a zine, the process can become addictive. The writer has an outlet to express their ideas and experiences the enjoyment of physically designing the layout of the zine and putting together the finished product.
Since their beginnings in the sci-fi community of the 30s, zines have been traded amongst writers and it continues to be common practice for them to swap zines. This enables both parties involved to avoid commercial dealings and idealistically reverts the process back to a time when exchange of goods was more common than monetary exchange. A code of etiquette has therefore developed that involves sending trades, writing personal letters and reviewing each other’s zines in your own. The zine is viewed differently from a commercial product. It resembles a gift more than a product, as it typically bypasses the profit motive. The flow of zines, and the personal network that has developed around them, resembles human contact. The zine is passed physically through the network connecting people together, sharing the sense of solidarity in their interest in the underground of independent culture.
Zine writing has thus become a culture in itself. Zine writers write about other zines and often feature interviews with their writers. Writers such as Aaron Cometbus and Dishwasher Pete (see later) have become celebrities in the zine world.
As many zines document what is going on in a particular scene and with their origins as ‘fanzines’ being produced by self-proclaimed fans, the identity of the zine-maker can be problematic. Many may not want to be restricted to this role of fan. Particularly in the music scene, they may not want those who are producing the culture that they are writing about to view them simply as consumers who then rave about them in print. This is one of the problems of the zine experience, for writers to be taken seriously as producers in their own right.
Working away from a corporate culture, which divides the population into carefully researched demographics, zine writers form their own networks around their identities. Many writers create their zines as a conscious reaction against a consumerist society. They adopt the DIY principle that you should create your own cultural experience. It is this message that they pass on to their readers that you can create your own space. Unlike the message of mass media, which is to encourage people to consume, the zine encourages people to take part and produce something for themselves.
The zine is run differently from a big commercial magazine, as the creators have the freedom of being able to produce what they what and when they want to without the pressure of deadlines. There is little censorship, and contributors make the most of this freedom. Zines come and go, they can appear for just one issue and then disappear. They are a temporal form of media, which isn’t aimed at filling a commercially viable niche in the market but features whatever the writer feels like writing about. Sometimes, this can prove to be so popular that issue after issue is produced for decades.
As with many underground cultures there is a sense of possessiveness about zine culture. If a zine makes the transition into a mainstream magazine then it is often criticized, viewed with suspicion or seen as ‘selling out.’ Many feel that zines which do this are betraying the zine’s amateur status, one of the things that is so celebrated in the zine world.
But is the ethos of the zine really concerned with producing an amateur form of media? It is interesting to look at the origins of the word ‘amateur’ which, although often carrying negative connotations, is derived from the Latin word for ‘lover’. These little known origins remind us that the amateur approach can be a more personal form of communication and does not have to be equated with sloppiness, an unprofessional production or a lack of talent.
Zine writers often write about their own personal take on the world and address social and political issues. It is also clear that earlier self-published newspapers and magazines of the 60s were indeed a very important form of journalism, one which contrasted the restrictive media of the time. But can the same be said of the zines which have been published since the emergence of punk at the end of the 70s, that mix serious journalism with the zine format? Many people have argued the valid point that zine writers cannot be said to be journalists because they are not professionals and are not being commissioned to produce their work. However, some zine writing is so articulate that it could easily stand alongside professional journalism. Not all zine contributors are happy to produce work in this style, there are those who work hard to set themselves apart from the mainstream. As the independent newspapers of the 60s worked hard to create an alternative to the established papers, many zines have attempted to provide a radically different alternative to mainstream magazines.
Though it is to an extent true that zines are open to everyone anyone can publish their own work and anyone can read it this is slightly over-idealistic. The thousands of zines currently available have content as diverse as sci-fi, music, personal confessions and political rants. However, the writers often fit a particular profile.
Many zine writers are employed in temporary or seemingly menial jobs where they feel little satisfaction. Some writers use this as material for their zine: writers like Tyler Starr, who passes time at factory jobs by jotting down stories from his co-workers and sketching his surroundings for his zine, The Buck in the Field. He captures the lives of people working with no job satisfaction who are unable to leave due to financial constraints. Zine writers like Starr react against their experiences at work by writing zines a creative outlet necessary to alleviate boredom.
There are countless exceptions but the zine tends to be written by a middle class, white population in their teens and early twenties. Many zine writers have challenged this assumption and produced radically different publications or have tackled the subject directly in print, but having the time and freedom to put together a zine is a privilege which many in this demographic do not question.
Zines can be criticized as being an elitist form of media. You can only have access to the information if you know exactly where to look, by talking to the right people or happening across a flyer or a zine being sold at a gig. Many people may miss out due to a complete lack of publicity and very small print runs. But the zine appears to be the perfect participatory cultural experience. Mainstream media can be, to some extent, bypassed and those involved in the scene can document their own history.
For many, the focus of zine writing is celebrating their position outside of the mainstream, having unusual interests, being a geek, rejecting the status quo. In his documentation of zine culture in Notes from Underground Zines and The Politics of Alternative Culture, Steve Duncombe claims: ‘They [zine writers] celebrate the everyperson in a world of celebrity, losers in a society that rewards the best and brightest.’3 It is this definition that best describes the position of the zine writers.