Been there, zine that

A rash of new zine-inspired books has tattooed 20-year-olds screaming bloody sell-out.

Published June 9, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the wonder of it is how long it took. Zines have hovered on the edges of mainstream media awareness for years -- USA Today first wrote about the "zine revolution" back in 1992; the New York Times didn't get around to it until 1995 -- but up until recently attempts to exploit their cultural cachet have been half-hearted at best.

Not any more. 1997 is shaping up as the Year Zines Broke -- or, at least, the year zines broke into the mainstream publishing world, getting the attention of big publishers from HarperCollins to Henry Holt. Last year, the standard greeting among long-standing zine publishers was "So, you got a book contract yet?" Quite a few of them had, you see, and this year a wave of the resulting books have begun hitting the bookstores.

Two zine compilations have just come out: "The Factsheet Five Zine Reader," edited by Seth Friedman (Crown books); and Chip Rowe's "The Book of Zines" (Henry Holt). Paul Lukas has repurposed his zine, Beer Frame, as a book, "Inconspicuous Consumption"; Lisa ("Suckdog") Carver has transformed her charmingly detestable zine Rollerderby into a powder puff of a book called "Dancing Queen." (A piece titled "Why I want to rape Olivia Newton-John," in Rollerderby No. 13, filled with violent fantasies about the Aussie singer, becomes a largely innocuous series of reflections on the "magic" of "A Nice Girl Mixed Up With the Wrong Crowd." ) Others out or on the way: books by the editors of Ben is Dead, Pucker Up, Thrift Score, ANSWER me!

Success is always a bit of a puzzle to those who've made their reputations on the fringe, and so, predictably enough, the sudden onslaught of books has aroused a certain amount of animosity in the zine scene -- and some soul-searching among the newly successful.

Hence the topic of a recent panel at Chicago's Printers Row Book Fair: "Zine Books: The Big sell-out?" The promotional flyer for the event put the issue baldly, if a bit melodramatically: "Does the partnership between mainstream publishing houses and underground editors endanger the alternative, anti-establishment viewpoint that makes zines unique? Are these the last days of Pompeii for the zine world?"

The answer from those on the panel: Can we maybe talk about something else?

Zinesters have been debating the "sell-out" question ever since the first bored temp worker decided to pump out a few copies of a rant or two on the office copier when no one was looking. And in certain circles the question still has resonance. If you can find your way past the sex spam on alt.zines, you're bound to uncover a rant or two on the subject -- from denunciations of the "rock star chic" of the Kill Zinesters tour last year to demands that big-time zine editors stop trying to make money on their zines and instead get "real jobs" so they can "better identify with the REAL zinesters out there who work for a living and do their zines in their spare time because they have a passion for it and aren't in it to gain fame and money for something that comes from the heart." It's a strange argument: Did anyone expect Sid Vicious to hold down a day job?

That's probably why there are so many others who are as thoroughly sick of the subject as I am. "How many zine editors does it take to screw in a light bulb?" Molly Granders asked in the midst of one interminable alt.zines discussion of indie cred. "One to change the bulb, and all the rest to stand around and pissing and whining about what a sell-out he is."

But if there were any doubt that this subject has just about run its course, the Printers Row panel made it clear. The crowd onstage looked oddly prosperous for a group of zinesters; indeed, they were better dressed than most real editors I know -- though the inclusion of a sleekly suited former editor from Little, Brown did tend to skew the curve. Chip Rowe did his best to keep the discussion on course, but it quickly became clear that none of those on the panel really wanted to talk about the subject. Darby Romeo (Ben is Dead) was sarcastic; Pagan Kennedy (Pagan's Head) was defensive; Al Hoff (Thrift Score) simply found the question beside the point. She'd started Thrift Score for the hell of it, and was surprised anyone wanted to read it -- but when an editor from HarperCollins offered her a book deal and a chance to make actual money from her writing, she sure as hell wasn't going to turn it down.

"A lot of zine folks are younger -- say 18 to 25 -- and are at that stage of their life when issues like ... sell-out ... are critical," she wrote me afterwards. "When the focus of your world is just college or temp jobs or slacking it's easy to adopt such postures. Later, folks realize that such an exclusionary approach to life is limited and pointless ... Why not be paid to do what you want, what you enjoy doing, what you're good at? Isn't that everyone's dream job? The idea of refusing such an opportunity because the money comes from corporate sources seems bizarre. I should miss desired opportunities to satisfy tattooed 20-year-olds?"

And those who think anyone is making Big Money from zine books doesn't quite understand the economics of publishing. There's a good reason mainstream publishers haven't tried more aggressively to bottle the "look and feel" of the zine revolution: There's just not much money in it. There is a lot of money to be made in selling "alternative" rock, "alternative" fashion, "extreme" sports gear. But zines? No. For whatever strange reason, zines last year captured (at least temporarily) the attention of a small number of editors in big publishing houses. Those editors grabbed the best (or in some cases simply the most notorious) writers in the zine world and got them working on books. The books are now coming out. And that's the beginning and end of this particular zine revolution.

The charm of zines, after all, is not the quality of the writing or even the "edginess" of their subject matter. Contrary to the popular perception, most zines are decidedly unrevolutionary in substance and style. Most zine writing is dreadful, sloppy and self-indulgent. And while the publishing industry is certainly not a priori averse to terrible writing, there's more money to be made from terrible celebrity "authors" than on some random schmo with access to a Xerox machine. If you want to read about the miseries of work, you'd do better to try Charles Bukowski's "Post Office" or Henry Miller's "Tropic of Capricorn" than you would to read TempSlave. If you want to know about drugs, you'd do better with Thomas De Quincy than Jim Hogshire. If you want to read about serial killers, pick up Mikal Gilmore's "Shot in the Heart," his painfully searching account of the life and death of his brother Gary.

Writers of zines aren't really selling writing; they're selling an experience. They provide the same frisson of realness that's made memoirs so hot in literary circles today, only you can write to these authors -- and they'll write back. When you send off for a copy of, say, Hot Snot Pot, or Tongue Ballet in My Bunghole, you're likely to get a little note from the writer; you may become, as corny as it sounds, pen pals.

In an age in which anyone with a decent computer and a rudimentary sense of design can put out something that looks nearly as slick as most stuff on the newsstands, there's something oddly charming about the sloppy anachronism of most zines. Even the largest ones -- Factsheet Five, the zine-review bible, or Ben is Dead, with glossy covers and a circulation close to 20,000 -- are almost deliberately butt-ugly, filled with too-small type and festooned with clip-art illustrations and stolen graphics, usually badly reproduced.

The trouble with zine culture, from the point of view of mainstream publishers, is that it's just too damn labor-intensive. If someone could figure out a way to farm the dull shitwork of zinemaking out to sweatshop workers in the Philippines, then we could really talk about sell-out.

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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