By Robert Runté
If you ask a university professor why they write, once you cut through the usual pompous rhetoric about serving humanity and furthering the great cause of knowledge, the bottom line always comes down to “publish or perish”. At the end of each year, every professor has to submit a list of everything they published that year to the Chair of their Department. If the list is too slim, their career might be in serious trouble. Whether a professor gets a raise or a promotion, or even gets to keep the job, all depends on their having more titles on their list than the next guy. So if you were to ask me why I put so much of my time and energy into getting published in various academic journals, to be honest, I would have to say it was because I don’t have any choice. I have to do it.
But the fact is, my academic writing doesn’t bring me the same level of satisfaction I get from zine publishing. I get a lot more enjoyment out of writing for Broken Pencil than I do writing for some academic journal, even though I probably won’t be able to count Broken Pencil on my list of academic publishing for the year. Though I will certainly be giving it a shot. (More on that later.) This attitude completely mystifies many of my colleagues, who can’t understand why I would ‘waste’ my time writing articles which won’t ‘count’. They are even more confused when I tell them I have published over 150 issues of my own zine. “Why,”
they ask, “would you put all that time and energy into zine publishing, when you could have put it into furthering your academic career?”
Good question. Why do people publish zines? Why take the time, expense, and energy to write or edit or publish when you don’t have to? When it’s not part of the job; when there are no obvious rewards or payoffs?
WHY PUBLISH A ZINE?
It is not, as it happens, for any of the reasons people usually think you’re doing it for. I’ve never once made money on a zine, for example, or even come close to breaking even. But you would be amazed at the number of people who think I’m making some kind of killing out of sales of my zine. “Why else would you do it?” they ask.
The more sophisticated reader who better understands the economics of zine publishing might think it’s about ego; about getting that one great review. Okay, I’ll admit that might be a part of it. More than once I’ve found myself “ego-scanning” another zine; that is, quickly skimming the entire issue to see if my name is mentioned before actually settling down to read the zine through properly. But is the occasional accolade really enough reinforcement to carry a zine editor through 145 issues? Let me tell you, publishing seems like fun and a good idea until about half way through the second issue, when it suddenly turns into work. By the fourth issue, you could be guaranteed the Governor General’s Award if you just finish typing it up, and still it wouldn’t be enough.
And what about the bad reviews? Sooner or later some reviewer is going to prick the balloon of one’s ever expanding ego. I myself have been on the receiving end of some blistering criticism. After being burned in effigy in various review columns, you wonder if it’s really worth it just to be subject to public ridicule.
Of course, rejection can also be a source of inspiration. Many zines originate in the writer’s frustration with having their submissions to mainstream newspapers and magazines rejected. “If those idiots won’t publish my stuff, I’ll start my own damn zine!” But that still leaves the question of why it matters so much to see one’s words in print. What is it that drives us to pour our time, energy, money, and commitment into publishing our opinions, where others are content to make the same points in barroom conversation?
A partial answer might be that zine publishing acts as both a creative outlet and a means of reaching a larger audience than can be found in our immediate circle of friends. Many of the zine editors I have questioned in the past have cited one of these two reasons as their primary motive. But I do not find either explanation completely satisfactory. There are plenty of other potential creative outlets, many of which carry larger monetary or career rewards; and there are other ways of gathering an audience — I myself enjoy the captive audience provided by teaching at a university, for example. Although “creative outlet” and “potential audience” remain important considerations, neither can explain the unique attraction of zine (and more recently, web) publishing.
THE ZEN OF COMEDY
For those of us whose publishing is primarily focused on personal essays, I think part of the explanation can be found in the Zen of Comedy: The principle that nothing so bad can happen to you that it can’t later be turned into a funny anecdote. When applied to zine publishing, this principle provides three life-changing benefits:
First, everything that happens to a zine editor becomes fodder for their writing. Even the most mundane visit to the dentist or annoying encounter with a bureaucratic clerk is magically transmuted into heroic journeys, righteous battles, and gleeful victories, the better to entertain one’s readers. Consequently, whereas others often seem to go through life as mere sleepwalkers, the personal essayist remains sharply attuned to his/her environment, ever alert to the detail of plot and character, the possibilities of imagery and metaphor, as we seek to turn our lives into life stories. In imposing a narrative structure on our lives, we heighten our attention to foreshadowing and significance and are often able to anticipate decisions and to find meaning in situations that others may experience as unexpected or soul-destroying. As a reader I can almost always see that next plot twist coming. Similarly, as I write my life, a lot of things become clearer than they might otherwise have been.
Second, knowing that whatever happens you’re going to get a good story out of it often helps to place one’s current difficulties into perspective. I learned this principle from Karl Johanson, co-editor of Under the Ozone Hole. Listening to his hilarious account of traveling through the mountains to attend the convention where I first met him, I interrupted to ask him why his misadventures hadn’t led him to turn back. “Are you kidding?” he responded. “Even as I watched our van roll down the hill and over the cliff, I knew it would make a great story, and I’d be able to come here and keep you lot in stitches for an hour. And nobody was hurt, so what the hell? And when you stop to think about it, the way it happened, it really was very funny!”
As a zine editor, you always do stop to think about it, to see the humor in any situation, more or less as it is happening. Karl is one of the most laid back and together people I know, and I can’t help thinking that this is due at least in part to his also being one of the best satirists in zineland. Ever since meeting Karl, I’ve realized that the bastards could never get me down again, because as a humorist with my own zine, sweet revenge is always but a pen stroke away.
Third, in editing one’s autobiography one is in large measure editing one’s real life. Which is to say that once you’ve written up some troublesome incident as an amusing anecdote, there is a strong tendency to remember the anecdote rather than the actual incident. Remember that boring job that sucked the life out of you for the eighteen months you stood it? Out of that whole period there were maybe two funny things that happened — but if those were the two incidents you wrote up in your zine, then ten years from now chances are that’s what you’d remember about that job. And since you are your memories, you can effectively edit your life to make it way better than it actually was.
Thus, the humourist is able to find meaning in the meaningless day to day trivia of modern life; can adopt the stance of ironic observer where others would caste themselves as victim; and instead of the alienation that has become the norm in our society, is afforded a Zen-like detachment.
And all that comes out of the act of writing itself. With the subsequent publication and distribution of the zine to an audience, one collects the added bonus of being able to create a community of readers and correspondents. Who doesn’t feel better about their life when given a sympathetic ear? As a zine publisher, I have a ready-made audience, a veritable convention of barmen to listen patiently and perhaps offer the occasional “Got that right, buddy!” As five or ten or fifty of my readers respond with relevant anecdotes of their own, and as I excerpt the best of these for publication in the next letters column of my zine, we create the community, identity, and meaning that might otherwise be lacking in our everyday lives.
THE ZEN OF ALCHEMY
Of course, not every zine editor is a humorist, and not everything that happens to you is funny or can be made funny. Many zines are about serious social, political, and economic issues. I believe that these editors are driven by a different principle: Instead of the Zen of Comedy, they are motivated by the Zen of Alchemy — the transformation of base metals into gold. These are the writers who transmute personal pain into public action, who write passionately about injustice to incite reform, who confront the darkness to reclaim it for the light.
As with the Zen of Comedy, the Zen of Alchemy provides three life-changing benefits.
First, just as the personal humourist sees narrative possibility and discovers meaning where others merely experience events, the serious zine writer seeks to place events within a larger context, to understand the forces that shape our world and our lives. In analyzing one’s own or others’ experiences in terms of economic, social, or political structures, one can often identify meaning and significance out of what had first appeared as mere random awfulness. Sure, sometimes shit just happens; but most of the time, we’re being screwed. Whether it is the result of sexism, or racism, or class bias, whether we’re being pushed around by big business, or government, or some heartless bureaucracy, we often find ourselves holding the short end of the stick. And sometimes it helps to realize that it is not our fault, and that we are not alone.
Second, just as the personal essayist is able to step back and see the potential humor in a situation even as it is still developing, the serious writer gains perspective by viewing events through the lens of a particular critique. The very act of interpretation allows the writer (or reader) to take a step back from the personal, to see their situation as an illustration of the larger structures, forces, or trends of their analysis. Such a perspective both distances the writer from the unpleasantness of the immediate situation, and, paradoxically, brings him/her closer to understanding the meaning of those events. If the unexamined life is not worth living, then the serious zine writer has the advantage that s/he is always examining everything from a critical perspective.
And third, just as the personal humourist can edit his/her own life through the selectivity of their written memoirs, the serious writer can achieve a personal catharsis by becoming pro-active. The Zen of Alchemy transmutes negative experience into something positive by allowing the writer to take action. This is extremely powerful therapy. It is not just that writing well is the best revenge; or that by helping others avoid similar pitfalls, some good may come of our misadventures; it is also that by taking up the pen, the writer moves from the stance of victim to activist.
Again, all these benefits accrue to the writer regardless of whether they are ever published. Simply being able to place their own lives in perspective, to understand the larger implications of what is going on around them, or to achieve a personal catharsis, is enough. (Therapists often recommend writing cranky letters to ex-lovers — or former employers, or government bureaucrats, or anyone else against whom one has acquired a store of unresolved anger — and then ceremonially burning the completed letters as a means of achieving closure.) As with the humorist, however, getting published provides the social activist with the added bonus of creating a community of writers and readers, but here the community created by the zine serves at least one of three possible purposes:
First, and most obvious, the zine may act as a focal point for social action. Many zine publishers actually expect to change the world, or at least their corner of it. At the very least, zine publication promotes an interchange between contributors that may deepen the analytical skills and broaden the critical understanding of the participants. If large-scale social change is beyond the writer’s immediate reach, at least there is satisfaction in affecting the audience at an individual level. By sharing one’s stories, the serious writer may provide others with new insights into their own situations, and perhaps inspire them to take action in their own lives.
Second, since many serious writers challenge status quo beliefs, a supportive community of writers and readers may be required to achieve the critical mass necessary to evolve and maintain an alternative view point. Could feminism, for example, have achieved as thorough-going a critique of the patriarchal assumptions and structures underlying our society without an active feminist press? It is not just that one needs a forum for articles rejected by the mainstream press; it’s that the status quo often takes on the force of “common sense”, becomes something that everyone “just knows”, and consequently becomes as difficult to question as gravity or the rising of the sun. Constantly bombarded by the status quo messages implicit in media programming and ads, in conversation with neighbors and colleagues, in the assumptions of our institutions and laws, it becomes increasingly difficult to insist that we’re right and that everybody else is wrong. Thus, to keep the faith, to resist conformity, and to repeatedly question the consensus, one needs the reinforcement of at least a few like-minded correspondents. The further one moves from consensus reality, the greater the need for a zine-based community.
Third, the zine-based community provides a reference group within which one can achieve stature. Given that most people these days are stuck in unrewarding McJobs, live in alienating urban sprawl where they neither know nor care to meet their neighbors, the only place left in which to make a name for oneself is often in one’s social subculture – usually considered in ‘mainstream’ society as a ‘hobby’ group. A zine’s readership may constitute a very small pond, but publication does provide one the opportunity to be a big frog within that self-contained community. Becoming a known writer in the underground press may not be much, but for most of us, it’s the best offer going.
Which brings us to the last, though possibly largest, category in my theories of the motivations for zine publishing: the enthusiast.
THE ZEN OF FANDOM
For many zine publishers, the guiding principle is neither the Zen of Comedy nor the Zen of Alchemy, but what (for the sake of a consistent nomenclature) we might call the Zen of Fandom. Pick any topic from hedgehogs to barbed wire fencing, and there is someone out there who cares about it so much, their enthusiasm spontaneously overflows as fan clubs, fanzines, and web pages. These writers want to share their love of their subject with, well, anyone who will listen. The goal is to spread the faith, to convince us all of the inherent importance and pleasure found in their particular topic.
Although the significance of, say, bottle cap collecting, may be hard for the rest of us to appreciate, their standing within their community often becomes the enthusiast’s core identity. As they develop experience, expertise, and an expanding (or at least loyal) readership, they advance along a more or less well defined career path from novice, to well known fan, to big name writer/editor, to (where available) professional. (Did you know, for example, there are two competing professional newsletters for barbed wire collectors?) But making money is hardly the point of the exercise (though a nice bonus if you can get it); it’s that by becoming the world’s leading expert on something they have made themselves unique and special and notable.
To the non-enthusiast, the time, energy, and money spent on this hobby activity would be better directed to one’s real life career, and the fan publisher’s efforts are often dismissed by family and friends with a condescending “Get a life”. But what these critics fail to recognize is that there are no real world careers left. Whereas we used to be able to take our identities from our work, most people today are stuck in meaningless dead-end jobs. Nobody’s core identity could be based on working at Starbucks’ or selling shoes in the mall or even in cranking out obscure academic treatises for the academic press; that’s just what you have to do to pay the bills and kill time until you can sell your novel or get that big film break. Our real identities have to be based on something other than our working lives, because for most people these days, our working lives are no life at all. As traditional vocation-based careers disappear in advanced capitalist societies, more and more people will inevitably turn to their avocations, their hobby activities, to find meaning and fulfillment. Being the most knowledgeable Trekkie or garage band critic may not carry much status in our culture, but then, most people are so alienated from mainstream culture, that is no longer a relevant criterion. Who cares what some anonymous neighbor thinks? We probably wouldn’t like them anyway. What’s important is what our peers thinks of us, and increasingly, people are turning to their hobby community as their reference group.
Let me take an obvious, if negative example: the private militias that are sprouting up everywhere in the US. Most of these idiots couldn’t get a job at Wal-Mart, but driving the pickup down to the meadow every second weekend gives them the opportunity to be part of a community that takes them at least semi-seriously. The potential for promotion through the ranks, long vanished in the real world, is as powerful a recruitment factor as the opportunity to shoot things; and for those few who are passably literate, there is fame (and perhaps fortune) to be had as a spokesperson/newsletter editor in the movement. In other words, the increasingly alienated and disenfranchised working class white American male, a victim of forces completely beyond his understanding, has no option but to invent the make believe world of the militias to be able to recapture any semblance of his former glory.
By comparison, editing a SF or garage band newsletter looks pretty sophisticated and constructive, but the motivations are roughly parallel: as our working lives become irrelevant, we are driven to publish by the need to define ourselves as something other than just another anonymous consumer.
THE ZEN OF PUBLISHING
We publish because we are driven by the Zen of Comedy, the Zen of Alchemy, or the Zen of Fandom. (Some overlap between the three Zens is also possible.) Where mass media has silenced the majority, zine publishing gives the individual control and voice; where mass society turns us into indistinguishable clones of every other suburbanite, zine publishing allows us individuality, creativity and a self worthy of reflection. In an age of alienation, the zine’s readership provides a subculture in which identity and community — and therefore, meaning — are still possible.
Of course, zine publishing is just a way to stave off the terrors of boredom and emptiness we face in our everyday lives. The challenge becomes, then, to find some way to bridge the gap between the hobbies that provide us meaning, and the jobs/passive pastimes that deny us meaning. I haven’t found a way to actually accomplish this, but maybe this article will be a start.
You see, in my own career as an academic, I’ve realized that no one actually reads any of the articles on my annual list of publishing credits. There are just too many faculty writing too many articles in too many different journals from too many divergent fields for any Department Chair or Dean to keep up with it all. The best they can do is count the number of titles on your list and maybe see if the title sounds like you are doing something impressive.
So I figure I’ll start sneaking some of my zine articles into the mix. After all, “A Sociological Analysis of Motivation in Avocational Youth Subcultures” sounds pretty official, doesn’t it? As a sociologist, anything I say has to fit under “sociological analysis”. “Avocational Subculture”
is a term I invented to describe certain types of hobby groups, mostly because it sounds more impressive than “hobby groups”. I had to throw in “Youth” because I teach in an Education faculty, so the Dean likes me to focus on research related to the schools. I’m admittedly stretching things a bit describing zine publishing as a ‘youth’ subculture, but I figure at least some of Broken Pencil’s readers are probably still in school — or maybe started reading zines while still in school. Or better yet, dropped out of school! Deans of Education are always suckers for research on drop outs, so I could write this up on my annual report as “a project on the paradoxical phenomenon of personal publishing by persons previously perceived as perilously pre-literate.” For all my Dean knows, Broken Pencil sounds like the title of some new journal devoted to research on dropouts. By adding that subtitle to my article, I might be able to score an academic credit for something I actually wanted to write for a change. With a little creativity and luck, maybe one day we’ll able to spend our time exploring who we are, as opposed to who we’re supposed to be.
Robert Runté is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Lethbridge. He has published over 145 zines (winning two Aurora Awards in the process) including The Monthly Monthly, New Canadian Fandom, and his personalzine, I’m Not Boring You, Am I? He currently edits the NCF Guide to Canadian Science Fiction and Fandom, available on line at . He would be interested in hearing your reasons for writing or publishing at [email protected]
A Sociological Analysis of Motivation in Youth Avocational Subcultures