Monday, June 4, 2012

The Zine Novel: An Emerging Canon of Underground Literature

I was going through some old papers and came across the following one, which I presented at the Popular Culture Association National Conference in 2005 (and which is still written in the MLA format of the time).  Some of the ideas I adapted into an encyclopedia entry that I wrote about zines for an encyclopedia called Books and Beyond, but the paper has never been published (I moved on to other topics).  Still, I found it interesting, and perhaps you will as well!

The Zine Novel:  The Emerging Canon of Underground Literature

Within the last decade or so, the subculture surrounding zines—personal, noncommercial publications produced with the most affordable and available technology and typically opposed in some manner to mainstream culture and society—has begun to produce several novelists, including Sean Carswell, Aaron Cometbus, Jeff Gomez, Pagan Kennedy, Joe Meno, Jim Munroe, and Eddie Willson.  Initially, these zine writers turned novelists were published by major publishers, but in recent years zine novelists are avoiding major publishers in favor of either smaller, independent publishers, or self-publication.  This paper examines the characteristics of the “zine novel” and how the movement of these writers from zines to novels is affecting their work, the zine subculture, the larger literary culture, and contemporary society.

Small press literary works have a long history from revolutionary war broadsides to the little magazines of modernism.  Zines trace their direct lineage from the fanzines produced by science fiction enthusiasts in the late 1920s/early 1930s.  Spreading to other enthusiasms beyond science fiction such as rock and roll music and mixing with other dissident media such as mimeograph literary chapbooks and underground newspapers, zines became more common in the late 1970s when photocopying made mass production of a personal publication increasingly affordable and available.  The golden age of zines was perhaps the 1980s/1990s when more zines were produced than ever on innumerable subjects, zine publishers established a network of trading publications with one another, and the entire zine phenomenon attracted mainstream media attention complete with book deals (Wright 23-48).

Although most of the zine writers who received contracts with mainstream publishers during those boom years produced books about zines as a cultural phenomenon, or anthologies of work from various zines, or a collection of their own zine, at least two zine writers produced novels:  Jeff Gomez and Pagan Kennedy.  Gomez’s novel Our Noise, about the lives of indie rockers and slackers in a small college town in Virginia, emerged from a series of short stories he had published as a literary zine, or “litzine” for short, by the same name (Gomez, Satellites).  Kennedy, who turned to zine-publishing for relief from the traditional fiction-writing world, found that her first novel Spinsters, about a pair of sisters who take a roadtrip after their father’s death in the late 1960s, was envigorated by her zine publishing experience (Kennedy, ’Zine).  In addition to Gomez and Kennedy, earlier zine writers also wrote novels.  For example, Kathy Acker published a serial novel in the mail art network of the 1970s before she came to prominence as a postmodern novelist in the 1980s and Bob Black in Beneath the Underground, his look at early zine culture in the 1980s, notes that some zinesters such as Thom Metzger later published novels with mainstream presses (typically horror fiction) (Acker 8-9; Black 23-26).
By the late 1990s, more zine writers migrated to the novel.  As Black explains, “The book trend is likely to continue since, as Jacob Rabinowitz of Verlag Golem says, for the effort it takes to put out a fanzine you might as well publish books” (25).  However, perhaps because the zine writers who followed Gomez and Kennedy lacked those writers’ mainstream pedigrees (Gomez’s work was championed by novelist Bret Easton Ellis and Kennedy has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University) or were simply more firmly entrenched in the do it yourself (DIY) independent stance of zines, most of these writers were skeptical of mainstream publishing if not openly hostile to it.

In fact, two zine novelists, Joe Meno and Jim Munroe, published novels with corporate publishers earlier in their careers but chose to publish their later works independently.  Aesthetically, Meno produced the best novel of his career, Hairstyles of the Damned, about a teen growing up in Chicago during the early 1990s, by stepping away from the major publishers to an independent press for his third novel.  Given the insult to major publishers on the acknowledgments page, it’s clear that his qualitative leap had not just to do with more experience in writing novels but also with having more creative control over his work (Meno, Hairstyles).  Munroe’s decision also has to do with autonomy, but went beyond aesthetics, as he realized after his first novel was published by a major corporate publisher that he could probably make just as much if not more money publishing on his own,  and have complete control over his work and its marketing to boot (Munroe, No Media Kings).  He’s subsequently published his later novels on his own (at least in Canada, in other countries, some are licensed to larger publishing houses such as Four Walls, Eight Windows in the United States) starting with his second novel Angry Young Spaceman, a comedic science fiction novel about a human who goes to teach English on another planet.  Furthermore, Munroe has shared his experiences in self-publishing to help other writers and artists interested in striking out on their own, by organizing the Perpetual Motion Roadshow, a tour circuit throughout North America for independent artists, and by offering a wealth of resources for self-publishers on his website (

In addition to the zine novelists who have returned to their DIY roots, there are also zine novelists who skipped the mainstream experience entirely.  For example, Victor Thorn and Sean Carswell both self-published their first novels.  Thorn’s The End of Fiction is about, appropriately enough, a maverick writer who takes on the publishing industry, whereas Carswell’s Drinks for the Little Guy concerns a carpenter’s disappearance in Florida.  Both novelists then went on to found presses that published other writers (Sisyphus and Gorsky respectively).  In addition to the ultimate act of self-publishing, other zine novelists sought out independent presses to publish their novels.  For example,  Bill Brown, publisher of the zine Dream Whip, published his novel Saugus to the Sea, a hipster mystery set in Los Angeles, with independent press Smart Cookie Publishing, who in the classic zine tradition try to publish works that “present an alternative to mainstream culture” (Smart Cookie).  Indeed, these three writers are representative of many other zine novelists who moved from publishing or writing for zines to writing novels and publishing books.

Though the books by Brown, Carswell, Meno, Munroe, and Thorn look the same as any other trade paperback that a reader would find on a bookshelf in a bookstore, some zine novelists even keep their work closer in appearance to their DIY roots.  Aaron Cometbus, publisher of the long-running punk personal zine (or "perzine" as it is referred to in the zine community) Cometbus, publishes novels as regular issues of his zine.  One such novel Double Duce, about a group of punks sharing a house, was later republished in trade paperback format by Last Gasp.  Cometbus’s novels appear to be mostly autobiographical but since the roman a clef is a long tradition in literature if he wants to call it fiction, there’s no reason to quibble.

Because Cometbus is a very popular zine, it is offset printed and not photocopied such as most zines are.  However, British writer Eddie Willson keeps his novel The Black Car Leaving, about a group of friends in a small English town in the 1970s who get into punk rock, even closer to zinedom by photocopying and stapling it.  Willson turned to the zine format for his novel after frustration with traditional publishing circles led him to an epiphany that he should do what one of his characters would do and just publish it himself.  He sells the novel via mail order, in book and record shops, and, most enterprisingly, on the streets of London person to person.

Not all zine novelists keep as close to the classic zine format as Willson however.  Some zine novelists have left print for electronic publishing (as have many zine publishers in general as electronic publishing with the spread of blogs and websites has become more accessible and affordable than print for many people).  For example, Jeff Somers, an extremely prolific writer who has published the lit/perzine The Inner Swine for a decade and who published his novel Lifers, about a group of office workers turned criminals, in 2001 with Creative Arts Book Company (an independent publisher often accused of being a vanity press that went out of business in 2004), publishes some of his novels as ebooks on his website (Somers, Inner Swine).  Other zine novelists such as Mickey Hess and Crazy Carl Robinson have also published online in serial installments or as a whole (Hess; Robinson).

Whether online or in print, the swell of zine novelists in recent years has become quite notable in zine circles.  The number of zine novelists has also crested to the point where it cannot help but attract the notice of the larger literary world, a notice fueled by a conscientious assault upon the literary world in recent years by a group of zine writers known as The Underground Literary Alliance (or  ULA), of which I am a member.  The ULA formed in 2000, to promote underground writers such as zine novelists and confront the mainstream publishing industry about what the ULA views as the poor quality of contemporary literature, blamed on nepotism in the publishing industry and on the cookie-cutter poetry and prose produced by graduates of university creative writing programs (Underground Literary Alliance).  Furthermore, the ULA argues that those selfsame creative writing programs are not only elitist, attempting to professionalize writing at the expense of democratic vitality, but akin to pyramid schemes, taking in students who can only get jobs teaching creative writing, producing yet more students who can only get jobs teaching creative writing.  The ULA led by King Karl Wenclas, a longtime zinester, has been quite controversial but successful in attracting mainstream attention, much of it alarmed--an article, hysterical in more ways than one, about the group in an issue of The Believer suggested the group was akin to literary terrorists and Stalinists--but so far, aside from their zine The Slush Pile, the group has not published any novels (though individual members have), but that seems to be among their ultimate goals (Bissell).

If the ULA did publish novels, what would they be like?  Taking ten zine novels as a representative sample of the movement--Our Noise, Spinsters, Hairstyles of the Damned, Angry Young Spaceman, The End of Fiction, Drinks for the Little Guy, Saugus to the Sea, Double Duce, The Black Car Leaving, and Lifers—some characteristics of the zine novel become evident.  One is that the majority of the novels utilize a first-person perspective (nine out of the ten—only Our Noise does not), though two of the novels—Drinks for the Little Guy and The Black Car Leaving--offer a third-person perspective in addition.  This preference for first-person perspective is entirely keeping with the zine emphasis on personal communication. 

Furthermore, all of the novels deal mainly with youthful characters, usually teens or twentysomethings, typically involved in fringe culture, whether punk rock or crime.  This too is not surprising since most zines are produced by younger people, usually looking for friends one way or another, and most zines are steeped in some sort of marginal subculture opposed to the mainstream such as punk rock music.  In fact, most of the novels are set in contemporary times as well, only Spinsters and Hairstyles of the Damned take place in the past (the late 1960s and early 1990s respectively), and Angry Young Spaceman takes place in the future home to most science fiction (and only Angry Young Spaceman clearly utilizes a recognized literary genre, though both Drinks for the Little Guy and Saugus to the Sea exhibit traits of mystery novels).

In addition, the majority of the writers (nine out of ten) of the zine novels are men (Pagan Kennedy is a woman).  Most do not appear to be of minority descent aside from Gomez who is Latino and Cometbus who is Jewish.  None of the writers are known to be homosexual.  The majority of the writers appear to be straight, white, heterosexual males.  What are we to make of this?  Perhaps demographically the majority of novelists overall are still straight, white, heterosexual males, but it could also be suggested that just as the publishing industry and literary community have embraced multiculturalism (and rightly so), writers who would in past times perhaps find spaces on major publishing houses lists find those spaces filled instead with gay, minority, and women novelists.  It is also interesting to note that most of the zine novelists do appear to come from modest means (working class or middle class backgrounds), while many contemporary mainstream literary novelists appear to emerge from ivy league schools and wealthier backgrounds.  Furthermore, only four of the zine novelists (Gomez, Munroe, Somers, and Willson) live in centers of the publishing world such as New York City, London, or Toronto, and of course two of those four were published by mainstream publishers in their careers.  Thus the class and geographic factors may explain that the zine novelists lack the social connections often necessary to get published by mainstream presses, and feel some exclusion that way (clearly, the ULA feels marginalized in this manner, based on their caustic critiques of mainstream publishing being elitist).

However, the majority of the zine novelists appear happier independent anyway, taking the DIY credo of the zine world into books.  They’ve found a warm response from readers as well, at least within the zine community, where their books are reviewed in zines such as Zine World and Xerography Debt.  There are some bookstores where they feel right at home as well such as Quimby’s in Chicago, which stocks numerous zines.  Indeed, to walk into Quimby’s is to stumble upon the physical manifestation of an alternative literary canon.  Although one will find many representatives of the mainstream literary tradition there from issues of McSweeney’s to books by Franz Kafka, one finds more books by writers sadly too often ignored by the mainstream literary canon (based on anthologies of literature typically taught in college courses) such as writers from the past such as Charles Bukowski to contemporary writers such as the zine novelists.

Though the zine novelists haven’t set any sales records yet, nor will they be in consideration anytime soon for the Nobel Prize in Literature (regardless of the quality of their work, they’re simply too far under the radar at the moment), the trend of zine publishers turning novelists is likely to continue and gather strength as efforts such as the Perpetual Motion Roadshow and the Underground Literary Alliance build a larger audience of readers interested in this alternative literature.  However, unless the novelists expand their range beyond slacker lifestyles and youthful characters, it’s unlikely that they will ever attract much attention outside of the zine subculture.  However, if they expand their range and continue to develop their expertise in publishing and writing while remaining rooted in the personal, DIY, alternative roots of zine culture, they could represent a real challenge to mainstream literature and publishing.  Particularly if they keep bringing issues and voices in a spirited, if scruffy, fashion to the literary world that would be otherwise ignored, the zine novelists could rejuvenate literature for the better, and affect society through literature (clearly, the ULA’s goal).  At the moment, however, the zine novel appears to be in an early stage, but a 21st century canon of underground literature does appear to be developing.  Kennedy once wrote in her book ’Zine, about her experiences publishing a zine that  “I had finally learned how to write the Great American Underground Novel—though it ended up being a ’zine instead” (9).  Now the reverse appears to be true as zine writers start out creating zines but end up producing Great American Underground Novels instead.    

Works Cited

Acker, Kathy.  Hannibal Lector, My Father.  New York, NY:  Semiotext(e), 1991.

Bissell, Tom.  “Protesting All Fiction Writers!”  The Believer July 2003:  3-17.

Black, Bob.  Beneath the Underground.  Portland, OR:  Feral House, 1994.

Brown, Bill.  Saugus to the Sea.  Vancouver, BC:  Smart Cookie, 2001.

Carswell, Sean.  Drinks for the Little Guy.  Cocoa Beach, FL:  Gorsky Press, 1999.

Cometbus, Aaron.  Despite Everything:  A Cometbus Omnibus.  San Francisco, CA:  Last Gasp, 2002.

---.  Double Duce.  San Francisco, CA:  Last Gasp, 2003.

Gomez, Jeff.  Our Noise.  New York, NY:  Scribner, 1995.

---.  Satellites That Don’t Call Home.  6 Dec. 2004

Hess, Mickey.  Mickey Hess.  6 Dec. 2004

Kennedy, Pagan.  Spinsters.  New York, NY:  High Risk/Serpent’s Tail, 1995.

---.  ’Zine.  New York, NY:  St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995.

Meno, Joe.  Hairstyles of the Damned.  New York, NY:  Akashic/Punk Planet, 2004.

---.  How the Hula Girl Sings.  New York, NY:  ReganBooks/HarperCollins, 2001. 

---.  Tender As Hellfire.  New York, NY:  St. Martin’s, 1999.

Munroe, Jim.  Angry Young Spaceman.  New York, NY:  Four Walls Eight Windows, 2001.

---.  Everyone in Silico.  New York, NY:  Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002.

---.  Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask.  Toronto, ON:  Harper Flamingo Canada, 1998.

---.  Infinity Points.  Willowdale, ON:  Lickspittle Ventures, 1995.

---.  No Media Kings.  6 Dec. 2004

---.  An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil.  Toronto, ON:  No Media Kings, 2004.

Robinson, Crazy Carl.  “Dead in the Head Excerpts.” WredFright.Com 16 May 2004.  6 Dec. 2004

Smart Cookie Publishing. 6 Dec.2004

Somers, Jeff.  The Inner Swine.  6 Dec. 2004
---.  Lifers.  Berkeley, CA:  Creative Arts Book Company, 2001. 

Thorn, Victor.  The End of Fiction.  State College, PA:  Sisyphus Press, 2000.

Underground Literary Alliance.  ULA Fan Page.  6 Dec. 2004

Willson, Eddie.  The Black Car Leaving.  London, UK:  Self, Self, Self Publishing, 2002.

Wright, Frederick.  “From Zines to Ezines:  Electronic Publishing and the Literary Underground.” Diss. Kent State U., 2001.

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