I wrote a talk for my panel session on “The 15 fame-filled minutes of the fanzine writer” with Rachel Hills and Andrew Mueller at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on 3 June 2007. Then we decided to make it a more informal session, but a lot of the points and anecdotes I’d prepared found their way in. It was a very interesting session, though Rachel and Andrew are a lot cooler than I am.
I have to admit that when I first read the festival program I wasn’t exactly sure what this talk was about. I had to go and look up what a fanzine was. The Encylopaedia Britannica said it was an aquatic flowering plant of the genus Cabomba, which was confusing—I was sure it had something to do with writing and publishing. Then I realised I was reading the entry on fanwort, which was as close as Brittanica got.
So I went to Wikipedia, where anyone can be famous for 15 minutes—that’s how long it takes for someone to notice and delete what you’ve written about yourself. It confirmed that a fanzine is a non-professional publication produced by fans of a cultural phenomenon for the pleasure of others who share their interest. It can be shortened to zine, but that’s a bit broader, and extends to any small-circulation, non-commercial publication of original or appropriated text and images.
The first fanzines appeared in the 1930s. They were produced by science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts who weren’t getting what they wanted from “prozines” like Amazing Stories and Weird Tales. They were usually between 12 and 32 hectographed or mimeographed pages of typed or handwritten fiction, poetry, short features, letters, and reviews of other fanzines. They were mostly written by whoever put them together, with a few contributions from friends or fans without zines of their own. They sold for a couple of cents each and were sent through the mail. Some of the very old ones are now online, and it’s quite something to read these young kids writing about space seventy years ago, long before any human object had left the atmosphere.
Science fiction invented the fanzine, but music made it cool. It was punk that first latched onto the zine format, which suited its underground style perfectly. In 1977, the first issue of Flipside opened with a great quote from the Sex Pistols’ I Wanna Be Me:
let me take you down in the underground
down in the darkness
down in the print
down in the dark
where the typewriter fits
down with your pen and pad
ready to kill â€“ to make me ill.
The success of later punk zines like Cometbus and Maximumrocknroll was largely responsible for the zine boom of the 1980s and 90s. By then, maybe 20,000 had been published. Only a few had circulations over a thousand, and half of them closed down every two years. They covered just about every genre of music, writing, art and film, and then politics, sexuality and religion. They had wonderful names: Old Weird America, Death and Tortillas, This is Important, Proof I Exist, You’re Insane Honey, and Have You Seen The Dog Lately?
Considering how much time zines took to produce, how lucrative they weren’t, and how few readers they had, it’s not obvious why anyone bothered. In 1989 the zine-review zine Factsheet 5 asked its contributing zinesters why they did it. The answers were varied but fell into a few general categories, primarily: to join a network and make friends; to provide information or effect social change; to vent your opinions, discover yourself, feed your ego or maintain your sanity; or just out of habit. The most flamboyant answer came from Josh of The Dangerous Times:
If I’m god and you’re god and he’s god and she’s god, don’t you think we ought to read good magazines?
The first part is the most revealing: in the small press, everybody gets to be God. In many ways this was the Internet before there was an Internet. Mike Gunderloy, who published Factsheet 5, said this in 1990:
I know a place where … people discuss the merits of Japanese monster movies. … One where new languages are being invented and learned even as you read this. … One where the battle over where to hold science-fiction conventions is a matter of the gravest importance. One where millions of facts, near-facts, rumors, suspicions and downright lies are available to anyone who cares to look for them. The place? It’s the very small press.
In a way, every zine was all about the person, or handful of people, who produced it; but some were explicitly about those people: their everyday lives, their reflections, and their many complaints. These were called personal zines or perzines, and they were the most direct ancestors of today’s weblogs or blogs. Mike Gunderloy says:
A personal zine, or perzine, is the most intimate kind of zine. It allows the editor/writer many freedoms, not the least of which is spouting off about anything or nothing-in-particular… They can be unremittingly boring in the wrong hands.
There are obvious parallels between zines and the modern Internet, but of course there are differences. A zine is a physical object, and its design and layout are often just as important as what goes in it. Sending and receiving them through the mail is different from reading things online, it’s more intimate. And there are still plenty of old-fashioned zines around, as we saw at the Zine Fair here yesterday. Blogs might be an extension of zines and perzines in particular, but they haven’t replaced them.
If we’re talking volume, though, they put them right in the shade. There are now 70 million blogs, 120,000 new ones every day—probably six times the number of zines there ever were, new every day. 1.4 million posts every day—which isn’t all that many, considering how many blogs there are, and means that a lot of blogs are just gathering dust. Even so, if we’re not at the point where more has been blogged than was ever written in books, we can’t be far away. Malcolm Turnbull has a blog, and even his dogs have blogs, which goes to show.
There’s no measurement of how many of these blogs are any good. But Theodore Sturgeon, who wrote for prozines like Weird Tales and Astounding Science-Fiction, is thought to have said that “ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but that’s because ninety percent of everything is crud”—and that seems like a reasonable ballpark for the Internet. Like the perzine before it, a blog can be unremittingly boring. And like any kind of fanzine, there are many reasons not to write one. They take time and effort, and with 70 million of them out there, it’s not likely that anyone will read yours—except for the people you least want to, who might otherwise give you a job or go out with you.
Not far into my research on zines, I realised I’d been doing similar things all my life. When I was fourteen I stapled together reviews of computer games, so I could get hold of computer games. In my last year of high school I published one issue of an underground magazine before the school and its lawyers shut it down. And at uni I helped out with the Literary Society’s pretentious little magazine.
Then I got a few gigs writing for the street press and had a monthly column in a paper, which I thought would be the ultimate. But it wasn’t. Sometimes I didn’t get to write about what I wanted. When I did, I couldn’t always think of an idea, or I had a couple of little ideas that didn’t fit together. And of course I got things knocked back or edited, and nobody likes that.
So when blogs got simple enough for just about anyone to set up, I was right on it. Back in 2004 there were only 4 million blogs, so the chances of someone reading your stuff felt slightly higher, but they still weren’t great. And yet I loved blogging from the beginning, for all the reasons that people used to like zines: the freedom, the ego, and the illusion that what you say matters. But mostly because it keeps me writing, and I think it improves my writing and also my thinking.
In two and a half years I’ve written about a hundred things on the blog, and they average about 800 words. That’s 80,000 words, which is as long as my novel. But of course it’s nothing like a novel, unless it was a kind of unsatisfying one about a grumpy, distractible lunatic. It’s about things that have pissed me off in the newspapers, things I’ve liked on TV. Often it’s just passing on stuff I’ve found on the Internet—on other blogs. There are a few themes, like language and translation—which are what my book is about—and how certain columnists for the Fairfax papers drive me bananas. But there’s just as much that’s random, like why Lion Nathan shouldn’t be allowed to take over the Coopers Brewery or how good it was when a bookshop in San Francisco arranged all its books in order of colour. A magazine article recently described it as “seriocomic” and “free-associative”, which I thought was very generous.
But although the blog as a whole doesn’t many any sense, I try to make sure that every post kind of hangs together. I can try different voices and work on my style. Often when I don’t know exactly what I think about something, doing the research and putting it into words is the best way to get my thoughts straight; and putting it up there in public is the best way to make sure that my opinion is at least defensible. I’m not really trying to change anyone’s mind, but I am trying to come to a coherent position and present it in the best way I can.
As more and more citizens express what they think, and defend it in writing, that will change the way people understand public issues. It is easy to be wrong and misguided in your head. It is harder when the product of your mind can be criticized by others. … The writing of ideas, arguments, and criticism improves democracy. Today there are probably a couple of million blogs where such writing happens. When there are ten million, there will be something extraordinary to report.
If ninety percent of everything is crud, that still leaves us with seven million decent blogs out there, and Lessig’s dream of democracy may almost be here. Even if nobody’s reading, that’s not really the point: you’re still responding to what’s going on around you, you’re taking some kind of stand. And if you want to test your opinions against others, there are hundreds of them out there. Almost nothing goes unnoticed now, however obscure it is: everything gets commented on.
And people do come looking. If you’ve got a website, one of the most interesting things to do is to check the search phrases people have used to get there. This month people have come to my blog looking for paragraphs with apostrophes, lame jokes, watermelon connotations, boob adventure, what is a penis and what is it used for, and cats know various things. I doubt that they went away satisfied. But sometimes they come for things I have written about, like the Muhammad and Holocaust cartoons or David Hicks, and that’s kind of gratifying.
And some of the serious blogs, like Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo and MyDD, really are making a difference. They’ve had an impact on US elections, they’ve broken major stories and kept others alive after they were dropped by the mainstream media. They’re more responsive and diverse than the traditional outlets, even if they are more uneven.
Of course standalone blogs are no longer the big story on the Internet. Now we’ve got the social networking sites like MySpace, which already has well over 150 million users. Tracy Ellis made the very good point to me that like the fanzines of old, MySpace owes a lot of its popularity to music: it’s not the best designed site but it was the first one to allow musicians to share their music with old and new fans and with each other. I know that I’ve never been able to get into it, but my sisters who have a band love it and have got a lot out of it. And if you look at all the ways that users connect with each other through MySpace, Facebook, Bebo and the rest, a blog seems kind of lonely and isolated. But there’s some dignity in that, I think—a blog really is your space, you can do what you like with it. And I think it’s a good balance: you’re connected, but it’s on your terms.
So I think that blogs are an important part of the landscape now. They do make for better writing, and better writers, and maybe even better citizens—an old-fashioned idea, but it shouldn’t be.
And if you’ll all go home and read my blog, I promise I’ll read yours.