by Jackie Wang
December 15, 2010
Karen Lillis is currently serializing a memoir about working at St. Mark’s Bookshop called Bagging The Beats At Midnight: Confessions of an Indie Bookstore Clerk over at Undie Press. Her recent installment, titled “People Who Led Me to Self-Publishing,” discusses the inspiring and energetic figures she encountered, people who took artistic matters into their own hands by making sloppy, lo-fi xeroxed booklets that were sold on a special consignment rack at St. Mark’s. Karen reminds us that writers such as Anais Nin, William Blake, Walt Whitman, Kathy Acker, Gertrude Stein, and others all self-published at one point. There’s a certain magic about it—the immediacy of it, the openness, the way any wing nut or fanatic or obsessive outsider can be given an equal hearing on the consignment rack. No filtration or editorial process—just print, copy, distribute.
In a recent email I sent to Al Burian, I wrote that I was interested in bridging the gap between the small press/indie publishing world and the self-publishing/zine world. Al is kind of a cult figure in the self-publishing world, but is probably virtually unknown to small press and indie lit readers (although he did get some kind of honorable mention in The Best American Nonrequired Reading series one year). I’ve been reading his zines since I was 13 and I’m still totally obsessed with them. Since Al Burian was my favorite zine writer, over the years I let everyone I knew borrow his writings—teachers, friends, family. Some instantly became obsessive fans of his work as well. Since last month Al’s out-of-print collection of early zines, titled Burn Collector, is finally back in print after being republished by PM Press. (You should check it out—I’ve probably read it more times than any other book in my life.) Al’s zine Burn Collector and others like his inspired me to start self-publishing when I was 15.
In high school I would use the crappy copy machine at the grocery store I worked at to make little booklets of my writings and art. I would mostly give the shoddy cut-and-paste booklets to friends and trade with other people through the mail. I still do this kind of stuff—although now I use InDesign for my layouts and buy nice paper. Even in college I was running something like a covert small-scale printing operation out of the library of an art museum that I interned at. I helped friends—including HTMLGIANT’s Alec Niedenthal—make their chapbooks, band flyers, and noise music tape inserts using printers and a fancy color copy machine that I had the code for. Alec would also sometimes catch me leaving my ridiculous anonymous pamphlets around. The whole thing was joyful and exciting, even if it was kind of naïve and sloppy.
Dennis Cooper is another writer who started out self-publishing. In the 70s, he started a zine called Little Caesar, which was “a literary journal with an anarchist, punk rock spirit.” Now we worship Dennis Cooper (I do, at least). But we can easily forget Dennis’s DIY origins, like we forget about the way countless other cutting edge writers get their start: by putting it out there themselves. Regarding the zines he made in the 70s, Dennis said: “…the literary magazines, whether they were gay or not, were sort of hostile to Little Caesar when it was around. I gave it out free to most people. Stores wouldn’t carry it because it was too weird so I would stuff it under my shirt and put it in the bookstores.”
In regards to Anais Nin, Karen wrote:
Meanwhile her “Story of My Printing Press” neatly laid out the how’s and the why’s of self-publishing. You self-publish because the commercial world could take decades to catch up to your brand of brilliance, because it’s best to get your work out there while it’s fresh, and because as long as you’re able-bodied and don’t mind wearing different hats (writer, book designer, printer, binder, publisher, promoter, etc.), why the hell not?
When I was a naïve little adolescent self-publisher, I was interested in both the established literary avant-garde and the weird world of underground self-publishing. In high school I didn’t know many people who were interested in the kind of stuff I was into, but I had one friend who was the type of literary teenage boy who likes Bukowski and Henry Miller. We traded books and reading material but he never wanted to read anything I gave him that was self-published. He said he was repulsed by it before reading it because there was no “quality control.” He said, “When I get an issue of McSweeney’s, I know it’s all going to be good. But with zines—anyone can make them. It’s probably mostly garbage.” Fair enough. I knew that some of it was garbage, but I wasn’t asking him to sift through every zine ever made—I was giving him the ones I already thought were good. But since he had a stubborn mentality about zines being illegitimate, he wouldn’t even look at them.
I’ve come across this mentality constantly—the people that fear the tyranny of the “bad” cultural producers coming to dismantle their value-system. This paranoia is accompanied by an apocalyptic vision of a world where standards and systems used to police aesthetic value have collapsed completely, allowing for the terrible opportunity of a free-for-all of artistic creation. But I say that it’s also the absence of a regulatory filter aimed at controlling quality and commercial value that allows for a lot of weird and beautifully bizarre things to emerge—incoherent manifestos, angry diatribes, rambling poetry, copy machine art, feminist revenge fantasies, crazy crayon drawings, Harmony Korine’s whack misspelled stories, stick figure comics about DIY anti-depression techniques, etc.
The funny thing to me is, the actual production process of today’s small presses are not that unlike those of the self-publishing world. They’re even undistinguishable in certain cases. Many chapbooks are made at kinkos, friends start presses together and support their friends’ work, etc. Even offset printed books are often independently funded and distributed and still sometimes have typos, disproportionate margins, and so-so photoshop/design jobs. There is still a certain level of do-it-yourself zeal that keeps the process of making things lively in both camps. Perhaps the main difference comes down to the aesthetics: the clean, design-oriented look of indie lit vs. the high-contrast punk stylings of zines. But certainly, these caricatures do not adequately capture the wide range of small press and self-published works out there, though the subcultures remain largely separate.
Honestly, I’ve always welcomed the vision of cultural apocalypse espoused by the guardians of standards. I think any teenager, mental patient, mother, fanatic, amateur poet, or whatever should write if they want to. It doesn’t mean I’ll necessarily read it, but I’ll be happy they’re doing it because it creates more space for unfettered creative activity and contributes to the overall artistic energy of an environment.
I wrote a thesis on race, gender and the practice of writing and something I wrote about was how power operates through the internalization of standards (perhaps a form of “micro-surveillance,” in Foucauldian terms), and a kind of self-imposed dehumanization that makes us feel like we are unworthy of having a “voice.” When I was working on my thesis I was also journaling about my thoughts on writing. I was telling my professor about my anti-hierarchical perspective on writing. Since she was a high modernist, she got real pissed and said, “I don’t get it. You’re one of the GOOD ones! Some people are just stupid and shouldn’t write!” When journaling about the self-objectifying