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The felt value of reading zines

Abstract

This article explores the meaning and materiality of contemporary zines. As do-it-yourself and profit-resistant publications seeing a sustained resurgence, zines are an interesting and valuable case within the cultural sociology of reading. Based on a thematic analysis of 73 zines collected from a 2019 zine fair, and qualitative interviews with 16 zine readers, in this article we consider the ‘felt value’ (Simmel 2005 [1916]) of zines. We explore how contemporary zines—via their content and form—intimately speak to both the weight and frivolity of life, how they intensively grapple with questions about relationships and ways of living, and what this means for how meaning is made material(ly) in the form. Conceptually, we bring together Thumala Olave’s (2017, 2020) work on affect and reading with Alexander’s (2008a, b) work on iconicity and immersion and Bennett’s (2018a, b) work on the significance and diversification of DIY projects in contemporary cultural practice. We identify four iconic properties of the contemporary form: a DIY ethos and aesthetic, anti-mainstream positioning, an intimacy, and an intensity. These iconic properties offer insight into how reading zines is made meaningful through the iconicity and immersive materiality of the analogue zine form.

Introduction

Zines are an interesting and valuable case within the cultural sociology of reading. A zine (pronounced ‘zeen’) is a DIY (do-it-yourself) publication of writing, photography, collage, illustration and/or other creative work, multiply produced in a small run often via photocopier before being folded, stapled, glue-bound or sometimes delicately handsewn. Zines have intentionally specific content that ranges radically from publication to publication: contemporary zines cover everything from sexual experiences to political manifestos, social media, homecooked meals, environmental collapse, pets, loneliness, and odes to musicians or other popular culture icons such as film stars or sports personalities. Largely a lo-fi endeavour, zines carry aesthetic value for makers and readers (Teal 2006), which the form gains through its historical development as a distinct craft (Triggs 2010, pp. 205–206).

The social contexts within which zines are made and read have piqued the interest of scholars concerned with media, art, fan cultures, feminism and/or youth. Indeed, and as this article will presently demonstrate, while zines are now attributed a broader readership that transcends youth, evidence suggests that there is still a significant youth presence in the fields of zine production and consumption. Zines circulate ‘on the margins’ (Chidgey 2006, p. 1), speak to social issues in ways that privilege community dialogue (Freedman 2009), offer societal critique and ‘are a DIY space for public discussion and the development of public values’ (Congdon and Blandy 2003, p. 45). They are broadly recognised as providing cultural insight into their period of publication (Stoddart and Kiser 2013). Too, zine makers are recognised as ‘their own makers of cultural meaning’ and they take part ‘in the construction of the very pop culture that they critique’ (Triggs 2010, p. 7). Core in our work here is a point Poletti (2008b, p. 5) makes, in her study of youth and zines in the Australian context: that ‘it is as a community of adventurous writers and readers that zine culture offers a compelling instance of people developing savvy modes of representation’, because of and through nuanced ‘reader/writer relationships… [and] unique experiments with narrative and materiality’.

Aiming to complement research that focuses on young people’s zine making practices (e.g. Flinders 1996; Guzzetti and Gamboa 2004; Piepmeier 2009; Duncombe 2014; Poletti 2008b; Triggs 2010), in this article we focus on the meaning of reading zines. Taking a cultural sociological approach to meaning-making, we turn our attention to the complex links between aesthetic or material form, affect, discourse and belonging. We ask: what are some iconic properties of zines? How do these properties intra-act with the experiences of readers to cultivate immersive reading? How and why are zines materially meaningful? We focus on materiality of zines to consider how their ‘felt value’ (Simmel 2005 [1916]) is made and read in/through the form. To do this, we bring together a thematic analysis of 73 zines, sourced from the 2019 National Young Writers’ Festival Zine Fair in Australia (Image 1), and qualitative interviews with 16 self-identified zine readers about their reading practices and why zines are important for them.

Image 1
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Zines collected from the 2019 National Young Writers' Festival Zine Fair

First, we offer a brief history of zine scholarship, and then introduce our conceptual framework. We draw on existing cultural sociological research on art, reading and DIY creative practices, to contribute to understandings of ‘felt value’ more broadly. We then overview our method, of thematically analysing a body of zines and conducting qualitative interviews with self-identified zine readers from across Australia. In our analysis of these data, we identify four iconic properties of zines: their DIY form; their anti-mainstream positioning; their intimacy; and their intensity. Our analysis focuses on identifying what is affective and materially significant in/for the immersive zine reading experience. In concluding, we reflect upon the contribution these insights make to cultural sociological understandings of reading and creative communities, to why and how materiality matters, and what makes the zine an iconic form.

A brief history of zine scholarship

Here we briefly chart the three main periods upon which scholars of zines and zine culture have focused: the early and mid-twentieth century, the 1970s to the 1990s, and from the late 1990s to today. We do this, firstly, to introduce the reader to some of the varied forms zines have taken and social groups within which they have circulated, and secondly, to highlight some of the ways that zines have been approached and understood in order to ground the contribution we hope to offer with this article. While the longer substantive history of independent publishing and creative practice is important here (see Piepmeier 2009; Poletti 2008b), scholars of twentieth century popular culture and independent publishing locate the earliest zines within the sci-fi fan communities of the early 1930s. Often, these would draw on and adapt established stories and television shows, as was the case with Spockanalia, a fanzine inspired by the popular US television series Star Trek (Busse 2009). With the burgeoning youth culture of the post-Second World War era (see Chambers 1985), popular music also became a significant topic for zines. Within distinct fan communities such as these, zines have been seen as a medium and vehicle for the development of DIY engagements with popular culture and networks of/for independent publishing on topics of special/shared interest (Duncombe 2014; Fife 2019; Triggs 2010).

Exploring zines’ proliferation, and when and how the zine format became associated with a distinctly anti-hegemonic position, many scholars focus upon the zines of punk music fans in the 1970s and riot grrrl feminists in the 1990s (Duncombe 2014; Radway 2011; Todd and Watson 2006). The concept of DIY was at the core of punk’s sonic and stylistic attack on what it considered to be the blandness of the mainstream music industry and, in the UK, the rising austerity and normlessness created through de-industrialisation and the resulting mass unemployment (Hebdige 1979). Like earlier examples of zines, those associated with punk were pivotal in establishing communication among and between glocal communities of fans (Haenfler 2014), a desire that was this time punctuated by the socio-political agenda of many young punks. Also significant on this socio-politically charged and glocalised quality is research on the zines produced by gay men with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s (Brouwer 2005), and those by riot grrrls (Schilt 2004). Generative in third-wave feminism, the 1990s riot grrrl movement took an anti-hegemonic stance against patriarchal society and the male-dominated punk scene’s turn away from feminist ideals (Rosenberg and Garofalo 1998). Riot grrrl zines became a crucial medium for the expression of ideas that were barred from or intentionally resisted publication in other outlets (Dunn and Farnsworth 2012).

With the increasing availability of internet technology from the mid-1990s onwards, online zines and distribution platforms began to appear. This informed the development of new styles and aesthetics; however, zines have preserved the DIY ethos of their hard-copy forerunners while reaching a greater trans-local readership. Digital platforms now have a central place in circulating zines and information about zine fairs. Contemporarily, scholars consider how these multiple forms and avenues are central to zines’ meaning for readers (Piepmeier 2008, 2009; Poletti 2008b). Today, zines circulate via zine fairs, postal networks, online platforms, alternative independent bookstores and library or archival collections. Through reading, sharing and making, trans-local communities develop that are aesthetically and affectively bound through material-discursive practices of taste, belonging and collectivity. Valued in zine cultures—which, we understand, increasingly coalesce around a love for the analogue zine form itself rather than another, more central shared interest as with the fanzines of the twentieth century—are qualities often cast in opposition to aspects of everyday life that are considered by zine readerships to be mainstream, repressive, exclusionary, technocratic, or a combination of these characteristics (Fife 2019). Although such sensibilities are often associated with the hippie counter-culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s (see, for example, Roszak 1969), relevant here is research which highlights the current uptake of DIY principles and practice—particularly among Millennials; those aged, approximately, between 24 and 40 years—in response to the polarising effects of neo-liberal economics and the precarious position that this has placed many people in (Canclini 2013; Lowndes 2016). It is also notable, and perhaps in part a by-product of the foregoing point, that zinester discourse has shifted away from zine networks, which was the favoured term in the late twentieth century, toward zine communities (Piepmeier 2008). Triggs (2010, p. 209) argues that the difference ‘is intent’, and the recognition that communities are about ‘fostering relationships through participation’. Triggs’ (2010) point is multiply significant here: with contemporary zines, an intentional relational and aesthetic shift is evident and recognised by those ‘inside’ the community, and readers are recognised as crucial and active participants. As we focus on in this article, important within this contemporary context and for zine community-making is the ongoing salience of analogue zines.

Duncombe’s (2014) influential work on zines as/and alternative culture, charting from the early fanzines through to feminist perzines and the rise of (and resistance to) the internet form, is an illustrative example of how zines have typically been researched: as telling cultural manifestations that are products of and insightful windows into the organisation and dynamics of social structure. While scoping and detailed, and interested in people’s lived experiences, this broad body of scholarship typically focuses on the social function of the form (Duncombe 2014, pp. 44, 147, 177), and, indeed, on the social function of culture (Duncombe 2014, p. 175). Culture in this kind of work is a ‘soft’ and dependent variable (Alexander 2003, pp. 12–13), and the horizons of artefacts like zines are often limited to those of production and consumption. In other words, in the dominant approach, the meaning-making of reading is lost. We aim to contribute to this existing literature with a cultural sociological approach that brings meaning to the fore, by moving beyond issues of production and dissemination to consider the place of reading in the co-production of the zine’s cultural significance.

Conceptual framework

Reading a zine is an affective experience. Written and graphic elements are fused in the form, as is content and material makeup. In Piepmeier’s (2009, p. 62) words, ‘the zine is an art object as well as a literary text’. As such, our approach to understanding zines draws together Simmel’s concept of ‘felt value’ (2005 [1916]) with more recent cultural sociological work on reading, iconicity and immersion in art, and DIY projects, so to bring meaning and materiality to the fore (cf. Thumala Olave 2017, 2020) and consider what makes zines matter in/through reading. This is a significant endeavour within zine research, as the meaning and culturally generative materiality of the form has largely been sidelined in scholarly and public discussions (Piepmeier 2009, p. 62). While an object focus is common in ‘sociology of culture’ approaches, this framework allows us to take a cultural sociological approach to analysing zines themselves—to explore, as Solaroli’s (2015, p. 33) work on iconicity articulates, ‘materiality matters, few would object it. Yet, the question remains: “How?”’.

On reading

Meaning-making and materiality are the focus of Thumala Olave’s (2017,2020) recent work on reading fiction. She considers how and why reading matters to people through layered studies of novel readers. Considerable feminist and media scholarship has centred the activity and meaning-making which readers/viewers engage in, including Ang’s (1985, 1989) work on the active audience, Long’s (2003) work on women’s reading groups as communities, Fetterley’s (1978) feminist critiques of masculinist literature as resistance, and Price’s (2019) considerations of the meaning of ‘the paths [books] take to reach a reader’. Working in this vein, Thumala Olave considers the agency and active participation of novel readers, arguing that ‘the encounter with imaginative texts does not disable the readers. On the contrary, it enables active meaning-making’ (Thumala Olave 2017, p. 429). This is significant, she continues, as reading allows for the development of self-knowledge, self-care and ethical reflection. These are effects of reading that are acknowledged and valued by readers, made meaningful in the reading experience. Through reading fiction, people ‘develop a better sense of what they care for and who they are because it prompts emotional responses’ (Thumala Olave 2017, p. 432).

When considering the ‘experiences of intense self-loss’ produced by novels, and sought after by readers (2017, p. 418), Thumala Olave stresses the centrality of aesthetic experience. Drawing on Jauss’ (1982) work on aesthetic perception and on the concept of aesthetic reflexivity (Lash 2016; DeNora 2000), she argues that reading fiction is ‘an aesthetic experience’ of illusions and imagination which ‘produces enchantment’ (Thumala Olave 2017, p. 428). The dynamic and generative aesthetic experience of reading, and a text’s materiality (Thumala Olave 2020), is central to how reading facilitates meaning-making and a refiguring of subjectivity. Informative here is Radway’s (2011, p. 210) claim that it is ‘possible to distinguish analytically between the meaning of the act [of reading] and the meaning of the text’. We consider the generation of meaning through the interplay of the text and the reading experience; without conflating these, we explore how zines and the practice of reading zines becomes meaningful in and through zines’ materiality. This enchantment described by Thumala Olave, which is particularly valuable for our analysis of the experience of reading zines, has clear parallels with Alexander’s (2008b) notion of immersion. While Thumala Olave considers the enchanting aesthetic experience of reading, and the dynamic implications of this for caring connection and development, Alexander considers the immersive aesthetic experience of art, and the dual process of subjectification and materialisation this involves.

Immersion and iconicity

Exploring if and how art may ‘provide a window into social life’, Alexander (2008b) considers what it is to experience an aesthetic object and what it means to be immersed in art. Immersion, Alexander details, is both an absorbing and projective experience where we draw an object into the self so it ‘seems to take on life’ while we ‘fall into the object’ ourselves (2008b, pp. 6–7). In this dialectic between subjectification and materialisation, ‘one no longer sees the object, but oneself, one’s projections, one’s own convictions and beliefs’ and ‘one lives and breathes the object, looking outside to the world from inside of it. Its texture is your texture’ (Alexander 2008b, pp. 6–7). While taking Alberto Giacometti’s Standing Woman sculpture as his prime muse, Alexander also turns to objects of the everyday, offering ‘mundane examples’ of aesthetic material with which we similarly experience immersion: advertisements, family photographs, celebrity media. The primary focus on Giacometti’s art/work does however raise valuable points about materiality and intent. Important in immersive experience is how an artist uses a material surface ‘as a device to draw us deeper, into what might be called iconic meaning’ (Alexander 2008b, p. 6). The materiality of the form is deliberate, crafted and used to immerse the viewer/reader into the iconic. By iconic Alexander refers to those objects which root ‘generic, social meanings in a specific and “material” form’ (2008a, p. 782). Meaning is central here for Alexander, as it is for Thumala Olave; meaning is made into a piece, and made in experiencing a piece. The idea Alexander explores through his discussion of iconicity, and the ways in which this links with immersion, is, succinctly, ‘the material feeling of meaning’ (Alexander 2008a).

A core tension, in trying to make sense of iconicity as something experiential, is that between surface and depth, materiality and affect, or form and meaning: how to ‘embrace aesthetic sensation without antagonism to structured meaning, to give culture its autonomy without sloughing off material form’ (Alexander 2008a, p. 787). We see this as an analytic question, of how to approach the complex ways that culture, meaning, affect, aesthetic and materiality knot together. What Alexander brings us back to is feeling and experience. He argues, ‘if immersion creates icons, icons allow immersion’ (Alexander 2008b, p. 7). Both immersion and iconicity are linked in/as experiential process. His work offers a conceptual style for making sense of how we experience materiality, and how art, or the aesthetic, is (made to be) felt. In the self-dissolving absorption of artistic engagements, we too build up ‘experience the reality of the ties that bind us to people we know and people we don’t know… we develop a sense of place, gender, sexuality, class, nationality, our vocation, indeed our very selves’ (Alexander 2008b, p. 7). This occurs because ‘iconicism is not entirely mystical, for there is also referentiality’ (Alexander 2008b, p. 7). What is made meaningful in the material, and the meaning that matters for viewers/readers of material, is culturally contextual. The contextual references pertinent in this project, considering the development of the zine form and their primary makers and audience, are the expansion of DIY culture and creative practice (Bennett 2018b) and zines’ enduring significance in and among youth.

Contemporary DIY projects and the significance of youth

Zines are distinct from the commercial fiction and artwork which Thumala Olave and Alexander focus upon in their analyses. One of the core aspects of zine culture is a DIY approach to practice. Although the roots of DIY can be traced back at least the nineteenth century (see, for example, Stangler and Maxwell 2012), in contemporary history the iconicity of zines as an expression of anti-hegemonic and non-mainstream creative production and consumption is connected to the medium’s punk history and a broader uptake of creative DIY endeavours. As various studies (see, for example, Bennett and Hodkinson 2012) illustrate, punk and many other alternative cultures once associated primarily or exclusively with youth now embrace a more multi-generational following as their oppositional sensibilities have been continued and consolidated in the lifestyles of those now in middle age and later life (see also Haenfler 2018). At the same time, however, increasing aspects of risk and uncertainty, combined with increasingly easy access to creative tools made possible by digital technology, has fostered an expanded sphere of DIY cultural practice significantly characterised by young people aged between 18 and 30.

Bennett (2018a, b), in his work on youth and music-making, illuminates how the ethos engendered by punk is now a widespread and highly diverse phenomenon, and distinct from an increased interest in creative hobbies. DIY culture has grown from the early years of punk—in terms of expanded politics and ethos, as well as diversified creative practices—into a broad range of activities, communities and career shapes (Bennett, 2018a, p. 145). Both the carried roots and recent shifts in DIY culture and production provide an important context for the way we make sense of the cultural work and meaning of zines today. While people who pursue work across the creative industries, including many of the young people who make zines in particular, do so in increasingly precarious socio-economic environments, zines themselves, for the most part, continue to evade incorporation by more mainstream industries (cf. Bennett 2018a). Zines remain a form that resists profit motives—and it is arguably because of this that analogue zines seem to be a growing creative medium (which, as we touch on below, is a form of counter-resistance to what many zine makers and readers see as the increasing professionalisation of the digital realm of DIY cultural production). Bennett’s argument, that such movements paved the foundations for what makes contemporary DIY, resonate with how the zines we discuss below bring to the surface the values and complexities of DIY cultural practice. The amateur and anti-establishment roots of zine culture are operative in the textual/literary and graphic/visual makeup of the form.

Zines, however, are not simply a cultural by-product of these societal shifts; the kinds of zines circulating today offer valuable insight into the experiences, attachments and generative ways people are making meaning in relation to this context via zines. Indeed, the contemporary zine landscape is an illustrative example of how DIY culture and practice, once considered a marginal form of cultural participation, is increasingly becoming central for youth in/as a time where when their production, dissemination and consumption practices are inherently intertwined. Moreover, Bennett argues that DIY culture has not ‘entirely lost or surrendered its anti-hegemonic potentialities’, and notes that DIY cultural industries stand apart from mainstream ones as they are ‘often driven by motives of creative and aesthetic gratification’ (2018a, p. 149). Zines are a form of expression that meaningfully grapples with and speaks directly to this creative drive; this resistance is made to be read in contemporary zines. Our aim here is to analyse how this is achieved in the form—how zines make meaning material through the affective experience of reading—and, as such, we turn again to a sociological analysis of art which offers a way to attend to experience and feeling via an object focus: Simmel’s Rembrandt, and his idea of felt value.

Simmel’s ‘felt value’

Georg Simmel’s major 1916 work on RembrandtFootnote 1 offers a generative approach for considering the affective experience of art. In this, the concept of ‘felt value’ is central. Simmel (2005 [1916], p. 1) prefaces his book with the argument that ‘Scholarly attempts to interpret and evaluate a work of art must choose between two paths’. The first path is one focused upon the historical context of a work of art in order to locate the work within art history, while the second centres around a concern for aesthetics or compositional effects—elements of colour, space, subject matter, and so on. Simmel however takes a third road. He sees that neither focusing on the historical developments via which a work of art comes into being and significance nor upon a work’s compositional components can reveal ‘the work’s actual inner meaning’ (Simmel 2005 [1916], p. 1). In an effort to understand the meaning art generates, Simmel’s project is an expansive handling of the experience of Rembrandt’s paintings. He takes together ‘the experience of art alongside the way that the art captures experience’ (Beer 2019, p. 29). This is an approach distilled in Simmel’s own words as being ‘grounded in the felt value [Wertempfindungen]’ of the art (2005 [1916], p. 1). We too take this road in our analysis, as we aim to explore what is made meaningful in the experiential and affective process of zine reading via iconic properties of the form.

Simmel approaches the felt value of Rembrandt’s art via a holistic examination of content and form, and the way the relational unity of these features figures in experience. Critiquing artistic analysis which ‘often makes the mistake of leaving out the experiential, the emotional and the relative’ (Beer 2019, p. 32), Simmel argues for ‘analysis at the level of experience and connection’ (Beer 2019, p. 33) and points toward ‘the way art is felt and the sensations it brings, which might be seen in terms of a kind of value or worth’ (Beer 2019, p. 30). The purpose of this approach, which Simmel acknowledges will ‘throw no light on the work of art historically, technically, or aesthetically’, is to ‘seek philosophically that which one might refer to as its meaning’ (Simmel 2005 [1916], p. 3). This is a valuable analytic approach for a cultural sociological study of reading that is ultimately concerned with how and why the experience of reading is meaningful to people. As Simmel was drawn to Rembrandt, we turn to zines ‘as a particularly compelling and articulate form… with prominent properties’ of that affective meaning-making phenomena which we seek to understand (Beer 2019, p. 39). As Beer (2019) identifies, Simmel brings the experiential and the relational to the fore when considering content and form together in Rembrandt’s artwork. He attends to the creative union of these—of content with form—by centring the ‘experience’ of art. We apply this analytic approach to zines, analysing their content and form together by centring the reading experience.

Method

NYWF zines

The zines forming the primary basis of our analysis were sourced from the Zine Fair at the 2019 National Young Writers’ Festival (NYWF). The festival has been held annually in Newcastle, Australia, for the past 20 years and is free to attend. As the festival website outlines, ‘NYWF is the country’s largest gathering of young and innovative writers [aged 18 to 35] working in both new and traditional forms… [it] presents “writing” in its broadest sense through panels, discussions, workshops, launches, performances, readings, installations, and more’ (NWYF 2019). In October 2019 the NYWF ran over 4 days, hosting talks and interactive sessions by and for young writers, attracting stallholders and hundreds of visitors on the day. Seventy-three zines were gathered from the 2019 fair. These were either free, purchased for a small price (mostly $1 to $5 AUD, with some up to $15 AUD), or traded for zines made by Author A. The process of selection for the zines analysed here was therefore informed by Author A’s insider knowledge of and feel for contemporary zine culture. The use of insider knowledge in social research is increasingly acknowledged as an effective means of conducting research in a context where familiarity with cultural practices, competences and codes of conduct can enhance the data collection process (Bennett 2002; Hodkinson 2005). The gathered collection is an intentionally characteristic selection of the zines available at this fair; while not ‘representative’ in a strict sense, the selected collection is meaningfully demonstrative of the zines at the fair in terms of style and content, and of zines common at other Australian fairs (i.e. not limited to this particular fair, in terms of content or style). Author A, having a (shared) table with her own zines at the fair, spent the day looking through the zines available and talking with the other zinesters present. Zines were gathered from almost all stallholders, who were selling and swapping zines which they made themselves or which had been made by those in their smaller communities.

Of the 73 zines,Footnote 2 most are of the photocopied and stapled kind. Many have been made on single A4 pieces of paper and folded to a smaller size, or made from a few pieces stapled together. Some use textured or translucent paper for artistic effect. A small number have handsewn seams or are bound with knotted thick string. Some are glue-bound, either in a small run by a professional printer or an independent press. Other accoutrements sometimes accompany them—self-made envelopes, stickers, badges, an earring. As expected for a contemporary zine fair, many speak to mundane, everyday, and ‘youthful’ experiences of learning and self-understanding; most contain visual art and/or creative writing of some kind, such as poetry or confessional creative prose. Our analysis includes photographs of selected zines from this collection.

Zine readers

To complement our analysis of the materiality of zines, and gain supporting insight into what makes reading zines immersive and meaningful, we then sought to explore the experiences of zine readers themselves. In mid-2020, following University ethics approval (HC200355), we conducted qualitative semi-structured interviews with self-identified zine readers. In sampling, we sought participants who were over 18 years of age and currently living in Australia. We recruited 16 participants in total, six of whom were in their 20s, seven in their 30s, and three who were in their 40s; ten identified themselves as female, three as male and three as non-binary; 11 participants also identified themselves as queer. All participants lived in major Australian cities—Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle, Canberra or Adelaide.

Interviews took place online via the video-calling platform Zoom, lasted for between 25 and 60 min, were audio-recorded, and transcribed by the research team. The participants were recruited through relevant organisations and key stakeholders and gatekeepers of zine readership, who voluntarily distributed the study information and research team contact details to their members and networks. This included organisations that are directly involved in the distribution of zines and/or the organisation of zine fairs in Australia, and individuals who organise zine events, are stallholders at zine events, or host zine distribution platforms off- and online.

Interviews focused on four key domains: participants’ personal history and experiences within zine cultures; participation and community belonging; the types of zines they read and/or seek out; and their reflections on contemporary features of zines in terms of content, style and materials. During the interviews, the researcher used selected zines from the 2019 NYWF Zine Fair as a visual prompt for discussion of aesthetics and materiality. By nature of the interview recruitment strategy and inclusion criteria, and as reflected in the interviews, many participants were familiar with and/or readers of many of the zines within the collection we analyse here. Many participants also had their own zine collections on hand, and similarly drew on these throughout the interview as examples of zines they find affective.

Analytic approach

Drawing on Simmel’s notion of felt value, our process for iteratively analysing the zines focused firstly on the zines’ content and physical make up. Author A mapped the substance of the selected zines, and together we discussed cursory patterns of content, size, materials used and style. Author A then lead a thematic analysis of the zines guided by Alexander’s (2008a) discussed work on iconicity. Aiming to identify the zines’ iconic properties, we analysed the collection to distinguish shared and characteristic elements across the corpus. Doing this, comparable to Piepmeier’s (2009, p. 58) points about analytic boundaries, we see that ‘when studying a body of material as diverse, changing, and elusive as zines, it’s nearly impossible to make many claims about representativeness’. As Piepmeier (2009, p. 58) therefore does, we too approach the zines we have selected as ‘examples of rather than being representative of’, and our analysis aims to show ‘the layers of meaning that become visible when we move beyond the written word to the artifact itself’. As such, the following analysis is structured around iconic properties which together relate to the zine collection as a whole. Within our analysis we incorporate our examination of the zines’ content elements; the material and discursive substance of the zines is key to the iconic properties we identify.

Our analysis of the interview data similarly drew on Simmel’s notion of felt value, as we sought to make sense of the experiential affective attachments and material meaning of zines for these readers. Following a review of the interview audio-recordings and familiarisation with the data, Author A transcribed sections of the audio-recordings and Authors A and B independently identified core themes. We then collaboratively reviewed and cross-checked these themes, comparing and discussing the thematic patterns in relation to the research questions and conceptual framework to gain a coherent picture of the data as a whole. Finally, we engaged in an overall interpretation of the data to clarify thematic associations in relation to our prior analysis of the zine collection.

Iconic properties of zines

We identify four iconic properties of zines. Two are drawn from existing literature on zines, which we affirm with our data, and two further properties we offer from our own analysis. The first are the DIY and anti-mainstream ethos and aesthetic of zines. Closely linked yet distinct, DIY and anti-mainstream are iconic properties that are crafted in zines through their immersive content and form. As we show, it is via the materiality of the zines that their DIY and anti-mainstream ethos and aesthetic are made meaningful in reading. The two further properties we contribute from our analysis are zines’ intimacy and intensity. By intimacy we mean the personal content of the zines, how they are intimate in their tactile material size and style, their handmade form, and how you typically obtain zines directly from the people who have made them or another zinester. By intensity we mean the specific and focalised content of zines, how they are ‘passion projects’, how their small size means their content is condensed and distilled, and the intense care that goes into their production. We explore how these kinds of intimacy and intensity contribute to the iconicity of zines.

Throughout our analysis here, as Solaroli (2015, p. 33) calls on those researching iconicity to do, we focus on ‘the embodied practices (and technologies) of visual encounter and material engagement’ relevant to the zine collection and for our participants. Before turning to the four iconic properties we identify—DIY, anti-mainstream, intimacy, intensity—we first wish to flag two currents which run through this analysis and illuminate the depth of the sociocultural meaning of zine reading as an embodied practice. The first is the relationship and tension between youth culture and zine culture; the second is the place of the digital. Youth—as an age, an experience, and a ‘style’—was a feature of many of the discussions we had with zine readers. There is a considerable uptake of zine making and reading by people in their early 20s; this was variably reflected upon by our participants, but something acknowledged by each of them. Notably, while they recognised an important relationship between youth and youth experiences and zines, our participants also noted a tension in zine culture being seen as a ‘youth culture’ (and similarly noted relationships and tensions between design, art, writing, music, politics, and maker/DIY cultures). They reflected on how 18–30 years is the dominant age bracket of people currently involved in zine culture (see Poletti 2008a), though many noted they know makers and readers aged from early childhood up to their 70s. They also reflected on ‘youth’ as a current or past period of life meaningful for them in their relationships with zines; and ‘youthfulness’ as a style or quality of zine culture, akin but not reducible to the seeking of community, development of self-understanding, openness, a joyful playfulness and sense of discovery. Others also spoke about the cultural touchstones of the Millennial generation—such as an affinity for houseplants, as evidenced in a zine below—and how these are produced and reproduced both in the content and form in contemporary zines. Similarly, digitality was not a core focus in the interviews, however digital zines and zine sharing platforms were an important point of tension and comparison for all of our participants. Many spoke about the once-heralded ‘death of the zine’ during the boom of internet cultures during the early 2000s; as one participant put it however, the internet ‘didn’t destroy [zines] at all, it made them much more visible’ [Participant #03]. The rise of digital publishing was something that, for all participants, made the material zine form more important, salient and unique. As one participant put it, zines are ‘tactile and physically magical’ [#02]. They each spoke about zines being important or treasured because they are objects held in the hand, where you can feel the paper. When reflecting on the analogue versus digital zine form, participant #06 said:

I don’t think I’ve ever read a full zine digitally, and I’m not sure that I ever will… I think digital sharing of zines is a really great way to get zines to more people… [but] I don’t feel that zines work in the same way digitally as they do in printed form, but it is something as a reader that I definitely feel quite strongly that I can’t get the same experience from reading a zine on a screen that I can in printed form.

As another explained, also reflecting on the material significance of the form,

there’s also a commitment by the reader. Even if they’ve not read it, they’ve bought it or they’ve acquired it somehow, and I think there’s a deliberate thing in that, rather than stumbling upon a blog or something like that… the physical object represents commitment by the reader as well, either in the purchasing or acquisition. [#03]

With these points, on youth and the digital, we focus here on the material form of the analogue zine, exploring those iconic qualities which, we argue, make zine reading an immersive and meaningful experience.

Do-it-yourself

A DIY ethos and aesthetic is perhaps the most consistently recognised feature of zines. In this section, we draw on selected zines from our collection of 73 and our interviews with readers to consider the felt value of zines’ DIY ethos and aesthetic. DIY is an amateur and participatory mode of engagement. A number of participants stressed that ‘anyone’ can make a zine. For many this was more than an ideal: one participant, for example, speaking about their friends who would often share desires for creative spaces or artefacts to exist, said, ‘I’m like, so just fucking do it. That’s the whole point’ [#10]. This practice, which Duncombe (2014, p. 126) refers to as ‘just going out and doing it’, is not an individualistic endeavour; while many zines are made by people working on their own, and are personal creative works, zines importantly offer ‘a DIY space for public discussion and the development of public values’ (Congdon and Blandy 2003, p. 45), and this factors into how zines are circulated and distributed too (Fife 2019, p. 229). As discussed above, the DIY style of creative practice that was developed and channelled by punk musicians and fans in the 1970s, including in zine making (Piepmeier 2009, p. 26), has today diversified into a kaleidoscopic and global culture where community-oriented participatory politics span a wide range of interests, communities and practices (Bennett 2018a, b). This can be seen within zine culture over its history, as making techniques have shifted in some important ways (Triggs 2010, p. 206) and the topics which zines take as their focus have become more diverse. Still key is the ‘open invitation to participate’ (Bennett 2018a, p. 145). The significance of such an invitation has become notable in the context of de-industrialisation and rise of consumer culture (Bennett 2018b, p. 134). As Duncombe (2014, p. 127) stresses, ‘doing it yourself is at once a critique of the dominant mode of passive consumer consumption and something far more important: the active creation of an alternative culture’. Zines generate value and become meaningful for readers in how they ‘document’ (Fife 2019) and ‘contribute to and reflect a broader everyday cultural experience’ through the ‘DIY nature of their production’ (Triggs 2010, p. 9).

The content of many zines in our collection evokes the value of DIY cultural practice through their simple, hand/homemade aesthetic and their varied focus on the mundane, trivial and everyday. Speaking on this DIY style and content, a participant explained, ‘it’s a very accessible medium… it’s like an even playing field, like you don’t have to have access to fancy printing, you don’t have to have access to, you know, even that good material’ [#02]. New phone who this? Autocorrect poetry Volume 4, for example, is an aesthetically simple zine of green typed font printed onto a single piece of white A4 paper, with a green spine coloured in with pen. This poetry zine uses the autocorrect function on smartphone to compose the text. A number of zines in the collection in fact feature autocorrect poetry. In doing so, this zine suggests: you can make a zine and you can write poetry, even if you do not think you have the skill, because all it takes is the automated function on the phone in your pocket. Much of the poetry in New phone who this? makes no narrative sense, nor is it particularly poetic, yet it’s value is made in the way it presents as poetry. For zines such as this, their value is in their activity, and their DIY resistance to the gatekeeping of publication which, as participants #12 and #13 stressed, is a kind of ‘accessibility’ that is particularly significant for young and marginalised creative communities. I < 3 Succulents volume 1 by Rae White (Images 2 and 3) is a mini handwritten black and white zine in our collection which we feel also captures this DIY orientation. This zine offers facts and drawings of succulent plants including two different breeds, planting in unusual pots such as teacups, and growing new plants from cuttings. Another, Tiny Fruit Zine by @design.by.aston, is one of the smallest of our collection. The height of a thumb, this zine is a series of colour illustrations of fruit: cherries, a banana, an apple, a plum. While bowls of fruit have been the focus of much classical high art, Tiny Fruit Zine stylistically reads as an intentionally DIY endeavour: you can make a zine, it says, about anything, even tiny fruit.

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Front cover of I <3 Succulents, volume 1, by Rae White (raewhite.net)

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Inside page of I <3 Succulents, volume 1, by Rae White (raewhite.net)

As Triggs (2010, p. 14) and Piepmeier (2009, pp. 57–58) affirm, it is the amateurish and unpolished nature of the form—or, to emphasise intent, the anti-sleek and anti-professional style—that cultivates this call to participate in zine making. Further, zine culture is an interactive culture where it is recognised that, as Triggs (2010, p. 14) says, ‘the producer and reader are both active in the creation of the message’. It is not just that readers participate as an active audience however, in this media studies sense; especially important is that active participation was not seen by our participants as limited to the production of new zines. Based on our participants’ views on the place of reading in zine communities, including that ‘without the readers, it doesn’t exist’ [#16], we take this participatory quality beyond a semiotic frame of message-making and argue that DIY contours of zine culture are made meaningful in reading practices, from the immersive tactility of zines themselves to the organisation of zine fairs and the anti-profit and pro-trading circulatory zine economy. The value of participatory DIY culture is made material and felt in the reading of zines.

This participatory immersivity is evident in a number of zines in the collection. To-Do by Lily Cameron, for example, is a mini eight-page zine made from half of a yellow piece of A4 paper. The zine has a simple aesthetic, of limited black text on a light yellow page, with clear consideration given to having plenty of ‘white space’, which stylistically emphasises its content: ‘I make to-do lists that feel achievable’, Cameron opens with, before listing ‘*put away clothes/*tidy desk/*drink water’. The zine then includes blank pages and an activity prompt which the reader is explicitly invited to engage in: ‘TO-DO’ heads each small page, six small asterixis run down the left side, and a hand-drawn disjointed line borders each of them. The zine offers the reader space and time, a quiet moment to connect to their self and practice self-care (cf. Thumala Olave 2017) through ticking off a simple to-do list. Further than this kind of active engagement, however, is how the reader is called to participate experientially in a zine’s DIY mode. Speaking about their experiences of reading analogue zines, participant #02 explained, ‘you really feel it, when something’s like been scribbled on or you know stamped or something like that, you’re like, yes, I feel that person just like doing this and, you know, pouring their little heart into it’. With To-Do, the black text has been typed on a typewriter (or a good digital imitation), which stirs up the loud clicks of the keys and the necessary weight each letter requires. There is a sensory attentiveness that the author gives to their body, saying ‘When the light is clear and bright outside, I like to turn my face to the sky, imagining freckles blooming gently beneath the skin’. Our participants spoke about imagining and feeling what the writer does when they are reading, similarly to the enchantment Thumala Olave (2017) identifies in novel readers. For example, one reader said,

Reading them on a first moment basis, it gives you the capacity to kind of relate in and connect to the person that made them, and like, experience what they were experiencing when they made this very like intimate little piece of work [#02].

This immersive experience related for our participants both to what a writer was describing as well as the zine-making process. As another participant distinguished between the experience of reading zines compared to other creative forms:

I tend to take my time when reading zines, unlike say maybe flipping through a commercial magazine… inspecting it as an object as well, looking at how it’s put together and what it’s made from… [zines] are so tactile and the creator has to kind of bodily participate in making them too. And the reader definitely as well, in picking them up physically and reading them [#06].

The making process and the experience recounted are both felt in reading, as readers are immersed in the content/form and moved to participate in the bodily act of reading through the tactility and materiality of the DIY form.

Participants described this participatory DIY scope and intention of zines as something vital which they sought out and experienced in reading. For participants #02, #03, #11 and #15 in particular, it was significant that zines are not mass produced; the participatory DIY call is one that intentionally places participation outside a profitable economic model and outside formal artistic or literary education. Regarding content and form, participants variably talked about zines as not requiring ‘special’ artistic nous or training. In the words of one participant, zines ‘are so obvious in how they are made, you know when you see it, you’re like, well I could make that, and it’s like, yes, please do! … that is the entire point, please make that’ [#12]. Speaking on the meaning of this participatory call, another participant said, ‘I started making zines after reading zines, and I would say, like, you really have to experience it to know its value' [#09]. In this way, zines’ immersive DIY materiality makes the DIY ethos and aesthetic meaningful for readers.

Anti-mainstream

A second core component of a zine, which we argue is an iconic property of the form, is its positioning as anti-mainstream. Zines intentionally stand against mainstream literary, popular culture and artistic cultural products such as print magazines, art books and, today, digital publishing. Importantly, this is not a given or only an aesthetic style; the zine style has been co-opted by many companies and platforms who want to capitalise on zines’ ‘commercial hipness’ (Triggs 2010, p. 8). When discussing what makes a zine a zine, our participants stressed that, while there are ‘no rules’ [#03, #11, #12], zines are identifiably different from mainstream products in terms of their intent, the content they feature and the aesthetic form they take. To highlight the immediacy of this affective positioning, Piepmeier (2009, pp. 57–58), for instance, in classes where she brings zines for her students to read, notes how they ‘gravitate toward zines that are visibly different from magazines and other mainstream publications, either by virtue of size or hand-colored drawings or their sheer unprofessional appearance’ (Piepmeier 2009, pp. 57–58). In terms of their content and form, zines also ‘disregard the traditions of professional design studios and the conventions of literary publishing houses’ (Triggs 2010, p. 9).

Pink Cover Zine by Samantha Trayhurn, named after the pink covers that books authored by women have been traditionally given, explicitly resists mainstream literary and poetry publishing conventions. Reappropriating this aesthetic convention and making a point of valuing the ‘less serious’ and ‘feminine’, Pink Cover Zine notes ‘if you’ve ever been told, or thought to yourself, this work is not significant, then we want to see it, because universality is a myth, and we want to know about all of the particularities of experience’. This resistance to mainstream creative conventions are also significant in the reading experience—so significant, in fact, that one reader argued it is the anti-mainstream ethos of zine reading that allows zine makers to create this kind their work:

There’s something very supportive about the zine community that give people permission to share themselves in this way… Zine readers love zines, you know, and they don’t necessarily criticise them in the way that people who love other kinds of art might criticise it… we’re not here to uphold any particular standards, we’re not here to be gatekeepers, we’re not here to judge other people’s work, so I think there’s like this ideal of egalitarianism that doesn’t exist elsewhere. People want to protect zines [#09].

Content that positions zines as anti-mainstream in a social and cultural sense is well recognised in feminist work. Piepmeier (2009, p. 124), for instance, considers the ‘sophisticated responses’ that feminist zines offer, being ‘closely attuned to the paradoxes of this cultural moment’ where the image of diversity and gender within media culture is significant, yet apoliticised and flattened. Contemporary zines build on the ways 1990s grrrl zines were spaces for the exploration and articulation of ‘fragmented identities that they aren’t trying to reconcile’, and ‘go further, describing and mobilizing identities that demand an intersectional approach, and in so doing the illustrate feminist theory on the ground’ (Piepmeier 2009, p. 125). Such zines are significant for Piepmeier (2009, p. 45), as she acknowledges how ‘their recognition of oppression, their commitment to voicing the inequities they observed in the hopes of challenging and changing them, and their attempts to document their own life experiences, experiences excluded from more mainstream narratives, all fit within a feminist rubric’.

FAT, a zine by Saoirse Nash, is an A5 publication of writing and photography which critically engages with the rubric Piepmeier (2009) recognises. This zine, as the author details on the inside cover, ‘explores relationships to body, gender and sexuality and how they intersect when growing up as different in a society and family structure that reward conformity’. The cover image emphasises this—it is a selfie of the author (the reader assumes), topless and covering her breasts with one hand, her eyes covered with the zine title, white capitalised text overlayed onto a cropped rectangular photograph of red roses. Moving between vignettes of sexual experiences to the fat-shaming she experienced growing up, the author includes a series of photographs of herself, some sexualised images she has taken of herself and some portraits taken by others in social situations. Alongside one image, the ways that shame about her body were internalised and embodied are vividly articulated: ‘Originally I photo-shopped the deep grooves, and the rolls and curves, from this photo, to hide them from myself, no different then (sic) all those magazines selling fake bodies, and real trauma’.

Perks of Having Cancer, by @tough.but.tender, is comparable here in terms of its tone. Speaking against the mainstream cultural narrative of cancer as all-encompassing in the suffering it inflicts, and resisting the impetus to perform the suffering patient, this simple zine of small illustrations and handwritten texts is tongue-in-cheek in how it highlights that: ‘you save so much money not buying shampoo’, ‘you get so many presents’ and ‘it’s “socially acceptable” to sleep ALL DAY’. The illness narrative is intentionally layered and complicated by the author however. The final page reads: ‘That’s it. Everything else is SHIT. THE END?’.

Another valuable point Piepmeier (2009, p. 11) makes in her discussed analysis of feminist zines is her scepticism about ‘the kinds of intellectual binaries that would have us divide cultural productions in terms of complicity or resistance’; ‘this binaric thinking is pervasive’, she argues, ‘particularly in conversations about girls and women’. Many of the zines we analyse in fact play at the intersections of this binary, intentionally engage with mainstream cultural values and practices, and rather than (only) resisting these, the zines materially test, question, and performatively critique the anti-mainstream positioning of the zine form. One example of such a zine is Honeyed Talcum Stems by Ella Barrowclough (and Jacob Dawson-Daley, ‘kind of’, it says), an A6 zine hand-stitched with red string (Images 4 and 5). The black and white cover, a blurry image of a large flag in a spectator crowd, is printed on transparent paper. The main pages are white with blue font and blue printed images of a football game, the 1986 NRL (National Rugby League) Grand Final between the Parramatta Eels and the Canterbury Bulldogs. Sparse poetry accompanies images of the game: the male players bodies’ intertwined in a tackle, diving to score, lifted onto the shoulders of their teammates upon winning. Talking about this zine in their interview, one of our participants reflected that,

something that zines do is kind of break down the barriers between different cultural mediums and forms, quite readily and easily, and kind of just question whether there is a big difference between, say, high-brow literature and literature about NRL players, for example, so I think that’s something that it does really really well [#06].

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Front cover of Honeyed Talcum Stems by Ella Barrowclough (@saints_press)

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Inside page of Honeyed Talcum Stems by Ella Barrowclough (@saints_press)

Football, and rugby league especially, has a significant mainstream cultural following in Australia. It is rough, dirty, quick, muscular and masculine; to sit in the roaring crowd of a game is to be saturated with bright lights, cheering, jeering, and the smells of grass, beer and sweat. Watching a game on TV brings similar a sensory engagement. Poetry (or the image of poetry writing) is not this. Poetry is quiet, slow, personal and comparatively private. In bringing the two together, with a style that showcases the consideration and intent involved in its production, this zine gestures to the mainstream sidelining of poetry and the sidelining of ‘mainstream’ interests such as rugby league in alternative cultures. The zine remains iconically anti-mainstream; the old, grainy images of the game printed in blue and the accompanying brief lines of poetry, and the zines’ size, soft cover and red string tie, immerse the reader critically into the value of anti-‘mainstreaming’ cultural practices. It resists and sits in opposition to the mainstream, though in a way that does not reject this mainstream sphere but rather reflexively speaks to the cultural relationality of the positioning of the zine form and zine culture.

Intimacy

Intimacy, we argue, is also an iconic property of the contemporary zine that facilitates immersion. A number of zines in our collection focus on intimate relationships and sexuality, such as Lessons learned from Tinder. Our interest in intimacy however extends beyond content on intimate relationships; we consider intimacy as a multiplicitous quality which cuts across content, form and style. Intimacy in zines is an experience, a tangible property central to their iconicity as an artistic work, a creative unity of discursive style and material form that facilitates immersive reading. Connecting zines’ collectively inscribed aesthetic value to the intimacy of the form, Poletti (2008b, p. 83) argues that ‘ruminations on intimacy produce their own intimate effect’. Zines derive an intimacy through being ‘amateur, “handmade” productions operating outside mainstream publishing conventions and mass-production processes’ (Triggs 2010, pp. 205–207); the “scrappy messiness” of the zine aesthetic ‘serves to humanize the creator and the zine’ and ‘create a sense of fondness’ and ‘connection’ between them (Piepmeier 2009, p. 67). We argue that the immersive intimacies of the form—that is, the textures and sensory affordances which heighten a sense of intimacy in reading—make intimacy meaningful as/by being an iconic property. Intimacy becomes an iconic property of zines through how the personal is tangibly connected with the social and historical (Triggs 2010; Poletti 2008b), and how the cultural meaning of this connection is generated via the specific immersive materiality of the form. As above, our discussion of selected zines is not discretely representative of this property and our analysis of how intimacy is made to be read/felt draws from the sum of the zine collection; we highlight selected zines here to help illustrate our argument.

Our participants reflected similar experience which Piepmeier’s (2009, p. 69) interviews with zine readers captured, regarding how a ‘personal, intimate quality’ is ‘integral to their enjoyment’ of the zine: that ‘getting a zine is like getting a letter from a friend’ [#09]. This sense of intimacy as/through familiarity was one a number of our participants spoke of as something they loved about zines. One participant, for instance, said, ‘It’s so nice how personal they are. I think that’s what’s really important, you know… it’s so precious, like you would never really give that up in another format’ [#02]. Intimacy is crafted through authorial voice in a number of the zines in our collection. The author of EnBi Zine: A Rant writes about being gender non-binary and bisexual. The title riffs on ‘enby’, a phonetisation of N.B., which stands for non-binary, and ‘bi’, short for bisexual. The rant is both emotional and informative. Exasperation, fatigue and recognition are conveyed through syntax, grammatical decisions such as fragment sentences, and aesthetic choices such as varied font size. They speak from within the queer community to others in the community aiming to challenge in-group stigmatisation. The shared ground of the dialogue becomes more closely intimate when the writer speaks directly to the reader: ‘Lets be real here,/You’re policing our language/Because you don’t think we’re/queer’, and ‘The point is:/I have no gender/I think a lot of you are pretty/And it would be nice/if we weren’t so politicised/And if people in our community tried/Just a little bit harder’. You and Rut Zine are also notably intimate in voice. Both are ongoing series of reflective personal writing which read like letters from a long-term pen-pal. Moving past conversational superficialities, in Rut Zine author Bianca Martin details her hesitations, resolutions and resignations in a tone that is not confessional in the publicly emancipatory way that anonymity can sometimes grant, but rather one that feels familiar, with an assertion of imminence in its everyday revelations, as if you are reading something from a geographically distant and emotionally close friend.

Many of the zines achieve this intimate voice. EnBi Zine and Rut Zine are just two examples—many others also take a letter style where the reader is positioned like a confidant. This intimacy was talked about by several participants, as feeling, in the words of participant #15, ‘like a private gift that has been given from one person to another—from that person to me’. In this way, intimacy shapes and is shaped by the immersivity of the form, as an authorial style and an aesthetic form which makes meaningful the dialectic of subjectification and materialisation—the affective process of reading. The style and form of the zines move the reader to be affected in reading, because ‘you feel really close to them when you do read them’ [#03].

Hands, another zine by Lily Cameron (Images 6 and 7), has a pale cloudiness that asks to be held carefully, pages turned slowly lest they tear. The cover, plus a number of other pages inside, is made of soft tracing paper with photographs of greyscale hands, layered gestures overlaying sixteen short vignettes, printed in a typewriter-esque font on cement-grey paper. One participant describes Hands:

you’ve got the translucence of the hands on the cover but then you come across them again as such a nice reminder, as you’re reading through the zine, of another hand… [the cover] gives nothing away, but tells you that it’s going to be artistic and it’s going to be delicate and it’s going to be really careful. And it’s like, thought has gone into every bit of it… like, the aesthetic but also the way that it feels in your hands [#15].

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Front cover of Hands by Lily Cameron (lilycameron.co)

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Inside page of Hands by Lily Cameron (lilycameron.co)

The vignettes recount conversations with the zine maker’s mother, their fascination with hands, quotes from writers and epigeneticists, early 2000s chemical experiments on mice that would leave the rodents smelling almonds or cherries, and how women’s birth names are lost in ancestry charts. These reflections are often personal, fragments meditating on how things—DNA, surnames, obsessions—are passed down through generations. All sixteen vignettes are short, some only a sentence long, yet the zine illuminates much about the closeness of the writer’s relationship with her mother, and how the information she learns becomes connected to (or, more accurately, felt in) her everyday life. The content she writes on and the tactile qualities of the zine combine to craft the sense of emotional and physical ‘closeness’ [#03, #07, #16] our participants spoke of as an intimacy.

Vignette number 7 in Hands, on Michael Skinner’s mice experiments, for example, sits opposite an image of a translucent grey hand reaching skyward and speaks more of the author’s embodied reaction to reading Skinner than of Skinner’s work itself:

For reasons I don’t understand, I find myself hoping that the mice smelled cherries when shocked, instead of the almonds I add to my breakfasts… I try to imagine what it’s like, smelling marzipan and thinking pain. A jar of maraschinos making me flinch.

Many participants directedly connected this intimacy of content to the material form of zines, highlighting elements like their ‘tininess’, their ‘small print scale’, their ‘fragility’, their ‘faults’, and ‘the authors’ handwriting’, as well as the sharing of personal content and experiences. Participants did not just identify this intimacy, but spoke of experiencing and being affected by it; for example, ‘when you genuinely read, yeah, something, you know, really intimate from a person, and you’re experiencing it on a piece of paper (laughs). I get excited by that, I’m into that for sure’ [#03]. Another participant:

they’re small and you can hold them in your hand or you chuck them in a pocket and you can take the story with you, and you can’t do that necessarily with a novel or a book of essays… they’re gifting you a story or some of their very personal thoughts – because that is part of zine culture, that really openness about emotions and how people are feeling, um, and there’s something very touching about that, like, wanting to share that experience with you [#07].

Related to the sensory tactility which zines like Hands craft is Piepmeier’s (2009) analysis of zines’ community-making materiality. She notes how the zines she focuses upon illustrate ‘features of materiality that produce embodied community’, and, arguably speaking of the same phenomenon Alexander does via his notion of immersion (2008a, b), she suggests that:

By mobilizing particular human experiences that are linked to the body, including vulnerability, affection, and pleasure, these zines leverage their materiality into a kind of surrogate physical interaction and offer mechanisms for creating meaningful relationships (Piepmeier 2009, p. 59).

This is something we see materially crafted in zines, and is key to their iconicity: what makes zines immersive in their intimacy is how they are materially and discursively intimate. As one participant explained,

a lot of the time when you’re reading something you’re like, “oh I relate to that, there’s someone out there in the world that also feels like this, how I feel sometimes”… you get that personal connection because someone’s like poured themselves into the pages and then they share that with other people [#05].

As articulated in the excerpt above, zines allow the reader to share in the personal thoughts and feelings of other zinesters in a way that validates the readers’ own experiences and connects them to an empathetic community who do not just feel for the reader but know their experiences and, by extension, in a way, know them. This felt value is not limited to those zines in which readers explicitly identify with the experiences or feelings described; rather, it is something felt by readers across the form as a whole. The above participant, reflecting on going to zine fairs to buy zines, described feeling like: ‘this is home, this is how I want to feel, this is who I am’ [#05]. Zines craft an intimate socio-material experience, which readers find exciting and enjoyable and meaningful. A number of our participants described this as an affective experience that factors into how they decide what zines they want to read and ‘take home’ [#02, #07, #16], and which zines they return to, pass on and share with others [#02, #13, #15].

This experience goes to the heart of what sustains the reading culture around zines—why zines have an extended circulation and a life beyond the first reader/reading. Participants described practices of personal archiving:

a zine, it’s kind of this like little, this own little world, that you can kind of have access to and, you know, tuck away to read again another time. Like I’ll bring these out and read them all in one go and spend the entire afternoon going through them all again [#02].

They also described experiences of swapping and sharing, putting zines into new readers’ hands:

Because of the effort and the gesture, like, that goes into their production, they are coveted and they are generously distributed and redistributed… you let somebody into it, and you pass it on… I’ve had this great opportunity and great experience like looking at this thing that nobody gets to see, and if I let you in to see it to and read it too then there’s another person I know who’s shared that [#15].

The zines work to outwardly craft this social knowing in a way that cultivates belonging and community care. The culture which zines materially generate is thereby an intimate, caring one. As one participant reflected:

I think the way that they’ve impacted me will, you know, impact a lot of other people too who are lost in whatever ways they’re lost… I think there’s a lot of people who like have this constant state of yearning to connect in a different way, and I think that zines really fill that void [#02].

A number of zines in the collection do this quite literally, speaking to the lived complexities of mental health. In detailing everyday anxieties to significant crises, the emotional ‘breakdowns’ and ‘break throughs’ of these contemporary zines speak to the shared and social nature of such experiences. Intimate here is the voicing of stigmatised personal struggles not often made public; intimacy is crafted not only through what is being shared but how—the style and intent of this sharing. As participants #12 and #13 reflected upon, the intimacy of these kinds of zines comes through in the ways they invite the reader to affectively share in ‘vulnerabilities’: to read the personal experiences of the writer being vulnerable, and to read these experiences vulnerably, to relate and share in them. Interestingly, many such zines are handwritten. Crash in Progress: thoughts from a very slow burnout is a small zine, simply made with a lead pencil and a single page of white A4 paper, cut and folded into eight palm-sized pages. The writer, anonymous, reflects on the ways they constantly busy themselves and the harmful toll this takes; their manic stress and lack of self-care is justified by the (socially desirable) outcomes of ‘SMASHING GOALS, ACHIEVING THINGS and BUILDING NETWORKS’. Following pages filled with writing and a schedule and an illustrated self-portrait, the reader is given pause with two white pages blank barring the centred text, ‘I wonder who I’d be if I took a breath’. On the final page, filled completely with writing once more, the text reads fully as internal monologue that races once again: ‘But the thing is I’M TOO BUSY TO TAKE A BREATH there are so many deadlines and I need them to understanding (sic) that I’m successful and I’m making progress because if it’s not measured then it isn’t real and…’ The text is subsumed by grey scribbling that devours the rest of the run-on sentence so that, aesthetically, the thought runs on forever. Style, form and content build together and fuse so, by the end, the reader feels the Crash in Progress. The tactility of the zine adds to this affective intimacy; it is small enough to be contained within the readers’ hands, and stylistically seems quickly made, not in terms of being unconsidered or thoughtless, but in terms of the ascetic simplicity of the photocopied pencil-and-white-paper production.

The material scale of the zine was something raised by all of the readers as something intimately significant; (small sized) zines live, for readers, in their ‘home’, their ‘wallet’, their ‘pocket’ and their ‘hand’. The small-scale print run was also raised by many of our participants as a distinguishing feature of zines, and a quality which makes reading a zine so affecting; for example, as one reader suggested: ‘people always look down on zines because of their small print run, but in actual fact the small print run is the strength of zines’ [#03]. The issue of scale was one that most connected to the idea of intimacy, but also relates to what we discuss next as intensity—as such, we place these participants’ reflections here as a bridge between these two iconic properties:

I feel like when you produce a painting or a sculpture or a film or a song, regardless of your expectation, there is always a possibility that it will become big and there is a potential for it to go to huge audiences, and I suppose with a zine someone could take it and it could do that, but there’s no intention there, there’s no like hope or possibility built into it, it’s just a sort of micro gesture, which is amazing, the notion that people would go to such an effort to be so creative to just make ten of something, to give to a complete stranger who may or may not appreciate it, is an incredible, like, privilege, and that’s what makes you feel [#15].

Another:

I also know that I’m kind of special, because I’m one of the very few people to do so – like, it’s not like some anonymous website, and like, millions of people have read it. It’s like no actually this came to me and it’s almost like a fatalistic thing (laughs), this came to me somehow and I read it and it affected me in this certain way… you feel connected [#16].

Intensity

The final iconic property we contribute here is intensity. Sociologists and their disciplinary neighbours talk mostly of intensity in relation to emotion and affect—the intensity of emotions (Thoits 1989), the intensity of affects (Frykman and Frykman 2016). Arguably, for Massumi (1995, pp. 86, 88) affect is intensity. Ahmed (2004, p. 26, italics in original) uses intensity to argue that ‘emotions do things, and work to align individuals with collectives—or bodily space with social space—through the very intensity of their attachments’. Intensity is also a notion used in art theory, particularly in relation to aesthetic experience, as generative of feeling, and in relation to aesthetic qualities (see Beardsley 1981, p. 462). Intensity in this sense is the antonym of stylistic insipidness and weakness. For instance, discussing how art is valued, Kieran (2001, p. 292) argues that ‘the aesthetic value of an artwork, by virtue of the interrelations between its formal aspects and thematic content, inheres in its unity, complexity and intensity’. We take these understandings of intensity collectively, to consider zines’ affective and stylistic quality. By intensity we mean to capture the level of focus, passion, feeling and care given to the form.

A number of zines especially illustrate intensity of topic focus and personal emotional connection. Aye Sea, Aye Bee Except for Saga Norén (Länskrim Malmö): a love letter/fanzine is a mini eight-page zine dedicated to the character Saga Norén from the Swedish-Danish ‘Nordic noir’ crime show titled Brœn. For the author, this character is ‘the only Autistic character on TV who I feel represented by and who I do not want to punch in the face’. This zine has been made simply on a computer, combining red text and small captioned screenshots from the TV show, printed onto a single A4 piece of white paper and folded together. The language is direct and passionate, listing what the author likes about the character’s personality and how her autism is written in the show, emphasising serious and playful points with intentional capitalisation, spacing, image selection and parentheses. Rococo Basilisk: keeping up with Elimes Grusk is a zine about Elon Musk and Grimes’ relationship, and their scandal with Azealia Banks, that has a very similar style. Simply made digitally and printed, this zine uses select font styles and image choices to aesthetically convey and emphasise feeling. Very small text draws the reader’s face close to the page; fainter font marks asides while the main narrative is bolded. Details of the celebrity couple’s relationship are tied in with personal experiences of the author, heightening the emotional intensity of this otherwise niche fanzine focus: they share, thanking a Facebook group chat on Musk and Grimes, ‘Seriously this silly little group chat has been a big part of my life for the past five months or so and you’ve helped me go through so many weird phases/helped me survive j school’.

These examples show how intensity can be read in the micro-focalised, emotionally reflexive and/or poetically distilled topics and experiences these zines creatively render. They speak to joy and pain, temporality and frivolity, and they do this not for profit or creative acclaim but for creativity itself and for what our participants saw as a ‘committed’ and ‘generous’ reading community. This commitment in reading, as participants #07 and #13 explained, is to ‘the form itself’ rather than any formal ideas about creative quality. Many of the readers we interviewed situated their time spent making and reading zines, as amateur and aesthetically slapdash publications, as, even in small ways, intensively resisting the creep of capitalism in its cultural and economic senses. For one participant, zine culture ‘is about the understanding that we should be able to create our own spaces rather than it being about capitalism’ [#11]. They explained,

It’s a lot of work and it’s not a lot of work, it’s both at the same time… so much effort has gone into it, so it’s like, I’m so impressed that someone took the time to write about this thing that I also care about – or maybe you don’t… there was one I read about, like, dentistry, or something, there’s ones where I just, like, I honestly didn’t think I’d give a shit about this, but I care about it so much right now [#11].

This complex idea of intensity resonated across a number of our participants’ experiences; for example:

The person who put it together spent time, even if it’s just photocopies and, like I said, badly stapled or badly folded, like, there was time spent. And nobody who’s ever made zines has ever gone ‘this is really easy’, I mean, it’s easier than other forms, but you know, even if you’ve got a one-page zine you just have to fold, there’s a deliberate effort [#4].

This is time spent that, in a different way to the intimacy discussed above, speaks to care (cf. Thumala Olave 2018). Someone has spent time making something not to be sold, because zines move intentionally cheaply or for free, but to be read. And this time spent is felt in reading—in the handmade elements, the distinctive handwriting, the selection of a font, the unique and personal interests they detail at some length, the ‘bent staples’ and ‘sewn binding’ which many spoke of. Our participants spoke about how care becomes an experiential part of the zine reading process:

I find this happens quite a lot with zines and they’re delicate and immediately you know you’ve got to be careful, and I love that, because it adds to the care that you take in reading it… I feel like when you’ve got to really take care of something with your hands you take more care when you’re reading it as well [#15].

So too did time and care feature in participants’ accounts of acquiring zines to read. When at a zine fair, for instance, one reader spoke about seeking out those that appeared to have been given time and care, as those that would take time to read:

When you go to a zine fair, or something like that, you pass lots and lots of different stalls. I don’t want to open something and then just get all of it in the five seconds that I’ve – you know what I mean? … so I kind of go, no, I want to be able to commune with this, I want to be able to spend time with this [#16].

The small size of a zine similarly intensifies the content—condensed, concentrated, limited, selected, chosen to fit. ‘Deliberate’ was the word several participants used to explain this feature. This does not mean the most poetic or poignant writing is privileged; rather, space and focus is given to obsessive personal interests and mundane experiences. As one participant described, ‘you get a really kind of raw and honest voice…’ [#06]. These zines are intense in their foci and depth of feeling; their content is made intense through arrangements of words and design; they are crafted with an aesthetic intensity, a strength of shape and colour use and tactile form.

Another zine which is intense in its focus and its feeling is Vaporwave Zine for Aesthetic Teens. This zine has a colourful style made using pink, blue and golden yellow coloured markers and red and black fineliner pens. It gestures to vaporwave, an electronic music microgenre that, fans claim, was the first to live and die on the internet. The zine does not give information about the music style, as the previous two fanzines do; rather, the small eight-page zine brings together coloured in pages and poetic writing:

one day, our computers will die. We will be left with nothing until one of you find (sic) an old cassette player, and an old cassette… you will contemplate your life, looking into the lonely sunset… is this the future now? you ask, gasping/the sunset engulfs you/you are one with aesthetic itself… at one with the vapour and its critique of modern society/VAPORWAVE IS DEAD LONG LIVE VAPORWAVE.

Vaporwave Zine works to recreate in reading the feeling of listening to vaporwave. It makes use of the analogue materiality of the DIY zine form to immerse readers in the meaning of the digital music sound and the internet culture that is central to its style. Each of these three zines are, notably, anonymous. Anonymity here offers a distance for emotional intensity to be crafted and shared in with/by readers—in the intense personal feelings of the first author, the intense interest of the second author and their linked confessional thanks, and the intensity of existential, cross-modality feeling captured by the third.

Soft Drink in New Zealand by Ella Barrowclough (Image 8), the final zine we discuss here, is a made of a long piece of lemon yellow paper—or, in fact, two pieces glued discretely together to make a single long piece—and folded concertina style into a rectangle small enough to fit neatly in your palm or pocket. On the simple cover are little hand-drawn circles that group like bubbles, with thin black font in a computerised typewriter-esque style that reads ‘a highly subjective guide’. When opened out, fifteen pages of photographs printed entirely in bright green ink, of bottles and cans with labels facing the reader, most of them held in the author’s hand, rank and describe the different drinks. Simple details locate the author’s drinking experience out in the world. There is Probiotic Apple & Blackcurrant Switchel at Wellington Airport, rated 6/10; Tumeric and Ginger Kombucha in Karori, Wellington, 8/10; Pear and Basil Höpt Soda at Queenstown and Milford Sound, Fjordland National Park, 10/10, which ‘The scenery may have made taste even better’. Black ink illustrations accompany the flavour profiles—scribblings of ginger, mint leaves, tiny pears, tiny flowers. The 6/10 Switchel was ‘Less disgusting than imagined (phew)’. On the 2/10 scoring No UGLY Cucumber Vitamins Drink, the author notes they were ‘very sad drinking this. Think Berocca that is cucumber flavoured. Stomached it but did not enjoy. Bitter and sour and gross’. The final drink scored a 2/10 too, Mama’s Brew Shop Juniper, Star Anise, Cardamon and Angelica Kombucha. Consumed at Christchurch Airport, this was ‘Disgusting. Should not have drunk this at 4 am before getting on a flight. Don’t know what it tasted of. Never again. Why was something so disgusting so expensive ($6)’.

Image 8
figure8

Soft Drink in New Zealand by Ella Barrowclough (@saint_press)

The yellow and green palette of this zine brings to mind the sharp tang and fizz of lemonade. The layering of printed photography and illustration, the compilation of a number of drink ratings from a holiday spanning the north and south islands of New Zealand, and the considered detailing of each drink—where it was purchased, what it tasted like, their chosen ranking, how they felt—reveals the intense and elongated time the author gave to making this zine. Talking about this zine one participant explained that, while it was framed as an indie pocket publication for people traveling to or currently in New Zealand who may be interested in having on hand soft drink advice, it really reads as a zine that has been made for people invested in reading zines:

this is like, such a good example of what zines do – so often they take something deliberately mundane, or deliberately kind of meaningless culturally, and they make meaning out of it… I understand the pointlessness of this, and it makes it great. I get that this is completely for no reason and will mean nothing, and therefore it means something. And other people would look at this and go, ‘why.’ Well, why not. [#15].

Soft Drink in New Zealand has a distinct intensity because it gives comparatively intense attention to capturing the aesthetic experience of an ultimately trivial experience. As the participant quoted here suggests, readers are immersed in the meaning(lessness) of soft drinks in New Zealand, and in the value and meaning of the contemporary zine form as a space of shared interests and affective attentiveness.

The point which, we argue, this zine captures it that even zines that seem pointless are not purposeless. For one participant, they reflected how reading zines moves you to ‘interact with the world in thoughtful ways’ [#12]. Another reflected on the openness and generosity of the zine community as essential to the ongoing salience of the material form:

that’s why people continue to care, and care so much, and care about each other – I think it’s a way of expanding care for other people… I think care is deeply embedded in the ideals of zine making and reading [#09].

Through their reading, zines craft a felt and embodied social sense with which we can attune ourselves to what can be shared and how we can care in and about an oftentimes mundane and meaningless world: by doing it ourselves, by resisting the mainstream or processes of mainstreaming, by valuing intimacy, and with an intensity of care, focus and feeling.

Conclusion

Drawing on a thematic analysis of 73 zines collected from the 2019 NYWF zine fair in Australia, and qualitative interviews with 16 Australian-based zine readers, in this article we have explored how the meaning of zines is made material(ly) in reading. Here, we offered a brief history of zine scholarship before outlining an innovative conceptual framework; this brought together Thumala Olave’s (2018, 2020) work on reading, Alexander’s (2008a, b) work on iconicity and immersion, Bennett’s (2018a, b) work on the significance and diversification of DIY projects in contemporary cultural practice, and Simmel’s (2005 [1916]) concept of ‘felt value’ as something generated in/through the experience of art. In our analysis of the zine and interview data, we focused on identifying what is affective and materially significant in/for an immersive zine reading experience. With this work, we complement and extend contemporary research that explores why people make zines and the kinds of communities that zines circulate within (see Duncombe 2014; Piepmeier 2009; Poletti 2008b; Triggs 2010). We also contribute to cultural sociological understandings of reading and creative communities, and to work exploring why and how materiality matters.

There is much that matters for people about zines, in their historical and contemporary forms. As the readers we spoke to discussed, and the zines we read also made clear, zines represent a style, approach and sensibility—a particular way of orienting toward, creatively engaging with and experiencing the world. This is an undertaking which is done, in part, to share in those experiences with others. Here, we have examined four qualities of zines that we see as essential and meaningful in and beyond the form, and, in our analysis, we have argued that the iconicity of zines can be understood through these four properties. Zines’ DIY ethos and aesthetic, their anti-mainstream positioning, their intimacy and their intensity are all properties of the zine which are experienced in reading. How these properties shape and are cultivate in an immersive reading experience enable the experience of zines as icons. By DIY we mean to capture the sense that anyone can make a zine, about anything, with easily accessibly (or any available) materials; further, we speak to the call to participate which zines generate, by making one’s own zines, sharing and trading zines with others, and through the sensory reading experience. By anti-mainstream, we consider how zines stand against the gatekeeping and measures of acclaim of mainstream publishing mediums (print and digital), against the valuing of creative outputs as high- versus low-brow, and the operative cultural binaries which serve to ‘mainstream’ particular interests and activities against others. We explore intimacy as a personal voice, and emotional and tactile bodily closeness, as an experience of ‘being seen’, and as a small and therefore valued scale. By intensity, we mean to capture the focalised and niche topics of zines, the time and care spent on both zines’ production and reading, as a heightened emotional or experiential quality, and as a way of being and caring cultivated through the reading experience.

Through the participatory possibilities of DIY, an anti-mainstream positioning, intimacy and intensity, zines gain a felt value for readers through the material-discursive experiences of reading. This translates into an embodied orientation toward community-making and a way of being in the world which extends beyond (but is made to matter in, and makes meaningful) the reading experience. As we have argued, the iconicity of the zine means readers experience, feel and share in an embodied social sense with which they attune themselves to what can be shared and how we can care in and about the world: by doing it themselves, together; by resisting the mainstream or processes of mainstreaming; by valuing intimacy; and with an intensity of care, focus and feeling. It is through these iconic properties that the felt value of zines becomes materially meaningful for readers.

Notes

  1. 1.

    We use the 2005 [1916] edition of Rembrandt, edited and translated into English by Alan Scott and Helmut Staubmann. We also draw on David Beer’s (2019) recent work on Simmel to make sense and use of ‘felt value’.

  2. 2.

    Contemporary norms of authorship mean oftentimes zines are published without attribution, under pseudonyms or pennames, or with an Instagram handle for a public art (i.e. not personal) social media page. Throughout, our authorial attribution is reflective of that printed in the zines. Permission has been gained from authors of the zines featured in Images 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 for use in this article.

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Acknowledgements

We thank our participants and the zine makers who generously gave their time, and shared their experiences and their work.

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Watson, A., Bennett, A. The felt value of reading zines. Am J Cult Sociol 9, 115–149 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-020-00108-9

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Keywords

  • Zine
  • Affect
  • Iconicity
  • DIY
  • Reading
  • Materiality