zinecraft, part two

(part one)

it’s really frustrating, though, to be in a world where everyone gets a gold star when i was trying to hold myself to a different personal standard of quality writing. i got a very amusing e-mail a few months ago (anonymous, of course) from someone who hated the last zine i wrote (“love letters to monsters” #2) & wanted to inform me that i’m “not as good a writer as [i] think [i am].” it made me laugh because…how good of a writer did that person think i was? being as cognizant of my limitations as i am (i’m no anne lamott, i’m no angela carter, i’m not even a bootleg latter-day bell hooks), i think i am probably exactly as good of a writer as i think i am. i lack discipline, so my output suffers. i occasionally over-reach for a conclusion. my attempts at scenic description tend to be muddled. i have a very difficult time writing flawed characters. i am remarkably unobservant of my surroundings. my attempts at dry humor often fail to translate in print. i have to fight my tendency to rely on hyperbole. i’m not that great at off-the-cuff self-editing. i sometimes fall into excessive parentheticals. but i have my strengths: i can write dialogue that rings true, i have a large (& ever-expanding) vocabulary, & i have been gifted with an instinctual knack for grammar. cliches are anathema to me. i have the basic elements of narrative down pat. in the zine world, these meager tools have served me well, & allowed me to write zines that avoid the style traps from which most zines suffer.

don’t you hate it when you’re reading a zine, & it’s some story about the author’s boyfriend’s band practice, & you’re like, “wait, what? who the hell are these people? why should i care?” it’s a story for the author & her friends, & not for casual zine readers. or when you’re reading a piece on white privilege, & “privilege” is spelled wrong. it kind of undermines the zine writer’s larger point. i mean, if you can’t get that right…you know? or when you’re reading a smart, thoughtful political piece, & suddenly you stumble across hyperbole of the highest order, & it jerks you out of the piece & makes you wonder what the fuck kind of arguments the author has had about this issue that she feels the need to be that defensive. or when you’re reading a really sad story about a death in the author’s family, & she says that her loved one is now “an angel watching over me”. really? “trite pablum” is what you were going for here? a zine reader with less interest in the craft of writing probably wouldn’t give a shit about any of these things. they’d just read the stories & go with it. but…that’s not me.

the other big problem in the zine world is that critique relating to these issues is generally not well-received. there’s a lot of defensiveness, a lot of, “i’m sharing my personal story, & who are you to judge the quality of the writing?” well…i’m your reader. i’m the one who you expect to spend at least ten minutes immersed in the world you have created with your zine. i suppose it’s different if a zinester is just making a zine to express themselves & they don’t actually expect anyone to ever read it. but i think most zinesters anticipate orders & the attendant readers. & as such, i actually think it’s a little bit rude to just vomit all over the page & expect your readers to lick it up & like it. & i think it’s childish to react so negatively when a reader makes suggestions on how to improve your writing.

i had an incident about a year ago along these lines. i’d read a book written by a former zinester. i had in fact actually paid money for it (a departure from my usual habit of getting books of unknown quality from the library). i’d read this person’s zines & i had never really been impressed by the quality of her writing. she was the queen of imprecise language. every other word she used rang “wrong,” & other, more harmonious & descriptive words overwhelmed my internal editor as i read. but i thought, maybe this is different. this is a book, after all. people other than the writer had to sign off on publishing this. i know editing is a dying art, but maybe she worked a little harder on the manuscript than she did on her zines, knowing that a book was likely to reach a larger audience.

my hopes were for naught. the quality of the writing in the book was as bad as that in her zines…possibly worse.there were passages that were nearly unreadable. i wrote up a review (as i do for all books i read) & posted it on ye olde interwebz. i was careful to praise the few things i did enjoy about the book & to make clear that i’d read & supported the writer’s zines (i’d even carried them in my distro) & hoped she could interpret my remarks as constructive criticism in the event that she found the review.

needless to say, that didn’t happen. the writer found my review & left a blistering comment about how she’d written the book during a very dark & difficult time in her life, & how it was completely autobiographical (that wasn’t at all obvious to me, & i had written about how unlikeable & unsympathetic her characters were), & how criticizing her book was a very personal criticism of her. she huffed that she didn’t have any kind of formal writing education & how she was just writing from her heart. such forth & so on. you can imagine.

& i was really annoyed. i was more annoyed by her ridiculous & embarrassing reply than i was by the shitty quality of her book. this is a BOOK, people, not some little go-nowhere zine about some bad thing that happened to you. it’s an actually published book (which was billed as a novel, incidentally)–not a diary. she had done speaking engagements in support of it. she was putting it out there, trying to attract readers that didn’t know her personally, that had never read her zines. she & her publishers hoped people would buy her book & invest several hours of their lives in the story she had created…but they apparently did not have enough respect for those readers to actually try to craft the story into something readable. it was that whole zine idea of “this is my story, love it or leave it,” applied on a much larger scale. & with a little dash of, “don’t blame me, i don’t have the money for writing school” (ie, false celebration of oppression/lack of privilege) thrown in for good measure.

i never finished writing school. i think i took four or five creative writing courses over a span of a year, & then i dropped out & moved to portland. everything i have learned about writing since (which is the vast majority of what i know about writing), i learned on my own, from books, magazines, & websites on writing, developing my own tastes in literature, reading voraciously, & actually putting my butt in a chair & writing. if i can do it, so can anyone else. at least well enough to be competent. i’m not asking for the moon & stars. if a person doesn’t WANT to put that effort in…well, that’s a different story. maybe they have other interests, other priorities. & while that is perfectly acceptable…they can’t go crying “i can’t afford writing classes” when they called on their shitty writing. because the real problem is just a lack of desire to put the work into being any better.

& just one more thing: it is bad form to lash back at negative reviews. this has happened to me a few different times with reviews i have written. the writers always try to convince me that if i didn’t like their shit, i must have just not “gotten it”. they try to explain their stories or characters or symbolism to me. listen: if you have to explain it later, you did it wrong. the solution: do it better next time. they get up on their high horses & tell me that other people liked their writing, maybe they even won a prize. which only means that it’s very true that many people in the world have terrible taste & little ability to discern shitty writing, occasionally including people who are in charge of awarding prizes. these people seem to be holding out for universal admiration, which is a pipe dream. of course i’ve gotten bad reviews & hate mail. some of it was just crazy talk, & some of it made some decent points, & i tried to learn from it. there’s no faster way for a writer to appear insecure, childish, defensive, & full of herself than to lash out at a negative review.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Caitlin says:

    How much do I love these two posts? A whole, whole lot!

    I’ve actually seen some very similar attitudes outside of the zine world, in this online memoir writing group I’m part of. People get very entangled with their writing, especially if they are writing about themselves, and when someone critiques it, they have a hard time separating themselves from it and they take all of the critiques as if they are slams on that person’s character. (The flip-side of this is that I have seen memoirs ripped apart, not for the quality of the writing or the storytelling, but because the reader didn’t like the memoirist.) I used to have the same kind of issue, but then I took writing classes and worked in journalism and read more about the writing process and I realized that every single writer on the planet gets edited, that no writer is so fantastic that they cannot benefit from the external guidance of another person, and that nothing helps a person be a better writer than paying attention to advice from others. I know I feel like my writing ability began to improve dramatically once I began to seek out constructive criticism and take it seriously, rather than crying over my hurt fee-fees because someone failed to recognize my searing genius. I mean, what am I going to do, freak out every time my coworker points out that I wrote a clunky sentence? As if.

    This reminds me of something I read the other day, and I wish I could remember where because I’d share the link, but someone was talking about how they’ve learned that the reader doesn’t owe them shit, and that in fact, the reader is doing them a favor by giving the writer her attention. It’s not the reader’s responsibility to slog through piles of cliches and poorly constructed sentences and bad word choices and trite ideas, you know? I wish more writers would adopt this attitude rather than feeling resentful toward their readers.

    Not everyone has to be Nabakov, but it’d be nice if people would at least TRY.

    1. ciara says:

      i can’t remember where i was first exposed to the idea that writers should be grateful & respectful of their readers, but…yeah. i definitely agree with that idea, & i feel like it’s a concept that is rarely considered in the zine world. it’s all about personal gratification (the therapeutic effects of making a zine). i think most zinesters are of course psyched when people read their zines & have nice things to say, but few of them stop to consider that it’s respectful of their readers to try to polish up their writing a little. there’s this idea that zines just float around out there & by the time someone picks one up, they’re kind of already on board with whatever/however you write. maybe that’s not so far off the mark, considering how marginalized zines are…but it’s not an excuse not to try.

      ps–i have definitely criticized memoirs because i hated the memoirist. from a technical standpoint, cleaving by julie powell wasn’t a terrible book. it had a throughline metaphor that was pretty labored, but…you know, style-wise, it was fine. but the self julie presented to the reader was so unsympathetic & unlikable, i just hated the book & i hated every second i wasted reading it. i have also criticized zines for the same reason.

      1. Caitlin says:

        Oh, ha, Julie Powell. Well, that just blows that whole idea out of the water. I can’t put my finger on why exactly but that new book of hers has completely turned me off. And your mention of Julie Powell has reminded me of Emily Gould, whose book I disliked so much that I immediately put it on paperbackswap.com despite paying full price for it. I found her book (and I guess by extension her) very boring and smug and lacking in substance, and when I finished it I hated myself for actually spending money on it.

        I think I was thinking more of memoirs like Some Girls and Impossible Motherhood and such, where people are so offended by the person’s life choices that they can’t see past their gigantic sense of Being Offended to actually look at the quality of the writing, at what the writer is trying to say, etc. Which is a different prospect than not liking the author, I suppose.

  2. Smellen says:

    I think I know the zine writer you’re talking about and I had similar feelings about her style, and also had a similar experience of being told I was elitist (not by her, but by other folks who’d read her stuff) when I said some critical things about her word choices. I agree that it’s very frustrating. Especially since I actually LIKED her zines as far as content and design, it was just her sometimes-poor vocabulary choices that drove me batty. And, as you said, it’s not an insurmountable obstacle.

    1. ciara says:

      elitist? ugh. it makes me sad that this intense anti-intellectualism is trickling down into radical communities. i understand that not everyone has some huge vocabulary at their disposal, but that’s why writers are encouraged to read & explore words that are new to them. i still learn new words all the time, or realize i have been spelling words wrong, or whatever. it’s a life-long process. & i consider it one of the joys of writing. why write if you don’t actually want to create beautiful sentences? i don’t get it.

  3. Sarah says:

    I have so much to say in regards to this issue and zines, crappy local magazines & weeklies, and blogs, but I don’t know where to begin.

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