By Kristen Tan (2022)
Janice Radway defines zines as “handmade, noncommercial, irregularly issued, small-run, paper publications circulated by individuals participating in alternative, special-interest communities” (Radway 2020). Zines first became popular in the 1980s, when fans of punk music adopted them as a way to communicate their “defiant response to the commercialism of mainstream society” (Radway 2020). Romance fiction appeared in many zines in the 1990s, both in the form of reviews of romance novels and original romance tales submitted by readers. In this paper, “Thrift Score,” “Edna’s Edibles,” and “Bi-Girl World” will be analyzed for their romance reviews, romance fiction, and other romance-related content.
Overview of Zines
In 1982, Mike Gunderloy published an article outlining the significance of zines as “critical components of the underground press” (Radway 2020). Gunderloy felt that zines were a democratic method of political intervention, in which individuals were free to challenge societal norms. Even the format of the zines themselves defy norms with their chaotic collages and lack of linear scanning. Zines explore a wide range of subjects, from environmental justice to discussions of sex and body image. Due to the controversial content of zines, they were often criticized for their “sloppy production values and dubious credibility” (Radway 2020). In response, Chris Dodge published an article arguing that zines should be treated as an authentic form of popular culture that is “[i]rreverent, gritty, lively, and a hell of a lot cheaper than overpriced academic journals…” (Radway 2020). Gunderloy and Dodge wanted to bring zines into mainstream print circles, such as libraries and the established press. They believed that zines had the potential to produce social and political change.
Another work that contributed to the legitimization of zines is Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture, a book published in 1997 by Stephen Duncombe. Duncombe was a zinester himself, as well as a former punk band member and political activist (Radway 2020). Duncombe alleges that although zines differ greatly in subject matter, format, and tone, they all share an element of “political self-consciousness” and “vernacular radicalism” (Duncombe 2008). Duncombe also emphasizes the communities that zines help to foster, claiming that they offer people “the intimacy and primary connections they don’t find in a mass society, but with none of the stifling of difference that usually comes with tight-knit communities” (Duncombe 2008). While zines capture the individuality of the author(s), they also help connect those who do not necessarily fit into mainstream society.
Kate Eichhorn alleges that zines form “communities that emerge when people are brought together through shared texts, a shared set of texts, or a shared set of reading or writing practices” (Eichhorn 2001). Zines unite people across geographic boundaries, allowing readers and writers to form relationships without having to meet in person. To gain access to a zine, the zinester must deem the reader trustworthy of viewing their publications. According to one zinester, “Most of my zines are through the mail so they get mailed directly to the person or I hand them out personally… it is mostly to people I know or people who I think might benefit from reading them” (Eichhorn 2001). Thus, the goal of many zinesters was not to reach as vast of an audience as possible, but to connect with people with shared personal and political commitments (Eichhorn 2001).
For many girls, the friendships that they formed in zine communities provided them with personal support and a safe space to express their thoughts and feelings. One zinester shared, “There are people who understand completely. That’s amazing. It makes you feel like you can do anything when you connect” (Schilt 2003). Free from censorship, girls were able to discuss many taboo topics in their zines, including sex, feminism, and puberty (Schilt 2003). Zines served as a forum for discussing the many challenges that girls face in adolescence: the changes occurring in their bodies, new sexual experiences, birth control issues, among others. By sharing their feelings and frustrations about sex, some zinesters were able to develop “a positive sense of sexual agency in adolescence and… gain some voice for expressing their sexuality” (Schilt 2003).
Another particularly striking aspect of zines is the original art that is often displayed on the covers and throughout the zines. The chaotic and often unconventional artwork further illustrates the zinesters’ protestation of mainstream society. Despite many artists being offered book deals with independent publishers and selling their art in galleries, many choose to continue to publish their art in inexpensive zines or comics (Thomas 2009). Art zines typically include silk-screened covers, collages, or inserts and attachments of stickers, badges, patches, photographs, and toys (Thomas 2009). The subject matter of art zines both reflects and influences the art world, from doodles of melancholic lovers to illustrations of urban landscapes. Even “low art” presentation (appearing in black and white zines made on a photocopier and stapled together) is deliberate and requires the creator to make artistic decisions (Thomas 2009).
Romance Fiction in 1990s Zines
A variety of zines were popular in the United States in the 1990s. There were zines about science fiction, music, television, politics, personal experiences, sexuality, and more (Duncombe 2008). This paper aims to examine the ways in which romance fiction appeared in zines in the 1990s. One of the zines to be examined is Al Hoff’s “Thrift Score,” a zine about the world of thrift shopping, first published in 1994. There are fourteen issues in total, and the final issue was published in 1999. Issue number ten is of particular interest for this paper, as it includes relationship advice, love stories, and Hoff’s reviews of Harlequin romance novels. Titled “The Thrift Love Issue,” this zine begins with an introduction by the author, in which she shares that she has written a book about thrifting: “a bigger version of ‘Thrift Score’,” she calls it. Indeed, Al Hoff’s book Thrift Score: The Stuff, The Method, The Madness! was published in August 1997 by Harper Perennial. The book has a rating of 3.68 on Goodreads, and it has a total of 97 ratings, some of which mention her zine “Thrift Score,” indicating that some of her book readers are fans of her zine (Goodreads, n.d.).
Another zine that features romantic content is Sarah Manvel’s “Edna’s Edibles,” which consists of personal anecdotes, quotes, and book and film reviews. Each issue of “Edna’s Edibles” is priced at “$1 and 1 stamp,” and Manvel includes her mailing address for readers to send money for future issues. Issues three and five of “Edna’s Edibles” are relevant for this paper, as they both feature reviews of romance novels. The last zine of interest, “Bi-Girl World” by Karen F., is a zine that explores bisexuality through anecdotes, poems, erotica, reviews, and commentary. Each issue of “Bi-Girl World” costs two dollars, and the author includes her mailing address at the beginning of the zine. For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on how these zines addressed romance fiction in the form of romance novel reviews, original romance stories, and other romance-related content.
Romance Reviews in Zines
Many 1990s zines feature romance fiction in the form of book reviews. In “Thrift Score No. 10,” Hoff discusses the romantic value of various board games, shares anecdotes from readers about thrifting and relationships, and reviews Harlequin romance books. In a section called “Romance for the Millions: Harlequin Books,” Hoff describes the progressive changes that she has observed in Harlequin books she has found at the thrift store. Hoff shares that “the older books feature female protagonists in more traditional and passive women’s roles… later novels portray women as more independent and strong.” Despite this praise, Hoff goes on to criticize the genre’s general avoidance of casual sex at the time, saying that “within the very rigid constraints of the romance novel structure, casual sex is not ‘romantic,’ and remember, romance is what these books are all about.” Hoff acknowledges that some romance novels include “racy sex scenes,” but “it’s just sex before the inevitable marriage.”
Another zine that features reviews of romance fiction is “Edna’s Edibles” by Sarah Manvel. Issue number three begins with an introduction by the author, in which she shares that she has been busy directing a play and traveling with her family. Next, the zine dives into “Edna’s Reviews,” a section where Manvel shares her opinions on books that she has read. Manvel reviews Muriel Jensen’s One and One Makes Three, which is about a man named Sin getting a women named Bobbi pregnant. Sin kidnaps Bobbi for five months, and they fall in love and become a family. Manvel gave this book three stars, expressing indignance at Bobbi’s desire to have a “big hunk of testosterone to arrange everything for her.” Manvel also dislikes the part of the story where Sin kidnaps Bobbi, calling Sin a “domineering, chauvinist pig.” However, Manvel says that “there were a lot of good pregnancy sex scenes,” which is why she gave the book three stars. Manvel’s overall impression of the book is quite bad, as she concludes by saying, “I know I shouldn’t expect great feminist literature from a Harlequin, but this really offended me.”
Next, Manvel reviews a book called Together by Ellen Roddick, which is about a married couple that falls in love with other people and gets re-married. Manvel states that “it was funny, but uhh, I didn’t like it or hate it.” Manvel thinks the book is badly written, “but there is naked people on the cover and some hysterical romantic scenes. So it wasn’t all bad.” Despite these two bad reviews, Manvel gives Strut by Bruce and Carole Hart a rating of “I really hope there’s a sequel!” This book is about an aspiring singer named Holly who has the ghost of a rockstar, Jasper, helping her to achieve stardom. Holly falls in love with Jasper, but he eventually dematerializes. Manvel liked this book, but she was angry that “none of the female characters could do s*** without a man’s say-so.” Manvel concludes the zine with an anecdote of her friend-related drama, and a call for readers to send her mail at her Maryland address.
Issue five of “Edna’s Edibles” also begins with an introduction by the author. Manvel gives readers some life updates then dives into her reviews for this issue. Manvel criticizes This Day’s Death by John Rechy, which is about a man who is arrested for “trying to get an unhappily married guy to blow him in a park.” Manvel believes that “this is a pretentious piece of slop which you can tell was written by a goateed, beret-wearing, angst-filled serious artist.” The representation of homosexuality in the book is offensive to Manvel, as it depicts many stereotypes of lesbian and gay people.
Manvel also reviews Death of a Gossip by MC Beaton, which is a thriller that features some romance. The book is about the investigation of Lady Jane Winters’s death by “local bobby and champion poacher” Hamish. Eventually, Hamish discovers the identity of the murderer, and along the way, he falls in love with a girl named Alice. Manvel expresses her dislike of the author’s descriptions of female characters, as Lady Winters was described as having a “heavy bust encased in silk blouse, heavy thighs bulging in knee breaches.” Overall, Manvel seems to find the book boring and poorly written. The last article in this issue is a continuation of the friend-related drama in issue three, as well as Manvel’s new school address and email for readers to write to. Both Manvel and Hoff seem to enjoy the representation of sex in romance novels, but they find dissatisfaction with the sexism and traditional perspectives in the books.
Romance Fiction in Zines
While “Thrift Score” and “Edna’s Edibles” review romance fiction, “Bi-Girl World” by Karen F. features original romance fiction, often in the form of erotica. In the fall 1992 issue of “Bi-Girl World,” there is a short erotic story called “Nikita,” written by Jennifer Tieg. The story is about two women having sex, while a man watches from another room. “He is to watch only, not to join us. Perhaps that will be another night,” the woman says. The author goes on to describe the sexual encounter in detail, ending with one of the women climaxing. Additionally, there are two erotic poems, one that describes the narrator’s lust for a woman, and the other describing erotic pottery. Finally, Karen F. praises some of her favorite bisexual erotic writers, filmmakers, and porn stars. The last page of this issue features a list of the contributors, including Jennifer Tieg.
The winter 1993 issue of “Bi-Girl World” also contains a short erotic story called “Lock and Key” by Zero. This story features BDSM between a submissive male and dominant female character, as the male says “push me down / bolt my wrists / chain our nipples together.” In addition, Karen F. provides her recommendations for films with gay and lesbian representation, including Rosebud, Twin Bracelets, A Certain Grace, and Love in Progress. Like the other issue, this issue ends with a list of contributors, including Zero.
The last issue that features romance fiction is the summer 1993 issue of “Bi-Girl World.” There is a story called “First Kiss” by Deborah Gerhart. This story is about a woman who is in love with a man named Sam, who has a girlfriend named Gerry. The woman expresses her desire to make love to both Sam and Gerry, and Gerry asks her to describe the particular sexual fantasies that she has about them. As the woman shares the sexual experiences that she wishes to have with them, Gerry begins to engage in sexual behavior with the woman. The story ends with the two women heading to the bedroom where Sam is. Besides this story, there is a short poem by Shannon French about love. She says, “we shall worship sun and fire and one another until our burning hearts are immersed in something infinitely wetter than the sea.”
Other Romantic Content in Zines
Some zines feature romance-related content apart from romance novel reviews and original romance fiction. “Thrift Score No. 10” features a “Thrift Gumbo” recipe because “the best way to a lover’s heart is through his or her stomach.” Next to the recipe, there is a drawing of a couple having a picnic under a tree. This issue also includes an interesting list of love-related objects that the author has found at thrift stores, including a photo album to store wedding photos in. Finally, “The Thrift Love Issue” includes a list of board games and their “romance value.” The game “Chug-A-Lug” has a “romance value” of “extremely high when you factor in the alcohol,” whereas the game “Charlie’s Angels” has a “romance value” of “none really.”
In the fall 1992 issue of “Bi-Girl World,” there is a comic titled “Women vs. Men” depicting how post-sex encounters differ after heterosexual versus homosexual sex. In the first strip’s post-sex scene, one woman is angry at the bisexual woman for also having sex with men. In the second strip, the bisexual woman feels unsatisfied by her sexual encounter with a man, who feels quite fulfilled by the experience. This comic illustrates the dilemma that many bisexual women face: they are not satisfied by sex with men, but other women judge them for having sex with both men and women.
From my examination of “Thrift Score,” “Edna’s Edibles,” and “Bi-Girl World,” romance fiction appeared in 1990s zines in the form of romance novel reviews and original romance stories (often erotica). Although the subject matter of these zines typically differs, they have at least one issue that features romance fiction. “Thrift Score’s” main focus is on thrifting, but they have one issue dedicated to love and romance. “Edna’s Edibles” features book and movie reviews, some of which are romance fiction. Finally, “Bi-Girl World” includes original romantic tales, in addition to personal anecdotes, comics, and commentary about bisexuality. What all of these zines have in common, though, is that they all addressed romance fiction through book reviews, original romance stories, and other romance-related content.
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