Towards a Feminist Reassessment;
or Stand Down Joseph
Abi Frost

The free print media collective working party met in the cocktail bar of a restaurant in Regent Street (useful place: impresses the hell out of anyone you take there, but is actually cheaper than those upstart joints in Covent Garden. If If you must drink dubious mixtures of rum, coconut and that blue stuff, that is.)The Tequila-Sunrise-without-any-Tequila took the chair, as had become her custom.

'Although one of our members is late, as usual, I suggest we begin before the allegedly free peanuts run out. You will recall that this meeting was convened to discuss the future of literature and the free exchange of opinion and information with particular reference to publications which seem to operate with some degree of success outside the norms imposed by capitalist paternalist society, not to mention the iron heel of State repression. To this end --'

'I met some iron heels in my time,' confirmed the Cuba Libre.

'To this end,' the Sunrise effortlessly reimposed order, 'We agreed each to bring along a publication whose editorial or distributive structure failed to conform with the repressive late capitalist model. We agreed to restrict the sample to periodicals, because --'

There was a commotion among the waiters as the missing member flurried in, trying to catch her change as it dribbled from her handbag while holding her straw hat on her head and stemming the flow of bits of paper from her various plastic bags. With her free hand she gestured imperiously to a waiter:

'More olives and nuts and mine's a whiskey sour. As you were saying, we chose periodicals because everyone knows or else should know that book publishing is totallement kaput. So who found the good stuff? No use looking at me ...'

'I went all the way to Whitechapel,' said the Pina Colada who lived in Islington and worked in the City, 'and I found this.' She offered an ordinary-looking evening paper. 'It's called the East End News; it's run by a nonracist nonsexist collective, in which anyone can buy a £5 share, specially unions or women's groups or whatever.'

'It's my local rag.' said the Whiskey Sour. 'Buy it all the time. Good paper. But its virtues as a paper stem from its being written by professional hacks trained in the ordinary capitalist press. It's livelier, because the writers are more committed, and it has an obvious editorial line; whereas most local rags are pretty bland as they try to please everyone and don't have much competition. But at times there is a conflict between leftwing principles and basic traditional news values; and at times it is really pretty complacent.'

'It has an access page for what these days we have to call youths.' said the Pina Colada. 'Most laudable. Take this thoughtful piece by a teenage girl on boys' sexist insistence on groping her in the cinema because they've paid ...'

'Liberation works both ways' snorted the Sunrise. 'When I was that age I bought my own tickets.'

The Pina Colada resisted the temptation to ask whether she got groped at all, and sweetly said 'And do you still?'

'We-ell -- but at my age anyone who takes me out ain't spending what's left of his dole after his mum takes his keep. At least I hope not,' she said, thinking of the crisis in the media and most of the men she knew. 'I brought a really good magazine. Literary. Arts Council grant and all that'

The paper she offered was appropriately yellowing.

'Hmm ... Bananas. Lots of stories ... survey of the lit scene in Ireland ... not bad.' said the Cuba Libre. 'When!s the next ish?'

'Er ... nobody knows. Arts Council took the grant away.'

'Why?' asked the Royal Wedding Special.

'They wouldn't say. Policy.'

'Well,' said the RWS, 'I think we can dismiss that solution. The State giveth and the State taketh away. I have found something worse to meditate on. The Leveller.'

'Oh my gawd,' groaned the Whiskey Sour. 'Used to bo a good paper. Gradually got took over by things calling themselves working parties or whatever which obviously consisted of three dykes in Chapeltown who decided that since they weren't all that struck on penises nobody else should have one. In either sense. These days it seems to take articles, not on the basis of quality, originality or even political "soundness", but as the inevitable result of a threat by the writer to scream and scream till sick.'

'I brought something else, too.' said the RWS. She held up a lithoed thing called FAN. The Whiskey Sour snatched it, not noticing that it stood for Feminist Arts News. 'This is GOOD!' she pronounced. 'Fabulous cartoons. Jo Nesbit, Annemarie Blatchford -- I've seen their work somewhere before. Hey, look at this one, it's really funny. FANNY TRIBBLE? I just don't believe it!'

The Cuba Libre took it. 'Good article by Nesbit on the problem of working for women's groups that expect her to draw for nothing and follow the Line. Shame about the other articles though. I've seen more profound feminist analysis in the Grauniad. On the Sports Page.'

'That's the trouble,' said the RWS. 'The writers are working in isolation. There may be other feminist art critics, but not popular ones -- and this paper aims to be accessible to people who haven't even picked up the jargon at art school, never mind reading feminist theory as well. They see themselves as creating something new, but they don't trust their instincts to write simply; and they have no standard that_they will accept to measure themselves by.'

'Good editorial system' said the Sunrise. 'A "business collective" deals with subs, and sets up the next issue, but a different group of women edits it each time. Nobody gets burnt out, but there's continuity where needed. Maybe we could do an issue ...'

As they considered this possibility the Tom Collins finally got a word in. 'Look what I found -- in Stanford's map shop of all places. It's called Cuckoo Roots.' She offered a vaguely punkish looking thing with a two colour cover. The Whiskey Sour grabbed, as usual.

'This is -- like -- WEIRD. Looks like a punkzine, but is in fact a slice of the old Hampstead we all thought was dead. There is an article by a woman on how she used to go out with Orwell. A feature about lobotomy. Not what you'd care to read after breakfast, but written with a passion that would please one young man I know. And cogently argued and given the length the subject needs. Makes FAN look like a lovecomic.'

'It seems to be produced by and for the regulars of a cafe in Heath Street,' said the Collins. Ecstasy illumined the Whiskey Sour, 'A fanzine,' she breathed.

'There's a real sense of a friendly community here. Drama groups asking for members; jokes about the coffee at the cafe. You feel you could go up to these people and talk to then easily' said the Pina Colada.

'Seems to be the best yet' said the Sunrise Without Tequila. 'You two -- indicating the Cuba Libre and the Whiskey Sour -- haven't shown us anything yet.'

'Erm ... Evening Standard ... Private Eye ... Crafts (the magazine for people who care about the crafts)? Had no time to bustle around bleeding community bookshops -- going to pub my ish real ...' mumbled the Whiskey Sour.

'YOU had something to do with my thing,' accused the Cuba Libre. 'It just came. Through the post. I never even asked for it.' She was holding a thinnish duplicated magazine, which appeared to have no name. A sort of rhomboidal eye glared forbiddingly from the masthead, as if to vet its readers.

'Maybe somebody told him you fancy chartered accountants. Last time I saw him he'd started shaving ...'

'It seems to consist of an imaginary conversation between publishers of the same sort of thing. And a lot of letters. Unlike the other things we've looked at it doesn't seem to have a price, or any sort of editorial policy -- at least, there isn't a statement thereof ...' said the Collins.

The Whiskey Sour gave a brief resume of the use of the imaginary conversation in fiction and journalism, and explained the conventions followed in fanzines with regard to distribution, which should be familiar to you all.

'A totally free press' sighed the Sunrise. 'Editor puts her' (headshake from Whiskey Sour) 'ok his money where his mouth is. People develop confidence in writing via letters. How do we get in on it?'

'Not worth it. The thing seems to be dying on its feet. If ever anyone did produce fanzines which had any value as pure literature, they are not now. The idea is rife that because the whole thing started with science fiction and the social life revolving around it, only those two topics are permissible subjects. So nothing develops. For example, I've never seen an article in a fanzine where any sort of research seems to have gone into it other than a book review of course (and one sometimes wonders if some of the reviewers in the worse sercon fanzines do in fact read the books ...). Contrast the feature on lobotomy in Cuckoo Roots. Most fans would say "fanzines are for entertainment not to put over the editor's views on unpleasant topics" But the fact is a good piece of writing where the writer has bothered to marshal facts and sort out a coherent argument is a lot more genuinely relaxing to read than a lot of the derivatively infantile and sexist humour (so-called) that drops through my letterbox. 'Fanzines as a medium could take over the world -- well, not exactly, but provide a lot more pleasure for a lot more people than they do at present, if it weren't for the people who write and edit most of them. People who appear to revel in their own ignorance and illiteracy (several think English plurals are formed with an apostrophe) nevertheless regard themselves as forming an elite corps of superbrains who must not let their world be polluted by outsiders. It's a pity, because there are good writers around, whose work is belittled by appearing in that sort of context. Fandom is a magnificent structure which supports something along the lines of an empty Tizer bottle ...'

'But could these dreaded outsiders infiltrate and make use of it all?' asked the Cuba Libre. 'The sort of people who write for Cuckoo Roots ... or us, even. Let's have another round and talk about it ...'

'Yes, let's,' said the Sunrise. 'I might have a tiny drop of tequila this time ...'

The above, as you may guess, is a rather old piece of writing. Since I drafted it, there has been a major change in the scene; viz, the Rattish Renaissance. So far (due to Pickersgill's habit of sending things to the wrong address) I have seen only one example (two if you think Epsilon counts) of this strange new wave of fanzines-on-coloured-quarto-paper-with-illustrations- restricted-to-Hansen-covers; the two issues so far of Tappen. (Ok, that's two or three examples),

In a way this worries me. Although I was not around at the time, I have read a number of pre-Seacon genzines, and although the remarks above about ignorance and illiteracy do not on the whole apply to them, they were quite as deeply conservative about the content, style and so on of fanzines as any we have today. Since Seacon we have had Amanita, the various productions of the Somerset crowd, 2nd Hand Wave (which even if half of it isn't funny and the other half always turns out to be plagiarised, has good artwork and an irreverent self confidence that I like) and (pretending for a moment to be somebody else) New River Blues, all of which have broken to some extent with the old formula. As have Napalm ... and Ocelot, not included above as they're produced by pre-Seacon fans. All those fanzines have come to some sort of prominence and found some sort of personal style in the total absence of any sort of approved model (TD, Dot and Gross Encounters being footfootanahalf inimitable. I shall be very glad to see SBD when it arrives, and my real gripe about the RR is that it hasn't so far brought about the ninth Wrinkled Shrew; I certainly don't want to see the RR as such die on its feet. But I worry that when we have halfadozen good fanzines (most better than the others around) in the old pattern about, new faneds will simply imitate them, and not try to find their own way; and that they will be encouraged in this by the old guard editors. And we will be back where, to get approval, fame, and votes in the Ansible poll, you have to use one type of paper, one type of layout, run articles by twenty or so approved authors, have a cover by one of four approved artists ... I don't think that's very healthy, myself. 1

New River Blues 5 (1981)