Skip to:Hypocrisy -- Not So Bad?; Interview with Ninj of Infiltration; The Deal of the Art; A Memo To My New Boss, Rupert Murdoch; The Real Corporate Conspiracy; The Big Question; and Zinester Millennium!

Welcome to the American Dream Machine.

For a long time, the family vacation was seen as the reward of a year of hard work. Stay at a resort where your every whim and craving was catered to. A beautiful, exotic land where you could spend some time with the wife and kids and recharge the old batteries. Take some nice photos for the folks.

When Johnny Rotten sang "I don't want a holiday in the sun," he was adding a note of dissonance to an opinion that was assumed to be universal. But having pre-packaged fun in a fake place full of people who have traded their lives for a work-based identity and a single week of high end laziness isn't everyone's idea of a good time. Some people find mindless joy depressing. Others just burn too easily.

This is what this zine is about. To look at the mainstream as a place with pros and cons, not as the only suitable destination for our creative endeavours. I've spent eight years happily burrowing in the underground making zines and finding more than enough to keep me well fed, creatively speaking. Now, with a novel coming out in eight months (Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask, in stores everywhere April 1999!) with a major publisher it's like suddenly finding myself under a palm tree being handed piña coladas. It's not that I was brought here against my will -- I had heard a lot about the place and I did want to visit. But if I find the sun too harsh or the other vacationers too obnoxious, I expect I'll leave.

Indie culture isn't purely independent. It's influenced by the mainstream even when it's reacting against it. Mainstream culture isn't purely mainstream. It's influenced by indie culture even when it's being insulted. Depicting the interplay between the two as a vicious battle of good against evil is a somewhat useful as a way to shock someone out of their trance, but I want to create a forum for discourse, not debate. Debate's about winning, and discourse is about discovering. This issue is mostly postcards to myself about how I like it so far, but please send in your ideas, theories, accusations. Being on holiday alone is a drag.


Hypocrisy -- Not So Bad?

As I'm a hypocrite, having just sold a book to a company that's owned by a manipulative right-wing bastard, you'd be quite right to suspect this article as being a self-serving piece of recent rationalisation.

But actually, it was a few years ago that I started questioning hypocrisy's hallowed place as the prime vice of our time. I was reading Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age (or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer) a marvellous science fiction novel inhabited by a subculture of Neo-Victorians. These folks contrasted with the other kinds of humans because they had a moral code. Like the original Victorians and their whipping brothels and sexy fairy paintings, they occasionally strayed from it. But they had ethics to begin with.

Nowadays, consistency seems to have replaced virtue. Since moral relativism makes virtue so hard to define, people tend to judge people on more obvious things. If someone kills children because he hates them, and is wholly dedicated to eliminating the toddler set from the earth, this person is somehow less contemptible than a vegetarian who wears leather shoes.

Followed to its logical extreme, anyone who is a social critic and remains in that society -- benefiting from and contributing to it -- is a hypocrite. No one can be politically pure except a person who constantly follows the status quo's lead and has no opinions of her own.

I have a great respect for political consistency and attempts to stay pure. I think that proving that you can act in direct refutation to all accepted wisdom is a political act that can cause social change. But it's easy to lose sight of the goal -- social change -- and become fixated on purity at the cost of relevance and impact.

To remain free of corporate radiation is a good rule of thumb, but Michael Moore's TV Nation and his hilarious attack interviews would be mere entertainment to the underground's cynical converted -- the more televisions in Suburban Middle America he can infiltrate the better. Same with Adbusters. Publisher Kalle Lasn, meat-eater and car-driver, does more to destroy the meat and car industry than ten granola munching, bike riding cynics.

On the other hand, Green Day's pop punk, complete with the expected costumes, is completely unchallenging to the status quo and only had value in the context of a fifteen-year-old hardcore scene. Punks crooning love songs in rebellion against the punk convention of screamed political songs is a valid artistic reaction; but stripped of that history, it's just entertainment.

As outspoken anarchists, Chumbawamba are bigger hypocrites than Green Day for signing to a major label. Despite that, they're attacking Tory MPs at music award shows and singing about labour unions. They had ethics to begin with. Because of that political fibre, they're doing more with their power and profile.


How Was Your Trip?

Interviews with Mainstream Survivors

Infiltration, the excellent zine about going places you're not supposed to go, is written by a fellow named Ninjalicious. From secret subway stations to luxury hotels to the tunnels under Paris, you can expect high-quality prose from a man who knows his naughtiness. And funny -- ooh la la is eet funny! After reading this interview you'll probably want to send $2 to PO Box 66069, Town Centre PO, Pickering ONT, L1V 6P7 or visit, and I wouldn't think of stopping you.

What form did your mainstream exposure take?

I was thrust into the spotlight when my zine, Infiltration, was profiled on Ooh La La. Ooh La La is a Toronto-produced, internationally-aired TV show that profiles people and happenings they perceive to be sufficiently hip and photogenic. I scored 10 minutes in the sun.

How did it come about?

My fame came to me unsolicited when the show's editor, Marco, sent me an e-mail message gushing about the zine and proposing an Infiltration segment for his show. At the time, I had heard of Ooh La La, but I thought it was all about contemporary fashion, so I was non-committal. When I asked my sisters about the show and they told me it was cool, then I started to get interested in the idea.

Did you have any feelings or political stance about mainstream exposure before?

I had debated the evils and merits of going mainstream with friends in the zining world many times. I usually wind up on the pro-mainstream side of the debate. I felt pretty safe going into this show, because I knew Marco was truly into urban exploration and wasn't just using it as kooky filler on a slow hipness week. Marco also pretty much let me call the shots in terms of who to interview for the show and what sites to film, and didn't have a problem with my insistence on wearing a ninja disguise during my interview.

What, if anything, did you hope to gain from the mainstream exposure? What were your motivations?

There were many. My most base motivation was to impress people like my sisters, who are impressed by TV in a way they'll never be impressed by a zine. I also wanted a high-quality, digitally-recorded account of my expeditions, and Marco promised me copies of all the raw footage. On a less selfish level, I wished I had seen a show about urban exploration when I was younger, to encourage me in my unusual hobby. I figured the show would help me spread the gospel of the right to look around to whole new audiences.

Did you get screwed?

Having heard a lot of horror stories from other zine makers who'd tried TV on for size, I was kind of expecting to be screwed. I was happily surprised when I finally watched the 10-minute segment and didn't find myself moaning in agony. They did edit my words in one instance, but in a minor way that would only bother a zine maker. I was very annoyed that they'd cut out the interview with Ultraviolet at the side of the pool in the Sheraton hotel -- I thought that was important, since Ultraviolet is my partner in crime, and I wanted to show that infiltrating is about more than just tunnels and abandoned buildings. I guess they decided it wasn't "alt" enough.

What other effects did it have?

Let's just say I haven't slept alone much.

There were quite a few more orders for the zine and visits to the website. A couple of old friends got in touch to congratulate me on being famous, which just made me uncomfortable. Several people who never took the zine seriously before became more interested afterwards, and I think some of the people who regularly help me with the zine started helping more enthusiastically.

Although the experience wasn't negative, I was very relieved when it was finally over with, and I'm not at all eager to repeat the experience. It was a lot of work compiling the 10 hours of footage that were needed to produce the 10-minute segment, and I had to spend a lot of time in a culture (Znaimerland) that was interesting but uncomfortable. I don't think I felt any different about myself or the zine after the show, aside from feeling a little more paranoid about being hunted down by police or security guards for a few weeks afterwards.


The Deal of the Art (And Vice Versa)

It wasn't until I was telling my friend's father about it that I realised how reticent I'd been in the past. With him, a fifty-something doctor, I was able to describe the business end of the book deal plainly, something I hadn't been able to do with any of my friends or peers.

There was a number of reasons. There's no context for it in the bohemian circles I travel in, which I'm usually glad of. The crushing power that business has in the mainstream is inverted in the counterculture, placed well below the topics of art and politics. I imagine that I felt something similar to a banker having an inappropriate flair for ragtime piano. As a creative person, I'm expected to be disorganized and incapable of making business decisions -- so when I tell people that I was able to handle the deal myself in a not-so-incompetent manner I feel like I'm bragging. But really what I'm doing is violating people's image of what an artist is by showing both sides of my personality.

The thing is, being organized and methodical is the only way I've been able to survive financially up till now. Perpetuating the myth of the purely creative artist is a great way to ensure a lot of cultural workers never reach their goals, whatever they might be.

There's a kind of nod-and-wink assumption that you won't want to talk the details of the contract, and there's at least one good selfish reason why most don't: the advances are so small that there's a temptation to let people think that you got paid the millions they imagine authors get. But because we all know that guild secrets, like those crazy handshakes, are at best silly and at worst elitist, I've opted for full disclosure.

Many people want, even need, to know about the business side of art, but can't bring themselves to ask. So to avoid the uncomfortableness on both ends, here's what you would have heard if you were a wallfly when I talked to my friend's dad. Not that you want to know, or anything.

(All prices quoted are Canadian unless otherwise stated.)

"After I wrote the book, I asked a few friends how to get other people to publish it. Stuart suggested I get a book called Be Your Own Literary Agent, and I did. I read it and followed its directions on how to package a twenty page proposal, sending this out to 50 or so houses. About five were interested in seeing the whole manuscript, which I sent out.

"An anarchist press I really liked was interested in the book, but wanted $3000 for printing costs -- fiction was a very risky investment. A young editor at HarperCollins also liked it. After convincing the rest of the house it was worth doing, he made me an offer of a $2000 advance against a 10% royalty. This meant I would make $2 on each book after 1000 books were sold. If they didn't sell that many, I would receive nothing more, but if it sold 5000 copies (a best-seller in Canada) then I would make an additional $8000 dollars.

"Researching the company through magazine and newspaper articles at the library turned up a lot of good information, such as how much they had recently spent on promotions ($40,000 between four authors) and that the HarperCollins in America had undergone serious downsizing over the last year. It was owned by Rupert Murdoch, an infamous media magnate.

"I called up the anarchist press and made a proposition. I would be willing to publish with them for no advance, just royalties, and put three months into promoting and publicising it. It would be a media event that the journalists would love -- the author who turned down a big name publisher in favour of a small press! I was excited about it, if a little nervous. But he declined, and suggested I take the deal.

"Disappointed, I made one last ditch attempt. I called up the last two remaining independent publishers (large scale, that is) in the free world, Houghton-Miffler and Norton, and explained my conundrum. The editors I spoke to, and subsequently sent manuscripts to, were initially interested but didn't end up making me an offer. Neither did any of the other smaller presses that had originally shown interest.

"So I met with the young editor and the publisher, both of whom I found charming and enthusiastic. They told me about HarperCollins, and I listened, curious to see how they'd spin it -- and ended up pleased by their candour. At the end of it, I was given a contract. I said I'd need a month to think it over.

"I went to the Writer's Union, and got some information from them. I asked everyone I knew for advice, told them how helpless and ignorant I was -- which was tough, because my ego wanted to pretend that I was on top of it and everything. But it paid off, because Christine told me about this guy in the publishing industry she used to baby-sit for, and he in turn graciously recommended me to a literary agent.

"Literary agents take 15% of any money their clients make. For this, they usually secure a contract, and then negotiate the terms -- but I had already secured the contract, and the language of the contract was plain enough that I felt I could deal with it myself. I also was hesitant to sacrifice any control of my business to someone else -- DIY unless there's a good reason not to -- so when I met the agent, and we didn't click, I declined the offer of representation.

"When I finished going over the contract a billion times, I made a counter-offer of $5000 for half of the rights they'd asked for. I ended up with a final offer of $2500 and control over the cover art and back cover blurb. I had been told by people who worked in the industry that I wouldn't get control, not on a first book, but I kept asking for it. Later I found out that only myself and another very prominent author had secured these rights.

"So I was happy. They had made a few concessions, gracefully; they had given me a considerable chunk of time to deliberate, not once succumbing to pressure tactics; and I was very excited about working with these talented people on a venture that I had always previously done solo.

"I signed."


To: Rupert Murdoch, Media Magnate

From: Jim Munroe, HarperCollins Cultural Production Employee #XKJ93

Rupert --

Just a memo to tell you what a thrill it is to be working for you. I've had some strong-arm bosses in the past, but none that had a will to power as intense as yours! I'm really part of an empire, here.

I've admired your work from afar for years. Your line of British tabloids had been shaping public opinion for ages, sure, but it wasn't until you acquired the New York Post in the early eighties hat my ears really pricked up. The work you did for Reagan was incredible. Attacking Mondale's running mate relentlessly, day in and day out, made it feel just like a scandal -- and you didn't even have to waste any energy actually backing it up with evidence. That pro-abortion bitch got what was coming, eh? Who would have thought that righteous family values and muck-raking would taste so good together!

And it's not just the grand, puppet-master manoeuvrings I'm a fan of -- I also love the subtle stuff. Like how the Post called a white murder suspect a "vigilante" while a black murder suspect gets "voodoo killer." Especially considering it's New York -- crank up the racial tension a little more and there'll be a serious demand for the law-and-order society you rightly favour. Maybe even martial law! That'd sell papers, eh?

Anyway -- that's just so you'll know that I'm on your side. So when I ask you what happened with the Chris Patten thing, you'll know it's out of concern. It's not that you didn't have every right and reason to axe his book -- I mean, the multi-million dollar deal you were cutting with the Chinese government may have been ruined by that liberal pansy's yammering about their human rights abuses -- but how did it get so messy? Were your spin doctors out playing golf? Calling it "dull" didn't just inspire the editor-in-chief at HarperCollins Britain to quit but forced the company to print an official retraction to avoid a libel suit. And the threats from Doris Lessing and other prominent authors to leave HarperCollins -- none of this had to happen, Rupert. Was there a day you forgot to take a pill, and sent the mail clerk to the press conference instead of the PR guy? Now, don't get the wrong idea -- I'm not being critical, but maybe you should think about seeing a specialist. You're getting up there, Rupert, and you don't want to go out like Howard Hughes. If not for yourself, do it for the people you love.

Anyway, I better go. I'm getting my photo taken for the book. Oh, and if by chance you do read it, don't get put off by all the anarchist, pro-feminist stuff -- it's just what the kids dig nowadays. Makes them feel good to run around the streets a little before they have to get a real job. You remember -- like your wacky left-wing, Labour-supporting college days. They'll smarten up soon enough, but in the meantime let's make some money off them, shall we?

Your loyal employee,

Jim Munroe


(Note: Not a real letter. For entertainment purposes only.)


The Real Corporate Conspiracy

You're helping Them reverse engineer UFOs.

If only They were attaching electrodes to our brains, or just replacing them with computer chips -- that would be easy to stop. But it's much more insidious than that.

Because we help Them do it.

When a person is young, they have anti-establishment ideals -- for instance, they dislike the rich and their obnoxious cell phones and car alarms. For most of them, it doesn't go beyond that -- a sneering feeling shared by their friends -- and they will never, say, form an analysis that these intrusive toys are just outward manifestations of an oppressive class structure. These average people are easy prey for... Them.

All They have to do is give this carefree person a job making a lot of money and that person gets right to work: reverse engineering their UnFormed Opinions. Reverse engineering is when a company like Samsung takes a VCR that Panasonic makes better and figures out how they do it by taking it apart. Similarly, the carefree person starts with where their situation is now, and works on adjusting their worldview (present and past) so that it fits comfortably into their lifestyle. Rent money and social acceptance is a necessity while a radical, interesting or even coherent political stance isn't. Usually, their past worldview was reflective of their social environment, rather than an individual synthesis of rational thought and emotional predilection.

Although I'm more of the latter than the former, I still see the possibility of a shift to (shudder) moderate politics -- it'll just take longer. Here's how it could happen:

Having regular contact with the people who are handling my book shows me that not only are they not corporate whores after all: they're very nice, efficient, love books and in some cases are even cool enough to be apologetic about their company. And flattering! The ego glucose is delivered with the regularity I've always needed.

I'm hardly one to abandon my old friends, though, so I go out with them, perhaps to burn a few billboards down. Everything would be going well and then someone would yell a joyous "fuck the corporate whores" and part of me would agree and part of me would think, well, the people I know aren't whores.

The more I hang around other people who aren't vocally critical of corporate complicity, the less I mentally have to deal with it. People start to refer to my anarchist punk rock past as part of an amusing anecdote, or a crazy-young-kid thing, and I grin sheepishly and let them. Little betrayals, ones I don't even notice.

Unconsciously, I start to reverse engineer my politics to suit my new position. My opinion that homogeneous culture is a social sickness moves to indie culture is better then to indie culture is a little snobby and so on. Moderation sets like a pair of concrete boots. And down I sink, to stay, at the bottom of the mainstream.

Perhaps that's my destiny, but I plan to go out screaming all the way. I'd rather be a hypocritical, inconsistent anarchist pissed off at injustice and dreaming of a better world than a consistant liberal, smugly satisfied with my lot in life.


The Big Question

Eight years ago I published my first zine, Celtic Pamplemousse. In my introduction I explain why I'm planning to do it -- half selfless reasons, to entertain and stimulate the reader, and half selfish: "By creating worlds, I entertain myself, and by transmogrifying my vague theories into printed ideas, I -- yes, that's right -- I stimulate mySELF." Or at least that's what I wrote. Certainly back then I had a desire to be a full-time writer some day, but I didn't have a game plan. The idea of living off of zine writing back then wasn't even an issue. I liked feedback and seeing my words on paper, and they seemed enough to warrant the grand statement "I will be publishing this zine irregularly until I die, in one form or another."

Since then, a whole new set of reasons have kept me doing zines. I met people through it that I otherwise never would have. People with perspectives and lifestyles so different from my own that I never would have given them a chance to show why we were common souls if not for them reading and responding to my zine. These people created a community for me that I had needed ever since my waning interest in the punk scene. ("Why I'm Going Straight" was in CP v1.0 and explained why I felt I was more effective as an activist not looking like a punk. That was my first fall from grace.) Anyone can join if they want to enough, by doing a zine you automatically become part of a non-hierarchical community. There's instant rapport -- sharing zine fair stories, showing off staple calluses, talking about esoteric elements of the mail network.

This is in considerable contrast to the mainstream publishing world. Entirely hierarchical, there are the handlers and the talent. Even when the conversations are enjoyable and everyone's friendly, the power relations are always there. And generally, the people aren't as creative or eclectic as zine folk, and hence less inspiring for me.

It's not fair to judge the whole process just as it's begun, but after this first book has run its course I'll have to ask the question: would it have been more politically, socially and creatively enriching for me to have published this myself?


Zinester Millennium!

There's nothing like reading a kick-ass zine, something that fucks with your childish ideas of life and spawns something with fourteen arms in a shark-fin suit. Something as thoughtful as it is ass-bustingly funny.

We've set up a shadow publishing world that offers clever young malcontents an audience and a distribution network. Publishing's no longer a gentleman's game. All an artist really needs nowadays is inspiration and confidence.

But how to get these things? A substantial audience goes a long way in providing confidence -- strength in numbers, and all that. If a part of the audience is responsive and creative, then it can offer inspiration as well. I prefer the latter -- I'd trade 100 unresponsive readers for 10 responsive readers, regardless of what they said. This is why I love zines -- zine readers are much more likely to write you letters, being active enough to seek out misfit lit to begin with.

Full-time writing can build confidence in your identity as a real writer. So does getting paid, or being affiliated by an established house or magazine. Getting a book deal doesn't make you financially independent, but it can solidify your self-image. Gathering credibility around you like royal robes. This is what the book industry offers, and it's not an insignificant thing.

But the industry is in for a bit of a shock. Many of the best young writers of today view publication not with gratefulness but with cool suspicion. They've published their own work, had complete creative control, and have a more focused idea of what they want and where they're going. This makes them more demanding, less easy to handle, and maddeningly independent.

On the other hand, the zinester also has developed a work ethic, meets deadlines, has created her own structures for editing and pre-publication feedback, is more media-savvy, has a small but loyal base of fans and is unafraid to package and sell her writing. Having going through a very similar process herself, she has a better idea of what can and can't be done, and a realistic appreciation for how much work it is. Harder to gauge but certainly significant is the amount of craft-honing that has gone on behind the scenes -- often a person will have been writing intensively for many years, uninhibited by the worries of whether it would sell. Written for its own sake, or at least for an audience sick of mainstream culture, the best zine writers aren't just as good as real writers -- they're better.

And now their fictional children are approaching the biggest publishing houses in the world, their fourteen arms capable of scaling the walls with ease and their shark-fin suits impervious to arrows.

Might as well just open the gates, eh?