Today’s interview is with the ex-editor and writer Jenny Catlin who founded the magazine, Scissors and Spackle.
First, here’s some background on Jenny:
I am a reader and sometimes a poet. My work has appeared in many, mostly obscure print and online journals. Prior to founding S&S I worked with several journals and zines based out of Denver.
SARETT: There are thousands and thousands of literary magazines? What was your impetus for starting a new one? And now that you’ve exited, do you expect it to change?
CATLIN: I don’t think that I had any notion of just how many journals there are today. I had worked exclusively in the print medium in both an editorial capacity and as a writer. I was very naive about the world of online journals. I am a nature girl at heart and I had only had access to a computer and the Internet for a few months prior to starting S&S. When I was first exposed to the world of online lit. journals, it rekindled my inner teenage punk-rocker; I, mistakenly, associated the online journal community with the indie ‘zine scene of my wasted youth, and I wanted in. I was in love with the idea of a D.I.Y community whose mission was to expose quality writing without regard for pedigree or publishing experience.
I think that, unfortunately, the online writing community will have a darkest before the dawn moment. At the moment, it seems that every student, poet and writer feels a pull to start their own journal, which is great, but I think there is an unintended side effect of isolation that creates a non-supportive writing and publishing environment. Maybe I am just projecting, but I believe that in the future more editors will band together to focus on creating widely read journals and, therefore, fewer splinter projects will exist. I am so saddened to see the number of high quality journals that have collapsed recently. It is such a tremendous amount of work to run a quality journal that I think that more inter-journal collaboration is imminent.
SARETT: As an editor, were you sensitive to the experience of reading online? Do you feel that reading online places special burdens on stories?
CATLIN: I was not, at first. In retrospect, I had no concept of what appeals to the online reader. I learned, quickly, that the online journal is a distant cousin to the print journal. Readers and writers, for that matter, have a different set of expectations.
The online reading experience, as I said, is almost unrelated to print reading. I think that there are different burdens in both mediums. In my experience, the online medium is more forgiving of format and grammar (not necessarily a positive); however, I think that the average online reader has less patience and a shorter attention span. This forces a story to be gripping in the first paragraph. Additionally, I think that longer fiction comes to the online market with something more to prove than its shorter counterparts.
SARETT: I’ve noticed that lots of magazines say that “flash fiction” is their sweet spot. Is it something about flash, or is it simply easier for editor to get through?
CATLIN: This ties into my previous answer. Unfortunately, the online reader seems conditioned by social media (etc.) to want everything to be like a pyrotechnics show – beautiful but brief. Because people have a different set of expectations for online fiction, flash, in my experience, has the largest readership. But, yes, it is also easier for the editor. There are issues of storage space and site format; however, more than that, I think there are a lot of editors that don’t want to take the time to wade through lengthy submissions, which is a shame. Although I suppose that is a bit of a chicken or the egg scenario – which came first the impatient reader or the impatient editor? That’s not to say that flash journals or writers are lazy, often quite the contrary. It is simply that the online community, in and of itself, demands brevity.
SARETT: I’m always amazed that editors can read as much as they do. In your mind, what are the ingredient that make a good magazine editor?
CATLIN: Wow, that’s a tricky question. I think that the most important trait, as you mentioned, is the desire to read A LOT, most of which is bad. I think that the desire to work for the writer is probably one of the most important qualities in a good editor. Perhaps that wouldn’t matter for a journal that was helping someone to pay their rent, but for most editors it is important to remember how hard the writer works on their craft. For the editor, a story or poem is pretty much in and out of their consciousness, but for the writer, it is a permanent fixture of their identity that they are – let’s face it – donating to the journal. It mystifies me the number of jerk-y editors that are out there, who are writers themselves. I do not get it.
Maybe what is more important, is what an editor is not. I think that it is important to stay away from the notion that editors are taken more seriously if they are aloof and even a little mean. Sending out negative feedback, altering someone’s work without permission, never responding to submissions – these things are unacceptable. Occasionally there is a pompous writer who acts like a righteous ass, but they are the exception. Additionally, a huge slice of the readership pie comes from the writers. Never piss off someone who has 10,000 twitter followers and a popular blog. In the world of online journals, your contributors hold your fate in their hands. In my experience, if you work for the writer, the writer will work for you.
SARETT: Obviously, there are a lot of writers who read literary magazines -- is that the only audience for them? Or put another way, is there a way to make that audience more diverse?
CATLIN: Ah, the million dollar question. To be honest, no I don’t think so but that has always been the case. I think even the most successful print journals are read, fairly exclusively, by people who daydream about one day having their work published in them. I think the only way to diversify readership is to create a larger base of people who want to read, period, and that is a whole different ball of yarn.
SARETT: Did you check how many people visited the magazine online or was what irrelevant? Did you get clues about which stories worked best in that regard (if you can share those)?
CATLIN: Yes, I was kind of compulsive about it. I was never able to make heads or tails of why the site got 50,000 hit one month and 1,000 the next. I suspect, as I mentioned, that it had a great deal to do with the writers. It’s not a writer’s responsibility to promote, but I think that it makes a big difference.
SARETT: I’ve heard that some writers who are rejected actually write back and argue with editors? Does that actually happen or is that a myth?
CATLIN: Yes. It absolutely happens. I had a man, granted I think that he was unwell, reply to a rejection with a twenty page story about someone named Jenny who ran a lit. journal who was such a “feminazi (expletive)” that aliens killed her. More often though, we got a lot of repeat submitters…people who would just send more and more material, seemingly convinced that you would eventually see it their way.
SARETT: Did you feel that the process of being an editor changed the way you approach your writing? How?
CATLIN: Yes, it changed it immensely. One of the reasons, though not one of the primary reasons, that I decided to ‘retire’, was because editing was sucking the joy out of writing for me. I think that it gave me a great deal of perspective on what to do and what not to do, it also made me think of everything I wrote as publishable or unpublishable. I have never aspired to be a career writer. I have always written for the pure joy of the experience with publication as a pleasant side effect. I saw that dwindling and it terrified me. I don’t think that my experience is typical, most of the other editors that I know have had the exact opposite experience.
SARETT: Would you ever think about a new magazine, or is it, been there, done that?
CATLIN: I don’t think that I would do it again unless I was in a position to pay the writers. I always felt exploitative not paying for people’s work, even though that is how it works. If someday I was in a position to start a well-organized 501c I would consider it. I have always wanted to start a journal that focused on the work of marginalized populations: prisoners, homeless, etc. So, yeah, I suppose I defiantly would.
SARETT: What are you working on now?
CATLIN: I am dragging myself through finishing school, finally. Which leaves me with a lot of time to explain to twenty-one year olds that I am not the professor. I am working full time as an English tutor at a community college in the heart of L.A., which is surprisingly rewarding and challenging. I have been refocusing on the writing process and, therefore, haven’t published in a while. Maybe someday.