Sian Campbell is the founder and Editor-In-Chief of SCUM magazine and the Director of the National Young Writers’ Festival. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship, and her writing has been published in Kill Your Darlings, Seizure, Voiceworks, Spook and Junkee. SCUM is a feminist magazine publishing new poetry, fiction, non-fiction, reviews, memoir and columns, and challenging the way we think about all of those things. That’s why we like it.
Thanks for talking to us Sian!
Let’s dive in at the deep end. What makes good writing, do you think?
Writing that pushes the envelope or makes you feel like more or less of an asshole, or makes you feel like you’re connected to the author in a big deep way, or makes you forget you’ve been reading for the last hour, or describes something you’ve always thought but have never known how to put into words.
I think good writers make for good writing. Good writers are interested in ideas and the world around them, and have stories to tell and know how to tell them. They’re writers who are writing for readers and/or themselves, and not for other writers or to say they’ve been published somewhere. If you send us a great story and the writing isn’t there yet, we can work on that—that’s where my job as an editor comes in. But nothing’s making a beautifully written but very boring story interesting.
What don’t you like?
Over-writing. Clichés. A lot of what I don’t like in a piece of writing that might come across my desk often comes down to the fact that Scum’s writers are typically young and emerging, though. All I wrote in my university days were overwritten cliché-laden snooze-fests, honestly. I still have to go in and chop my writing down with hedge trimmers even now—it’s just that I’ve gotten a bit better at recognising it in my own work with practice. That kind of writing is a right of passage and one from which a good writer will come out the other side, with time, a lot more awful writing, and by digesting a lot of good books. Being able to look critically at your own work is a learned skill.
Like I said above, I don’t like writing where you can tell that the author is going through the motions of ‘being a writer’. These are the writers who go without self-awareness or curiosity into situations solely to exploit them ‘for the story’. The writers who capitalise on a marketable idea and present it in a clever and well-written package without ever worrying about whether it has a heart to it, the writers whose first thought is winning the prize, not the piece they’ll enter for it.
What really gets you going/makes you sit up and pay attention?
If you send me something and I immediately read the whole thing through to the end, that’s all the criteria I need most of the time. If it’s an argument I’ve never seen anyone make before, or if the piece makes me think about my place in the world and how I could be better occupying it, or if I think the piece is going to get a lot of comments to the tune of, “This exact thing happened to me and I thought I was the only one!” or “This has completely changed how I think about this issue!”
Is there something you have seen done really well recently?
I just finished Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay, which I liked a lot because it really just revolves around the one idea and doesn’t worry about anything else except digging into this one thing—she doesn’t even worry about whether it’s really a book or not. She takes an experience so specific to her and turns it into something beautiful and universal, which I’m very into both as a reader and in my approach to my own writing. In terms of online stuff, I feel like I’m constantly reading pieces that I am in awe of and then immediately forgetting them. I work nights full-time and I don’t have the best memory to begin with, so my brain is mushy and useless—unless I’ve literally just read something, it’s gone. The only reason I can tell you anything about The Two Kinds of Decay is because I seriously finished it, like, right before sitting down to answer these questions.
In terms of something done really well on Scum recently—Hera Lindsay Bird has started a ‘column’ with us, that I think is going to really unpack the idea of what a column is in the first place (though Scum’s never really known or cared exactly what a column is anyway). The two columns she’s written for us so far are some of the best things that have ever been on Scum. I love Hera. I’m going to move to New Zealand and marry her.
Is there something you would like to see more of?
Oh, goodness. As a reader, I think I’m particularly interested in writing that fucks with what you think writing has to be, writing that makes you laugh out loud, writing that is doing something new. Above all I like to see writing that is honest. As an editor, I’d like to see more writing from great writers we haven’t heard from, who maybe think they’re not up our alley simply because we haven’t published work like theirs or because we haven’t published writers like them yet.
How does your feminism affect your role as editor?
Scum is a feminist publication specifically, for feminists and by feminists, so my feminism obviously affects my role in a very direct way—our feminism has defined the site and what we have published and continue to publish. That’s not to say that everything on Scum is a feminist manifesto, although we do owe our name to one! (Dear everyone who has emailed, commented or otherwise enquired whether we’ve by any chance heard of the SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas—yes.) It’s more that, thanks to our feminism, we’re really only interested in work that is inclusive, thoughtful and tolerant.
As Editor-in-Chief I would say that my feminism also drives me to constantly evaluate whether I’m doing enough to support our (primarily young and emerging) writers, promote intersectionality, and use my position strategically to give a voice to those who we need to hear from. If Scum isn’t publishing work by certain demographics, why is that, and what can we do to change it? What ideas aren’t we engaging with? Is Scum a place where everyone can feel safe? How have we failed and how can we better hold ourselves accountable for those failures, learn from them and not make them again? My feminism means I don’t get to not ask myself these questions.
Do you have any advice for writers submitting work?
Sit with your piece for a while. Ask yourself what you’re trying to say in the piece and why, and whether you’ve read anything like it or about the topic before, and then ask yourself what your writing does differently to that. Leave it, then come back to it with fresh eyes. Don’t try to be like anybody or anything else. Don’t write for the sake of writing. Wait until you have something to say. And then once you’ve got your piece, actually read Scum. Do you think your piece is a good fit for us? Do we publish the kind of thing you want to send us? We’re always on the lookout for new voices, new ideas, and new backgrounds but, for instance, we don’t publish straight reviews of movies or books or shows, so we’d rather you sent them somewhere else.
Why do you do what you do?
I should have some big profound reason about why I write and edit—something about a Higher Calling or True Purpose or whatever it is people usually say—but really it’s that I got a lot of validation from some very nice teachers very early, and got it into my head that words are the only thing I’d ever be good at and I ran with it and now I’m too old to do anything else. Nobody’s going to hire a 27 year old with nothing but writing junk on their resumé to manage their store or cook their food, you know? I think my dream is just to somehow get a job in a bookstore and putter around there until I die of old age, but do you know who hires a 27 year old with no bookstore experience to work in one? Nobody, that’s who. I’ve royally screwed myself, and now I’m stuck.
Seriously, I write because I like it and because I feel like I’m good at it at sometimes. Those times make up for all the other times I know I’m not. I edit because it’s a way to promote great writing and give back to the writing community in some way. Because if I want to write something utterly ridiculous that nobody else will ever want to publish, I can just publish it myself. I’m very self-serving that way. I don’t think I’m particularly good at editing, but I’m good at being interested in other people’s writing, which I’ve so far found to be enough.