An Interview with the Editor of Filament Magazine: Lovely Men and Smart Reading for Women!

BlogHer Original Post

Last week, I had one of those days when the world smiled upon me and decided to give me a break. Sitting in my box, nestled among the pitches for books about why women can't have it all and how we need to be submissive for men to love us was an email from Suraya Sidhu Singh. She is the editor of Filament magazine, a UK publication known as "the thinking woman's crumpet." Oh, how this tickled me! (And people wonder why I'm an Anglophile -- in addition to their superior chocolate bars, look at their magazines ... )

I loved, loved, loved the idea behind Filament -- hot discussion about a range of topics and hot pictures of men in various states of undress! Finally, a real Playboy for the ladies (and other genders and sexual identities, if it so floats their brains and boats). Although the next issue of the magazine was slated to begin production today, Ms. Singh was kind enough to answer some questions for me and other BlogHer readers:

1. What was the trigger moment for Filament's founders, or was it a series of things that came together to get the magazine going?

I was working in education, and I’d been having conversations with educators about outcomes for girls. Education can only produce the type of young people that the world is ready to receive, and there isn’t, broadly speaking, a world to receive highly self-possessed, independent young women.

Women’s media largely presents being a woman as proportional to how many pairs shoes you own. Similarly, women’s sexuality extends as far as "10 ways to please your man in bed," and being "sex positive" is co-opted to mean taking pole-dancing classes and watching porn with your boyfriend. I don’t mock people who engage with this at all -– good for them -- but I do think, "How are we going to move forward? How do we create more options?"

The world changes because people change it. My small part of that is making women’s media that offers an alternative model of what it means to be a woman. There needs to be somewhere that you can hear the message that being a woman is not primarily about appearance, and sexuality is not primarily about posing in your lingerie.

2. How do you strike the balance between "feminist" content and other work? (I read your writer's guidelines and found them fascinating.)

I don’t think of any of our content as being "feminist" as such, I want it to be relevant to women who don’t identify with "feminism" as much as those who do. I think that making divisions between "feminists" and "other women" only benefits people who oppose women having more choices. Women’s media seems to be either explicitly feminist or explicitly anti-feminist. There needs to be more meeting places, where we can all talk about the things that matter to us without being asked to sign up to an agenda or to oppose one.

3. Many BlogHer members are writers seeking to better understand the publishing industry. What's your background, and how did you come to work at Filament?

I arrived at a bog standard civil service temp job about five years ago, and they said, "Do you know anything about publishing?" and I said, "No, but I’ll find out." I ended up producing a range of publications that the organisation thought were some of the best examples of publishing they’d ever produced. My approach to publishing is simply to create publications that make me want to read them, and I loved making them better each time.

Four years later, after working extensively on Web sites and publications, I left that job so that I could use those skills to create Filament. Apart from being a trained editor and having spent many years doing things like writing ministerial correspondence, I don’t have any special skills. Being an editor is about having a strong vision and a sense of what you do and don’t want your publication to be and having the guts to make that happen. Some of the decisions you have to make can be harsh and heartbreaking, but without those decisions, it can become shapeless.

4. I also love the interactive element of the magazine. What's the dialog like between you and your readers?

Filament is a bit like Web 2.0 in hard copy! We encourage our readers to contribute anything and everything and to give us feedback on what they like and don’t like.

I wasn’t expecting the incredible enthusiasm; the glowing e-mails from complete strangers saying things like, "Thank you for understanding what women want and giving it to us so beautifully." I should note that I don’t understand "what women want," because women are as diverse as any other group, all I’m doing is assuming that we’re not all dress-up paper dollies and using evidence and feedback to inform the direction Filament goes in, rather than popular myth about "what women want."

Being responsive to reader desires is one thing, but I want to put equal emphasis on the reader to actively make their media what they want to see. So when readers write in saying they want to see a particular article in Filament or a particular photo shoot, I’ll often suggest they write the article or organise a shoot and submit it. Filament isn’t a free-for-all, but it’s not a diktat either.

I also get a few e-mails from people who actively wish us ill, which is good fun. I enjoy those e-mails, because it shows that some people feel we are eroding their privilege.

5. How do your editors select themes for each issue?

We’ve just started running themes starting with our next issue -- due out in June 2010 -- which is 1920s-themed. We trialled a theme with our current issue, and it lead to a significant increase in submissions, which was great.

The themes so far have come out of submissions that had used ideas or images that I thought would be nice to explore further. I’d also be open to readers writing in and suggesting themes. Our September issue is supernatural creatures-themed, and our December issue is Red-themed. The idea behind the themes is that they shouldn’t exclude people on the basis of taste; for example, we wouldn’t do a kink issue, because a lot of people simply aren’t interested in kink.

6. You mentioned distributors in the U.S. gave you a difficult time. How did you win your battle to get on the shelves of Barnes & Noble? (I am very excited to see that the B&N nearest my apartment carries the latest issue.)

Our distribution in the U.S. was hard won, but it was more a matter of getting a U.K. distributor to take us on.

Since our first issue in June 2009, distributors in several countries have asked to distribute Filament, but they needed us to have a U.K.-based distributor. We now have one, but they only deal with the international market, because the local market won’t accept us. You’d think it would be the explicitness, but it’s actually that they don’t get the concept, which is not surprising, really –- I’m a New Zealander, and I was quite surprised to see how entrenched gender roles are here –- back home the notion of a good strong, sensible, go-getting woman is valued, whereas in the U.K., more weight is placed on women’s appearance. So while magazine distributors and readers worldwide have been saying "Yeah, bring it on!" the U.K. market is being slow. I believe they’ll get there in the end, and anyone who wants to check out Filament can get it direct from our Web site –- http://www.filamentmagazine.com – wherever they happen to live.

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Thanks again to Ms. Singh, and congrats to her and her fabulous staff on their excellent publication! If anyone has any other questions for her, please post them in the comments section.

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