Reality Check: An Interview with Digital Publications Editor Jordan Castro

Blue, purple, and red neon lights

Among the multitude of online and print publishers, Tyrant Books stands alone. It’s a platform for poetry and fiction that refuses to pull punches, is often transgressive, and always surprising. 

Jordan Castro is the Online Editor for the Tyrant Books magazine (magazine.nytyrant.com) and author of the novel The Novelist, forthcoming from Soft Skull Press this year. In true Tyrant fashion, Castro is straightforward, cutting, and a little sarcastic. In this interview, Castro touches on the realities of online publishing and his work with Tyrant.

Note: This correspondence occurred before and after the passing of Tyrant Book’s founder and editor Giancarlo DiTrapano—“Gian.” Check out Tom Ostmeyer’s interview with Gian DiTrapano here.

Thomas Ostmeyer: A lot of energy in a writing program goes toward polishing short stories to submit to online journals. Does getting published online give a leg up for future publications? That is, does building a website portfolio of small-journal publications do much for an author, career-wise? 

Jordan Castro: We don’t consider previous publications, and we don’t read or publish bios on the site. We’ve published writers for the first time, like the great Honor Levy, as well as writers like Lydia Davis and Diane Williams. I know people like to talk about how hard it is to get a book published or whatever, but as far as I can tell publishers are dying for good books by so-called “undiscovered” writers. Maybe that’s not true—I certainly am. I think probably The Paris Review or The New Yorker publications help in terms of career—but I can’t imagine anyone actually cares if you’ve been published by 600 online journals called “Six Penny Review” and so on.

Ostmeyer: Talk about the effect of the multitude of online magazines/journals and what their motive is as a platform. Do you think readership and site traffic is a concern, or are so many online publishers focused on simply giving writers voices? Do you pay much attention to other online magazines?

Castro: I have no idea what the motive of most online publishers is. The websites say Here at “Fifty Scissor Review,” we want writing that cuts through the smokescreen and sees the unseen. We want writing that pierces the skin and howls out in scissor-like passion. I don’t know what any of it means. The writing sucks, the websites look bad, there are a million of them. I don’t check the Tyrant traffic. I think the only other online magazine I read regularly is Muumuu House. The only print journal I read every year is NOON, because it’s the best. There are actually some others doing cool stuff too, I just remembered, Blue Arrangements and Neutral Spaces come to mind. Hotel too, in London. 

Ostmeyer: What makes a small press successful? 

Castro: In terms of financially successful, having some really successful books helps, or a donor. In terms of successful in the literary sense, I think a differentiated vision is crucial. I’m not being flippant when I say that I legitimately have a hard time telling most presses apart. Not all of them, of course. But there has been this paradoxical leveling effect: at a time when diversity is the stated goal of almost every publisher, the books are all so much the same. 

Ostmeyer: What’s the effect of reading stories online versus in print, and what does this say about how reading affects our intake of fiction?

Castro: I like reading things in print, but I also like reading online. I don’t like reading long things on the screen though. I feel like I can’t remember them as well. 

Ostmeyer: Do you think online publishing has staying power in the next five to ten years?

Castro: It would depend on what is meant by “staying power.” I think it will exist. Very short fiction, fragmented fiction, and so on, is at its height right now. That might be, to some degree, a result of the internet. 

Ostmeyer: Something that sets Tyrant apart is its intolerance of “safe” fiction. Your stories are sometimes experimental, they aren’t concerned with offending anyone, and the authors don’t cover their tracks. Who wins and who loses when books and publishers cater to “safer” writing?

Castro: As far as I’m concerned, nobody wins and everyone loses when publishers prioritize so-called “safety” at the expense of literary value.

Ostmeyer: What does an editor owe an author, and what does an author owe a reader?

Castro: Honesty, rigorous effort, love.

Ostmeyer: How did you get involved with Tyrant’s online work? What is it about the style and tone of your work that meshes with Tyrant? 

Castro: In December 2016, I tweeted that I wanted to try editing somewhere for a month or so. Gian emailed me saying he was going to start an online magazine and asked if I wanted to try to kick it off. I had never edited before. We’d met once, when I was 18, years prior, and had a great time partying together. In The Paris Review, I recently wrote that the only time I asked Gian about editing he told me “You already know what to do”—but I forgot the other part, which was “just find good stuff and delete shit that sucks.”

Ostmeyer: Does marketing or PR on platforms like Twitter affect how you do your job?

Castro: Right now I’m off Twitter, but I used to use Twitter a lot. As far as the NY Tyrant Twitter goes I just keep it strictly work. Gian has more fun on Twitter than I do nowadays. 

Ostmeyer: Gian is back in Sezze and said he’s almost completely hands-off with the online magazine. Do you have any involvement in the print side? As an aside, assuming you got to visit Italy, what’s Gian’s scene over there?

Castro: I edited Essays and Fictions by Brad Phillips, and Pets: An Anthology, which both came out in print. I visited Italy a couple years ago, with Nicolette Polek, Megan Boyle, Brad Phillips, and Cristine Brache, at the villa in Sezze. The first night we were there, Gian got into a screaming match with his neighbor, something about a bike being in front of a gate, and I guess the Italians were calling his family back in West Virginia, who were calling Gian, etc. He said they had a feud going back generations. We went to the Vatican, the Villa Borghese, did yoga-type stuff near the pool. Gian was like, “I invite my friends out here to party with me and they end up just exercising.” He sat there smoking and making fun of us. This is the kind of work environment I have to deal with. 

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