The Problem With McSweeney’s

(The obscure indie-rock references will stop soon, promise.)

In the London Times Stephen Amidon addresses the joys and frustrations of the McSweeney’s diaspora. Yes, it’s irreverent and experimental, which is a good thing. But the McSweeney’s brand also winds up serving a very narrow coterie of readers, in part because that brand is defined by Dave Eggers‘ particular brand of irreverence and experimentation:

The ideal McSweeney’s reader (or writer) lives in Brooklyn, wears interesting T-shirts, has a blog he works on in coffee shops, and knows it’s cool to oppose globalisation but uncool to go on too much about it. And while grouping together such distinctive authors as Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Joyce Carol Oates, Roddy Doyle and David Foster Wallace is about as easy as herding cats, most of the writers allied with McSweeney’s do share an occasional interest in mixing reportage and fiction, as well as in buffing the surfaces of their prose with italics, unusual fonts and antiquated typography.

Eggers lost me after the first 100 pages of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, once it became clear to me that all his rhetorical feints–the run-on sentences, the faux-narcissism-that-isn’t-really-faux, the italicized exclamations!–was doing more to obscure character and story than to reveal it. I kept trying, but McSweeney’s always felt a little like homework, The Believer always felt like My Weekly Reader, and Eggers’ Genius follow-up, You Shall Know Our Velocity! was so jumbled it barely qualified as a novel. I tried to extricate myself from this stuff, but as a Kirkus reviewer I still had to confront it–Yannick Murphy‘s Here They Come was so dispiriting and exhausting a novel that I couldn’t bring myself to even try to read What Is the What, despite all the acclaim it’s received.

McSweeney’s doesn’t seem to be run by editors so much as boosters, which reflects a certain contempt for readers. I very much want to have faith in what McSweeney’s does, because its support of writers, writing, tutoring is good and important. But those good efforts are lashed to a lot of bad writing–and if you alienate enough readers with awfulness, you’re destined to remain interesting only to the coffee-shop-blog set, when you ought to be transcending it.

[HT:The Literary Saloon]

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