The McSweeney’s Effect

Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National has a lengthy appreciation of McSweeney’s that isn’t as well-sourced as one might like: Managing editor Eli Horowitz gets a lot of room to expound on the amazingness of the journal, and only one author is cited as an example of a quality writer who got his first break there. Then again, the writer is Philipp Meyer, author of the excellent novel American Rust, and he describes the publication of one of his first short-stories there as a “life-changing thing”:

[I]t does this incredible thing for people like me, or people like me five years ago if that makes sense. Because a lot of publishers, for reasons of legitimacy, feel the need to include big writers. Or maybe it’s not even for legitimacy, maybe it’s just to put names on the front cover that will sell. And usually, to be honest, it’s the crummier work from those writers. They rarely, if ever, take risks on folk who they’ve never heard of. You might not have heard of them as the reader, but it’s almost always someone on the magazine who knew someone, someone’s old professor makes a call and gets the story in.

I think the standard complaints about McSweeney’s still apply, and though in my old age I can’t work up the same attitude toward the publication I used to, I’m still skeptical about their offerings, especially their books. Of course, I’m also still going to buy that newspaper issue, but you’ll notice that the PR page doesn’t stress the amazing-unknown-writers angle; the issue’s innovation is its design, not its corralling of lesser-known writers.

3 thoughts on “The McSweeney’s Effect

  1. I couldn’t agree more about McSweeney’s or the sustained effect of the Eggersesque on American fiction– people mistaking substance for certain aspects of form: the footnote, that enabler of intrusive and distracting self-referentiality, a self-pitying, confessional, pseudo-sarcastic ‘wit’ that prevents anything from actually being said or admitted, and the glorifying of circling and circling only to return to the place you started. Ugh.
    It’s not that such things can’t be done well… David Foster Wallace sometimes used the footnote with purpose (although often it seemed that the footnotes replaced finding a way to write the essay and include necessary digression). But the generation of writers who grew up on McSweeney’s, who’ve looked to Eggers for inspiration and glorified his ‘achievement’ and then imitated it– well. Let me just say that I prefer not to read their work.

    In fact, that Philipp Meyer speaks well of them makes me far less likely to read “American Rust,” even with your strong endorsement, Mark.

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