McSweeney's, Issue #7

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In less than a decade, McSweeney's has developed the sort of brand loyalty that most publishers will never attain.

Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch

Monday, October 28 2002, 2:37 PM

Dave Eggers, the literary journal McSweeney's leading man, first made a name for himself with the San Francisco Bay Area's Might magazine. Although not strictly a zine, Might was clearly a product of 'zine culture. Like The Baffler, Hermenaut, Bitch, and other publications with roots in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Might testified to the facility with which do-it-yourself ideology could be transplanted to the world of publishing. Although one step further removed from purity, McSweeney's demonstrated many of the characteristics of those hybrid creations: a seemingly perverse attachment to obscurity (printing the journal in Iceland); a refusal to take itself seriously (ironizing both its form and content in an absurdly expanded masthead); and a willingness to take risks on art that would fall through the cracks at a more traditional journal (the 'failed' stories of up-and-coming writers, pieces that veered uneasily from genre to genre). Because McSweeney's paid just enough lip service to the literary establishment to avoid being ignored, the approach succeeded fabulously.

In less than a decade, McSweeney's has developed the sort of brand loyalty that most publishers will never attain. In this respect, McSweeney's functions like an independent music label with a clearly defined identity: Kill Rock Stars, Thrill Jockey, or Dischord. And that's an impressive legacy in itself. The best indication of McSweeney'sachievement is that publication within its pages -- not unlike getting Kill Rock Stars' Slim Moon to promote you to his label -- guarantees an author the imprimatur of someone-worth-looking-into. McSweeney's has, in short, become a resum' builder. There's nothing wrong with that, per se. But it does present certain challenges for the journal. The bigger McSweeney'sbecomes, the more literary professionals desire to be included in its fold, the harder it gets for the publication to sustain its cutting edge.

Reading the latest and seventh installment of the journal, you can't help but wonder whether Eggers and company have mislaid those instructions on how to care for a blade. To be sure, the issue contains wonderful writing. The excerpt from William T. Vollman's 4,000 page unpublished manuscript Rising Up, Rising Down is both powerful and prescient in its pre-9/11 analysis of a Muslim insurgency. And the 'lost' chapter from Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a delight. The issue is also handsomely put together, its cardboard cover bound with an industrial-strength rubber band that snugly secures individual chapbooks inside. The fourth issue of McSweeney's was a similar composite affair, though its contents were collected in a box (with a Surrealist picture of a 'skiing' robin on the cover). The difference is that the latest McSweeney's lacks the amusingly excessive editorial frame that many of the journal's readers have not-so-secretly preferred to the pieces being framed. It would have been easy to include something like the 'Notes and Background and Clarifying Charts and Some Complaining' chapbook that provided a delightful map to the fourth issue or even the much shorter editorial comments from the sixth one. The absence of such a guide is significant.

Perhaps Eggers is too busy with 826 Valencia , the San Francisco-based non-profit he helped found, to give McSweeney'shis special touch. 826 Valencia is a worthy venture, providing 'free drop-in tutoring, workshops, storytelling and entertainment events' for grade-schoolers and teens in order to help them use language more effectively and creatively. Still, you can't help wondering whether Eggers is suffering from a crisis of confidence. His repeated insistence in interviews that he dislikes irony baffles the readers who love him for sounding ironic. Maybe we just need to wait until the next issue -- coming soon to an independent bookseller near you -- for a full dose of the McSweeney-ness we crave. More likely, though, we will have to content ourself with the realization that the McSweeney's brand is becoming more diffuse, not unlike many of our favorite independent labels. Perhaps this is inevitable. The center will not hold forever. For now, though, the journal remains a rare shining light in the world of publishing and deserves your support.

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Copyright © 2002 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.

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