Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern

Contributors include:Kevin Brockmeier, Michael Chabon, Ann Cummins, Courtney Eldridge, A.M. Homes, Heidi Julavits, J.T. Leroy, Allan Seager, William T. Vollmann, and Chris Ware.

McSweeney’s Books

Issue 7 (Winter/Spring 2002)

How To Keep It All Together

All is not lost.

Some people still like to go to the park. Some people still dream about running away to the circus. Television and the internet are beautiful things; not savage beasts hell-bent on ruining everything that used to make our lives rich and exciting. Sometimes it’s important to look on the bright side of these things.

Take a look at people’s solutions: there is opposition to the over-stimulation. There are ways to escape from the all-too-readily-available nature of visual culture. Sit down and read some short stories, maybe. Not that you would. You probably haven’t thought about it because short television shows are easier. It’s no secret that in spite of, or only possibly because of the ease of desktop publishing and electronic visual media, the classical medium of the literary journal has been marginalized to a degree unprecedented in its long history.

And this is a bad thing, you say. But maybe you’re wrong. Maybe it has allowed for something else to emerge. Or something enjoyable to re-emerge. Perhaps something more complex is ready to exist.

And that may very well be McSweeney’s. Here is a literary journal for our times. Its editors and producers understand the Gesamtkunstwerk (the total work of art.) They realize that to compete in this media heavy world, you have to know how to use the tools available to you. They know how to work with a system that is changing and growing.

McSweeney’s gives the reader hope.

Aside from existing as a (usually) paper journal filled with writing of extraordinarily high quality, McSweeney’s has a store in Brooklyn where literary celebrities are often seen and where crossover events take place. David Byrne recently gave a power-point presentation that one can only imagine was brilliant and well attended.

As is fitting in an age of “New Media,” McSweeney’s has a website that is hard to beat for satire and meaningful content. The website is sprawling and filled with gorgeous material. It is updated regularly. It can be used as a means of finding the paper journal, but it is a presence that goes far beyond its paper progeny. Content here is extensive and never gives away what gems will be included in the mail-bound material. They have lists: Witness “Warnings Affixed to Laboratory Doors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” “The Latest in Innuendo Bumper Stickers” and “Quotes from the Movie “Jaws” in Which ‘shark’ Is Replaced by ‘Jimmy Page’.” They have stories: “The Man with the Rubber Arm” by Will Clark is a gem. They have frequently asked questions and tour dates.

What keeps McSweeney’s bound to the world of the Literary Journal, however, is their literary journal. It is, in its own right, a beautiful object. Regardless of the form it takes (each issue is different), a one-of-a-kind object arrives in the mail four times a year. By addressing the contemporary situation through material rather than content, McSweeney’s provides an alternative to the amazon.com model of “cheapen the product and flood the market.” Like the recent revival of performance and vaudeville around the country, it points to a reinvigoration of experience and a resurgence of “the object.”

Sure, you can see a videotape of a film or band or watch Behind the Music, for chrissake. You can find your literature in an e-book or a made-for-TV movie. But how often do you get a cloth-bound box with individually bound pamphlets containing the work of promising young writers? There is so much more to the McSweeney’s project than what is contained in the text.

Issue 6 (entitled, “Find Them and Convince Them”) was a bound volume with a CD containing music by They Might Be Giants and Philip Glass, written to accompany the prose within. The length of each piece is scientifically measured to coincide with an average reader’s reading speed.

Issue 7 is eight individually bound tracts, each with marvelous cover art and beautifully printed in Iceland. The chapbooks are contained in a master cover that is embossed with McSweeney’s 7 and the thickest, most comforting rubber strap imaginable holding it all together. Previous issues have been boxed or bound, one even dust-jacketed with a picture of Ted Koppel.

The ease of transmission and the battle over intellectual property has had as much to do with the decline in literary readership in this country as the proliferation of visual media in the home. Cars also screwed the literary establishment. But in some places there is a growing move toward physicality. You see it in the increasing complexity of CD cover art and multimedia marketing. Less content with the inflated prices at the local cineplex, consumers, where the option is available, are slowly turning to live performance, circuses, and even neo-vaudeville as a means of entertainment. In the face of an alienating electronic forum, publications like McSweeney’s have seen the writing on the wall and are using anti-graffiti technology to produce one-of-a-kind experiences that goes beyond your grandfather’s literary magazine. Finally, Walter Benjamin is vindicated by the print world.

The most likable thing about McSweeney’s 7 is its flexibility and the possibility of continual reconfiguration. Because each work is separate, I chose to begin with the short story by Kevin Brockmeier –- a farcical tragedy in which the sky literally falls on a small town and crushes the inhabitants while they continue to live as if their lives were infinite –- and end with a story by A.M. Homes that nicely echoed Brockmeier’s story through the relationship between an estranged husband and wife. But one could just as easily begin with the William T. Vollman’s 1995 case study of Muslim terrorists in Thailand, an anthropology text filled with wit, dry humor and deep description and ended with the short story published in 1935 by Allen Seager with its accompanying analysis and homily.

These texts together form an intricate picture of a state of American literature and give the reader access to new works by promising authors. This is still the job of the literary journal. And, of course, prominent voices are sometimes heard in the pages of McSweeney’s (Allen Seager holds some clout in the literary establishment, although the material in that volume took pains to point out his status as an overlooked genius).

“Change the form, but better the content” is not a strategy that is very easy to pull off, and one wishes them well as pioneers in this area. If the world of literary culture were to learn one thing from this moment, it should be how to remain flexible and creative, even in difficult times. McSweeney’s might be in a different position if it was fighting for a huge audience, but it doesn’t seem to have to. Until it does, and great ideas cease to be cost-effective, I’ll continue to wait for it, letting its richness seep into my dreams.