The first thing you notice when you pick up a piece of work published by McSweeney’s is how handsome it is. One of the hallmarks of the upstart publisher founded by wunderkind memoirist Dave Eggers is its loving attention to the look of print media, a touching gesture to a supposedly dying form. Cracking an issue of McSweeney’s is like opening a Fabergé egg, each new installment (one came in a cigar box) more obsessively crafted than the last. The underlying message: Literature matters, and whatever these volumes contain must be special.
Now, as it celebrates its 10th anniversary, Eggers’ empire encompasses three magazines, several dozen books, and a string of inspired urban tutoring centers. McSweeney’s has published stars like Zadie Smith and Joyce Carol Oates, boosted young authors like Tom Bissell and Stephen Elliott, and fed comic talent to outlets like The Daily Show. The real sign that McSweeney’s has arrived? It’s inspired its own backlash (more on that later).
Back in 1998, Eggers published the first issue of his satirical quarterly McSweeney’s, which featured comic bits by David Foster Wallace and future Wonkette Ana Marie Cox. It boasted illustrious contributors, but you would not be reading this article if Eggers had not released a blockbuster memoir two years later. In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers described the death of his parents when he was 21 and his subsequent attempt to raise his younger brother, Toph, while trying to grow up himself. Heartbreaking was a transcendent read, moving, playful, exuberant. His self-conscious, self-satirizing treatment of the material intensified its pathos, and his repeated authorial intrusions helped break ground for reader-addressing authors like Junot Díaz.. Eggers’ persona — sly, verbally agile, fundamentally gentle — has since become a familiar literary type.
Instead of doing what most hit first-time authors do — obsessing over Act 2 — Eggers used his success to turn his eccentric ‘zine into a movement, one grounded as much in social activism as aesthetics. The legendary Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s was tiny, insular, and all about viciously gossipy lunches in Manhattan. Under the auspices of McSweeney’s, Eggers brought together hundreds of far-flung writers, artists, comics, and musicians to collaborate on a revolving array of projects, from novelty books to progressive political campaigns, DVDs, and workshops for kids. The Algonquin Round Table fizzled after 10 years; despite a budget scare last year after its distributor’s parent company went bankrupt, McSweeney’s marches on.
From his earliest days as a grassroots mogul, Eggers has shown a gift for attracting and encouraging talent. McSweeney’s provided a platform for the puckish Sarah Vowell and launched Daily Show contributor John Hodgman, who honed his shtick writing the ”Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent” column. Contributors have included both unknowns and voice-of-a-generation aspirants like Rick Moody, their pieces ranging from exquisite parodies to mildly funny lists to puerile dreck. Though not quite so stylin’, McSweeney’s earnest little sister, The Believer, is a consistently better read, from Ayelet Waldman’s giddy paean to her Krups panini press to Nick Hornby’s rambling meditations on ”stuff I’ve been reading.”
In 2001, McSweeney’s started a book division, which published Hornby’s collected Believer columns (Housekeeping vs. the Dirt) and wonderful work by undersung writers, like Lydia Davis’ story collection Samuel Johnson Is Indignant. The imprint has also found a specialty in handling ideas rejected elsewhere, such as Everything That Rises, Lawrence Weschler’s haunting treatise on connections between seemingly unrelated images.
But along with the pips, McSweeney’s has released enough duds that you wonder if the editors are too busy dreaming up super-cool covers to actually vet the manuscripts. I would sooner put my arm in Waldman’s panini press than reread Jonathan Lethem’s This Shape We’re In or The Future Dictionary of America, in which nearly 200 authors tried to be hilarious about politics — and failed. Alas, I can’t offload these books; they look far too good.
As an impresario and leader, Eggers is a phenomenon. As an artist, though, he has yet to deliver on the promise of his debut. Frustrated while trying to write a biography of Sudanese war refugee Valentino Achak Deng, he produced 2006’s What Is the What, which blurred fact and fiction in a book that lacked the authority of either. The novel was emotionally affecting and got some strong reviews, but its takeaway was squishy: War is hell and innocent kids suffer.
McSweeney’s bashers love to sneer at just that underlying sentimentality. The pugnaciously highbrow New York ‘zine n+1 used its first issue in 2004 to mock ”Eggersards,” dismissing them as ”thoroughgoing, even prissy, moralists” who have produced ”subliterary” work. And last year, The New Republic sicced critic Lee Siegel on What Is the What, so he could launch a (mostly fair) critique of the book as well as a viperous assault on the movement. To paraphrase, ”McSweeneyites” are smart-ass adult children who don’t write about screwing because, well, that’s for grown-ups.
Plenty of what McSweeney’s publishes is certainly mediocre, and the default voice of its founder, and of the flagship magazine, is ironic and boyishly innocent. But American literature can survive a few writers who, for now, favor the child’s view and like to fiddle with footnotes. While I don’t love every piece pulled from the McSweeney’s forge, the spirit of invention that fires it — and that has sent sparks into so many corners of our culture — commands my awed respect.