The strange new issue of McSweeney's.

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April 3 2003 6:33 PM

The 98-Pound Gorilla in the Room

How the spindly McSweeney's short story became a menace.

Book cover

McSweeney's, the idiosyncratic literary journal run by Dave Eggers, has lately grown predictable in its unpredictability, but the new issue is a true departure. Rather than the usual mix of rambling letters-to-the-editor and quirky short fiction, "McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales" is an anthology of substantive stories by heavy-hitters such as Stephen King and Harlan Ellison. Published by Vintage Books, the issue was guest-edited by the novelist Michael Chabon, who believes it his mission to rescue short fiction from a menace currently stalking the literary world—"the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story," better known as the "New Yorker short story." Arguing that American short fiction has misplaced the multiplicity of genres that defined it until the 1950s—the detective story, the ghost story, science fiction, and more—Chabon has tried to provide a corrective. He's solicited works from "non-genre" writers who were eager to experiment (Sherman Alexie, Rick Moody) and from writers of genre novels who ordinarily find no commercial outlet for short fiction (Michael Crichton, Elmore Leonard).

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But the irony behind Chabon's argument is that the "New Yorker short story" is no longer the hegemon it may once have been. In fact, this collection of "thrilling tales" actually serves as a more effective counterbalance to an entirely new phenomenon. Call it the "McSweeney's short story"—younger and hipper and more experimental, but no less influential.

When Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern (as the magazine was formally known) made its debut nearly five years ago, it consciously positioned itself in opposition to the mainstream glossies. "Welcome to our bunker!" proclaimed dense block lettering on the plain white cover of the first issue. The magazine was produced almost single-handedly by Eggers, who was about a year from publishing A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; it playfully claimed to have been "created in darkness by troubled Americans," typeset "using a small group of fonts that you already have on your computer, with software you already own," and "proofread, but not by paid professionals." The eponymous Timothy McSweeney was identified as "a troubled fellow, an outsider, a probable genius of indeterminate age ... put simply, he wanted attention, some consideration, an attentive ear."

In its early days, McSweeney's read like the dead-letter office of a hipster writer's dream zine—a repository for witty letters, articles, and other random (and occasionally brilliant) musings that could find their way into print nowhere else. Readers got a peek at a piece by Rick Moody that was rejected by the New York Times Magazine or at one by Stephen J. Shalit, originally written for "a certain magazine concerned with enjoying the outdoors and looking great doing it" and accompanied by extensive marginalia detailing everything from Shalit's conversations with his editor to his thoughts on journalists who wear black jeans. There was also a lot of humor: A subversive and hilarious dissection of a Korean phrase book by Ana Marie Cox; a series of conversations with famous people recorded by a bookstore clerk. (Clerk: "Would you like one of our discount cards?" John Tesh: "Heh heh. No thank you. I'm not from around here.") In these first couple of issues, the joke—self-aggrandizement disguised as self-effacement—was funny. It worked.

But with the third issue, published in the summer of 1999, the magazine's tone changed. While the dead-letter office remained open—particularly memorable was Gary Greenberg's oddly fascinating 50-page opus on Ted Kaczynski—McSweeney's had re-imagined itself primarily as a literary journal, not a collection of castoffs. It would now devote itself to publishing fiction—and fiction of a very particular type.

The type? One that rejects the very idea of revelation. The McSweeney's story may share certain things with the sub-genre Chabon identified as "the New Yorker short story"—it's contemporary, it's often quotidian, it's certainly plotless—but it substitutes nihilism for epiphany. In an early issue, a set of facetious manuscript guidelines warned that "material possessing beginnings, middles, or ends will be read with suspicion"—which isn't a bad description of the work of the young writers the magazine has consistently championed. These are writers (Arthur Bradford, Lawrence Krauser, Ben Greenman, among them) who reject conventional notions of structure, character, or coherence. They owe a lot to Barthelme's surrealism and Barth's parody. But their work replaces the joyful playfulness that characterized the experimentalists of the 1960s and '70s with a lugubrious fictional haze in which ideas and images float unbound by anything resembling form or insight.

Take the story "Red Dresses" by Ken Foster, which appeared in the third issue. The main character attends a party at which all guests, male and female, must wear red dresses. He reminisces about his wife, who has left him, and recalls contemplating suicide. While walking home, he is attacked by a stranger and winds up in a hospital. Does this sound disjointed? It's because the story itself meanders randomly, with dramatic shifts in tone that defy explanation. Foster is clearly trying to create a sense of disequilibrium in the reader, but he does so at the cost of sense. (In a typically quixotic move, McSweeney's asked writer Ana Marie Cox to respond critically in the margins and then allowed Foster to rebut her remarks. The irony-laden result makes the reader unsure what to take seriously, if any of it.)

At one point the magazine seemed to realize it might be on the wrong track. "We would like to announce that with this issue we are plunging headlong into the World of Normaler Fiction … with a number of pieces that are friendly to read, and make a good deal of sense, and have beginnings and middles and, for the most part, ends," the fifth issue proclaimed. But the writing style did not change; in fact, McSweeney's quickly became an inevitable stop along the successful young writer's route to success. Even established writers began showing a desire to get in on the game; a painful case in point is Zadie Smith, who appeared in the magazine not long after the publication of her excellent debut White Teeth. About a year later, she came out with her horrendously disappointing—and noticeably McSweeney-esque—second novel, The Autograph Man. Rick Moody's digressive and self-indulgent (and universally panned) memoir The Black Veil also shows clear symptoms of McSweenification: the disingenuous irony, the typographical gimmicks. Meanwhile, the magazine itself grew from a fly-by-night operation run by Eggers into a multipronged entity complete with a publishing house (a number of the McSweeney's writers have brought out books under its imprint), a new literary review called The Believer, and a volunteer tutoring center.

In some ways, McSweeney's has been a useful counterpoint to the mainstream publishing scene. Regardless of whether its self-referential play is to your taste, it's the first bona fide literary movement in decades—with all the old-fashioned energy that such a term implies. And with his dedication to self-publishing, Eggers has given the literary world a needed jolt, proving that a small press can still flourish in an age of conglomerates.

But the quality of the work inside McSweeney's has yet to live up to the promise of the magazine's gloriously designed packaging. In their haste to strip the short story of any suggestion of epiphany, these writers ignore one of literature's most essential qualities: the ability to amaze. It's easy to admire the McSweeney's stories, but it's impossible to be moved by them.