Saturday, 5 January 2008

McSweeney's at 25

I have been an occasional subscriber to McSweeney's (or Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern to give it its full title) over the years and as the 25th issue recently came through my letterbox, marking a sort of anniversary, I thought it might be worth having a look back at this most curious and ground breaking of journals.

McSweeney's was begun by Dave Eggers in 1998 shortly before the publication of his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius which went on to become a huge commercial and critical hit. It provided the opportunity for young writers to be published alongside some of the more established voices of American fiction; The first issue included pieces from David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody as well as early work from Ana Marie Cox and Adrienne Miler, all of which had been rejected previously by other magazines. What immediately marked it out was its tone. This was a literary journal that was fun, that had a sense of humour, that was, dare I use the word, quirky. From the copyright page to the list of contributors at the back no seemingly mundane page is left untouched by the impish desire to confound your expectations -God is in the details.

With the fourth edition there was a change in style. The black and white book was replaced by a cardboard box filled with 14 individual booklets, each with its own illustration. From there McSweeney's hasn't looked back, trying with each issue to find new and more inventive ways of presenting its wares. This has included the use of large rubber bands, a cigar box, magnets, playing cards and a free comb. Some have been beautiful like issue 13 with an elaborate fold-out dust jacket created by Chris Ware. Others have been quirky for quirky sake like issue 17 which came as a bundle of mail which seemed to conceal the fact that there wasn't much to actually read. I am prepared to admit that I'm a sucker for a beautiful book, some editions are a joy to behold and I find myself regularly pulling them off the shelves for a quick flick. There is also no doubt that some of the pieces are excellent but as someone who has yet to truly appreciate the short story form I have found myself getting most pleasure from the odd and unexpected non-fiction articles.

So the journal has become admired as much for its artistic exterior as the quality of the writing inside (and maybe not always staying on the right side of that balance) but it is what else McSweeney's has become that makes it groundbreaking. There is McSweeney's Books which maintains the high publishing standards with both fiction and non-fiction covering everything from the criminal justice system to 'How to Dress for Every Occasion' by The Pope. There are now two other journals; The Believer edited by Eggers' wife Vendela Vida among others and containing book reviews and interviews, and also Wolphin a quarterly DVD magazine featuring short films, documentaries and animation. Gathering all of this together is McSweeney's Internet Tendency, the website, which contains new items daily.

But on top of all this publishing and most laudable of all is the creation of 826 National 'a family of seven non-profit organizations dedicated to helping students, ages 6-18, with expository and creative writing.' Starting first in his native San Francisco these youth writing centres have spread across the States promoting the importance of writing in the development of young people. Dave Eggers most recent novel What is the What has also drawn attention to the plight of those who suffered in Sudan, again particularly the children. It is very heartening to see a man channel every piece of luck, acclaim and publicity back into creating something new, something useful, something of a legacy.

Happy Birthday McSweeney's (and I look forward to issue 27 which comes 'in a windowed slipcase').


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