It’s been a long time since we tried to make any sense of what goes on at McSweeney’s, that cheery little factory of literature and literary gags. (Can’t you just picture them taking out a full-page ad in the back of an old-fashioned magazine to showcase their catalog of 5¢ mail-order novelty products?) But we have to ask what’s going on with THIS.
The author goes out of her way to claim, right up front, that these are “actual” comments, as if that’s why we should be reading them. McSweeney’s has a history of doing this, of declaring that something is “actual” in order (we assume) to heighten the hilarity of the joke. See examples here here here here here here here here here here and here, and many other places.
Back to the piece under discussion. As “actual” comments in a writing workshop, these are some fairly helpful and attentive remarks. Anyone who has taken a workshop knows the best comments are coldly objective, and the best commenters are unafraid to let you know when they’re confused about any little part of your writing. Many of these comments do the job nicely. The humor of the piece is supposed to come from contrasting the outrageous details of the stories (which are only mentioned in passing) with the bone-dry comments. But if these are “actual” comments, from an “actual” workshop, then they’re not especially funny. They’re just examples of how workshops work.
The piece attempts to turn the comments into something original and funny by decontextualizing them. And it might have worked—brilliantly—if the whole thing were fictional. If, for example, all of the comments referred to a single, fictional story, and we never got to read it, but we could infer some of the details from the fictional feedback. Then we’d be reading something with a narrative, and we could give the author credit for creating it. But the emphasis on these being “actual” comments, from a “major university,” by real people whose identities are being withheld, puts the focus directly on how “real” and (supposedly) outrageous the material is, which makes the whole project seem arbitrary and a bit desperate.
Similarly, withholding the name of the “major university” from the title is another attempt to show that these are “actual” comments. Like, this piece is so real and scandalous, the author can’t possibly reveal the name of the school. Well, it’s NYU. You can find that out with a simple Google search of the author’s name.
All of this is nitpicking, of course, and in some ways it’s not worth our time. But isn’t there something disturbing about the way we place value on the “actual” elements of this piece, and treat those elements as the main reason to take it seriously as a work of fiction? Even if this IS a collection of “actual” comments, it’s still a work of fiction. It’s certainly not a work of journalism, or a reliable source of useful information about the world. No, this is definitely a humorous bit of writing for a literary web site. Its value lies in its ability to excite, surprise, and challenge us in the abstract. So the degree to which it’s “true” is a canard, like saying these potato chips have 30% less fat. Less than what? We live in a culture where more truth, and less fat, sound like desirable things, so we advertise them liberally. But in this case, the McSweeney’s piece would have been a lot funnier if it weren’t trying so hard to prove it was real. If you’re a dancing monkey, just dance, monkey, dance.
We’re not saying this is a bad piece. Just that it wrecks its own context, and goes down in flames, horribly, with passengers screaming from the broken windows and mothers tossing their babies outside and the pilots sobbing as they bang on the cruel knobs with their fists.
One of the comments says, “The rules of the game, the rules by which you’re breaking the rules, should be perfectly clear to the reader. In this story, they are not.” This piece — and others from McSweeney’s — could have been better if the author had realized that this comment is no joke.