Keepin’ it Actual

too real

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.



  1. For some reason I think of “Timothy McSweeney” as someone with really bad nasal congestion. Hence the category for this post. Do you also imagine “Timothy McSweeney” speaking in a nasal voice, or can “he” suck it for other reasons?

  2. “He” can suck it because he wouldn’t know funny if it kicked him in the behind. Since “he” has rejected my last three submissions, I’ve come up with a new list.

    Ways McSweeney’s Can Suck It


  3. But didn’t you just link to a New Yorker article about creative writing programs, which included some (rather valid, I thought) assessments of why all creative writing programs should be dismantled, immediately, partly because workshopping is so silly? There are plenty of things I miss about the UCSD writing program, but sitting through a wilted session of “no, what I’m saying is, I just thought the vampire would be a little more, you know, sophisticated in her diction” is not one of them. Because they’re pretty damn ridiculous, which is why the McSweeney’s post kind of works for me. Meh.

  4. I wouldn’t say it validated my decision, but it didn’t really make me feel bad about it. I thought it was fairly objective, really, and didn’t fall 100% into the territory of “all writing programs should be abolished.” He actually made a somewhat tangential claim that writing programs can connect people with the world rather than taking them out of it, and concludes the piece by saying that for all the qualms he just stated, he’s glad he spent some time in college workshopping poetry. My favorite part was how each time he quoted someone saying how god awful writing programs are, the next sentence would say “X author went on to establish Y writing program.” It was a nice rimshot, and also made it clear that this is just one more thing writers and readers constantly debate about, like rather or not print is dying.

    I expect to find some comments helpful and some comments not so helpful in my workshops. I think that writing programs could probably mix up their pedagogical methods and go beyond workshops a bit more, but hey, I’ll take a free three years of writing. Hopefully I don’t get there and immediately start complaining about having to teach comp and how my workshops are awful. Please slap me electronically if I do.

    Long comment!

  5. dannybayridge, I’m wondering if you meant to write, “You’re so awesome and right about everything, Fiction Advocate, let’s go down to the river for a bacchanal,” and the beginning got cut off.

  6. Digging through the slush pile at Open City and finding manuscript after manuscript from MFA graduates that were more or less interchangeable in content, and ubiquitously drenched in desperation to be published, made me suspicious of MFAs. I think there are two reasons to get an MFA – to make connections with other budding writers and to set aside space to write. Some people might need an MFA to do that, some people might not. But neither of those two things are addressed in workshops. One thing in particular I really, really dislike about workshops: I think they’ve displaced a part of the writing process that used to be really special, a really great space where an author interacts with his or her work and evaluates and edits things. And instead of that, you have a pool of insecure, self-indulgent critics looking to tear each other apart. Mostly.

  7. I feel like the inclusion of “actual” presupposes the readers’ disbelief. Like, “what you’re about to see is real. The names have been changed but the story is real,” that sort of thing. So it really only works if you follow the “actual” with something totally unbelievable. In fact, these comments are so very believable that I think I may have said some of them verbatim, especially “you probably don’t need about half of what’s written here” and “bring back the violence!”

  8. Agh, sorry, I effed up that Dragnet quote. It should be “The story you’re about to see is true.” My bad!

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