Is McSweeney’s the Google of the literary realm? Google was founded as a search engine, but after revolutionizing that part of the industry, it felt compelled to cross over and show us a thing or two about maps, phones, operating systems, libraries, etc. If these projects hadn’t turned out so well, we’d probably describe Google as a bully—a smart, self-righteous, service-minded bully. McSweeney’s started out as a literary magazine, but it now includes a web site, a non-fiction magazine, a film magazine on DVD, centers for education, charity projects in foreign countries, and books. For their latest trick, the folks at McSweeney’s have decided to save the newspaper industry—or at least, toss out a bunch of ideas for saving the newspaper industry, and see what sticks.
McSweeney’s Issue 33 takes the form of a big Sunday newspaper, complete with long-form journalism, a comics section, a sports section, activities for kids, and so on. Its stated goal is to “remind readers of all the things a printed newspaper can do.”
Since the idea behind these WHERE DOES MY MONEY GO? posts is that I’ll compare the value of the magazine to its price tag, I’ll go ahead and say this flat out: the list price of $16 is a bargain for McSweeney’s Issue 33. All told, the newspaper contains hundreds of thousands of words. It’s like buying your quarterly literary fix in economy size, from Costco.
Some of my favorite pieces:
— Andrew Sean Greer on NASCAR
— a full-color chart in the food section that illustrates the slaughter of a lamb
— new fiction by George Saunders
— new fiction by Deb Olin Unferth
— a side-by-side comparison of elegant movie posters and the awful DVD covers that they become
— China Mieville on post-apocalypse movies
— Michelle Tea on her personal witch
Check out that excerpt from the Andrew Sean Greer article. It’s one of the best things I’ve read lately, and it shows how quality writing can make a project like McSweeney’s Issue 33 a joy to read.
So the magazine is a bargain. But whether it accomplishes its mission is another question entirely. There’s an awful lot of junk in these hundreds of thousands of words. The longer articles are often hasty, diary-style accounts of something the author was already engaged in when the newspaper came along. Stephen King shares his thoughts on the World Series. William T. Vollmann rehashes the time he spent in Imperial County, which is the subject of his latest book. A woman from Oakland writes about her trip to Antarctica. Great. But are these stories newsworthy?
As it expands, McSweeney’s is becoming a “big tent” party, where all manner of voices are welcome and everyone gets their chance at the microphone. That’s noble. But it also makes you wonder if McSweeney’s is doing much editing these days. You know editing, right? Carefully selecting the best material and shaping it into something compact that’s worth your reader’s time? There’s a scene in Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon, where a novelist realizes that his latest project is stalled out because he hasn’t been able to make any choices about what to remove from his massive, 1,000-page manuscript. And there’s an essay by Michael Chabon in this issue, about some band that he likes; it probably should have been cut. Same goes for the transcript of a previous interview between Dave Eggers and Junot Diaz, which sounds like an infomercial for all the parties involved.
DE: You live in Boston, and we have a non-profit up there, 826 Boston, modeled after our program here in the Mission. And a former student of mine went to school out there and took one of your classes at MIT. He later convinced you to work with what was then not even a non-profit yet—we were starting to form it—but he got you to come and speak at a high school called English High School. It’s a big public high school that keeps getting knocked down, threatening to be closed for lack of funding, and they get some really bad press, and the students were feeling really kind of beat down, and you came in and spoke. Do you remember that?
JD: Yes, of course.
There’s even a short story by James Franco, for God’s sake. James Franco, the actor. It’s called, “The Actor Prepares,” and it begins like this: “The Actor prepares. He is preparing for a scene. He is backstage at acting class.”
If it sounds like I’m just carping about stuff I dislike, I apologize. What I mean to say is that if McSweeney’s wants to “remind readers of all the things a printed newspaper can do,” then half the battle is just printing the damn newspaper and showing that it can be done. At this, the McSweeney’s newspaper succeeds. It’s beautiful to see and fun to hold. But the other half the battle is selecting stories that are worth the newsprint, and here the issue stumbles. Nobly, understandably, inevitably, it stumbles. Take this as a metaphor for the whole thing: there’s a fold-out activity, designed by Chris Ware, that lets you cut out a model spaceship and paste it together. It’s a wonderful touch. You look at it and go, “Wow, I can’t believe they actually did this.” But trust me, you don’t want to try and assemble this thing. The instructions are vague, the pieces don’t line up well, and it took me about 50 minutes of careful work. The cut-out spaceship looks great on paper, but you’re better off leaving it there.
A broader goal of Issue 33 is to show the newspaper industry that it’s possible to remain vital and fiscally solvent in a digital age. But the McSweeney’s newspaper doesn’t quite exist in the real world. It’s a work of love, created by an editorial staff that had months to prepare, and a vast network of famous contributors willing to work cheap. On the first day it was sold, Issue 33 cost $5, even though the cost per unit amounted to almost $8. McSweeney’s could afford to do this because they still had three more months in which Issue 33 would be the only issue they were selling, and it would cost a full price of $16. Plus, it goes on the McSweeney’s backlist for all eternity. Real newspapers—the ones McSweeney’s is trying to set an example for—don’t operate this way.
What are we going to do with you, McSweeney’s!
Read you, I guess. Even if it doesn’t save the world this time, there’s some quality stuff in the latest issue. We’ll be like my grandma, browsing the newspaper with scissors in our hands, clipping the best pieces and saving them to read again.