The McSweeney's phenomenon -- not just a quarterly literary magazine but a counter media-culture event, now publishing its fifth issue -- began in San Francisco in the same south-of-Market office building where Wired magazine began. It started with a magazine called Might (born, in no small way, of its editor Dave Eggers and his friends' Macintosh skills) -- a cross between Ramparts (without the politics), National Lampoon, and Scanlan's Monthly -- which came close to being the King of 'Zines. (It shared an office with bOING bOING, another contender to the title. "The 'zinesters," a friend of mine, down the hall at Wired, called them.)
During the latter San Francisco phase of Might and the early phase in Brooklyn of its direct descendant, McSweeney's, you might have thought there was something old-fogy-ish about Eggers and friends. Might seemed Push Pin Studios retro; McSweeney's seemed Gotham Book Mart retro; Eggers himself, in the digital-entrepreneurial age, seemed slacker retro. Eggers & Co. had hopelessly missed the Internet. They were on the scene in South Park but had been horsing around when the digerati train left the station. In New York, they were far from Silicon Alley; they were self-conscious small-timers in an unself-conscious era of wealth and growth.
But then a funny thing happened. As the Internet got taken over by financial schemers and charlatans of every stripe, and as it now disappears in a tulip-craze bust, McSweeney's is what is left standing as the ultimate new-media, or anti-media, or cottage-industry-media, paradigm. Publishing their own magazine, on terms and in a form largely of their own making, they stayed far from Manhattan. Now they're publishing their own books, bolstered of course by the success of Eggers's postmodern autobiography about raising his younger brother after their parents' death, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The McSweeney-ites can lay claim to having done something close to what the Internet was supposed to let people do: They've taken their media destinies into their own hands -- publishing stuff that would have been unpublishable anywhere else (some because it is not very good, some because it is not very commercial, some because it is based on a joke that you had to be there for) and, along the way, creating a fervent community of co-generationists and like-minded souls.
Eggers's recent contretemps with his agent (he fired her; she sued him; he got served at a public reading and then lost the papers, posting a request for their return on the McSweeney's Website) serves as a pretty good symbol -- kill all the agents -- of the McSweeney-ites' attitude toward Manhattan media.
I got a sense of this phenomenon from an e-mail I received a few weeks ago in response to a column I'd written about men's magazines. A young woman spoke in detailed and articulate terms about her involvement with McSweeney's and Eggers and the romance of the magazine and its circle, adding her personal concern about its ambivalent stance toward women. I wrote back expressing interest, and she responded with another self-aware commentary on Eggers and his Brooklyn literary crew (almost entirely male, she pointed out) and this notion of not only a charmed circle but a separate media existence -- a media cosa nostra, if you will. I offered to buy her lunch if she would tell me more.
A writer has to recruit his own audience, be responsible for his own community, motivate his own stalkers.
It turned out, she explained before our meal arrived, that while the McSweeney's Website had published a poem of hers, she did not actually work for McSweeney's, that her acquaintance with Eggers was really only in public places, and that, in fact, her primary relationship was with other people who did not have a primary relationship with McSweeney's or with Eggers either -- but who were eager to. Just at the moment when she was assuring me that she was not a stalker, I realized that's exactly what she was.
But this did not, I understood, make her vision of the McSweeney's world less compelling. You might even argue that in an interactive age, a good reader is a stalker.
Her McSweeney's was certainly intensely felt. It's a world filled with larger-than-life young men, its own unique aesthetic (a very postmodern anti-media aesthetic), and many hues of slights and betrayals -- indeed, she was something of an unofficial keeper of reports and rumors of other slights and betrayals -- many of which are chronicled in a proliferating genre of Eggers- and McSweeney's-inspired Websites, to which, in a follow-up e-mail, she supplied me a detailed guide.
McSweeney's, it would seem, is Partisan Review . . . without the politics. Or it's Partisan Review meets Friends.
What's more, she said, stating what she clearly felt was obvious to all, Dave himself is some major babe magnet.
"What exactly," I asked, "do you think makes him such a babe magnet?"
The question really floored her. "He raised his baby brother!" she said.
(She was fully up-to-date on the issues surrounding claims by Dave's sister, posted on various Websites, that Dave had widely exaggerated his own role in bringing up their brother and diminished hers. Although more recently, Eggers's sister has apparently back-pedaled on her claim).
The stalker described the McSweeney's events she'd attended (chartered buses leave for authentic-type bars in New Jersey), the controversies and hoaxes surrounding the magazine (the time McSweeney's, which is mcsweeneys.net, pretended to have merged with mcsweeneys.com, which is the Website of a real family named McSweeney, which gave someone else the opportunity to pretend to be the actual McSweeney's site). She reeled off the names of the McSweeney's stars, including Neal Pollack, whose book is McSweeney's first publishing effort (some people maintain Pollack is really Eggers himself), and the prolix Ben Greenman. "He has his own link from the McSweeney's home page. That's very big," she explained. "He's like -- way up there." Then there were others who weren't even directly associated with McSweeney's but who were doing McSweeney's-like things (most often in Brooklyn), who qualified as part of the McSweeney's movement. And there were, of course, all the Websites that fed off of (and fed) the McSweeney's lore.
"It can just draw you totally in," she said.
What if you declared independence from the mainstream media -- just broke away? What if you started not only your own media business but your own media culture? A parallel media universe that you controlled. Certainly, for me, the McSweeney's world seems more than just a borough and a generation removed -- it exists in another space mostly invisible from hidebound Manhattan.
For instance, I had no inkling, until my lunch with the stalker, that my friend Ben Greenman, who edits the "Goings On About Town" listings at The New Yorker, had achieved such renown in this world. When I called, he confessed only somewhat bashfully to his fame ("There appears to be a universe in which there is nothing higher than McSweeney's. I told one of my McSweeney's fans, possibly to impress her, that I worked at The New Yorker. But she seemed to think that was just my unfortunate day job") and admitted that he, too, has his own coterie of postmodern-ish stalkers, examples of whose e-mail he willingly forwarded:
Dear Ben Greenman,
Last night I had a dream in which I sent you an email . . .
"Something drives me to call you Benny, something I cannot control. Perhaps it is that my parents once had a friend named Benny Greenman and his name entered my unconscious, causing me to call you Benny Greenman, rather than the much simpler and nicer Ben . . ."
I could analyze this dream for hours, but I'll spare you that and instead leave you with one last thought: I don't think my parents ever had a friend named Benny Greenman; I think it was Manny Greenberg.
I see that there is a Neal Pollack book. Why is there not a Ben Greenman book? . . . I find Greenman to be funnier. I imagine that he is skinny and often angry. . . . Every girl needs a razor and also plush toys. Why is there not a Ben Greenman book? I will sing this refrain until I am captured. The enemy forces are massing along the border. Every sentence in this letter has eight or nine words, except this one, which has sixteen. That was a sentence Ben Greenman would have written. . . . Why is there not a Ben Greenman book? Please, Mr. McSweeney's Representative, do what is right. I have not dreamt of Ben Greenman yet. But it is only a matter of time. A waterfall has a heartbeat if you listen closely. And a clock is always ticking in your heart.