The Kidder King

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, pretended to have merged with, 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 …

“Dear Benny,

“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.

To: McSweeney’s

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.

There is, however, no way to be sure that these e-mails are not a hoax on the part of the senders, who may well be Ben Greenman’s friends, or on the part of some McSweeney’s readers thinking they are making fun of other McSweeney’s readers or doing what McSweeney’s readers are supposed to do. And, of course, my friend Ben, no matter how much I have made him swear otherwise, may have written them himself. That would be very McSweeney’s.

It is not just that Dave Eggers has entered that separate dimension of literary success, the Vonnegut, Brautigan, Salinger space, wherein many people believe he has the answer to some of life’s very vexing questions (“He raised his baby brother!” ). In addition to that, he may well have made, by his declaration of media independence, the first new contribution in a long time to the art of a literary career (he was disinclined to discuss my theory of his media succession in person or by phone, although he would, he said, take e-mail questions and hinted, too, at new plans and ventures for McSweeney’s that he also said he was not willing to discuss).

He has even popularized the literary life. Indeed, he has expanded it into a group profession – which may well be a necessary step these days; you need acolytes who can help you with your promotion. He has even added to the craft. Every young writer will now surely learn good Quark and HTML skills. More and more writers (young and not so young) will certainly be figuring out how to publish themselves. And, most important, he has changed the literary paradigm: A writer, he has shown, has to recruit his own audience, be responsible for his own community, motivate his own stalkers. The success of A Heartbreaking Work (some people abbreviate it just as Genius) was surely aided by his grassroots-publishing model.

Of course, as befits any movement, McSweeney’s loyalists worry that Dave himself may not be true to McSweeney’s. That what McSweeney’s (and Might before it) may be for him is just a back door to the big-time media. His million-dollar paperback deal has rattled many followers. The report this summer that Dave’s young brother, the baby Jesus of the movement, was interning at The New Yorker was, to say the least, unsettling. The recent rumor from Frankfurt, even though roundly denied, that Knopf, as much an old-fart literary symbol as there is, had signed him for his next book, for another million, was also disturbing.

“We really don’t know yet,” said the stalker, “if this is just all about Dave or if it’s so much larger than just one man.”


The Kidder King