The literary magazine "McSweeney's" is re-defining the US short story. Its editor, Dave Eggers, says it is not ironic. Yeah, right.by Jonathon Keats / November 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Book: McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales Author: eds Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon Price: (Hamish Hamilton, ?14.99)
To the extent that culture is an expression of geography, American fiction writers of the late 20th century have been ill-advised to anoint the Iowa writing programme their finishing school of choice. It has rendered the short story form as flat as the midwestern landscape and as homogenous as its populace.
As a release from such prosaic terrain, American readers – especially those who once identified themselves as members of Generation X – have, in the last couple of years, embraced a literary magazine called Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Under the editorship of Dave Eggers, notorious author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, McSweeney’s has published excerpts from an encyclopedia of a make-believe civilisation, new versions of classic stories by Franz Kafka and Sherwood Anderson, and a whole issue intended to be read to the accompaniment of a soundtrack by They Might be Giants. The popularity of McSweeney’s has attracted name-brand authors including AM Homes, Susan Minot and Rick Moody, and has propelled the San Francisco-based publishing company beyond periodicals into the book business. Posing as a hip antithesis to Random House and Cond? Nast, McSweeney’s affords accidental bestsellers such as Michael Chabon the opportunity to reclaim their street credibility, and even gives habitual potboilers like Michael Crichton the opportunity to appear literary by association.
Both Chabon and Crichton, as it happens, are in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (the former serving as guest editor), which is technically issue ten of the magazine, although publication in Britain by Penguin, between dustjacketed hard covers, has impelled booksellers to shelve it as an anthology. That ambiguity, the tendency toward small-scale anarchy, is characteristic of McSweeney’s, and represents what is best about the enterprise. The trouble – with the Mammoth Treasury and McSweeney’s in general – is to be found, however, between the covers.
Chabon opens the volume with a righteous jeremiad against the Iowa-writing-programme-cum-New Yorker sensibility, questioning why short fiction should be limited to “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story” (an expression he himself offsets in quotation marks, so completely has such stuff become clich?d). He presents the Mammoth Treasury as an antidote, an earnest attempt to “revive the lost genres of short fiction.” He cites horror, suspense, fantasy, adventure and romance, and credits Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Mark Twain, with having mastered such genres. Then we find his own line-up, an audacious mix of old-school page-turners (Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, Elmore Leonard, Michael Crichton) and new-school auteurs (Chris Offutt, Nick Hornby, Glen David Gould, Rick Moody). Such a roster would be the envy of any publisher. The success of a volume such as this, and the whole McSweeney’s enterprise, has the potential to upset an industry, to topple the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story. And replace it with what? A whole new literary boondoggle.
The first failing of the Mammoth Treasury is its structural conceit: McSweeney’s self-consciously parodies the sort of old-fashioned serial in which your grandfather would have read authentic genre stories. The effect is to damn genre writing from the start, presenting it as the campy artefact of a past generation – like a teacosy or a velvet dinner jacket – rather than giving it a chance as a legitimate form of fiction. The cover illustration – a man fighting off a demon – originally appeared on the October 1940 issue of Red Star Mystery Magazine, and old advertisements decorate the Treasury’s margins. Who wouldn’t smirk at an advertisement advising that “Good-Looking Skin is Not for Women Only,” or that “Nausea Affects Many Children While Travelling”? The message is simple: we’re more sophisticated than the original genre magazine subscriber.
Pandering to the sense of superiority that constitutes the essential worldview of McSweeneys’ readership, the design sets the tone for stories that generally play the same game, or try to do so unsuccessfully. The worst offender is literary novelist Chris Offutt, who, in a piece called “Chuck’s Bucket,” attempts what appears to be a postmodern deconstruction of the science fiction story. The narrator is named “Chris Offutt,” who is a writer working on a story “for an all-genre issue… of McSweeney’s, a hip New York Magazine.” Because he can’t get it done, and because the ghost he is attempting to write about keeps waking him up at night, he visits a physicist named Chuck who happens to have invented a time machine and is in need of a human subject. “I was lonely and going nowhere,” the narrator relates. “It occurred to me that if Chuck could send me into the future, I could read my story, then return and write the ending.” Going forward in time, he finds his story revised but not yet complete. So he takes the leap a second time, and a third, and a dozen more, only to realise “that none of the parallel realities included finishing the story.” So we get 24 future scenarios, a large number of them involving contributors to the Treasury, and even Barb Bersche, the publisher of McSweeney’s. So, how does it end? Chris Offutt (the narrator) resolves instead to write about his childhood (presumably a “contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story”) and informs us that, now that Chuck is mysteriously dead, he’s refrained from revealing to anybody all that we’ve just read.
So we’re left with a piece of fiction as slick as Teflon. Offutt dabbles in sci-fi and the ghost story without having to invest himself in either. He writes without risking anything, pretending, but not really, lest he be found wanting at producing mere pulp fiction, to churn out a genre story.
To a lesser extent such posturing can be found in stories such as the one contributed by Nick Hornby, who has a teenager as his narrator, telling us how he lost his virginity on account of a used video. The video has a technical glitch that allows him to fast forward through live network television to see the future, and he gets a girl to sleep with him after showing her that the end of the world is near. Even more pervasive than his sex drive, however, is his habit of engaging in meta-narrative. (“Before we get back to me in the car with Martha, which sounds way more exciting than it actually was, there’s one more bit of the story that’s important, but I’m not too sure where to put it.”) You begin to think you’ve heard this voice before, albeit without the postmodern twang, in The Catcher in the Rye. Can’t outsmart that Nick Hornby: “You probably think you need to know who I am, and what kind of car my brother drives, and all that Holden Caulfield kind of crap, but you really don’t, and not just because I haven’t got a brother…” Very funny. But does it compensate for the fact that the author has fallen back on a voice created by JD Salinger? The blanket pardon granted this sort of fiction ultimately imprisons the author. It is a gilded cage, to be sure, but one from which any expression of emotion, any sincerity on the part of the elective inmate, is suspect. Life inside is too easy. And anyway, the reader, tricked ten times too many in a literary shell game, is too wary to suspend disbelief.
If there is a genre to which this fiction belongs, it is not horror or romance or sci-fi or suspense. Rather, Offutt’s and Hornby’s contributions fall into a somewhat newer category: the McSweeney’s story. There is, furthermore, a word that describes this genre perfectly, although one that must be used advisedly. “It is not a word I like to see, anywhere,” Eggers has said in the appendix to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. “It is beyond a doubt the most overused and under-understood word we currently have.” Nevertheless, it is the only one that will do. The McSweeney’s story is one that is founded on irony.
“Let’s define irony as the dictionary does,” Eggers urges, and then accurately enough claims it to be “the use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning.” More broadly, we might understand the word in terms of its Greek forebear, eironeia, meaning “simulated ignorance.”
Well and good. Eggers may claim that irony is a “not all that interesting thing,” but it has been – what about Swift’s “Modest Proposal”? – and, given the right story, could be again. The real failure of the McSweeney’s genre is on a broader level: the irony of writing a romance or sci-fi story that obviously isn’t one, and of doing so, moreover, in a literary anthology made to look like (get it?) an old-fashioned pulp fiction magazine. Or of contributing to a regular issue of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. (See how the name parrots that of an old-fashioned journal of consequence, in order that we might read as slyly ironic writing that is merely gratuitous.) None of this would be especially significant were McSweeney’s just another out of the way literary journal. But it is the current equivalent of the Smart Set (the defining literary magazine of the 1920s). In America, these stories are now read and emulated by just about everyone under 40, as well as some who are older, and ought to know better – people like veteran crime writer Elmore Leonard. His contribution to the Mammoth Treasury just can’t keep in character, muddling the vernacular of a small-town outlaw story with pseudo-intellectual attempts at assuring the audience that the author is smarter than his fiction. Overcome by insecurity, he puts on airs to make his writing appear literary.
Then again, we probably shouldn’t be surprised at the poor quality of Leonard’s story. Chabon is mistaken about genre fiction. Even given an opportunity to succeed, genre is, and has always been, antithetical to creativity. It is one thing to romanticise it, quite another to read it, and to be reminded that it is what it says it is – a formula. The failure of genre writing generally is that it makes a worthy literary technique, such as suspense or horror, the sole purpose of a story. A genuine 1950s pulp magazine such as Popular Detective is (potential for pop sociology aside) uninteresting. The only point is to find out whodunnit. Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James may have written stories full of mystery, or situated in the future, or haunted by spectres, but to read The Turn of The Screw as a ghost story makes as much sense as situating Homer’s Odyssey in travel fiction.
The problem with “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story” is that it has become a genre in its own right. To substitute one genre for another is no solution, and to replace the Iowa-writing-programme-cum-New-Yorker story with the McSweeney’s story only begs the question. Write literature to be horrific or futuristic, plotless or ironic, and you’ve crossed over into entertainment. Nothing wrong with that, but the distinction is important. Writing literature is a dangerous proposition, and a lonely pursuit. Iowa may stifle originality by providing safety in numbers. But accept the Teflon protection of McSweeney’s irony and you’re equally likely to see the creative impulse slip away.