Skip to content
Guest Thinkers

Mission: Impossible: The Art of McSweeney’s

 “Impossible, you say?” one of the early pages asks rhetorically in Art of McSweeney’s, a study of the art of the quirky periodical McSweeney’s Quarterly. “Nothing is impossible when you work for the circus.” With David Eggers as the chief ringmaster, McSweeney’s Quarterly gathers together all creative creatures under the big top of his publishing venture in an attempt to do nothing less than save the printed book itself. To lovers of the online reading experience, Eggers et al. seem like hopeless Luddites—dinosaurs in a golden age of pixels. To lovers of the book as a work of art, the McSweeney’s cast attempts the impossible and succeeds, at least for now.

“[T]here are business people who spend their days crowing about a future where physical books are no more,” Eggers laments. “McSweeney’s is a small company dedicated to these physical books that purportedly have no future.” In a picture showing issues 1 through 29 of McSweeney’s Quarterly, you can see the exquisite corpus of twenty years of creativity. The variety not only in exteriors format but also in interiors, including modern contrivances such as CDs and DVDs, resurrects the idea of the book as something important rather than something dispensable. “This book is dedicated to readers who love physical books as objects,” Eggers enthuses, “and also to showing young publishers-to-be how much fun can be had while making books, and how available the means of production is to them.” Art of McSweeney’s proves it’s OK to make a fetish object of books while simultaneously demonstrating that creating such gems is possible given the proper passion and creativity.

Art of McSweeney’s moves chronologically through issues 1 through 31 of the quarterly, with brief interludes to discuss other publishing ventures such as William T. Vollmann’s 4,000-page leviathan on the history of violence,Rising Up and Rising Down, and former Talking Heads front man David Byrne’s writings. Eggers and collaborators such as Sarah Vowell, Rick Moody, Neal Pollack, Michael Chabon, and Glen David Gold anecdotally lead you through the buildup, construction, and reception of each issue. Even mistakes such as a weighty metallic binding to hold magnetically bound mini-books that led to postage fee issues seem more fun than folly when done in the name of trying something cool.

If McSweeney’s Quarterly can be said to have a father figure, I’d nominate Marcel Duchamp. Using Duchampian “found materials” found on the side of the road of publishing history, McSweeney’s Quarterly makes everything old new again. For example, a long-forgotten “Gaelic Self-Taught” book finds new life as a short story “designed in the style of comic book without pictures.” The classic McSweeney’s look comes from old school ideas digested by post-modern sensibilities.

Discussing one piece in particular, Lawrence Weschler hits on this prevailing theme of convergences between old design and modern intent. “Convergences are simply unlikely alignments,” Weschler says of a feature placing a lunar landscape beside a two-toned Rothko and the swirl of colliding galaxies beside Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm. “What I do is, I put disparate images together and say, ‘Look at this, now look at this,’ inviting the reader to enjoy the beguiling resonance.” The primary focus of McSweeney’s Quarterly will most likely always be the written word, but it’s this visual “beguiling resonance” that make you want to pick up the book and open it.

Behind the overall beguilement, however, remains serious stuff, albeit always with a naughty playfulness at some level. In 2004, issue 14 featured David Eggers’ painting of George W. Bush as an amputee saying, “I am so, so sorry.” Thus, the human cost of the war, even for survivors, comes to call for the powers responsible. Four years later, in issue 26, an American flag graced the cover beneath the title, “Where to Invade Next.” A selection of smaller flags of invadees to choose from cowered beneath the stars and stripes. “I’d been thinking of how seemingly easy it was for the Bush administration to sell the war in Iraq—even to the liberal segment of the country,” Eggers explains, “and I thought we could publish an issue that basically laid out equally compelling reasons to topple the governments of a handful of other sovereign nations.” It’s an elaborate joke, both visually and verbally, but it’s important because the joke was on us, even if we didn’t know it until Eggers pointed it out. Whenever someone dismisses McSweeney’s Quarterly as the sophomoric hi-jinks of artistically advanced yet intellectually stunted overachievers, I point to those issues as playing the role of the court jester whispering valuable truths in the king’s ear by shouting piercing jibes to the world.

If nothing else, Art of McSweeney’s will stir your imagination, even if you disagree with the politics or fail to appreciate the literature. An aroma of hipsterism lingers about McSweeney’s, often repulsing a wider public fearing the taint of elitism. Art of McSweeney’s sweeps all elitism away by giving a full disclosure of the creative process itself, from the highs to the painful lows. If you ever wanted to run away with the circus, Art of McSweeney’s is your chance, and all you need to do is sit down, open a book, and open your mind. They’ve taken a “Mission: Impossible” and made it a “Mission Accomplished.”

[Many thanks to Chronicle Books for providing me with a review copy of Art of McSweeney’s.]


Up Next