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the best of mcsweeney's vol. 1 - detail from cover
the best of mcsweeney's
Dave Eggers’ literary adventure.

There are few things literary, despite their cultural cachet, that could genuinely be considered hip. As author Lawrence Norfolk has noted, “Rock music is ecstatic and spontaneous in style, self-generative in elaboration, and communal in performance. Writing is laboured and cramped, eked out word by word, and consumed in private.” And yet Dave Eggers’ literary journal, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, has, since 1998, been succeeding in making literature as cool as anything you can dance to, wear, or impress members of your preferred sex with.

It’s easy to forget, six years on from its publication, just what a fillip Eggers’ memoir, A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, provided to a moribund literary scene. Using his advance to kickstart McSweeney’s (named for a demented correspondent of his mother’s who, throughout Eggers’ childhood, claimed to be family), Eggers brought together newly fêted authors such as Zadie Smith, JT Leroy and Arthur Bradford, more established leftfield names like David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem and AM Homes, and a notable mainstream entry in the form of regular contributor Nick Hornby.

Dave Eggers and The Best Of McSweneey's Vol. 2 (detail).

Blending short stories with journalism, think-pieces, rants, photography and comic-book art, McSweeney’s is more a literary salon bringing together the like-minded, rather than a manifesto-led movement. And while critics have argued that McSweeney-ite writers share a certain smugness, applying generalizations to what is gradually becoming a significantly diverse body of work is both foolhardy and mean-spirited. Whether or not it’s as yet venerable enough to deserve two “best of” volumes is another matter.

What the Penguin collections provide in the way of increased availability comes at the cost of production values. Each issue of McSweeney’s is a work of art in its own right, usually in the form of a lavishly bound hardback with perhaps a DVD or CD included. But while Eggers has repeatedly stressed the importance of design, the writing, if it’s worth anything at all, should be quite capable of surviving away from the adornment of small Victorian line drawings or being bound by giant rubber bands. The fact that it mostly does, and that McSweeney’s is around at all, is well worth the occasional banality amid the brilliance.

Chris Power 25 August 05
The Best of McSweeney’s Volumes 1 & 2, out now published by Penguin/Hamish Hamilton.
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