Rock and read: the fashionable American quarterly McSweeney's has attracted some of our most successful writers—including Zadie Smith and Nick Hornby. Now it is staging literary and musical extravaganzas. Novelists are finally having fun - the back half
There is no business like show business, as writers prove each time they stand in public and read extracts from their books. I have lost count of the times I have listened to the monotonous drone of a novelist while hoping for a lone-gunman to put me out of misery. And that's when I'm doing the reading; I am far less patient with other writers. If the organisers of literary festivals continue to conspire against the public and plan fresh outrages of dullness, all we can do is pray that someone finds a way to enliven the book reading. Which is why 1 approached the "McSweeney's versus They Might Be Giants" event at the Barbican earlier this month with such trepidation.
Billed as a "high-concept collaboration of words and music", the evening included guest authors Nick Hornby, Zadie Smith and Arthur Bradford. This musical-cum-literary extravaganza--in which the band They Might Be Giants provided melodic musings to a series of readings - had already played sell-out dates across the US, so I hoped for a revelation, yet feared for nay sanity.
McSweeney's began life as a literary "Quarterly", the most vague description a periodical can give itself while maintaining the charade that it is in business. But unlike other quarterlies, McSweeney's proved a success and spawned a mini-empire. In a spirit of diehard whimsicality, the magazine is printed in Iceland and shipped to the US, although it is available online. It also publishes books, runs a creative writing centre for eight- to 18-year-olds in San Francisco, and now stages rock-and-reading events. Like the clothes retailers J Crews and Ted Baker, McSweeney's maintains the fiction that it is the brainchild of a lone visionary, one Timothy McSweeney. The truth is not so different: the entire venture, and its success, is down to the writer Dave Eggers, a literary impresario who stands in the same relation to contemporary American writing as Damien Hirst does to Britart--whether or not they are the most talented men in their fields, their energy and ideas have come to define the state of the art.
Eggers is best known in Britain for his fictionalised memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, published three years ago. His parents died within a year of each other as he was graduating from university, leaving him the guardian of his much younger brother. A Heartbreaking Work recounts their life together, but also the creation of a forerunner to McSweeney's, called Might, which Eggers established in a quasi-communal, quasi-cooperative way in San Francisco in the 1990s. Communality plays a large part in all of his ventures, making his life a kind of non-stop Breakfast Club.
One of the key sequences in A Heartbreaking Work describes Eggers's attempt to join the cast of MTV's Real World, a precursor to Big Brother, in the hope that the exposure would help publicise his new magazine. The problem was that, had he won a place in the MTV house, he would have had to give up caring for his brother. Naturally, Eggers would not have done this: the exercise was pointless. But the book makes much of this pointlessness, recognising the vapidity of the Real World project but also its romance, the celebration of communality and of youthful aspirations. True, this romance would be pre-packaged for consumption by a rapacious TV company, but Eggers was confident that the house style of the youthful, communal, celebratory and, crucially, ironic Might magazine would succeed in navigating these paradoxes, even though it clearly could not. Irony can hardly replace responsible childcare. In this episode, all the hallmarks of the McSweeney's style come together: the ambition, the flights of fantasy, the love of fellowship, a high ironic style and, finally, the importance of domestic moral issues. Eggers has now turned to fiction, without yet replicating the success of his autobiography.
"McSweeney's versus They Might Be Giants was less a conflict than a series of segues. They Might Be Giants provided mood music for the stories, occasionally playing phrases of songs mentioned by the writer. They might well have been a rock group had they not chosen to abandon intensity and excitement in favour of tweeness. Led Zeppelin once said: "Baby, baby, baby, I don't wanna leave you," I ain't jokin' woman, I got to ramble." They Might Be Giants said: "Not to put too fine a point on it/Say I'm the only bee in your bonnet/Make a little birdhouse in your soul." The band is clearly literary, but this is not always a virtue.
If pop music can be literary, then evidence of the literary might be found elsewhere, too. In her reading, Zadie Smith--a friend and a supporter of Eggers and McSweeney's--used the ironic phrase "could he be more ..."--a catchphrase of the character Chandler in the sitcom Friends. In his own reading, Eggers adopted a form of despairing self-questioning that recalls the character George in the sitcom Seinfeld. One could regard these references as evidence of a postmodern sensibility--or, to be uncharitable, of a belief that all culture exists at the same level, a riot of indifferent and undifferentiated cliches. But I don't believe this is what the McSweeney's circle intend. Rather, they are pointing out evidence of literary sensibility in areas that are often thought to stand in opposition to literature. This does not mean that Chandler and George are great or even good creations. Rather, it is to note that a kind of literary inclusiveness already exists beyond the world of books.
Too often, being a writer feels like being the editor of the Daily Telegraph. You worry the audience is ageing so rapidly that if you blink they might all die. You even suspect that some readers cling to books as a badge of fogeyish pride-proof of their dissatisfaction with modern life. If McSweeney's is right, and the literary is everywhere, then we can stop worrying and learn to enjoy ourselves. At least intermittently.
McSweeney's has adopted Nick Hornby as its prophet with real enthusiasm. When Hornby's American publishers brought out his recent book of essays, entitled 31 Songs in the UK, McSweeney's produced a super deluxe version, containing illustrations and a CD of all the songs. It seems in keeping with the spirit of McSweeney's that Hornby was introduced at the Barbican as the "soul" of the evening.
But his reading was dreadful: flat and monotonous and delivered with the "just shoot me" stare of a deer caught in headlights. Better to read his story in the latest edition of McSweeney's magazine, entitled McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, a collection of adventure and science fiction stories guest-edited by Michacl Chabon. The anthology is a self-conscious reappraisal of the popular fiction of the mid 20th century, and it stands as a companion piece to Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of comic-book writers, The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay. As an anthology, Mammoth Treasury often hokey, wearing its retro-styling rather too heavily. The best stories are by those writers whose tongues are furthest from their cheeks--such as Michael Crichton and Stephen King. Yet this is hardly a criticism. It is a relief to find, in McSweeney's, a literary, space that embraces rather than rejects the biggest hitters in publishing, the true heirs to Dickens. If we subscribe to literary values that seek to exclude all contemporary phenomena, from writers such as King and Crichton to pop music or television, then we can hardly be surprised if we attract readers who have chosen to turn away from modern life.