Cutting his glossies

New from the editor of the late, lamented satirical rag Might comes McSweeney's, a magazine for writing that was killed by big-league glossies.


James Poniewozik
October 20, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

In March 1998, Esquire ran a "Women We Love" blurb on Madeleine Stowe, and it was, perhaps, the saddest magazine article I have ever read. Not because of the copy itself, nor even the attendant cheesecake shot of the remarkable actress, but because it was the first Esquire byline I had seen by David Eggers.

Eggers was one of the young founders of Might, the satirical, shoestring-budget magazine known for its sharp cultural essays and parodies, whose idiosyncratic 1993-97 run is anthologized in the new "Shiny Adidas Tracksuits and the Death of Camp" (Berkley Boulevard). After Might's demise and a stint editing Salon's Media Circus (for the record, I don't know the guy -- it was before my time), Esquire picked him up as an editor. It's an old story: Big-league magazine discovers young writer with "edge," with a certain, you know, "thing." Big-league magazine craves said "thing." Said "thing" would work well in big-league magazine's "mix." So here was Eggers -- his thing mired deep in Esquire's mix -- soldierly carrying out one of those literary panty raids that pay men's magazines' bills. It was like something out of "Donnie Brasco": A young outsider insinuates his way into the Family, and the first thing his wiseguy sponsors do is ask him to whack somebody to prove he's really one of them.

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It was a sincere, sweet piece, actually, and Eggers followed it up with several outstanding longer articles in later issues. But the lesson lingered. You can make your name, sweat your blood, build your brand. You can bootstrap a magazine with $10,000 and two computers and become an icon to thousands of readers and peers. You can be the next Jann Wenner or the next Kurt Andersen or the next whoever; but when it comes down to it, when your efforts collapse and you're basking in your glorious failure, when you wake up and the electric bill hits the mailbox -- you're still gonna have to do the blurb on Madeleine Stowe.

Many of the accomplished contributors to Eggers' new labor of love, the quarterly journal McSweeney's, have had to do the blurb on Madeleine Stowe. That is, these writers -- many of them Might alumni who have gone on to write for major glossies -- have negotiated the various small compromises that make up a career in magazines: killed stories, schizophrenic editors, concessions to the imaginary narrow range of interests of an imaginary vodka-buying audience. So the first issue of McSweeney's is about the work that, in today's magazine market, you can't do: Eggers had his writers contribute articles that were killed by other magazines or that could never have been pitched in the first place.

Might was about a lot of things. The eponymous sportswear touchstone of the 1980s. The uselessness of college. The decline of Caesar salad. But in a meta sense, it was really about being young and on the outside, wanting in on your own terms. Its overarching, inevitable concern was The Sell-Out: It ran a full-page ad on one cover and published essays like feminist writer Paula Kamen's tongue-in-cheek conversion to the right wing (the money's better) and cartoonist Ted Rall's excoriation of day jobs (both reprinted in "Tracksuits").

McSweeney's, conceived from the other side of the glossy divide, is about what happens once you've bought in. So where Might was an alternative magazine, McSweeney's is an antimagazine. Physically, it's the polar opposite of a glossy, bound in an unassuming literary-magazine format, with no ads, practically no art (even the cartoons are all text) and a design like a 19th century journal's.

But above all, it is by definition a sampler of that which is not a magazine in glossidom today. Zev Borow, for instance, offers 10 absorbing pages on the Hawaiian secessionist movement, killed by Civilization magazine when it shifted to theme issues guest-edited by the likes of Jules Feiffer and Bill Blass; Rick Moody, an appreciation of "The Yule Log" -- the three-hour videotape loop of a burning log that local TV once aired at Christmastime -- rejected by the New York Times Magazine. And the issue is filled out by brilliant but eminently unpitchable mini-features like the dryly uproarious dissections of newspaper headlines and the section "Television Advertisements, Reviewed with Great Passion." (Incidentally, like Might -- renowned for its bogus tables of contents -- McSweeney's is full of clever marginalia; e.g., unsolicited submissions should "arrive accompanied by a SASE, which will more likely be cannibalized for the stamp and then discarded.")

The cardinal sin of unsellability that McSweeney's authors commit: There's hardly a celebrity hook or news peg in the whole issue. The major exception to that is Stephen Glass, the Lost Boy who haunts this journal of ambitious young writers in 1998. The finest piece in the issue notes that overlooked in all the blame-affixing regarding the overextended young evil genius was a don't-ask-don't-tell editorial culture that pressures writers for impossibly neat narrative arcs and too-good-to-be-true anecdotes. The author, the pseudonymous "Stephen J. Shalit" (a reference to New Republic writer Ruth Shalit, whose problems with plagiarism are documented) tells about a "talented young journalist" friend who goes on an assignment only to find that the story his editor had hyped isn't there. Faced with having the piece killed -- at the cost of thousands of dollars, a month's work and maybe his reputation ("Oh how [editors] talk! ... He used to be pretty good, but can he deliver?") -- he talks to his editor, who insinuates, "Are you sure that nothing else happened while you were there? ... Are you sure that, you know, there isn't anything (in your notes) that you've left out?" Glass, obviously, is an extreme-beyond-belief example of a writer "finding" things in his notes, getting a story where there is none, but "Q. Did he act alone? A. Of course not."

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It's a damning analysis, though to be fair one has to wonder what's quite so dangerous about wanting exceptional, well-told stories. Which in turn raises a larger question about McSweeney's goal of sanctifying the glossy world's stillborn: Is it pointed media commentary or self-absorption? Is there something contemptuous about asking the world to embrace your leftovers?

Well, not when the leavings are this edifying. Despite its youthful masthead, McSweeney's, like Might, has a surprisingly old-fangled mission: to indulge its writers' curiosity without heeding fashion. In its own small way, really, it's trying to re-create the much-mourned editorial approach of the pre-Tina Brown New Yorker. And like the old New Yorker's, this kind of vision risks coming off as sanctimonious. "We would not publish anything we didn't care about," declares the foreword to "Tracksuits," "namely, articles about celebrities, clothes, electronics, makeup, cars, video games, beer, nightlife generally, and shoes."

The reason Eggers' publications pull it off, though, is that they're funny, they're not self-important, and, above all, they put their lack of money where their mouths are: McSweeney's and Might's writers contributed their work for free, and it's a lot more convincing to stake a claim on the world's attention when you're not also claiming that it owes you a living. As the foreword to "Tracksuits" admits, Might's editors soon realized their magazine would never offer "return on investment," and they cheerfully tell would-be imitators that there's no way to do what they attempted without ending up a "fringe-culture artifact." But, they say, do it anyway. Not that Might's roster ended up without any ROI altogether, what with its representation today in Spin, Mother Jones, Details, ESPN Magazine and on and on. If that's not the dream, it beats selling pencils.

And the rest of us? We at least have "Tracksuits," and our back issues, and, for now, one issue, and counting, of a magazine that never really existed.

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James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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