Beautiful and Funny and Weird: A Night with McSweeney’s

When Dave Eggers first started McSweeney’s Quarterly, the iconic US literary magazine, he sold lifetime subscriptions for $100 – the same price as a two-year subscription.

‘That was as long as the magazine was meant to last,’ McSweeney’s managing editor Jordan Bass told a Wheeler Centre audience last night.

Next year, McSweeney’s will turn 15 years old. (In retrospect, those lifetime subscriptions were great value.)

McSweeney's managing editor Jordan Bass

McSweeney's managing editor Jordan Bass

These days, a huge range of interests sprawl beneath the McSweeney’s umbrella, from the bookish The Believer to stylish sports quarterly Grantland. The form is varied, too, ranging from daily humour website McSweeney’s Internet Tendency to old-fashioned literary journal McSweeney’s Quarterly, which boasts cutting-edge design and content.

In the past year, McSweeney’s has started published a food magazine, Lucky Peach, which is now ‘the hugest thing we’re doing’.

And of course, there’s the book publishing arm of the business, where the authors include big names like Eggers himself (of course), Michael Chabon and Nick Hornby, along with next-big-things like Sheila Heti.

Combs and artisanal pickles

Bass started his internship at McSweeney’s in 2004, when issue 13 had just been published.

‘I spent the first hour of my internship standing outside the building because I didn’t realise the gate was locked,’ he said. ‘Every hour after that was really, really great.’

One of the first issues he worked on came with a comb. He spent a lot of time looking at 30 different sample combs sent by manufacturers, ‘figuring out which one would be funny to find inside a literary magazine’.

After his internship, he went back to school to finish his degree. After college, his friends all moved to Brooklyn ‘to become food stylists or dominatrixes’. But Bass had a different dream.

‘I wanted to move back home and work for free in book publishing.’

He joked about McSweeney’s reputation as a hipster publication (‘despite my employer’s critical lack of fashion sense’). A profile in the Australian recently likened the publisher’s niche appeal to ‘artisanal pickles’, which amused him.

‘We definitely don’t spend most of our time thinking about font size and subtitles and eating Thai food off someone’s desk,’ he told the Wheeler Centre crowd.

McSweeney’s has 15 employees, maybe half of those working in editorial roles. ‘You sort of have to accept that you’re going to be doing everything’. Bass likes the fact that instead of editing a story, sending it off to the designer and never seeing it again, everything happens in one place.

McSweeneys 41: Australian Aboriginal Fiction Issue

The current issue, McSweeney’s 41, features four stories by Australian indigenous writers: Tony Birch, Melissa Lucashenko, Ellen van Neerven-Currie and Tara June Winch. It follows previous nation-themed issues on Kenya and Iceland; local novelist Chris Flynn pitched the idea while on a visit to New York last year.

Bass said he was really impressed by the quality of the stories, and that all four writers struck him as ‘world-class voices’.

He’s been impressed by the Australian literary scene too, saying the incredible sense of community here is one that ‘lots of people in the States would be envious of’. He particularly admired the Queensland Literary Awards, staged by a conglomerate of writers and literary folk (‘people with incredible moxie’) after Campbell Newman cancelled the government-sponsored Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards earlier this year.

Politics, empty chairs and Clint Eastwood

Almost all of McSweeney’s short fiction is unsolicited. In the current issue, only the four indigenous Australian stories (curated by Chris Flynn) were commissioned. ‘We try to react to the currents – see what comes in the door,’ said Bass. How many submissions come through the door (or in the inbox) each year? Approximately seven to eight thousand, vetted by McSweeney’s interns.

‘I was very obsessive for a long time. I didn’t trust any of my volunteers. I’d let them read things, then I’d read everything they rejected and get angry. These days I try to trust people.’

Bass says the McSweeney’s gang thought about whether they should produce a politically focused issue to coincide with the American election, but decided against it, deciding Obama probably didn’t need their help.

‘It was exciting when Clint Eastwood spoke to an empty chair,’ he joked, deadpan. ‘Because our logo is an empty chair.’

‘We never had the fat years’

Asked about the impact of the downturn in publishing on McSweeney’s, Bass reported that things haven’t changed all that much – part of the advantage of being a small press, used to running operations with more dash than cash.

‘We never had the fat years of rolling around in our expense accounts,’ he said. ‘It’s always been about connecting with dedicated readers. That same kind of audience is the audience that’s surviving, that’ll be around a bit longer.’

When we’re putting together an experimental book, it doesn’t cost five dollars more per copy. It costs twenty-five cents more.’

Jordan Bass

McSweeney’s has long been known for its innovative approach to design. How does that contribute to the cost of producing it?

McSweeney's 19: The 'cigar box' issue

McSweeney's 19: The 'cigar box' issue

‘When we’re putting together an experimental book, it doesn’t cost five dollars more per copy,’ said Bass. ‘It costs twenty-five cents more. Dave realised there are lots of ways you can make your book stand out from everything else in the store.’

Bass says that while the form of McSweeney’s( has often been wildly inventive – for example, one issue came in a cigar box, with content in the form of letters and postcards, while another was in the format of a Sunday newspaper (it took a year to produce, ‘not a good sign when you’re trying to argue for the future of newspapers’) – the company has never messed too much with the page layout or typesetting. The content has always come first; the design a way into the stories.

On the other hand, ‘Dave has always talked about wanting to print an issue on glass,’ shared Bass. ‘That’s his dream.’

What’s the secret to good writing? Voice, says Bass. And good sentences. ‘Don’t not care about your sentences.’

‘You can ask it to be beautiful and funny and weird at the same time.’

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