Mighty McSweeney’s

It’s common in the magazine business to see talented editorial folks get jobs at glossy corporate pubs once their underfunded labors of love finally go down the drain. But even the most jaded media observers were surprised when David Eggers became an editor at Esquire in the wake of the much bemoaned demise of Might magazine a few years back. With Eggers and friends at the helm, Might had taken on every brand of poseur and pretender that American culture has to offer.

So it came as less of a shock when Eggers resigned in September. As he prepared to jump ship, Eggers scored a book deal from Simon & Schuster, so, as he puts it, he’d have “a way to pay rent.” Collecting a book advance, it seems, prompted Eggers to conceive of a new publication, one that wouldn’t be nearly as contemporary as Might and wouldn’t even be, technically, a magazine, lacking as it would regular departments, features, and columns (not to mention pictures and artwork).

The result is McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a journal that comprises killed articles and odd, obliquely humorous experiments culled from Eggers’s circle of former Might cronies, as well as from a few A-list scribes like Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace (none of whom get paid). Some of Might‘s more devout followers report being disappointed at the lack of current, media-centric editorial in McSweeney’s— especially in its just published second issue— but Eggers says they’ll have to get over it. Or at least go to the Web site.

Because there’s obviously a Web site, as there always is these days. Even if you’re Eggers, alone in a Brooklyn apartment in your underwear, producing the site on a six-year-old computer with one free megabyte of memory (which is either very refreshing or unfortunately reminiscent of 1995). Eggers originally saw the Web as a cheap and timely way to publish sarcastic, ephemeral rants about pop culture and the media. Indeed, one of the site’s biggest draws is a serialized feature called The Service Industry, in which the editor and other unnamed guest authors eviscerate just the sort of people that Eggers worked for at Esquire.

But just as The Service Industry started winning over readers and attracting more site traffic— and subscriptions to the journal— Eggers’s interest waned. Barely any new episodes have been posted in recent weeks, a situation the editor is loath to remedy (though he admits a few more are in the works). “People were livid when we stopped doing as much of that,” Eggers says. “But my worst fear of all is that it become repetitive.” Instead, he posted the first installment of a three-part, 5000-word interview with an epidemiologist specializing in viruses transmitted by bugs. Visit the site (mcsweeneys.com) while you can, because it’s hard to know what you’ll find the next time you look. Which for Eggers is precisely the point.


Village Voice: You’ve just published the second issue of McSweeney’s. How does it compare with the first issue?

David Eggers: The quarterly is a weird, esoteric thing. I wanted the new issue to have a lot of hardcore science stuff. There’s a fascinating interview with a mathematician that I modeled after The Paris Review interviews— it looks
exactly the same. There’s also a piece positing that Supreme Court decisions are actually decided on the basketball court. It runs about 14 pages, with diagrams. It takes a certain kind of reader to invest that much time in a lengthy piece of comic fiction or satire.

How is McSweeney’s different from Might?

McSweeney’s has less edge. At Might we were sneering, and everything had this gnashing tone— because we were angry. McSweeney’s is more banal. It’s the same reason I can only read Suck once every few weeks, because it’s like having someone shouting in your ear.

How many subscribers do you have?

Over 500, which to me is an unbelievable number. It took five people three and a half hours to get the mailing together. And it’s taken me four days to mail them out. We filled up the blue mailboxes in front of the pizza place to the point where you couldn’t get them open, and this woman came up behind us and couldn’t get her letter in. And she was just livid.

You also put up a Web site. Why?

I get really itchy if I don’t have somewhere to publish things. I have all these friends with no forum for their weird satire and exercises, so we use the Web to put up reactive things in a timely way. The beauty of the Web site is that we’re not answering to anybody. Early on, some people who hook up alterna Web sites with advertising came calling, but I’m not interested in any of that. There will never be any money exchanged in connection with the McSweeney’s Web site.

Do you have any interest in making the site more interactive?

I’ve never found chat groups that interesting. I’m not even a huge Web reader, though I think The Onion is the best use of the English language in my lifetime. But my computer is from 1990 and I have a really slow Web connection. I might do all that stuff if it didn’t take any time. But the idea is not to spend too much time on this stuff.

But don’t the quarterly and the site take up a good deal of your time?

Oh God, no. Not even remotely. With the quarterly, it’s three weeks of intense work. With the Web— and I don’t mean this to sound glib— it’s about a half hour a day, unless I’m writing something. I don’t do much editing. If people send me stuff and it’s good, I just put it up. If it isn’t, I just send it back.

If McSweeney’s doesn’t take up that much time, what have you been doing since quitting Esquire?

Well, I quit to write a book. A semiautobiographical, nonfiction novel. I’m designing the book and have total control over all the packaging. I’m even inputting the corrections.

Are you reluctant to do the publicity that Simon & Schuster will ask of you?

I don’t mind going out and meeting people who buy it. At Might we had parties every month or so and invited the local subscribers. But if I have to read, I’m not sure that would work out. I’m not such a great reader. Maybe we could have pool parties instead of readings.

Would you have bailed on Esquire even if you didn’t get a book deal? It was clearly not your cup of tea.

I’m not sure how long I could’ve lasted there. Obviously, I think there are a lot of things wrong with most glossy magazines. It’s an unfortunate clash between a crass, commercial enterprise and some wonderfully creative people who want to create art, or the closest thing to it under the circumstances. It’s so rare for someone who writes passionately about something late at night in their apartment to ever really find the right reader.

Didn’t the Web help those people out?

For so many years I was such a skeptic about the Web. But it’s a truly beautiful medium. You can retain a level of purity that you can’t achieve almost anywhere else. No distributors, no people to pay off, no grocery stores, or all the other stuff that goes on with large-circulation magazines— all of which is so depressing that I can’t even think about it.

Isn’t the Web in danger of getting too commercial itself?

Maybe. Salon is trying to make it as a commercial enterprise. People criticize them for having too [many articles about] sex, and [for] the whole Henry Hyde thing. But I don’t think there’s a move they’ve made that I wouldn’t have made in the same situation. They just have so many people to answer to, so many people have pumped money into it, so many
employees— that sort of thing doesn’t intrigue me as much anymore.

Do you ever wish Might were still around?

I don’t think things like that are supposed to last. If it were still around, I think I’d be really depressed and bored and lifeless. In my heart, I knew it would never be a way to pay the rent. Back in San Francisco, once Dave Moodie and I had done the mind-numbing graphic design work that paid the bills, we’d work until two or three in the morning on Might— even if we
didn’t have to. It was like an endurance contest, and whoever left first was a kind of traitor. There was a lot of peer pressure. A few people dropped out. They said, “You guys are morons.” And they were right.

How are things different now?

I do as much as I can do well. I’ve tried to
lower people’s expectations. We might not put something new up on the site every day; it might not always be humor. But this is why I’m home in my underwear. So I don’t have to answer to this feeling of obligation, to deadlines or what the audience expects. I don’t think that has any place in the artistic process. I try not to be contemptuous of readers, who I very much appreciate. But I have no interest in meeting expectations. I’d much rather confound them.

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