For no reason other than that it is July, we forthwith offer a highly subjective ranking of the best issues of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern.
(Editor’s Note: Many of these issues no longer seem to be available at the McSweeney’s Store. We remind you, however, that in the wake of the AMS/PGW fiasco, buying directly from independent publishers can be a great way to show your support. Hardcovers of Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown, for example, can be had for 40% off at www.softskull.com. We’ve provided links to the McSweeney’s store below, when applicable, as well as our usual Amazon links.)
Truly, a McSweeney’s for all seasons. This is the one from right after the 2004 elections, and the mood is downright dour, from Chris Adrian’s “A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death” to Weschler’s “Thumb in Eye” Convergence. But there is some damn good stuff in here, notably Jim Shephard’s and Chris Bachelder’s stories, and Claire Light’s “Pigs in Space.” Lindsay Carleton’s creepy, angry “The People” perfectly distills the overall mood, and is probably our favorite McSweeney’s debut story ever. In its stripped-down cover and moderate front-matter, this McSweeney’s is, more than any other, a “typical issue” of the magazine. That it is of such high quality speaks to the enduring value of what editor Dave Eggers started. Every reader will have his or her own list of highlights and bloopers – aesthetic uniformity and frivolity seem to be the Scylla and Charibdis of the McSweeney’s project – but it’s been awfully good these last ten years to have a thick, prominent quarterly devoted to the notion that good writing both instructs and entertains. (McSweeney’s Store)
9. Issue 11: It Can Be Free, a.k.a. “The DVD Issue”
This is another of McSweeney’s stronger efforts, where fiction is concerned. Big names predominate – T.C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, Denis Johnson – but the best work comes from the slightly less-prominent: David Means, Tom Bissell, and Samantha Hunt. As usual, there’s a debut story of which to be jealous (by Benjamin Lytal), letters, a smattering of nonfiction, and a Lawrence Weschler convergence. The endpapers appraise us of another notable Eggers project, the “Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award.” A handsome, quasi-biblical design diverts. And just when you think you’ve exhausted Issue 11, you remember the tongue-in-cheek bonus DVD. Indisputably the most essential item here is “The Editing of The Making of McSweeney’s Issue #11 DVD” (with audio commentary by John Hodgman and Sarah Vowell). In theory: cloying. In practice: freaking brilliant. (McSweeney’s store)
8. Issue 20, a.k.a. “Return to Form”
After a few issues in which whimsy trumped value, the magazine here buckles down and focuses on core competencies. First: fiction, notably Susan Steinberg’s “To Sit, Unmoving” and J. Erin Sweeney’s “Terminal.” Second: Design. Among its stories, Issue 20 interlards beautiful color plates by contemporary artists. My favorites are by Jason Holley and Susan Logoreci. As a bonus, the editors throw in a bound excerpt of Chris Adrian’s monumental novel, The Children’s Hospital, subsequently published by McSweeney’s Books. With the addition of a letters section and a kick-ass piece of journalism, this issue would easily have cracked the Top Five. (McSweeney’s Store)
We could just as easily list Issue 1 here, on the principle of historical significance. But Issue 3, its beefy younger brother, is where McSweeney’s really started to hit its stride. Having started out showcasing articles killed by other magazines and larky humor pieces, the Quarterly Concern quickly began luring the best work of talents young and old. Hence Saul Steinberg‘s wonderful diagram “Country Noises.” Hence Paul Collins’ “Banvard’s Folly” (later reprinted in his book of the same title). Hence Judy Budnitz’ O. Henry-award-winning “Flush,” and Gary Greenberg’s remarkable memoir “In The Kingdom of the Unabomber” – the bloody heart of the Windfall Republic.
Under the Managing Editorship of Eli Horowitz, McSweeney’s has laudably (if intermittently) emphasized showcasing new talent. Given the pressure on literary magazines to draw readers with recognizable names, this issue was a pleasant surprise. Of course, the last 80 pages feature a Roddy Doyle story and short-shorts by, e.g., Judy Budnitz, Rhett Miller, and Jennifer Egan. But the real meat is in the titular twelve stories. At times, the profusion of present-tense threatens to overwhelm the reader. But in stories like James Boice’s “Pregnant Girl Smoking,” it works just beautifully. Two of these debut writers, Ben Ehrenreich and Salvador Plascencia, would go on to publish novels – one of them from McSweeney’s Books. (McSweeney’s Store)
5. Issue 13 a.k.a. “The Comics Issue”
To date, Chris Ware is the only guest-editor of McSweeney’s to have written the majority of the text while also illustrating the dustjacket. Almost autistically intricate, Ware’s design rewards repeated viewing. And between vignettes from his illustrated history of Western thought, Ware offers readers a four-color Who’s Who of contemporary comic-book artists, including Daniel Clowes, Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, and Art Spiegelman. No less beautiful are the prose contributions from Ira Glass, John Updike, and Chip Kidd. Portfolios of Charles Schulz and George Herriman provide historical context. On the whole, the issue makes a compelling case for comics as literature. (McSweeney’s Store)
We’ve recently fantasized about a literary quarterly that would only have guest-editors. You’d have to bid for the budget and subscriber list: whoever had the best pitch would win the right to put out an issue. In this 2003 anthology, guest-editing again proved congenial for McSweeney’s. In the most entertaining fashion imaginable, Michael Chabon made a case for the foolishness of genre distinctions. The results are a hung jury: it’s telling that some lit-fic writers delving into pulp genres sound as uncomfortable as some pulp writers waxing literary. But when “Thrilling Tales” is on, it’s on. Elmore Leonard is, as always, a great American Writer. Kelly Link is, as always, Kelly Link. Chabon’s skylarking “The Martian Agent” would inspire at least one blogger to attempt serial narrative. And Rick Moody’s “The Albertine Notes” (just republished in his book Right Livelihoods) reminds us of how good a writer he can be. It’s interesting, having read What is the What, to return to Eggers’ story “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly,” and to rediscover the odd joylessness of his immediate post-September-11th output. Eggers’ gifts as a writer depend, we think, upon his capacity for wonder, and when it goes, the work suffers. Perhaps this explains the streak of guest-editors, and the eventual hiring of Managing Editor Horowitz. Anyway, if you’re going to buy this issue, try to find the original McSweeney’s edition, rather than the Vintage paperback.
3. Issue 8 a.k.a. “Paul’s Eye is on the Sparrow”
We’ve encountered a lack of consensus on this issue: people either love it or hate it. We love it. Guest-editor Paul Maliszewski devotes the entire issue to “hoaxes,” presaging his own eventual exile from the McSweeney’s kingdom. But expansion beyond the usual gang proves to be a good thing. Again, we get Ben Marcus, Paul LaFarge, Moody, Weschler, J. Robert Lennon, and some quality Gabe Hudson. But Maliszewski also brings on board Samantha Hunt, Lynne Tillman (in the letters section), Michael Martone, Darin Strauss, Curtis White, and Gilbert Sorrentino. On the whole, the mood is a bit drier, a bit more refined, though we do get some amusing faux-reference-work riffage on Borges and the letter “M” (a prelude to the Future Dictionary of America?) Highlights include a wonderful Alex Hemon story, Sean Wilsey doing fiction, Rachel Cohen on Fernando Pessoa, a Tina Barney gatefold, and Jonathan Ames’ fascinating “The Nista Affair” – either memoir or story, we can’t tell which.
Don’t be fooled by the title. Issue 5 is not a box, and thus earns fewer style points than its immediate predecessor. (Nor does it contain gems or itching, in any literal sense.) It is, however, the strongest single issue of the magazine, where content is concerned. By the summer of 2000, whimsy, that sometime irritant, had given way to millennial exuberance. From the almost impossibly baroque “copyright page” to the pseudonymous letters by “Daniel O’Mara,” editor Eggers left his fingerprints everywhere on this one. More importantly, he got top-flight work from Collins and LaFarge, Lydia Davis, and Ann Cummins. Other highlights include a “Convergences” pinup, a Ben Marcus short short, a long piece by Susan Minot on Uganda, and an enormous story by “Elizabeth Klemm” (David Foster Wallace, doing some of his best fictional work since “Church Not Made of Hands”).
1. Issue 4: Trying, Trying, Trying, Trying, Trying, Trying (a.k.a. “The Box”)
The perfect marriage of form and content, this issue crystallized, in paper, the grandest possibilities of the McSweeney’s project. An unusual and elegant design concept – a box full of separately bound books – shows off this issue’s stories and articles to wonderful effect. Slighter offerings by heavy hitters (Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Moody) are enriched by their status as beautiful objects. Conversely, newcomer Sheila Heti dignifies the lavish presentation of her “Middle Stories” by making a hefty impact in a short amount of space. Lawrence Weschler contributes one of his most compelling “Convergences,” and other nonfiction, like Malisewski’s “Paperback Nabokov,” help establish McSweeney’s as a home for first-rate essays.