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Book Art: a review of Art of McSweeney’s

By Zara Dinnen

Eggers, Dave. Art of McSweeney’s. London, UK: Tate Publishing, 2010. Print.

McSweeney’s is an American quarterly literary journal. Since its inception in 1998, under the guidance of its founder and editor-in-chief, Dave Eggers, and editor, Eli Horowitz, it has grown into an independent publishing house that, alongside the original journal, a monthly review magazine The Believer, and the quarterly short-film DVD Wholphin, publishes select works of fiction, non-fiction, art and journalism. The Art of McSweeney’s comes out as the journal reaches issue 36.

The journal and subsequent publications are known for their considered and atypical design aesthetic. This aesthetic is undoubtedly part of the ethos of McSweeney’s, part of an aim to produce objects that are pleasurable in themselves and that, as things emphatically not disposable, help preserve the art of the printed word. In the preface to Art of McSweeney’s Dave Eggers writes: “If we’re to ensure the survival of physical books, these books have to be things you want to buy, hold, bring to bed or the tub or the beach. Things you want to keep” (5).

A first encounter with the Art of McSweeney’s is a weighty one, literally. This is a heavy book, an art book with a deceptively glossy cover. The Art of McSweeney’s has the appearance of a coffee table monograph, and the density of an impressively detailed account of its subject. The Art of McSweeney’s then, much like the output of the publishing house it is dedicated to, carries with it an immediate confusion between the encounter with the book as an artefact (an attractive artefact in this case) and the impression of what this encounter may bring to bear upon the work it contains. I say all of this because of McSweeney’s reputation as a publishing house known for their lavish attention to the “book-as-object”; it is worth paying attention to how this retrospective of their achievements in publishing represents that ethos.

The Art of McSweeney’s is a hardback book, with a separate folded dust-jacket that doubles (triples) as a double-sided poster. The cover within the cover is a deep red, a leatherette casewrap on hardboard, with the title and graphic insignia in a white foil stamp. On the spine are a series of Icelandic runes also in white foil stamp. I discovered these technical terms from a printing spec/pricing guide (that includes details of most of the techniques used for previous McSweeney’s) issues on pages thirty-eight and thirty-nine of the book. The immediate impact of these particulars is to incite a quiet reverence for the Art of McSweeney’s—it’s a proper book, it has the feel of an important book. This impression is then a little disrupted, off-set, by the image that greets you inside the covers: a photograph of a circus troupe (complete with bunny ears and miniature hats), taken side on, seemingly mid-performance, but also looking a little staged. Turning the page is the epigraph (white text in the centre of a large black page): “IMPOSSIBLE, YOU SAY? Nothing is impossible when you work for the circus” (front piece). The juxtaposition, of earnestness and absurdity, is one typical of McSweeney’s. It is an aesthetic that permeates its texts and choice of writers, as much as its design; it is an aesthetic well-documented in reviews of its publications and in reviews of Dave Eggers own works—perhaps most notably A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But in this instance it appears mainly to serve as a reminder to readers of a continuum between actual McSweeney’s publications and the fact that what they hold in their hands is a fairly straightforward monograph published by Tate.

The first few pages offer an introduction to the world and work of McSweeney’s by way of a photo of a printout of the email Eggers sent to friends and colleagues in the summer of 1998, outlining his idea for a literary quarterly; a preface from Eggers; a photograph of all the issues of McSweeney’s (up to the point of going to press, so issue twenty-nine) lined up on a shelf with spines facing out; and superimposed pie-charts for each issue detailing how much of the content was fiction, art, non-fiction etc; and a double-page spread of other book covers that have inspired McSweeney’s design. On page eleven is the first bit of the “main” text (but also with images), in the form of statements from various contributors about the creation and production of the first issue of McSweeney’s. The statements are set out as if in conversation, or as responses to interview questions (there is no explicit detail about how these have been compiled). And so begins the story of McSweeney’s.

The structure of Art of McSweeney’s is accessible. The book takes the reader chronologically through each issue of the quarterly, occasionally diverting with chapters on other significant moments in their publishing story: meeting the printers, certain books they have put out, the inaugural issues of Believer and Wholphin. In all chapters contributors discuss the process of creating the published work from inception to sending to press. The stories are told anecdotally, informally, and so each chapter is not a rigid set of instructions, but more a collection of memories about how a certain idea came to fruition. Over the length of the book the reader gets a sense of the publication process, and of the life of a McSweeney’s product.

A recurring criticism of the McSweeney’s publishing house is that it is clique-y. And certainly there is a sense (in the anecdotes here and throughout their publications) of a close-knit group, who share similar styles and tastes and somehow foster a perception of exclusivity. This book will not do anything to contradict those criticisms (it is not what this book sets out to do); but as someone who has followed McSweeney’s—sometimes with enjoyment, but also with some cynicism—it is interesting for me to read this polyvocal account, from which emerges a sense that many connections and ideas did come around organically; not necessarily through networks of famous friends, but through contingencies of time and place, and also (well represented here) the hard work of interns.

Given that Art of McSweeney’s is a book all about the design of books-as-objects, objects to hold and to interact with, perhaps one of most obvious challenges it faces is how to represent these objects on the flat page. There are drafts, sketches, and plans for the various issues all carefully scanned and reproduced. And importantly, in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Eggers thanks those who gave advice and guidance on book photography, which comprises most of the images. The photographs of the issues of McSweeney’s are well reproduced, but there is a slight anti-climactic flattening effect. The reproductions do not do justice to the objects themselves. This is clearly a constant fact of art books and monographs but perhaps because this is a book about books it seems more pertinent. That said, there are many instances which puncture this effect, bringing forward the book-as-object. For me one of these instances that resonates most is a photo of a copy of Egger’s own book, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, which was published with the text beginning on the front and inside cover; a bookseller clearly surprised by this had deemed his copies faulty and returned them to McSweeney’s with a print-out order form and a hand scribbled note paper-clipped to the first page, labelling the copy “defective”. The photo of that page (order form and all) jumps out at the reader, due to something about the scrawl of the book seller’s hand against the art of the page— perhaps Barthes’ punctum in practice.

Thinking about the art of the page necessarily leads on to considering who this book is meant for. It is an art book—and for readers in the UK this could not be made any clearer than having Tate publish it; and to this end the images of images are beautifully rendered, the paper chosen is thick, with a tactile matte finish, and it will be of interest to anyone mindful of how to represent the printed page faithfully. But it is also a book that seems to be aimed at readers who already know McSweeney’s. With the inclusion of various early drafts and sketches, anecdotal testimonies from authors and friends, the book is a gift to fans. It carries all the necessary paraphernalia to construct that ultimate fan feeling of getting closer to the thing, to the books and to McSweeney’s. For Dave Eggers, this book is “dedicated to readers who love books as physical objects, and also to showing young publishers-to-be how much fun can be had while making books, and how available the means of production is to them” (5).

This last point is important as an insight into one of the several ways to read this book, and as an assertion that carries over from claims Eggers has made elsewhere. Recently, McSweeney’s published issue thirty-three of the quarterly, a huge broadsheet newspaper called “The San Francisco Panorama”. As part of the newspaper the editors included a pricing chart (much like the one in Art of McSweeney’s) with the intention of providing a template for an affordable good quality newspaper. In both Art of McSweeney’s and “The San Francisco Panorama” there is a clear agenda: the provision of advice and guidance to succeed in the challenge to make print work. In a sense this has become the McSweeney’s mission, which ties into a more general ethos about quality: one that seeks good writing of any length, that refuses to conform to genre boundaries, and that, until recently, held off advertising in all of its publications. The zeal with which Eggers supports the furthering of print can feel heavy-handed—politics in the space of art. This, of course, is not necessarily to its detriment. But the message actually comes across more effectively in the stories that McSweeney’s has to tell about itself—all Eggers suggests is that readers listen.

One of the highlights of Art of McSweeney’s is the chapter on the publication of William T. Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down (2003), a seven-volume tome critiquing the history of political violence. The stories told by the editor, Eli Horowitz (at the time new to McSweeney’s, now head of publishing), and the various interns-turned-fact-checkers, as well as Vollmann himself, weave a great tale of achievement against-all-odds (in a classic American way, but with a geeky bent). This section is only a few pages long, but the descriptions of fact-checking, of interns haunting the Berkley libraries all hours of the day, of whole volumes going missing, awry, or just going right before the deadline—these stories really convey the excitement, and the validation, of being part of an independent publishing house like McSweeney’s. It is in this section, one that is only text and that is almost exclusively about text, that I experienced most strongly a connection with the book—with books. This is not to criticise Art of McSweeney’s, but to suggest that to fully enjoy the work of this book, it is crucial not only to consider the representations of books as beautiful things, but also to consider the text as an important context for these things. This is not a coffee table book. The important assertion that Art of McSweeney’s makes, implicitly, is for a reader to not only connect with the book-as-object, but with the book-as-process; to connect not only with the book as finished art but as a text and an object, intertwined in their becoming the book-as-published.


Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. London, UK: Vintage, 2000. Print.

Eggers, Dave. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. London, UK: Picador, 2001. Print.

—, ed. “The San-Francisco Panorama.” McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern 33. San Francisco, CA: McSweeney’s, 2010. Print.

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