The idea of McSweeney’s as a hipster staple is pretty well worn… if the tightness of the pants clinging to the patrons of 826 Valencia didn’t drive this point home, the scene in the movie Juno when the main character cites “nerdy chicks who read McSweeney’s” as an identifiable “type” of person certainly did. When I saw that scene in the movie, I got a little sinking feeling, but not because I felt like I was about to lose some obscure pet interest to the mainstream. I just felt a little uneasy with the idea of McSweeney’s being pigeon-holed as an image accessory, kind of like when the main character in a movie is shown reading Sartre in order to establish that said character has more depth than his gruff exterior might suggest. Why do I even care about this in the first place? McSweeney’s has been criticized almost from the start as a self-indulgent, navel-gazing exercise, perfect for people in their mid-20’s to early-30’s who have $24 to spend on books they may read 10-15 pages of in between listening to emo music and sorting their vintage ringer t-shirts. However, I guess I didn’t realize until Juno quite how empty McSweeney’s is perceived to be.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I didn’t think this reputation was undeserved. I don’t love everything that shows up in McSweeney’s, and I think a lot of the stories are garbage, but there have also been some brilliant pieces of writing (one of my favorites, in case you were interested, is the hoax excerpt from Nabokov’s lost last novel that appears in #8). Nor does much of the writing necessarily connote false edginess more than any other literature that lies just barely within what could be considered countercultural. But that’s not what bothers me either. My biggest problem is that McSweeney’s is the most visible and daring source of unconventional book design in contemporary mid-to-large scale publishing, and it frustrates me that a publishing house that regularly advances the concept of book design like they do gets relegated to the hipster trash bin so easily.
At one point or another, I have had a full set of McSweeney’s issues in my possession, although I’ve always ended up selling the early ones, because, rare and valuable as they are, they don’t interest me as much as the later issues, which really push the envelope in terms of design. The first three issues are fairly modest paperbacks- all white wraps with an abundance of text on the front. They are fairly difficult to find clean, although it is possible (the last copies of #1 and #2 I sold were in such good condition that I argued with a couple booksellers over whether or not they were first editions or reprints). It is easy to turn a profit on these early issues under the right circumstances… as it often happens on eBay, one will show up and fetch a high price, and then a few more will pop up, temporarily driving down the price. I picked up a copy of #1 for $70 this way, and even more surprisingly, and absolutely pristine copy of #2 for $15. With issue #4, they started to break the mold a little bit, issuing a suite of chapbooks (most stapled, although one or two are perfect-bound) in a printed cardboard box. Issue 5 is a standard hardcover, although there are multiple variants of the book itself, as well as multiple dustjackets. This started (well, I can’t say for sure if it started it, but it represents it pretty well) McSweeney’s trend of deliberately frustrating collectors by making books all of whose variants are difficult to collect, or – even worse – next to impossible to keep in good condition. Issue 7 is a good example of this- it’s another collection of chapbooks, this time housed in a hardcover wrap-around sleeve, all held together with a giant rubber band. The boards of the hardcover are uncovered, untreated cardboard, making them susceptible to bumps and smudges. Of course, the rubber band decays over time (especially if it is actually used to hold the book together) and eventually breaks, yielding a less desirable copy. Issue 11 introduces multiple variants once again with printings in 4 colors (for reference: blue is the rarest, followed by yellow, brown, and then black).
And then there are the issues that defy categorization. Issue 16 features panels that fold out in every direction, opening to display a softcover book, an oversize deck of cards with a story printed on it, and a comb. Issue 17 looks like a bundle of mail. Issue 19 is a bunch of ephemera in a cardboard cigar box, along with a “literary supplement” (the actual McSweeney’s issue). Issue 22 has a magnetic binding with three detachable softcover books within it. Issue 23 has an enormous fold-out dustjacket with a volville by Dave Eggers printed on the reverse. Issue 24 has a Z-binding that opens from both sides. Issue 26 is broken down into small books that look like Armed Forces Edition books. And finally, issue 27 houses three books in a slipcase with widows cut into the sides so that the art on the outside of the case changes based on which books are facing out.
As a collector, I’m more interested in the early editions, because they are rarer and much more valuable. However, it’s telling that I don’t own any issues before #5… as a book nut, I’m way more interested in the recent issues, even though their resale value will be nil for at least 20 years. Even then, I don’t know how much they will appreciate. In 1998, when McSweeney’s was young, I imagine that their print runs were only 1000 to 2000 copies, while now, I have a feeling they print 10,000 to 20,000 of each issue. A full set would certainly be worth investing in from a collector’s perspective, but individual issues after #8 often have a hard time getting half their cover price in the marketplace. (Of course, there are always exceptions to this when buyers get overzealous, but it will be a good long time before any issue of McSweeney’s besides the first 3 can legitimately be called “rare.”)
I am ambivalent about book-as-art endeavors. I have seen books that are just plain unreadable (especially comically oversized ones – books that not surprisingly are also ridiculously expensive), and I think those books are pretty worthless, even if they are attractive sculptures. But, for the most part, I like it when books break out of the standard although very efficient format of housing pages within a front and back cover. Any book that requires CAD drawings or 3D mockups is worth a look, and McSweeney’s has done a fantastic job being inventive while continuing to put out commercially viable book objects. I just wish that that commercial success did more to push other publishers to take chances with their book designs, rather than being reflected back on the stereotypical McSweeney’s reader as someone who cares more about appearances than literature.
Any high-end publisher knows that the materiality of a book is a prime factor in whether or not collectors will pay a premium for its merchandise. I think it’s a shame that when McSweeney’s demonstrates this focus on materiality, they are criticized for being superficial and putting more effort into the exterior while passing off the actual printed pages as an afterthought. Instead, I see them bringing a type of book that is almost exclusively the domain of highly limited, uber-expensive editions to a price point that any bookstore patron can afford. For all the guff they give collectors with their multiple variants and fragile covers, I think McSweeney’s is really innovative in how they encourage readers to be interested not just in literature, but also in books themselves.
And, really, should I be complaining if the core readership of McSweeney’s is an army of girls in plaid skirts and horn-rimmed glasses?