It's Hot, This Cool Prose

While many quality journals in the U.S. are closing up shop, McSweeney's, a refreshing four- year-old quarterly published in California, is flourishing.

The sleek, short neck, the rounded shoulders and the broad body - there is no doubt, this is a bottle of Absolut vodka. It is not unusual to see it on the back cover of a magazine, or as a dark patch on a dog's face or as a floating sculpture made of lemon peel. But even those most familiar with the acclaimed advertising campaign of the Swedish distillery would certainly be surprised to see it gracing the back cover of a literary magazine.

Opening the back cover to colorful advertisements of large companies did not help the American literary journal DoubleTake cope with the problems that face similar publications in the United States. Since last fall, DoubleTake's Internet site has been posting a single message: "We are using the next few months to restructure our nonprofit educational programs and launch a major fund-raising campaign." The site reassures aficionados that the journal "will not perish as long as there are people like you dedicated to the mission of experiencing the wonders of everyday life through documentary writing and photography." But it is doubtful that many of them believe this. Judging by the situation in the field, even the address appearing on the site as the destination for generous contributions from readers does not ensure successes where advertisements have failed.

The veteran Partisan Review has also not been lucky. Even Boston University, which supported it, has failed to serve as an effective means for its resuscitation. Its final edition came out last spring, ending an era of more than 60 years. Ostensibly, this should come as no surprise. Back in 1965, the late writer Irving Howe wrote: "For a literary publication like Partisan Review to have survived a quarter of a century is equivalent to a man passing the age of 100."

Today, a capacity for survival like this would perhaps be the equivalent of a 200th birthday. Who reads serious literature? And, among the readers, who invests money in literary journals? In the era of the Internet, there is no need even to trudge to the public library to read the best new writing, never mind invest $10 dollars in the latest issue of a journal. Government sources of funding are also drying up: The foundations that support the arts in the U.S. have suffered in recent years. Were it not for the support of the literature departments of various universities, few literary journals would be published at all.

Gimmicky but successful

But there is one exception, and it can be found on the shelves of numerous bookstores throughout the U.S.: McSweeney's, a four-year-old literary quarterly that is published in California. "They just slip between our fingers," says a sales clerk at the Wordsworth bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "But this is a controversial subject. The young people who come here, bright-eyed with enthusiasm every time a new issue appears, are certain that this is the future of American literature. But there are also quite a few cynical critics who see only immature efforts - literature that is not profound and aims to be `trendy,' along with a lot of silly gimmicks: discs that are attached to every issue, covers of fake leather with strange symbols on them, and an intentionally vague approach with the intention of attracting foolish young people."

The gimmicks do not begin and end with the issues themselves. Dave Eggers, 32, the man behind McSweeney's, knows very well how to lure the media. Eggers' career took off with the publication of his autobiographical book, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," in which he describes how he raised his younger brother after his parents' untimely death. The book, which is truly moving, is full of jokes and postmodernist tricks, and Eggers does not spare any of these outside its pages as well. The evenings at which he presented his book often began with lectures by experts on whales or transportation. And one evening that featured readings from McSweeney's included a performance by scantily clad go-go girls. Eggers has also opened a Cuban restaurant in New York with the same name as the quarterly, and he agrees to be interviewed about it only in Spanish.

The commercial response to this approach is very supportive. McSweeney's, initially Eggers' personal project, is now distributed by the publishing giant Random House, which gives it a huge marketing advantage over other journals that are backed by universities, foundations or private investments. The publishing house refuses to divulge the sales and distribution figures for the quarterly and the McSweeney's people themselves steer clear of the media, but there is no doubt that it is a great success.

The exposure of the publication has led established writers, among them thriller-writer Stephen King and Irish writer Roddy Doyle, to send it their works. Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon, the author of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," was the guest editor of issue No. 10. It was comprised entirely of works that reflected genres of cheap literature: unsophisticated science fiction, Westerns and mystery stories.

Gregory Boyd Bell, who covers the media world for the Canadian magazine Eye, sees the behavior of Eggers and his fellow members of the McSweeney's editorial board as a welcome kick in the behind of the traditional publishing world.

"McSweeney's discards, or mocks, most of the conventions of periodical publishing. It has few images, no celebrity on the cover and many pages of print," wrote Bell. "The jokes are everywhere." He mentions a very short story by David Foster Wallace that appears in tiny letters on the spine of one of the issues - pages dense with verbiage, unusual covers and strange guidelines for new writers. All these, in his opinion, make McSweeney's "a brilliant quarterly magazine."

Toward the future

Askold Melnyczuk, a writer and professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, who is active in literary circles in the northeastern U.S., is more skeptical. In the 1970s he founded Agni, a serious literary publication that appears twice a year and still spotlights new poems by Seamus Heaney, translations of the works of Virgil and fiction from around the world to 2,000 subscribers.

"I suspect McSweeney's success owes everything to Dave Eggers' popularity, and to that I say, bravo," says Melnyczuk. "Eggers was `cool,' and I suspect many of the kids who buy [the magazine] also like the cool look." However, he claims that he has nothing against the contents of the issues. "Every generation has to have its own spontaneously generated venues, along with a handful of venerated ones from the past, to provide the warp in the woof of time's endless weaving of literary glories, whose value absolutely depends on their ability to contribute to and enlarge human consciousness, right?"

Agni's 85th issue, which has just been published, is clean, elegant and traditional. On its cover, as if to embody the irony, there is a picture of an old book that has had its edges eaten by worms. Inside it are treasures like a tribute to Anna Akhmatova and her poem "Summer Garden," by Robert Pinsky, the former poet-laureate of the U.S. and the translator of Dante's "Inferno" into English. Such a work would never appear on the pages of McSweeney's, not only because it is a delicate work of art that conjures up a dead Russian poet, but simply because it is a poem. McSweeney's publishes only prose.

Pinsky himself admits that he has never read an issue of McSweeney's: "I've never seen [it], a fact which may demonstrate how very out of it I am. The American literary magazine I admire, and find the most lively, is Threepenny Review," which, like McSweeney's, is published in the San Francisco Bay area. "I read everything in it; there is no other periodical of any kind about which I can say that."

Time will tell what the fate of his favorite journal will be. The fashion today hints at a future in which poetry will not get much attention, a future less varied with respect to the supply of titles and one in which the attitude toward literature will be more impulsive and less intellectual. This is also, on the one hand, a future in which commercial ostentation and the involvement of large conglomerates will not be considered contrary to the atmosphere of publishing - and, on the other hand, a future in which young writers will continue to produce publications that are replete with enthusiastic youthful energy, wild imagination, exciting stylistic freedom and outpourings of words that one is seemingly unable to stop. But who would even think of trying?