What I’ve Been Reading – June 2008

I regularly heap buckets of praise on the McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern literary journal/book series. Not because I’m some kind of Eggers fanboy – far from it, I find him to be, at times, grating and arrogant – but because I genuinely enjoy the journal for its originality and content.

Books Acquired

Arthur & George – Julian Barnes

The Devil in the White City – Erik Larson

Books Read

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue #26 – Dave Eggers (editor)

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue #27 – Dave Eggers (editor)

Through the series, I’ve discovered a handful of writers I’d have otherwise probably never have stumbled upon. And, in the meantime, I amassed a collection of wonderfully designed books to adorn my shelves at home. In fact, the McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern shelf – now featuring nine issues of the quarterly and a handful of other graphic novels – is one of my favorites, a kaleidoscope of color and design, of discovery and promise.

Discovery. Promise. These are the things you look for when flipping through a set of short stories – especially when those short stories are by authors you’ve never heard of. Novels are big and weighty, and I’ve rarely just picked up a random novel by an author I’ve never heard of and read it (Toward the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn notwithstanding). Instead, I rely on the word of others, or on a familiarity of author or storyline.

It’s just a time thing. Novels take time. Short stories don’t, so discovering new writing talent is so much easier when combined in a short story anthology.

Sorry, I should explain myself. I talk about this because June’s reading, while not as fruitless as May’s, consisted of just two short story collections; McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern Issues #26 and #27.

The original premise of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern – much like the original premise of The Believer magazine – was to take good writing that had been passed on by the bigger publishers and collect them in one place. In doing so, McSweeney’s became the publishing version of Bonnaroo, a place for independent writers to gain some traction and, as time went on, a place for larger acts to reach a smaller, more intimate audience.

Those larger acts certainly turn up, too. The list of authors seemingly too big for an independent publisher reads like an issue of the New Yorker. Here’s a sampling, stolen from Wikipedia: Denis Johnson, William T. Vollmann, Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Susan Straight, Roddy Doyle, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Steven Millhauser, Robert Coover, Ann Beattie…

…and Stephen King.

Whoa. Wait. Stephen King? The King of Horror? The most famous author in the world that doesn’t use initials in his or her name?


Okay. To put this into perspective, let’s first take a look at the steps to reading an issue of McSweeney’s.

The first thing I do upon grabbing an issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is admire the cover. I consider the theme, and make a snap judgment on whether or not it’s cool. This weighs heavily into the readability of the issue – if it’s well designed and interesting, I’m more likely to pick it up sooner, less likely to leave it on the shelf while I slam through other novels.

McSweeney's #26Issue #26 was actually three books: a book edited by Stephen Elliot named Where to Invade Next (a frightening account of all of the countries that have a problem with us, their motives and their likelihood of invasion, based on Secret Service documents) and two half-sized short story collections designed in the style of war-time troop reading material. Issue #27 consisted of three books as well: a wonderfully designed story collection, a collection of Art Spiegelman’s daily drawings and one of the often included art-books that McSweeney’s produces – this one a collection of art with words and humor or something. Both issues featured interesting binding and themes, though Issue #26 was rather ugly.

Once I’ve decided the validity of the design, I open up to the list of authors. I scan for names I recognize. The excitement of reading the newest issue is almost identical with the speed in which I return to it. For example, I recognized no one from Issue #26, so I let it sit for nearly three months before finally committing to it.

McSweeney's #27Issue #27, however, is a different story. There’s that name. STEPHEN KING.

Growing up, I devoured every Stephen King book I could. My favorite was The Stand, and I loved the Dark Tower series. My mother helped in her own way by being an avid collector of Stephen King books, owning each one up until The Tommyknockers (a book that annoyed her so much that she simply swore off of King altogether, never buying another book until buying me Insomnia for Christmas).

For a few years, I poo-pooed King’s work. This was during an ill-fated college period when I fancied myself an intellectual, too learned to stoop to King’s level. No, I don’t read Koontz or Grisham or anything popular. I simply wouldn’t do that. It’s not literary.

Then, just like that, I realized that Stephen King, just like J.K. Rowling or J.R.R. Tokein or Janet Evanovich, has a valid place in today’s literature market, and that it didn’t matter whether or not the book was critically acclaimed but more that I liked it. So Stephen King was welcomed back, a sheepish look on my face as he shook his head knowingly. “I knew you’d come back,” I could hear him say. “I’m not a bad author because I’m popular. I’m just a rich one.”

It seems as though King himself feels the sting of popularity. His book on writing (cleverly called On Writing) came at a time when the literary world was beginning to write him off, and a recent turn toward smaller audiences and more literary novels has been viewed as a change of ideals. He’s no longer banking on horror to bring in the money – hell, he hardly needs money anymore – so he’s writing what he wants. When he wants.

Look at The Green Mile. Look at Insomnia. Look at the end of the Dark Tower series. Look at this story in McSweeney’s. This isn’t a horror writer we’re talking bout. This is a writer. And, this is someone who’s never going to be acclaimed like Updike or Roth, but this is someone who’s going to keep writing what he wants. Because he can. Because he’s good enough to do it.

When it comes down to it, this is the best part about McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Its design and authors and writing selections and themes are so good. They’re unknowingly arrogant in their combination of great binding and great writing. But they do it without pretentiousness, or at least, any that I can see. They’re not too indie for the big names. Sure, they’ve got Stephen King. So? You get the feeling Dan Brown could submit a story and no one would blink.

So it’s always a pleasure to open up those pages and see what big name is included. Or, if the spirit is a little askew, no big names at all. Sometimes you’ll get seventeen fractured novels, other times you’ll get an entire issue of comic love. It’s always a surprise. And that’s why I keep subscribing – one of the only things I’ve subscribed to for longer than two years.

After all, you never know what you’ll miss if you stop.

This was lovingly handwritten on July 3rd, 2008