McSweeney’s just might be the most polarizing publishing house currently in existence. Their novels are either universally loved or loathed, depending on whom you ask. It’s either seen as a collective for young, fresh writers doing something wholly different in the publishing industry or a backslapping boys (and girls) club, where the water cooler talk is most likely of the self-congratulatory variety. From their quirky lists, to downright smart-allecky monthly columns, rest assured you won’t find many publishing houses like it. And it all started with Dave Eggers.
Not too many authors can get away with titling their debut novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. That painfully reflexive, egotistical, smug title nevertheless seemed to have worked for Dave Eggers. It was either loved or hated, but more importantly it moved units. We do live in The Age of Irony, where hipsters are seen wearing blindingly loud fluorescents and t-shirt homage’s to Youtube-sensations-of-the-week, so perhaps that tongue in cheek title isn’t so much to scoff at. Despite a couple of well known and well written detractors (cough Lydia Millet cough), Eggers has made a fine career for himself. His next novel, a tale not quite as self-indulgent as his debut, You Shall Know Our Velocity,was a bestseller and critically acclaimed.
Regardless of how you feel about Eggers, McSweeney’s as a publisher has much to offer. Their monthly arts and pop culture magazine Believer is something different from what you’ll find sitting next to it on newsstands and some (not all mind you) of the books are really darn good. I would put Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital first and foremost on that list. But, like any reputable house of publishing, it is impossible to bat 1.000%. I personally didn’t fall head-over-heels in love with Arkansas by John Brandon, though some people whom I value both for their taste in literature and ability to spot a bad apple, zealously recommended it. And despite the amazing cover art, I didn’t fall in love with Jessica Anthony’s The Convalescent yet I would be the first one to tell you that it is probably a very good book that I just didn’t happen to agree with. And then there are the anthology collections. I really enjoyed Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans: The Best of McSweeney''s, Humor Category and a selection from one of my favorite books of 2008, Zeroville by Steve Erickson, appeared in McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories.
The point of all this? The onus is really on you, the reader. Whether you think McSweeney’s represents a new paradigm in literary smug hipness, or merely a publishing house that is offering something young and fresh, do yourself a favor, take one of the above for a spin and form your own opinion.