THE FIRST INACCURACY
WHEN I discovered the Johannes Lichtman review of Magic Hours in the Oxford American, a review which smears the Underground Literary Alliance in its first paragraph, I sent Lichtman a brief email asserting that Tom Bissell’s essay was dishonest and filled with distortions. Lichtman’s response was, predictably, filled with condescension, defensiveness, and hostility. He said, “—show me the specific sentence where I (not Bissell) wrote something inaccurate—“
I found the sentence he’s looking for at the very outset, before Lichtman’s review itself, before any Tom Bissell quotes, when Lichtman describes Magic Hours as “—a book from a small, independent publisher.”
How small and independent—how “indie”—is the McSweeney’s outfit?
I could write a book on the matter, but I don’t have the space here for a book. I made a brief examination of the McSweeney’s organization. I found:
-McSweeney’s chief Dave Eggers is published by one of the biggest book companies in the business, Random House, which in turn is owned by the gigantic media conglomerate Bertelsmann. All paperback versions of Dave’s novels are published by Random House.
-Dave Eggers is celebrated by the literary establishment, as evidenced by his having won a Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation, and been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
-McSweeney’s is regularly involved in joint publishing ventures with these huge outfits. For instance, the yearly Best American Non-Required Reading series is a joint project with Houghton-Mifflin. The relationship has been ongoing for ten years.
-Eggers wife Vendela Vida, co-editor of McSweeney’s flagship The Believer, is published by HarperCollins, owned by the Rupert Murdoch media empire.
-Believer co-editor Heidi Julavits is published by Doubleday, part of Random House, which is part of Bertelsmann.
-Regular Believer contributor and long-time ULA antagonist Daniel Handler is a hugely successful author estimated to be worth a few hundred million dollars. His books are cranked out by two corporate publishers, HarperCollins and Little, Brown. Here’s an article about the author, from the New York Times, which discusses Handler’s immense wealth:
-National TV celebrity Amy Sedaris is regular contributor to The Believer. She does a monthly column for the journal entitled “Sedaritives.”
-Other regular contributors to The Believer are successful, award-winning authors published by the “Big Six,” who also carry clout within the halls of literature. Rick Moody and Jonathan Lethem are two of them.
-McSweeney’s cultivates relationships with international celebrities who are themselves controlled by conglomerates. In 2010, McSweeney’s published a collection of writing edited by famed movie director Judd Apatow. Contributors included Jon Stewart, David Sedaris, Adam Sandler, and Steve Martin, as well as big-name dead writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Most recently, McSweeney’s published a book by internationally known rock musician David Byrne.
-Big name authors published by flagship boutique journal McSweeney’s include Jonathan Franzen and Joyce Carol Oates.
-The McSweeney’s gang has a business relationship with at least one of the influential media outlets which review their books. Note this announcement at Salon.com from 4/15/10 in which Salon editor Kerry Lauerman announced “Our new partnership with McSweeney’s.”
Incidentally, in 2012 Tom Bissell, himself a former Salon writer, was the subject of a gushy profile by Salon writer Katie Ryder titled “Secrets of Creation,” about Bissell’s McSweeney’s-published book.
-Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s books are regularly reviewed and lauded in America’s three main establishment book review outlets, New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker. This is evidence of a large profile and major media approval. Eggers is regularly profiled in large circulation glossies like Vanity Fair.
-McSweeney’s has established relationships with city bureaucracies not just in San Francisco, their home base, and Brooklyn, but across the country. For example, the City of Philadelphia named Dave Eggers’ What Is the What the selection for its “One Book, One Philadelphia” celebration for 2008, the novel the centerpiece of lectures, panel discussions, exhibits, and other activities throughout the city.
-One of the fundraising arms of the McSweeney’s empire is 826 National, founded by Dave and Vendela, an educational service with chapters in Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Brooklyn, and Washington D.C. These outlets include boutique retail stores.
Supporters of 826 National include notable public figures James Franco, Robin Williams, Zadie Smith, Phil Jackson, Ira Glass, Jon Stewart, Spike Jonze—who co-authored a movie screenplay with Dave Eggers—and many others.
Board members of 826 National, in addition to Dave Eggers, include a Director of Corporate Communications at J.P. Morgan; an “Investor” at Comatus Capital; a California Deputy Attorney General, the Deputy Counsel to the Mayor of New York City; a Vice President at Time Warner Cable; a Senior Vice President and Senior Portfolio Manager at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney; and others.
Major donors to 826 National include Google and Microsoft.
These aren’t slurs, Mr. Lichtman, though Dave Eggers and his gang may take them as such. They’re documented fact.
“Dave Eggers is the most powerful individual in today’s U.S. literary world,” is an opinion.
Here’s another take on the McSweeney’s organization:
Note that this piece is from 2002, when journalists and writers were still free to express truths about the literary world. Yet hints about “backlash” from the literary establishment’s media lapdogs are present in the article.
Since 2002, McSweeney’s has grown only more influential and powerful.
When Johannes Lichtman, at an Oxford American blog devoted to indie literature, designates the McSweeney’s organization as “a small, independent publisher,” is this accurate?
(Buy the satirical novel The McSweeney’s Gang at Nook or Kindle.)