Think, for a moment, of the last book you read that felt utterly new. Its characters, its language, even its narrative constructed in a way that felt uncharted, as though no one had ever thought to combine those elements with such precision before. How does it make you feel, to recollect the experience of reading that particular book? Does your heart palpitate a little? Do you find your jaw locked, unable to stop smiling?
McSweeney’s, the San Francisco–based independent press and brainchild of writer Dave Eggers, has now been publishing books and magazines that have elicited these visceral reactions for 13 years. Though we continue to live in a fraught economy, with belts tightening around book-project budgets, McSweeney’s remains, as ever, committed to publishing wholly original work—work that speaks to the excitement of our times and to a love of strange, brave and compelling literature. It also remains committed to the idea of books as art objects: Almost everything the press puts out exists solely in print format, designed to highlight the importance of tactility and the general beauty of paperbound books themselves.
In addition to Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the literary magazine for which the press is perhaps most well-known, McSweeney’s publishes a host of fiction titles, nonfiction, comics and art books, and humor books. A few years ago, the press introduced children’s books into its repertoire, with McSweeney’s McMullens, and just last year launched the McSweeney’s Poetry Series, showcasing emerging poets like Zubair Ahmed alongside seasoned champs like Victoria Chang and Matthea Harvey. There’s also Believer Books, an imprint dedicated to publishing the best work featured in The Believer, the press’s magazine of long-form literary and critical journalism; Voice of Witness, a “nonprofit series of oral histories documenting contemporary social injustice”; and the Collins Library, a series focused on reprinting forgotten classics.
The press is also responsible for Lucky Peach, a quarterly journal that captures the intersection between food and writing. And then, of course, McSweeney’s wouldn’t be McSweeney’s without the Internet Tendency, its online humor site, which is run by people who “remain small and irresponsible, and afflicted with mold-born allergies.”
To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Quarterly, which predates the press and began in Eggers’ apartment in Brooklyn in 1998, McSweeney’s is now publishing The Best of McSweeney’s, a collection of more than 50 pieces featured over the years. Co-edited by Eggers and current Quarterly editor Jordan Bass, the collection aims to represent a range of short stories found in the pages of the magazine’s 43 issues (Issue 44 was only released in September) as well as a glimpse at various projects that have influenced past issues. These include selections from a comics issue guest-edited by Chris Ware (No. 13), pantoums from a dead forms issue, an issue edited by interns (No. 31), and a disturbing and thrilling tale of a man’s double life, from a genre-fiction issue guest-edited by Michael Chabon (No. 10).
“There really isn’t any quintessential McSweeney’s story,” says Eggers, when asked to find the common ground among the various fiction pieces published in the Quarterly. “We look for great writing. We try to cast a big net, and we try to surprise our readers and subscribers with something new every time out.”
This sentiment is echoed throughout The Best of McSweeney’s, which began as an idea in late 2012 and begat a several-month process in which big lists of favorites were made, pieces were chosen and then scrapped in favor of others. One thousand pages were eventually whittled down to just over 600. As Eggers cautions in the collection’s introduction, make no mistake—the selections that made the final cut are the best but only some of the best.
“We’re really looking for stories that feel exciting on a lot of different levels at once,” Bass says of the editorial process behind each Quarterly issue. “A story…that can be very literary, very ambitious, and also shows some real attention to craft and style and voice.” In The Best of McSweeney’s, these include everything from Zadie Smith’s “The Girl with Bangs,” an intimate tale of a collegiate affair, to A.M. Homes’ “Do Not Disturb,” a funny and morose story in which a man tries to care for his abusive wife after she develops cancer, to Kevin Moffet’s “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events,” which, in its simplest form, is about a writer’s complicated relationship with his father. There is also fiction from other shores, as well as a few nonfiction selections; writing from South Sudan, Norway and Australia appears alongside Andrew Sean Greer’s adventures in NASCAR country, mapped out in his wry, journalistic account, “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines.”
The Best of McSweeney’s is not just a giant tome to read and admire—it’s a thing to behold. In addition to a hardcover printing, McSweeney’s is offering a deluxe edition, which features custom objects from the run of the Quarterly, including playing cards, comics and lost novels. These objects reflect the press’s belief in the importance of tactile design. “We try really hard not to make it feel disposable,” says Bass.
“That’s our office-wide philosophy, in a way, with the books we publish,” adds Laura Howard, McSweeney’s publisher. Bass agrees: “I think the ideas behind the Quarterly and the ideas behind McSweeney’s, I feel like they still have resonance. [The creation of a physical book] doesn’t feel like an archaic approach. It still feels like a pretty vital one other people are standing behind.”
And what about the Quarterly? As she’s working on Issue 45 (suspense fiction culled from found Alfred Hitchcock and Ray Bradbury anthologies), Howard surmises about the future: “When I think about 15 years from now, I hope that our 100th issue is a time capsule that we all celebrate together and bury in the ground.”
“It will be edited by robots,” Bass adds, with that famous dose of McSweeney’s humor. “We’ll have Matrix-style feeding tubes attached to us, to fuel the robots as they work on the magazine. But we’ll still give our two cents to weigh in on the tough decisions.”
Rebecca Rubenstein is a freelance writer and editor and the interviews editor at The Rumpus, an online literary and culture website. She is a former intern at McSweeney’s and resides in San Francisco.