February 1999
s m u g
back issues
by Joshua Allen

Timothy McSweeney's
Quarterly Concern

I can't remember exactly where I heard of Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, but it was definitely in the context of a new "ultra-retro" design esthetic, i.e., reminiscent not of the 1970s or 1950s but more like the 1850s, and this intrigued me for a number of reasons, two of them being that

  1. I didn't really know what an 1850s design aesthetic meant, especially when talking about a magazine, and

  2. I thought that, whatever it meant, it would probably go well with my new 1999 look which consists of Turkish trousers with calico buttons, ballroom corsets, spoon bonnets, fingerless silk mitts, and my ever-present tin of snuff, and so I

endeavored to track down this publication, which was allegedly helmed by the creators of the late Might magazine. Might was a satirical periodical out of San Francisco, sort of like a funny version of Spy, and has gained a kind of mythical stature due to its extremely short-lived run. Nothing improves one's reputation like briefly putting out some quality content and then disappearing, or so I've heard.

But from the rotting yet fecund corpse of Might erupteth McSweeney's. You know how sometimes you'll hear a word for the first time, like "grubstake," and then you encounter it again and again over the next few days?

Boss: If you think we're going to let these goddamn grubstakes interfere with our plans for market saturation, well you can just think again!

You: [quietly, to your co-worker] Wait, did he just say "grubstake"?

That's how McSweeney's was for me. I read the aforementioned "ultra-retro" blurb, and then the next thing I know, it's McSweeney's this, McSweeney's that. I figured this was what was called "buzz," and I knew that "buzz" was important and difficult to come by, so I concluded that McSweeney's must have something worthwhile to offer, especially since I couldn't actually find the thing at any of my local bookstores or newsstands. This meant that it was either in great demand or printed in very small, very poorly distributed numbers, but either way spelled H-O-T in my book.

Desperate for a taste of this buzz/heat, I tracked down the online presence, entitled Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency. I was immediately entranced. My close friends and uncountable paramours all know my predilection for pure text, just page after page of black type on white paper without the cheap adornments and whorish makeup of photographs or illustrations or a sense of design, and that's what this website offered me. A page full of text, with maybe a single clip-art/olde-tyme-woodcut-style graphic here and there, like a pre-chewed bone thrown to today's image-starved youth. I didn't know it at the time, but this was how the print version looked, too. I mean, for once, cheap and uninspired and clumsy Web design was being used to successfully echo the real-life version of a product.

The site consists of bonus material not found in the magazine itself, but is still quite enjoyable. If the editors' intent was to taunt readers with writing that had the very subtle, precise quality of being good-but-not-quite-as-good-as-it-could-be, thus encouraging people to subscribe to get the Real Deal - well, then, folks, it worked. I sent my twenty bucks - no, twenty-eight! - off to New York as quickly as I could and then time passed and then I forgot about subscribing and then the holidays came and I got involved with that whole thing and then the first issue (not just MY first issue but THE first issue - at this writing the only issue currently in existence) arrived and I was pleased. Here was that "ultra-retro" look I'd been craving! Now I understood what that initial comment, wherever I read it, had meant.

It's all black-and-white, just like the Web site, on quality paper, and it consists of nothing but text with a few of the aforementioned tiny woodcut-style graphics thrown in here and there (one hand-scribbled gun is actually labeled with the words, "This is some art to break up the page."). The cover is dense with text in that Victorian manner, where verbose titles and subtitles and subsubtitles are presented in varying sizes of classical typefaces.

I know what you're saying. You're saying, "But was your delight diminished in any way, even slightly, when you opened up the journal (for it seems like "journal" may be an appropriate word to describe what you're talking about, unless I've completely misinterpreted your tortured prose, which is a distinct possibility) and read the contents therein? Think carefully before responding." Well ... no. Well, yes and no. The website and the editorial jokiness of the magazine (the copyright and submission policy page is probably the funniest part of the whole thing) had prepared me for nonstop hilarity of a restrained bent (much more restrained, and sharp, than Might), but what I got was something a tad more subtle and a lot more insidious and valuable.

You see, McSweeney's looks like one of those awful literary magazines that universities put out. If you were to simply glimpse it from across the room, perhaps draped across a philosophy doctorate candidate's tawdry coffee table, you'd think: "Ugh." You'd think: "Zzz. I hope he/she doesn't end up reading me selected poems from that thing after cracking open the red wine tonight." And even if you idly flipped through McSweeney's, you'd think: "Insipid writing program experimental pomo lit crit claptrap! When will the nightmare end?" But even though the writing is as postmodern as it comes (there are no cartoons, but rather a description of what the cartoon looks like followed by its accompanying caption), even though there is tedious stylistic tomfoolery (a short story taking place within the blueprint of a house; a travelogue split into three articles that run parallel in three columns, forcing you to read them in an overlapping and intertwining fashion), even though there's more literary name-dropping than at a cocktail party held by Nancy Simonian (I'm hoping no one will be diligent enough to do the research and discover that I just made that name up), despite all this, McSweeney's comes across as embarrassingly entertaining and witty and original. Even the fiction! And that stuff usually sucks the worst in these magazines! They manage to have their cake and eat it, too: They can be pretentious and elitist by being legitimately funny, and they can make really dumb, inane jokes by dressing them up in Victorian formalwear. Lovely!

So here is a smart, funny magazine whose design esthetics appealed to me and was really unlike anything else I'd come across thus far - certainly the only magazine reviewed in these pages that I've subscribed to (though I came close with Entertainment Weekly). So where's the catch? Can there really be something out there, especially in the world of magazines, that is so pure, holy, untouchable?

Perhaps, but I have one small reservation. Imagine my excitement upon receiving this treat in the mail, caressing the fine, fine cover, and then noticing that I recognized one of the names on the back cover along with the other contributors. A friend of mine! Right there with David Foster Wallace (who, of course, has a story in there)! I breathlessly flipped through the pages to find her article and. Then. Nothing. She was nowhere to be found. When I later found out that her 4000-word piece on donuts had been cut at the last minute, I was stunned. Who were these fiends that would dare cut the uncuttable Heidi Pollock?

So I recommend Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern to you, I suggest that you visit the website for a taste and then subscribe if you'd like a more empirical experience, but I cannot do so without offering the caveat that the editors of McSweeney's may well have devious intentions or noisome personalities. They cannot be trusted.






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