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4 July 2004

A Regressive Avant-Garde

McSweeney’s / Believer

McSweeney’s was briefly a significant magazine, and the Eggersards remain a movement of some importance. They represent a tight network of associates of the impresario Dave Eggers. Their journals and readings have staged the most commanding popular art-provocations of the last ten years.

The Eggersards should be compared to schools of the historical avant-garde, the short-lived groups that reorganized European literary culture around bohemian factions. Eggersards created an identifiable style. They generated a body of sub-literary work. Eggers proved himself a possibly significant writer. His genius for creating institutions of a less elitist literary culture (McSweeney’s, McSweeney’s Books, the Believer) is beyond question. And if his group restarts the engine of literary innovation and strife, then it will have performed a real historic service.

As far as content goes, though, the innovation of the Eggersards was their creation of a regressive avant-garde. The first regression was ethical. Eggersards returned to the claims of childhood. Transcendence would not figure in their thought. Intellect did not interest them, but kids did. Childhood is still their leitmotif.

The second regression was technical and stylistic. In typography and tone the Eggersards adopted old innovations, consciously obsolete maneuvers from earlier moments of creative ferment. No one claimed the techniques were new (that would have been dishonest). What the Eggersards did do was reliably void these old methods of their classic interest in a search for truth. “Here is a drawing of a stapler,” Eggers wrote under a drawing of a stapler in A Heartbreaking Work. An allusion to the best-known work of a second-rate surrealism, Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” But the gap between word and picture is eliminated, a sexual connotation is erased. The joke becomes absurdist in the degraded sense, that is, pointless, and this proves to be the Eggersard touch. Rejecting the new, and the true, Eggersards attacked the avant-garde hope for any transcendence of present conditions.

The paratextual games that McSweeney’s revived had a long tradition behind them. They bore the finger-smudges of Vorticism, Dada, and Surrealism—but most of all of MAD magazine. MAD wouldn’t stop talking to you, in the margins, on the masthead, in the subscription info, even next to the price: “$.75 (Cheap!)” Eggersards sought to revive the pleasure of reading tricks we remembered from the elementary school library. Tonally, editorial text in McSweeney’s was wide-eyed, juvenile, faux-naif. The purpose of this combination of a deliberate embrace of obsolete novelties, from an era when ink-fingered printers actually set metal type, with a “who me?” innocence, was an end-run around a class-based problem of sentimentality.

Why sentimentality? To the Eggersard mind, the popular culture of our time, especially the capital-intensive medium of television, delivered precisely the kinds of emotions Eggersards earnestly wanted to convey. But that culture did so in the form of low-status popular confessions or entertainment. Sentimentality and satire were the Eggersards’ own two modes. They dreamed of Oprah and MTV’s The Real World, but refused the class decline and loss of leadership that participation in open confession, or popular entertainment, would bring them. They had been reared on 1980s Saturday Night Live or Spy, in the comic mode once called irony. The one-note gag tone came so naturally. Satire preserved their superiority even while they recoiled from satire’s tendency to nihilism; they were thoroughgoing, even prissy, moralists, and nihilism frightened them. The bottom line was a means of confession that could never make itself vulnerable.

Dave Eggers himself briefly seemed to be our generation’s Andre Breton. Like Breton, he was a provocateur. He gathered allies as Breton had. He revived the institution of the claque as a tool in literary disagreements. He was likewise indefatigable in the generation of new spectacles, and hysterical about his public persona. Like Breton (Nadja), he attempted real literature in the form of memoir. Each man drew on a sentimental topic (parentless children, a woman’s madness) to motivate an apologia for the literary school he had created, and to show how it manifested a practice of daily life. The Surrealists’ preoccupation with the sex of women was Breton’s underlying concern, as Eggers’s subject reflected the Eggersards’ obsession with childhood as a way of life. From raising a child as the treasure house of one’s own moral genius (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), to the editorship of anthologies for teens (Best American Nonrequired Reading), to a writing-tutor program (826 Valencia)—this is the substitute for transcendence in the Eggersard world.

The Believer is now the key object in their school’s intellectual development. It moves the group away from the personal rule of Eggers. It also presents their version of thinking—as an antidote to mainstream criticism, which they call snarkiness. The Believer: now here’s a figure who would have revolted intellectuals of the 1930s, 1950s, 1970s. (The echo in intellectual history is Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer.) Mere belief is hostile to the whole idea of thinking. To wear credulity as one’s badge of intellect is not to be a thinker as such.

Early issues included a “child” and “philosopher” as core features. The Believer would learn a truth from one of each. The magazine seemed unconscious of the weakness of believing so hard in children and old men: either those who hadn’t started lives of adult thought, or those who were just about done. We respect the philosophers they profiled, but the motif confused philosophers with white-haired dispensers of truth. That is not a thinker: that’s Santa Claus. It led on one occasion to the tragic spectacle of Richard Rorty answering the Believer’s query, “Do you see yourself, in the coming years, continuing to respond to these charges of relativism, etc.?”: “I think that what I write from now on will be pretty much rehashes of what I’ve already written. I don’t have any new ideas.” The profiles of children have had better luck celebrating kids’ innocence and purity. The Believer profiles “tools.” It lists writers that you simply must read. It believes in others, instead of itself.

Ultimately, the Believer is a book review. It has attracted writers we admire. It does differ in at least one particular from, say, the New York Review of Books, in that its overt criterion for inclusion is not expertise, but enthusiasm.

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