There is no business like show business, as writers prove each time they stand in public and read extracts from their books. I have lost count of the times I have listened to the monotonous drone of a novelist while hoping for a lone-gunman to put me out of misery. And that's when I'm doing the reading; I am far less patient with other writers. If the organisers of literary festivals continue to conspire against the public and plan fresh outrages of dullness, all we can do is pray that someone finds a way to enliven the book reading. Which is why 1 approached the "McSweeney's versus They Might Be Giants" event at the Barbican earlier this month with such trepidation.
Billed as a "high-concept collaboration of words and music", the evening included guest authors Nick Hornby, Zadie Smith and Arthur Bradford. This musical-cum-literary extravaganza--in which the band They Might Be Giants provided melodic musings to a series of readings - had already played sell-out dates across the US, so I hoped for a revelation, yet feared for nay sanity.
McSweeney's began life as a literary "Quarterly", the most vague description a periodical can give itself while maintaining the charade that it is in business. But unlike other quarterlies, McSweeney's proved a success and spawned a mini-empire. In a spirit of diehard whimsicality, the magazine is printed in Iceland and shipped to the US, although it is available online. It also publishes books, runs a creative writing centre for eight- to 18-year-olds in San Francisco, and now stages rock-and-reading events. Like the clothes retailers J Crews and Ted Baker, McSweeney's maintains the fiction that it is the brainchild of a lone visionary, one Timothy McSweeney. The truth is not so different: the entire venture, and its success, is down to the writer Dave Eggers, a literary impresario who stands in the same relation to contemporary American writing as Damien Hirst does to Britart--whether or not they are the most talented men in their fields, their energy and ideas have come to define the state of the art.
Eggers is best known in Britain for his fictionalised memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, published three years ago. His parents died within a year of each other as he was graduating from university, leaving him the guardian of his much younger brother. A Heartbreaking Work recounts their life together, but also the creation of a forerunner to McSweeney's, called Might, which Eggers established in a quasi-communal, quasi-cooperative way in San Francisco in the 1990s. Communality plays a large part in all of his ventures, making his life a kind of non-stop Breakfast Club.
One of the key sequences in A Heartbreaking Work describes Eggers's attempt to join the cast of MTV's Real World, a precursor to Big Brother, in the hope that the exposure would help publicise his new magazine. The problem was that, had he won a place in the MTV house, he would have had to give up caring for his brother. Naturally, Eggers would not have done this: the exercise was pointless. But the book makes much of this pointlessness, recognising the vapidity of the Real World project but also its romance, the celebration of communality and of youthful aspirations. True, this romance would be pre-packaged for consumption by a rapacious TV company, but Eggers was confident that the house style of the youthful, communal, celebratory and, crucially, ironic Might magazine would succeed in navigating these paradoxes, even though it clearly could not. Irony can hardly replace responsible childcare. In this episode, all the hallmarks of the McSweeney's style come together: the ambition, the flights of fantasy, the love of fellowship, a high ironic style and, finally, the importance of domestic moral issues. Eggers has now turned to fiction, without yet replicating the success of his …