It's nerve-racking to write about Dave Eggers.
His magazine Might was a carnival of media satire and clever think pieces before it folded in 1997. His book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius has received so many accolades that one hesitates to add another. His Web site and quarterly magazine McSweeney's dares you to try to label it (quite literally -- it has a page of suggested words and phrases for reporters to describe the site, such as "'zine" and "for the junior Harper's set").
Eggers often anticipates reader and critic responses to his work, writes exactly what those expectations are, then proceeds to mess around with them. Might ran fake corrections and frequent pranks. His book mixes fiction with nonfiction and includes a section titled "Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book."
The traditional journalistic point of view is that of an overseer -- a seemingly omnipotent angle where all factors are considered and woven into a straightforward narrative. But Eggers (and this is where the nerve-racking part comes in) typically pulls back farther than the standard journalistic window for a satiric wide-screen view that encompasses the process of putting together and reading a story, as well as the story itself. Writing about Eggers unavoidably induces the competitive urge to pull back even farther, back far enough until Eggers' postmodern critique is dwarfed by your own post-postmodern critique.
But by then, the exponential increase in self-referentialism causes your whole focus to collapse in on itself. If Albert Einstein were alive today and working in publishing, he'd probably have a formula for it.
In an e-mail interview, Eggers, who lives in Brooklyn, answered questions about The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, McSweeney's Books and taking on Big Publishing. When asked about the future of literature, he said he is certain of only one thing: "The coming years will bring about many, many more science-fiction thrillers set on abandoned space stations."
Q: I asked Salon.com Books' editor Laura Miller about you and Pollack, and she said, "One of the things Dave has always said he finds irksome is the way magazine journalism 'lies.' That is, the way it manipulates the truth of an experience to make a good story according to some pretty shopworn [formula]. I suspect that's why he gets such a kick out of Neal's stuff." Could you elaborate on this and what you think is missing from traditional publishing?
A: Well, I don't know if it's something missing or not. It's really just a matter of space and clarity and time and arc -- these are the restrictions/obligations put on the magazine feature writer. From a story, of whatever length, we want a story -- meaning one that has a beginning, middle and end. And we want conflict within. And good guys and bad guys. And it should have a happy or provocative ending. And to serve all those needs, my feeling is that one has to do a lot of fact-fudging and conflict-creation. And resolution? Well, there is never a clean resolution to any real problems in real life. And there are always a thousand details and nuances and tangents that can't fit into a standard story, which means that anything you read, in the way of a magazine feature, is going to reflect a very small, shaped sliver of the overall picture. But Neal's stuff isn't all that much about all that. It's more just an explosion of the writer's ego.
Q: Playing devil's advocate here, doesn't a publication's (or publishing medium's) success justify its content and methods in a democratic sort of way?
A: We don't fault anyone for being successful. Neal's book [publishing] structure is simply different, and, we think, in many ways an improvement upon the way many books are published. First of all, no big publishers would publish Neal's book. Secondly, had they done so, his advance would have been about $10,000. Then the publisher, having invested so little in the book, would, from a promotional and editorial perspective, essentially throw the book to the wind. Under our arrangement, Neal makes that $10,000 after selling a mere 1,000 copies online, and, of course, in general, we're much more committed to the book and its success.
Q: I assume Pollack at least repays you for printing costs. If that is the case, isn't publishing with McSweeney's a bit of a gamble for an author? Instead of receiving a $10,000 advance, the author could theoretically end up in debt.
A: Yes, we recoup the printing costs. And yes, in some cases, doing it this way can be a gamble. But for those authors who know that they'll sell through their print run, with us they get four times the return they would under a standard arrangement. Many authors, like Stephen King for instance, have similar arrangements, where they forgo the advance in favor of a better split on the back end. But could Neal end up in debt? No. He hasn't spent a dime. I paid the print bill. And besides, in two weeks, we've already sold 2,300 copies of the book, meaning that the print bill is just about paid. In about a week or so, the profits from every copy sold will go directly to Neal.
Q: Aside from Pollack's book, could you give me an idea of the types of books that are overlooked/underappreciated by traditional publishing houses that McSweeney's would find interesting?
A: We're not just publishing books that are overlooked by others. In Neal's case, we've published a book that would not have been published by a major house, because his angle is too oblique for most publishers, and he didn't yet have a certified humor writer name. But in terms of other books, we're open to anything, really. We have a few books lined up for the spring that anyone would have published. But they wouldn't have done the job we will do publishing them.
Q: You keep hearing about how Esquire, Salon, etc., are nearly extinct, while frat-house coffee-table magazines like Maxim and Gear are thriving. So, in a sense, the argument could be made that Pollack is kicking the few struggling institutions that actually strive to be literary rather than the truly grievous popular magazine offenders.
A: Neal is parodying a certain brand of journalism practiced by just about every magazine. We're not making targets of any particular periodicals.
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Q: Did the idea for McSweeney's Books come out of your experience getting A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius published?
A: Partly. I learned a lot. [Publishing houses are] very slow, very bureaucratic, and sometimes operate in a way I think is fitting of, say, the IRS, but unbecoming when dealing with art. At one point, I met a number of one company's paperback sales and marketing people -- those who were charged with explaining my book to bookstore chains and the like -- and I was deeply unsettled. Few of them had read the book, and those who did did not like it. And these are the people standing between me and the readers who I feel like I already know. But through my experience and that of many friends -- not to mention in the process of printing and distributing McSweeney's -- I figured out that getting books made and [delivered] to readers was not so outrageously complicated, and that if you know your audience, then it's not always necessary to throw one's book into the vast machinery to make it work. But again, this is really a plan for books published on a smallish scale. Huge books we probably cannot do.
Q: If Neal's book is popular, do you think it will have an influence on the way some journalists go about participatory journalism (just as Brit metal bands have never quite recovered from Spinal Tap?).
A: Absolutely. I think after reading Neal's stuff, it makes it very difficult to commit some of the more egregious sins he parodies. Of course, that doesn't stop anyone, including me, or Neal himself. My coverage of Cuba, and his coverage of the GOP in Philly are good cases in point.