Dave and Timothy

Dave Eggers, a founding editor of the short-lived but influential magazine Might, moved to New York from San Francisco. He got a book deal for his autobiography and used the advance to subsidize a literary "quarterly" (actual publication schedule irregular), Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. McSweeney's also launched a web site Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency, better known to the world as www.mcsweeneys.net.

The print version ran an eclectic mixture of items: short fiction from writers like David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody, short surreal pieces written (sometimes under pen names) by Eggers and his friends, essays on topics such as the Unabomer and the cover art of Nabokov's novels, and occasional completely unclassifiable items. The graphic design of McSweeney's is striking: the magazine is printed in Iceland (needing to be shipped across the Atlantic by slow freigher does little to help with the irregular publication schedule) and looks it: featuring clean and spare lines, with faintly archaic typefaces and small doodle-like line drawings by Eggers. As a physical object, McSweeney's is cool and restrained; its contents have much the same feel. There is a consistent calmness to their tone, a level-headed straight-faced quality. Most of the pieces are comic, although the non-fiction ones are generally serious. But even the most antic of the jokes -- John Warner's "On the Set," say, from issue 4 -- are written in the same calm style. A wild and inventive premise -- in this case a movie star with god-like powers and his increasingly erratic on-set behavior -- is developed in the most careful and uninflected narrative style possible: "We debated amonst ourselves as to how high our piles of money might reach. Arms grew sore with stretching. Ladders had to be implemented for illustrative purposes."

The online version of McSweeneys, now usually updated with a new pieces most weekdays, features very similar design and contents. The pieces are shorter, and tend towards the more explicitly comic. Some of the most typical -- such as The Ten Worst Films of 1942; As Reviewed by Ezra Pound Over Italian Radio, whose refrain is Pound's fondness for the word "filth" -- take up little more than a single page on the screen. In addition, there are parts of the site where letters from readers are reproduced (verbatim, without comment), that describe the availability of the print version, that reprint obscure press releases, and relay various pieces of news about the site. McSweeneys.net, of course, was not to be confused with www.mcsweeneys.com, a web site run out of Massachusetts as a home page for a family by the name of McSweeney, and featuring photgraphs of the family. The one was a fairly standard personal home page, rarely updated, and the other was a funky little experimental web site running stuff that Eggers found interesting. Neither was making money, nor trying to.

And then Eggers' book was published, and things started changing. The book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (about which more below), was accompanied with a fair amount of attention -- A New Yorker profile, generally positive reviews in many major publications, a multi-city book tour, and a huge quantity of buzz. The web version of McSweeney's, anecdotal evidence indicates, had been growing in popularity already, and when authors such as Douglas Coupland and Tom Wolfe started speaking positively of Genius, sales started taking off. Leapfrogging off a stunt written up at the web site, Eggers asked his loyal readers to go to Amazon.com and post reviews of the book. The only restriction (other than requiring the reviews to give the book five stars) was that the reviews had to display evidence of spectacular ignorance about the book itself; Eggers offered a prize for the most amusingly confused review, and this stunt itself generated a lot of buzz, especially within the youthful urban literarily-connected scene responsible for the original excitement about Eggers and McSweeney's. Suddenly, Eggers was, if not famous, than at the very least being talked about a lot. The McSweeney's.net web site traffic jumped upwards. And a fair number of folks, making the usual web assumption, went to mcsweeney.com and were surprised to encounter something other than the snarky Gen-X humor they were expecting. Of these misguided surfers, a few, displaying typical Net habits, decided the fault for their misdirection actually lay with McSweeneys.com itself, for merely existing, and vented their frustration on the Massachusetts McSweeneys' mailto link.

On his book tour, Eggers explained the problems this situation was causing, and hinted that developments were in the works to set matters right. Shortly after his return to New York, the developments hit the fan. A brief letter on the McSweeneys.net site explained that, due to the financial strain of the unexpected popularity of the non-revenue-generating site, a search had been made for some source of outside support, and that support had been located in the very persons of the Massachusetts McSweeneys themselves. McSweeneys.org would henceforth be hosted on the McSweeneys.com page. A series of further updates on the site over the course of the week, carrying out an implicit dialogue with an unvoiced but apparently quite skeptical reader response, explained more exactly what would happen. The quirky and uninflected tone would remain; so would the the arch and elegant design. Some of the adult themes and language would be toned down, in respect for the McSweeneys and their relatives, but the Brooklyn-based Internet Tendency would retain its editorial independence, and, presumably, its characteristic voice.

Bright and early on Monday, the third of April, fans who navigated to the .net site found themselves redirected to the .com version, graphically unchanged except for a new image proclaiming "Now Incorporating Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency." No sign of the usual McSweeneys humor or look was in evidence, either on the front page or anywhere within the site. Tuesday brought a letter from the family patriarch, Gerry McSweeney, explaining that two McSweeneys sites, in a fit of inspiration, had decided to merge the content as well as the hosting of their respective web sites. No further explanation was forthcoming, and regular McSweeney's readers searched in vain for the latest Ben Greenman musical parody or Lucy Thomas frippery. Friday brought a new development: www.mcsweeneys.net and www.mcsweeneys.com were still identical and still entirely devoted to Gerry McSweeney and his family, but www.mcsweeneys.org opened its doors to the world.

If you hadn't seen McSweeneys.net in, oh, say, a week, you might well have mistaken McSweeneys.org for it. The graphic design was very similar: white background, squarish black fonts, inexplicable hand-drawn mini-art. And the style of the writing was similar, too: the same kind of comic inventions, presented in the same unblinkingly level tone. No explanations were offered, just a straight-up imitation of the original. Had aliens landed and, based solely on outside descriptions of the McSweeneys.net site, navigated to McSweeneys.org, they would never have known the difference.

The following Monday, the original McSweeneys.net site was back, running an announcement from the McSweeney's Representative (the name used by Eggers in answering mail sent to the web site). The announcement stated that the site merger had been called off, expressed disappointment with the readership and their handling of the situation, and stated that McSweeneys.net and the Massachusetts McSweeneys had somewhat different visions for the direction of the site. No mention was made of the McSweeneys.org site. And for the next month and a half, the two sites continued in perfect parallel synchronicity. The .org version featured slightly more regular updates but slightly less polished pieces, and made several tweaks to its appearance, to the point where it was an almost dead-on replica of the .net version, albeit with different words.

Then, in late May, in answering a letter sent to him in his role as the McSweeneys Representative ("M.R." on the site), Eggers disclaimed any connection between the two sites. He expressed concern that someone at the mcsweeneys.org version had apparently been claiming to be him. Saying "[w]e have been flattered by his imitation, but now are kind of tired," Eggers asked the .org site to kindly go away and cease begging for attention. McSweeneys.org replied with a brief note from the McSweeneys Catchpole ("M.C."), stating "We have never claimed to be Dave Eggers" in a brief note whose writing style was a dead-on impersonation of Eggers' style. The following day brought a much longer explanation from the M.C., who unmasked himself as Nic Musolino, explained the raison d'etre for McSweeneys.org, speculated a bit on the nature of McSweeneys-ness, and told something of the story of the "Annoying Little Sister to McSweeney's," as he called it. He promised to leave the note up for a week, and during that week to consider and discuss the future of McSweeneys.org. McSweeneys.net has continued on as ever, publishing the usual, looking neither to the left nor to the right

And oh, yeah, somewhere in there while everyone was distracted by the .net-.org catfight, Gerry McSweeney (and his son Brandon, the family webmaster) converted the .com isotope to (roughly) the same look and with the same top-level content (albeit without the daily updates). But that's just too strange to deal with, so I'll put it off for a while.

And that's where things stand today. I'm sure all of this has must seem somewhat dry, a series of exercises in unimaginative self-referential Web quasi-pranks. So I offer two reasons why I've chosen to lead off with this extensive historical exegesis. First, if you go poke around the sites for a bit, you might, with luck, agree with me that this stuff is interesting and worth paying attention to. You may understand better my mental state for the last few months, ridiculously intriguied by the whole affair but never quite able to figure out why. And second, it's important to have the history firmly in hand before diving into the explanations and the interpretations. Literary analysis follows all the conventions of the mystery story; we are searching for the underlying explanation, for some hidden layer of meaning to events. We know already how things have turned out; we seek instead to understand what back-story, what larger interpretation, attends to the working-out of those events. And for this endeavour, we must have our facts, like our hat, firmly in hand.