Timothy McSweeney’s Questionable Originality

As of this evening, McSweeney's is running a piece entitled "Poem," by Joshua Kryah. "Poem" consists of twelve numbered warning labels, each noting a frightening-sounding but utterly innocuous fact of physics. For example,

This product contains minute electrically charged particles moving at velocities in excess of five hundred million miles per hour.

Because of the uncertainty principle, it is impossible for the consumer to find out at the same time both precisely where this product is and how fast it is moving.

This is funny stuff, but it was funnier the first time around. I first saw the list in Absolute Zero Gravity, a collection of science humor.

As best I can determine, the list originated in the Journal of Irreproducible Results, volume 36 (1991), issue 1, as "A Call for More Scientific Truth in Product Warning Labels."

Of course, ripping off this list is nothing new, some of the plagiarists are strangely honest about it, and some even plagiarize the plagiarists.

If so many people are willing to reprint these disclaimers without attribution, why not a literary magazine? While McSweeney's is well-known for its appropriations of found text and also for its difficulties with science, it has never, so far as I know, simply reprinted someone else's writings, scientific or not. The lists are not precisely identical -- Kryah has stripped the initial "Consumer Notice" labels from each item, edited the list down to twelve items, and altered the wording here and there -- but the differences are minor. Universities expel students for this sort of copying.

I want to be clear here. I don't know precisely what is going on. It might be that Kryah just wanted to be McSweeney's-level famous and decided to let someone else do his dirty work for him. Or he might have gotten turned around somehow and honestly forgotten that someone else wrote the warnings. Maybe he was even the original author, through some strange set of historical circumstances that let someone else take the authorial credit -- though JIR almost certainly would have retained the copyright in the article.

It might be that this whole effort was a trick played by Kryah on McSweeney's, to see if he could get them to print a piece of common Net folklore. Maybe the McSweeney's people saw through the trick and played along anyway, out of amusement, or maybe they and Kryah were in cahoots from the start. Maybe it's a complex literary hoax being played by McSweeney's on its readers, or maybe the insignificant changes are the whole point of the piece.

I don't know what the deal is. But someone has a lot of explaining to do.