Salvatore Pane

Tag: McSweeney’s

Flashback Monday I: My Interview With McSweeney’s or The Great Cataclysm of 2043

My entire novel is about digital narcissism, about what it means to an exist in an age where anybody can voice their opinion to an audience of billions instantaneously through Twitter and Facebook. I have a love/hate relationship with these outlets. On one hand, I see the danger, how isolated we’re becoming, how what it means to be human is being altered on a very fundamental level. But on the other hand, I really like tweeting about old Nerf Herder songs and linking to the sexual tension that is Comicvine’s video review show on Facebook. I often wonder how deceased writers would interact with these sites. Chekhov. Dostoevsky. They’re lucky in that most of the stupid apprentice writing they did will never see the light of day unlike David Foster Wallace whose undergraduate thesis is seeing publication later this year.

I don’t intend on bucking the trend. In fact, I’m going to embrace it. I’ve been cleaning out my external hard drive recently and found a back-up of my laptop from right before I finished college. Buried there is every file I ever wrote, including the incomplete 253 page single spaced fantasy novel I wrote at age fifteen (final line: “Immediately after her demise, the picture vanished, and the Memory Cube returned to its standard hue of blue, leaving the three Chosen Ones in complete and total disarray…”). So I’ve decided that every once in awhile I’ll post something from my more formative years that may be of interest to people other than myself. I won’t do this with any regularity so don’t worry.

The first item of inquiry is an interview I did with Eli Horowitz, the managing editor of McSweeney‘s, for a paper I wrote in an editing and publishing class with the poet Karen Holmberg. The questions aren’t super interesting, but the answers are kind of funny. And I really can’t believe how nice Eli was to do this, and how much of a pompous douche I was for even asking. Also, I titled the paper “The Future Is Robots” which is pretty neat.

1. What was the genesis of McSweeney’s? Did it come out of the end of Dave Eggers’ Might Magazine or did the creators think that they could fill a niche not catered to by the rest of the literary journal market?

Initially, if was made largely of work rejected by other magazines.  And something for Dave to do while he procrastinated on his book.

2. An obvious pillar of the McSweeney’s philosophy is to publish and nurture young writers. What guided you in this direction? Many other literary magazines don’t follow your principle about unpublished authors and I find it slightly alarming.

I don’t know — it just makes sense, right?  Why others don’t, I’m not sure, except I guess it’s kind of slow to sort through all those submissions.

3. How do you go about choosing which submissions to run? Do the section editors have meetings with reading boards? And if so, do they look over everything or is there a slush pile? If so, who goes through all the entries and decides what to go into the slush pile?

There isn’t really a slush pile; almost all the stories go through the same system.  Basically, there are a bunch of readers, and if any of them like a story it becomes a contender, and then Dave and I pick from that group. Everything definitely gets read, generally by three different people.

4. What do you usually have your interns do when they are on site? What about interns who are helping away from a farther location? On your website, you say you sometimes have both.

All sorts of things — reading submissions, fact-checking articles, going to the post office.  Those distant ones are generally readers — I’m not yet sure whether that actually makes sense.

5. Every issue of McSweeney’s seems very fresh and different from the last, but do you have any overarching message or theme that you hope each book contains?

Not really.  Well, a sense of excitement and possibility, and a respect for the stories themselves.  But there’s no conscious mission, I don’t think.

6. How did you personally go about getting your position at McSweeney’s?

I started as a volunteer carpenter for 826 Valencia, our tutoring center. One thing led to another, in a series of flukes.

7. Unlike most literary journals, you do a lot of public events such as They Might Be Giants vs McSweeney’s. What do you think these events add to the magazine, and what type of events would you like to see happen in the future?

Maybe a sense of community?  Once I say a woman on a giant unicycle flip five bowls from her foot to her head — I’d like to include her in a future event.

8. As a publishing house, McSweeney’s published the inherently political The Future Dictionary of America last year. Do you think McSweeney’s will constantly dabble in politics or was that a one shot type of thing?

Hard to say.  I think there will always be some element of that, but probably rarely anything so straightforward; that seemed like a particularly urgent need.

9. The designs of McSweeney’s magazines, even your books like How We Are Hungry, are known for their interesting and unorthodox designs. When creating the magazine, which is more important, the design or the contents within?

The contents.  Well, both, but the design can never interfere with the contents.  Our goal is to create a design that honors the writing inside.

10. Finally, what is the future for McSweeney’s? Whose hands would you like to see the magazine fall into eventually, and what vision do you want to see it taken in?

The future is robots, and an underground clan of freedom fighters. McSweeney’s will be destroyed in the Great Cataclysm of 2043.

Top Ten Graphic Novels for the Literary Inclined

A few weeks ago I workshopped a story involving superheroes. It wasn’t genre, and the piece took place after every hero and villain on earth lost their powers. So really, there wasn’t even much discussion of superheroics. Instead, the piece leaned closer towards doemstic realism except every once in awhile someone would say something like, “Is this about the Eternity Gems? Have you found the Eternity Gems?” with little to no explanation. Mostly, I used the bygone era of super-powered adventuring as a metaphor for feeling like your best years are behind you.

The workshop went really well, but what was particularly interesting to me was my classmates’ assumptions about comic books. It seems that most people still think comics are aimed at children and riddled with the genre trappings of not the Silver Age, but even earlier, before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and Will Eisner altered the face of sequential storytelling forever. It was with this mindset that I recently read Dan Phillips’ how-to on IGN about getting comic virgins into the medium. It’s a great article but purposely doesn’t have a list of books to recommend because Phillips believes (and rightfully so) that you should tailor your recommendations to that particular person. For example, if somebody liked the X-Men movies and asks what to pick up, don’t hand over The Saga of Swamp Thing by Alan Moore where Swap Thing goes back in time and fights the nothingness before creation.

What I’ve decided to do is come up with a list of required reading for the literary inclined, people who love prose but would never dream of stepping foot in a comic shop. Everything I’ve listed is in graphic novel format, meaning you can skip the comic store altogether and head to the more familiar Borders or Barnes and Noble. There’s a lot I’ve missed here (it was particularly difficult cutting Kingdom Come, Y: The Last Man, Civil War, All-Star Superman, The Sinestro Corps War, The Dark Knight Returns and We3 from the list, and everybody must know about Maus by now) and I’m not going to mention Jonathan Lethem’s graphic novel since I wrote about it a few entries ago.  But if you consider yourself someone who reads almost exclusively literary fiction, this is the list for you. Try and at least give one of these a shot, and let me know what you think. If you think comic books are all about four-colors and BAM/POW signs, then you’re in for a big surprise.

10. Superman: Red Son

Written by Mark Millar with Art by Dave Johnson

Pretty much everybody knows the origin of the original superhero, Superman. Krypton explodes and a scientist sends his only son in a rocket to Earth. He’s raised by farmers in Kansas and becomes the hero we all know who stands up for “Truth, Justice and the American Way”. Red Son is a re-imagining where Kal-El lands in Russia at the beginning of the Cold War. He becomes a Communist and helps usher in an era where the entire Earth (minus America led by President Lex Luthor) falls to Russian control. Millar’s take on Czar Superman is smart and bombastic, and this book has a concrete beginning, middle and end (all you need is this one 12 dollar graphic novel). This one comes highly recommended as an interesting political book with enough cameos to keep fanboys happy (did I mention Anti-Communist Batman?).

9. Astonishing X-Men vol. 1 Gifted

Written by Joss Whedon with Art by John Cassady

Joss Whedon is most famous for the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but he’s also a well-lauded comic scribe. Astonishing X-Men is his greatest work to date and perfect for anyone who enjoyed the films. The book is set in continuity but isn’t enslaved by it. Pretty much anyone with even a tangential understanding of the Children of the Atom can enjoy this book. With amazing art provided by superstar artist, John Cassady, Astonishing is the perfect example of a traditional superhero book that transcends comic stigmas and feels much more like a sci-fi drama ala Lost or Battlerstar Galactica.

8. Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 1

Written by Brian Michael Bendis with Art by Mark Bagley

When Marvel wanted to relaunch Spider-Man to coincide with the 2002 film, they called up Brian Michael Bendis, a noted indie creator, to the big leagues. Ultimate Spider-Man is the definitive Spidey book of the last two decades, and this is the ground floor. The book starts with the origin: nerdy high school student Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider. The difference here is that even after 130 issues, Peter is still fifteen and the book is still amazing. He deals with contemporary problems, and Bendis has populated the book with a wonderful and expansive cast. When the Spider-Man film reboot hits in two years, you can be sure that it springs out of this book.

7. Ultimates vol. 1 Super-Human

Written by Mark Millar with Art by Bryan Hitch

Some people will criticize me for going with two Mark Millar picks and no Grant Morrison books, but I don’t care. Ultimates is easily the best superhero team book of the aughts. Much like Ultimate-Spider-Man, Ultimates takes place in a new reader-friendly universe with no previous continuity. This is the first story of the Avengers: Captain America, Iron Man and Thor. And Millar imbues it with his typical wit and penchant for the political. This book is smart and plays with the War on Terror in interesting ways. If you’re curious to see how Captain America is deployed during the Iraq War then this is the book for you.

6. Scott Pilgrim vol. 1: Scott Pilgrim’s Happy Little Life

Written and Drawn by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Imagine a world with poor Canadians who start shitty bands. Imagine a world where Canadian hipsters engage in Dragonball Z-esque battles while dissecting two decade old Nintendo games. This is Scott Pilgrim. One part indie rock, one part Nintendo, one part fighting, Scott Pilgrim is the most awesome manga remix of the last fifteen years. O’Malley delivers believable characters that we truly care about even as he inserts them into hilarious and ridiculous situations. If superheroes aren’t your thing, and you’re willing to give faux-manga a try, definitely pick up Scott Pilgrim before the Michael Cera movie hits this summer.

5. Ghost World

Written and Drawn by Daniel Clowes

If you love Catcher in the Rye, then you’ll enjoy Ghost World. This lean graphic novel tells the story of two hipster girls during the summer after high school. It’s a very typical coming of age piece that could easily stand side-by-side with the best offerings of the genre from literary fiction. This is definitely a gateway drug for readers completely unaware that indie/literary comics actually exist. Its aims are not tied up with plot like many of the other selections on this list but with character.

4. The Walking Dead vol. 1 Days Gone By

Written by Robert Kirman with Art by Tony Moore

Drawn in black and white, The Walking Dead is truly one of the most terrifying books you will ever read. Writer Robert Kirkman doesn’t employ a lot of cheap jumpy shocks, but instead chooses to horrify readers with the actions of his living characters. The premise of the book is as simple as it genius: it’s the zombie movie that doesn’t end. What happens to these characters three weeks after the first zombies show up? How about two years? The best part is the theme Kirkman hits again and again: it’s not the zombies who are the walking dead, but the living, humans pushed to frightening extremes they never dreamed possible.

3. The Complete Persepolis

Written and Drawn by Marjane Satrapi

Do you like memoirs? Ok. Then go get The Complete Persepolis today. It follows Marjane Satrapi, a liberal girl who comes of age in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. It’s poignant and terribly contemporary. And for my money, this is the best book on the subject I’ve read, light years ahead of Reading Lolita in Tehran. If you like coming or age tales or are even remotely interested in the history of Iran, this is an absolute must buy.

2. Watchmen

Written by Alan Moore with Art by Dave Gibbons

This one appears on every list of this kind and for good reason: Watchmen is the deconstruction of the superhero and comic book format. This is Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman seen through a postmodern lens. This is Cold War allegory of the highest order. This is everything superhero comics should aspire to. Incredibly intelligent and deceptively well-drawn, Watchmen is the rare book that is universally considered the best of its kind. If you’ve seen the mediocre movie and weren’t convinced, you owe it to yourself to give the ultimate graphic novel a try.

1. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth

Written and Drawn by Chris Ware

Most people know Chris Ware. He’s a big McSweeney‘s dude and the closest thing the comic industry has to a Dave Eggers. This masterpiece of a graphic novel came out shortly after Heartbreaking Work, and the two writers are often compared. Jimmy Corrigan is about so much it’s hard to describe. It’s utterly postmodern and involves a fair at the turn of the century and a man who encounters his dying father after a lifelong absence. The book is painful. The book is dark. And at times, the book is uplifting. I put this graphic novel at the number one spot because even though I don’t consider it as strong as Watchmen, Jimmy Corrigan is the closest in terms of structure, tone and character to a literary novel. If you like Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran-Foer, Keith Gessen or Ricky Moody then you will be shocked at how dense, how intelligent, how damn literary Jimmy Corrigan actually is.

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Optimism in a Digital Age

A few days ago, I watched a panel from the Brooklyn Book Festival entitled “Literature in a Digital Age”. Check it out here. My thoughts are kind of scrambled considering it’s Super Bowl Sunday and that Pittsburgh, where I live, is just now emerging from a twenty-two inch blizzard in which a tree fell outside of my house and missed my car (a prestigious 1997 Saturn SL 2) by just a few yards. With that in mind, I’m going to distribute some opinions via the bullet.

  • THE FUTURE OF THE BOOK! Maud Newton, the venerable blogger and novelist, is clearly the most invested party among the panelists concerning the evolution of what exactly will constitute a book in the future. She’s filled with an optimism that is quite refreshing considering all the doom and gloom we’ve been hearing for years on end from major publishers. As I mentioned in two earlier posts, alternative avenues are rising up to replace the literary gatekeepers of old. Electric Literature stands as one of the lit mag’s great new hopes for the future, and as the major publishers announce “no new acquisitions”, university presses and indies rally around writers of literary fiction. Newton brought up the possibility of Sony, Amazon and especially Google becoming the major publishers of this century, and that shift promises a sea change (and a slew of new opportunities for writers) for how we look at writing in the future. Oh, yeah, and there’s that whole iPad thing.
  • Class Issues. John Freeman, Editor of Granta, brings up the hornets’ nest of class differences when he mentions how eReaders will fundamentally change the price of books. In the past, anyone who wanted to read could do so for free with a library card or twelve dollars for a paperback. Not any longer when the average eReader is well over a hundred dollars. Doesn’t that remove an inherent element of democratization from American letters? None of the panelists wanted to really discuss this issue, and I’ll be interested when Maud Newton comes to Pittsburgh this week to hear her thoughts on the subject.
  • The bookshelf as death. The panelists described bookshelves as a metaphor for death (basically, if you have a lot of unread books in your collection, you only have so much time before you die to read them). Interesting point but there’s not much you can really do with that observation. Ok. Is that metaphor altered in any fundamental way by PDF books or eReaders? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure if it matters. Just an intriguing tangent that caught my eye.
  • Some of the panelists lament the fact that nowadays authors have to become public personas in order to sell their books, i.e. they have to have blogs and post on Twitter. Some of the panelists fear this will be deeply detrimental to future books, but Maud Newton doesn’t think so and neither do I. Isn’t the act of writing for mass consumption an inherently public act? In an age where everyone has Facebook profiles and YouTube videos, trying to become famous is now an integral part of global culture. Isn’t it the duty of writers to grapple with modern issues? And what better way to write about these themes than actually experience them firsthand? I detected a bit of stodginess on the panel’s part during this section.
  • Speaking of stodginess, what was up with the nostalgic reverence for all those “experimental” writers of the 1960’s? Very odd references that came off as pure crankiness. The great works of the past are great works, but to say that no one today is doing work on the same level of the drug-addled ’60’s crowd is a bit much for this millennial to swallow.
  • How about all those hipsters? Every time the camera panned the audience I thought they had cut away to the Pitchfork Music Festival. Yeesh.
  • I’m getting off topic but what the hell. As long as we’re on the subject of hipsters, check out this interview with Tao Lin. A friend of mine from Boston pulled out this tasty quote: “My target demographics include hipsters, depressed teenagers, depressed vegans, happy but sensitive teenagers, people of any age who are severely detached from reality, Europeans, all college students, and I think sarcastic vegans.” Yuck! I only stumbled onto the interview because Lin’s new book is named Richard Yates after my all-time favorite author, but regardless of your thoughts on Lin, few can deny that he represents a new breed of author. He’s super-young and a whiz at self-promotion. He recently even sold away his back end royalties for two-thousand dollar “endorsements”. Is a new literary Brat Pack that far away?
  • Finally, as a counter-point, I point you to Teddy Wayne.  I recently finished his novel Kapitoil for a review I’m doing over on BOMBlog and I absolutely loved it. More thoughts to come obviously, but this is the exact opposite of what I expected from a writer who frequently contributes to McSweeney’s and The Huffington Post. Kapitoil is a turning away from postmodern irony and a return to human emotion in a complex, globalized age. It comes highly recommended.