Iowa City, 1998: In Prairie Lights, on a snowy afternoon, I found a little book that changed the course of my life. It was a white paperback covered on every surface with a lot of tiny black type, as if it were muttering to itself. Smart, funny, and lovably mad, it was (as I later learned) a book of resurrections: nearly every piece in it had been killed by another magazine. It was the first issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern.
Not too long afterward, I began playing hooky on my graduate work in poetry, sending oddly shaped prose items to the little book’s affiliated website. Improbably, one after another, they were accepted. One of the first readings I ever gave was at the old McSweeney’s storefront in Brooklyn, a one-table imitation restaurant in a vitrine backed by a pulpit in which I stood and read. I could do this again, I thought immediately after finishing.
Dave Eggers insisted I write a story for The Better of McSweeney’s, which collected stories from the first ten issues of the magazine. He printed it on the book’s spine. Then he insisted I write a collection. I did, and he published it, my first book of prose, something I thought would be an aberration but instead opened a door for me, and through it I walked. When he asked me to write a fable, I said I just couldn’t do it, but with his encouragement and editorial wisdom I did, and he published that, too.
You will see by now that I would not be the writer I am today without McSweeney’s.
But you’re just one person, you might say. Hardly a miracle. Oh? Consider, also, this: Somehow, every few years, a McSweeney’s project spins off into an independent organization that improves lives around the world: The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. 826 Valencia. The Voice of Witness project.
How can one group do so much? And how, please, try to explain, can it be possible that almost twenty years later, the McSweeney’s empire still manages to lead us into previously unimaginable situations of writing, art, design, performance, politics, and service?
It’s a simple formula: A collaborative faith in the improbable. McSweeney’s continues to function as if a thousand visionaries asked, Why not this? Why not, indeed?
It matters to me that whatever happens, the people of McSweeney’s—including me and you—will continue to care about beauty, truth, kindness, justice, reason, and other things the world needs more of. I am grateful McSweeney’s is still here, still challenging and informing and consoling us more than ever.
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