Audience: McSweeney's #11 is one issue of a literary journal self-described as "Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, a journal created by nervous people in relative obscurity, and published four times a year." McSweeney's is also an independent publishing house, and the whole empire had its humble origins in the form of a website, Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency, which is still very much active. The audience for this journal would mainly consist of readers interested in slightly left-field contemporary fiction.
Purpose: McSweeney's showcases contemporary (mostly American) writing, primarily in the form of short stories. It also occasionally includes creative non-fiction essays (in this issue, there is one about pattern recognition, and one about giant squids entitled "Finding and Pondering the Greatest Squid Ever Known to Man.")
Context: This literary journal is sold in bookstores, often displayed prominently near the periodicals section. (It is displayed prominently because it will set you back a good forty dollars, Canadian.) After you buy it, it will most likely reside proudly on your bookshelf. You probably wouldn't keep it in the bathroom next to "Uncle Bob's Book of Bathroom Humour."
Ethos: McSweeney's, helmed by Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, You Shall Know Our Velocity), possesses a distinct editorial tone that may be best summarized by one of the many it repulses. Steven Heller comments on Design Observer: "To me, [McSweeney's] represents the latest victory of context over content. By and large, much of the writing distinctive of McSweeney's is (in my opinion) so insubstantial, so self-consciously baroque and precious and insular, that the end result for me isn't boredom as much as mild nausea. [...] I mean, jeez, if I'm going to wallow in obvious hipsterism, I want it to at least be fun and well-executed, not ironically arch, foppish and bloodless." Ouch!
Materials: McSweeney's #11 comes only in hardcover, bound in leatherette with gold foil stamping, weighing in at about 3 pounds. This particular copy boasts brown leatherette, while others came in colors such as blue or black, making the item part of a pseudo-Collect-Them-All activity for grown-ups. The pages inside are of a relatively heavy, creamy paper stock. These materials, combined with the elaborately decorative style and the persistent use of the Garamond Serif typeface throughout the book, creates an aura of deliberate anachronism that is purposefully difficult. This book is a book's book.
This knowing obscurity - preventing the easy assimilation of information - is manifested in the front cover design, and when combined with the spine, boasts a complete listing of all the writers included in the journal. Each writer is introduced in a similarly structured sentence such as "One coke-snorting monkey-god is as logical as the next and A. G. Pasquella is free." Which is to say, the sentence is structured so: "[phrase related to story by writer] and [writer's name] is free." It is nearly impossible to tell by first glance what exactly is included in the book, other than that it is an issue of McSweeney's, and there is some vague theme about "It Can Be Free." This is compounded by the fact that the cover design is highly symmetrical, anchored by 4 circles in each corner and a large one in the centre, and all the text is capitalized. The browser in a store is prevented from quickly focusing on any single element, and forced to inspect closely and read. Words are used as material objects, as much as for their physical presence as for their meaning, and thus demand extra attention.
Another instance of this resistance to assimilation is the copyright page, a solid, justified block of text of approximately 7pt size, includes an editorial introduction to the issue, as well as typical masthead information. However, the pages on which the stories are presented are designed for smooth reading, with ample margins and clean lines.
Finally, this issue of McSweeney's includes a DVD mounted on the inside of the back cover, consisting of "Deleted Scenes, Extra-Deleted Scenes, Behind the Scenes of the Deleted Scenes and Extra-Deleted Scenes, and Outtakes from the Deleted Scenes, Extra-Deleted Scenes, and From Behind the Scenes of Deleted Scenes and Extra-Deleted Scenes." Most of the "Deleted Scenes" are readings, while the "Behind the Scenes" consist of features like "The Making of McSweeney's #11 DVD" and "The Editing of the Making of McSweeney's #11 DVD." It's meta-DVD to the point of ridiculousness, which serves to ironically point out the very pretentiousness of a literary DVD.
Overall, McSweeney's #11 is a book that is highly conscious of its own material existence, a consciousness that reflects the organization's ethos of compulsive self-reflexivity. Obscurity - so valued in the underground - is multiplied until it is almost absurd. The decision to include a DVD in an issue of a literary magazine is notably indulgent, and so the entire issue's design plays upon this indulgence and riffs upon the idea of luxury, and the self-importance of literary journals, in general. After all, leatherette is faux-leather. And these are "nervous people," all-too-aware of their own vices.