Wednesday, September 27, 2006

New Sincerity

Ada Calhoun reflects on McSweeneys, and the men at its centre in particular. I’ve enjoyed a lot of the sestinas posted there, but I found myself recognising the essential truth of what Ada is saying. I can’t say anything about the individuals portrayed of course (I don’t know them personally, and she clearly has personal reasons to represent them in a negative light), but I never thought that the brief literary New Sincerity movement represented anything but a new form of insincerity. The article is 18 months old, but I don't think much has changed. Here’s an excerpt, but her whole article is worth reading, if rather gossipy.

Dave Eggers represented the much-headlined New Sincerity. Unfortunately, in the '90s I was about as Old Sincere a girl as you could find. I could not lie, and I could not make it through a Hal Hartley film without weeping at its human truth, although I hated that about myself. McSweeney's writers hated their own feelings too, I was sure, but I couldn't do anything to hide mine, whereas they somehow were able to transmute theirs into jaunty little titter-worthy pieces with titles like "An Open Letter to Little Children Who Play in the Alley and Like to Throw Stuff At My Car."

My friend describes their style as "Inside-jokey, Ivy-League-y, casually banter-y, but referencing every writer of the past three hundred years." In order to participate, you have to have your eyebrow cocked 24 hours a day. Or, as another friend says, "It's like they built a cool treehouse in the backyard but required everyone to invent their own cutesy conceit before they'd allow them up the ladder." Only when you play their game in exactly the right way will you earn love, or whatever passes for love in that sphere….

…For years, there's been all that talk about sincerity being the new irony and irony being the new sincerity and I don't pretend to have any new insight into which is which this week. All I know is those guys haven't had anything new to say for some time.

The fact is, I should have found someone else to hang out with that summer and all those '90s summers after that, when I instead wasted my time on representatives of the neo-sincere who disdained me: Davide, the 29-year-old virgin so religious he thought he could make it rain by praying; John, the realist painter who introduced me to the Replacements and told me he didn't love me while we sat a foot apart on a dock in the middle of the night. In most cases, I took it well – which is, of course, what neo-sincerity required.

With Valentine's Day upon us, my first as a married grown-up, I've been able to look back on all my wince-worthy crushes with a little distance. It's the ultimate in Old Sincerity: wistful reflection (cue appropriate Cure song). Only I don't feel so wistful about that particular phase – just humbly grateful that I wound up with someone besides those guys I so unproductively swooned over back then. Being with someone who gets worked up about things besides obscure poetry meters and taxidermy is really kind of great. So, An Open Letter to All Those Neo-Sincere Men I Threw Myself At: Sorry, my mistake.


Anonymous said...

I've always hated McSweeney's.

There's a deeply self-satisfied smarminess that exudes from a number of its editors. This isn't to say that there aren't amusing bits here and there in the publication, but it's cumulatively tiresome, and it seldom lingers in the mind.

If I had to put my finger on it, it's along the same lines of this woman's critique: there are grown men at McSweeney's who seem to think it's cute, clever, and charming to remain in a kind of arrested boydom, and a fake one at that. Though I disagree that it's an Ivy League offshoot; it would shredded there for what it is, a grating set of affectations that doesn't fly in person (though it gets a little more mileage in print, where the schtick seems less schticky on pretty paper with precious fonts). It's a very, very tiny clique, and people are so starved for genuine humor and a sense of play that McSweeney's has been given far too much credit.

I've wrangled with McSweeney's editors before in other venues, and the snobbiness and self-importance comes out if you call their bluff on anything. It's amazing how fast the New Sincerity drops off if you don't agree that they're clever, funny, and cool. And wow, they really, really don't like it when anyone is funnier or makes better points.

Sorry to be so grouchy, but it's nice to see someone else mentioning the emperor has no clothes for a change.

Rob Mackenzie said...


I honestly don't know much about McSweeneys. I don't like Dave Eggers' books. But Daniel Nester, at the Sestina Page, has always been very polite and positive about my sestinas, even if he hasn't published any (I've submitted twice).

But I've never liked the idea of "cool", at least not the MTV-type variety - the veneer of cleverness with no substance to back it up.