Recap: McSweeney’s Believer Magazine at Bryant Park

Dateline: Bryant Park. Five writers sit perched on elevated chairs like a royal court of literati. As introductory details are read off it becomes clear what a disparate group is assembled. Joe Hagan is a non-fiction writer who likes to pursue talented, unheard-of musicians; James Hannaham wrote a book about a black Christian gay man who tried to “get rid of” his homosexuality; Jessica Anthony merges two worlds usually not mentioned in the same breath — Hungary and Virginia — with humor and lightness; Brandon Stosuy is a heavy metal music writer and blogger at Stereogum; and Arthur Phillips is a novelist with four books under his belt. What could possibly bring these people together? McSweeney’s, of course.

Amanda Stern, host and creator of Happy Ending Music & Reading Series, filled in for scheduled host NPR’s Starlee Kine (she was doing something “secret and fancy” in LA, and thus couldn’t come). Amanda began by asking the writers how they started writing, and how that path eventually led them to make their way to McSweeney’s. “Who wants to share?” she prodded. “This is like an AA meeting.”

Joe started out writing for The Resident; Brandon created his own ‘zines early on; Jessica wrote purposefully-bad poetry in order to win prize money for it (it worked). Ultimately, the writers wound up writing for McSweeney’s because, as Joe said “It’s a place that has faith in the enthusiasm of the writers,” instead of the prototypical publishing approach of what’s relevant now and what marketability is there. Pushing boundaries is not something they shy away from, and all the writers were grateful to have McSweeney’s as a forum for their work without having to compromise the odd factor.

Another topic addressed was that of the relationship the writers had to music, since several of them write about it. The phrase “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” was much debated. Writing about music is like writing about anything else; it requires capturing the sensory and avoiding clichés, some argued. You don’t even need to have any technical training.

Arthur used the Proustian protagonist Marcel as an example — affected by the music he hears without understanding what forces were at work to move him so deeply (and since this was before mechanical reproduction, it was doomed to be ephemeral). Joe was interested in the puzzling phenomenon of talented musicians not getting the recognition they deserve, and why that is. Brandon lamented internet overexposure in the music world taking some of the mystery out of the experience of discovering musicians.

All in all, the lunch hour chat faithfully captured the McSweeney’s spirit: interesting, tongue-in-cheek, varied, and a little bizarre.