Ask the Editors | McSweeney’s Column Contest and Promoting Your Work

Hi Rae– I was wondering if there is any way to get the word out that my column, “_____”, is up for the grand prize on McSweeney’s. I’d appreciate any help/ideas.


Dear Promoter,

Thank you for your inquiry. I do know that McSweeney‘s Column Contest is running again. Some excellent columns. My favorite is “Tractors Drive Themselves: One Man’s Return to the Farm” by Matthew James. I like James’ statement on economy and the Everyman/woman’s return to childlike status. I, for one, can commiserate. I also like his subtle humor. I’ve not read any of James’ work prior, but I will read more of it now.

Regarding your question, I get it. And I understand. I don’t blame you for asking how you might further promote your column, even though we don’t know each other. Being a writer these days is something of a promotional clusterfuck. We’ve all been there. And if I liked your column best, I’d be happy to promote it in particular. It’s a fine column, well-done in many ways, but I’m voting for the column I like best. I encourage everyone to do the same.
It is an ever-growing phenomena, the promotion of friends and friends’ works over others simply because of the relationship. This occurs in contests, editing, book publishing, book reviews… It has been around for a long time and continues to be around. I’ve had to turn down works at Eckleburg from good friends and acclaimed writers whose works I really wanted to want, but in the end I needed to make decisions from an objective state, as best I can manage it. It is sometimes saddening. I see this same practice in other circles. People turning personal into what should be objective and professional. In many ways, the online FB, Twitter, etc. cattle chute of promotion has usurped the craft of critical reading, critical thinking, and the simple act of writing professional reviews and critique. Daniel Mendelsohn wrote a recent and brilliant essay published at The New Yorker, titled “A Critic’s Manifesto.” I’ve introduced this to my class for discussion this week.

In the nineteen-seventies, when I was a teen-ager and had fantasies of growing up to be a writer, I didn’t dream of being a novelist or a poet. criticism_opt.jpgI wanted to be a critic. I thought criticism was exciting, and I found critics admirable. This was because I learned from them. Every week a copy of The New Yorker would arrive at our house on Long Island, wrapped in a brown wrapper upon which the (I thought) disingenuously modest label NEWSPAPERwas printed, and I would hijack the issue before my dad came home from work in order to continue an education that was, then, more important to me than the one I was getting in school…. By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments — that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way. What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically — which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period.

For all criticism is based on that equation: KNOWLEDGE + TASTE = MEANINGFUL JUDGMENT. The key word here is meaningful. People who have strong reactions to a work — and most of us do — but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics. (This is why a great deal of online reviewing by readers isn’t criticism proper.) Nor are those who have tremendous erudition but lack the taste or temperament that could give their judgment authority in the eyes of other people, people who are not experts. (This is why so many academic scholars are no good at reviewing for mainstream audiences.) Like any other kind of writing, criticism is a genre that one has to have a knack for, and the people who have a knack for it are those whose knowledge intersects interestingly and persuasively with their taste. In the end, the critic is someone who, when his knowledge, operated on by his taste in the presence of some new example of the genre he’s interested in — a new TV series, a movie, an opera or ballet or book — hungers to make sense of that new thing, to analyze it, interpret it, make it mean something.

Finish reading the essay at A Critic’s Manifesto…
Think critically and independently. I encourage everyone to vote for the column you like best regardless of who you may be friends with or who you went to school with or how much a particular contestant is pumping up votes. For those of you who are trying to promote your works, great. Have at it. It is 99% necessary evil and 1% opportunity to not only mention your own work being published but also a few of your anthology mates, etc. Good rule of thumb: reach out to your current readers, people who you know value your work; mentors or teachers with whom you had direct relationships in school; and when you can, mention the other good works in your promotions. Though some might disagree, I whole-heartedly believe in writing as a community. We may sequester ourselves often, another necessary evil of our craft, but dipping our toes into the pool time to time keeps us sane, and the acknowledgement you give other writers you value — your contemporaries, not just the acclaimed we have come to know and love — will benefit you in goodness, sociability, and a karmic sense of why we engage in an art form at all.
Finally, I encourage readers of McSweeney‘s to get involved. McSweeney‘s is an excellent publication many of us have come to adore and depend on for raw declarations and humor as well as excellence in craft. Eckleburg would buy McSweeney‘s an engagement ring, a big rock, if we had the money and good family background to ask for its hand, but Eckleburg is the mongrel, poor equivalent of the disavowed stepchild compared to McSweeney‘s. So we calmly bat our big eyes and eyelashes and read our beloved, basking in its humor, mission, consistent platform for not only balls out writing but excellence in craft. We love Eggar’s, we love 826DC, and we encourage our readers to read McSweeney‘s like zombies eating man flesh. So, readers, go to the site link below, read the short submissions and vote your conscience. It may be only a column contest, not the UN peace talks, but if it doesn’t mean something to writers and readers of McSweeney‘s then what the hell are we doing?


by Matthew James

“…This summer, I moved back to the farm where I grew up. I am a laid-off newspaper columnist who lives in his childhood room and that should probably be embarrassing but it isn’t. Every day is bring-your-kid-to-work day and I’m the kid. I’m hitting things with hammers. I have cracks in my fingers and those cracks have motor oil stains in them. For the last dozen years I’ve been paid to think of things and type them into stories. What a gig, huh? I was paid to talk to interesting people, paid to bounce around the country, paid to hike through California, paid to fly with the Blue Angels, paid to watch college football games with 50,000 folks who considered it the highlight of their week to be doing exactly what I was doing. It was great. It felt easy. Manual labor is exhilarating in an entirely different way. It’s refreshing, creek water to the face, birthday cake at the end of an Atkins Diet….” Vote here

The Editors

3 Replies to “Ask the Editors | McSweeney’s Column Contest and Promoting Your Work”

  1. This speaks to me, as one who has entered a good deal of
    contests, and one who is still trying to acquire a ‘taste.’ On the first note,
    I have been so put off by contests that require peer votes. First of all for
    the fact that people can go around trying to convince others to vote on their
    piece, and second of all because so many readers may have no idea at all what
    makes a story great (or in the majority of my experiences, a screenplay). They
    may skim the work, then give a barely-thought-out thought!

    So, not having much experience with McSweeney’s aside from
    the fame of the name, I am somewhat surprised they do this. But maybe it works,
    and I imagine they have some vetting process to ensure only great stories are
    up there in the first place (please correct me if this is not the case).

    The second aspect of this article that gets my brain going
    is, as I mentioned, taste. Ever since taking a workshop at the Writers Center
    in Bethesda where the instructor basically told us to not waste our time with
    positive comments, I have greatly enjoyed being critical. What I struggle with
    is, as the article pointed to, the more artistic side of criticism. That
    equation says it all: KNOWLEDGE + TASTE = MEANINGFUL JUDGMENT –
    Wow, if I had knowledge or taste I would be there! But, I know someday I will
    have both, so until then I will just keep struggling and hope that my writing
    groups appreciate my feedback.

  2. This is surprising to me! I wasn’t aware that contests worked this way, and it’s very disconcerting! It kind of reminds me of those radio contests in which people email all their contacts to get votes for their
    kid as cutest baby. That said, for a publication like McSweeney’s, I imagine the number of votes in the end would be really high, so maybe any individual author’s self-promotion wouldn’t make that big of a dent, in the long run.

    And Rae—I applaud your (and Eckleburg’s) commitment to objectivity and professionalism. Nepotism really just hurts everyone!

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