A Conversation with Chris Monks, Managing Editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency >>> Part 2: Death to Bucket Lists
Chris Monks has been editing McSweeney’s Internet Tendency for eight years and McSweeney’s has 250,000 followers on Twitter. I’ve been editing the parenting humor site RAZED for five months and we have, like, 63 followers. So, as you can see, we practically have the same job and experience.*
*We do not.
In Part 2 of my three-part interview, we delve deeper into the world of submissions from the editor’s point of view plus a heads up on what you never ever need to submit to McSweeney’s again.
Kimberly Harrington: When you’re going through submissions, do you have a sense when a piece could really take off?
Chris Monks: Occasionally. It all has to do with subject matter. Parenting stuff tends to do very well. Academia as well. Technology. Literary parodies. Hemingway stuff is huge [laughs]. I have an eye for it, more and more I have an eye for it.
The Internet’s a much different place than when I started. The hook is more important than ever. I actually just added a new section to the submission guidelines about titles. It sounds superficial, but your title is just really important.
KH: It’s incredible how much it matters. As a reader you understand it innately by what grabs your attention. And as a writer I feel like I try to take it seriously. With Welcome to Our Design Studio, Where You’ll Never See the Light of Day But You Can Bring Your Dog, people who worked in agencies or design studios were like, “I’ll like it even if I don’t read it” [laughs] because they got the entire premise behind it. But now that I’m editing RAZED, I really need to take titles seriously. It’s frustrating when there’s a great piece but the title ends up falling flat on social media.
On the flip side, it’s so frustrating when you have a killer title and premise but can’t execute against it to save your life. I’m guessing you see a lot of that.
CM: Oh yeah.
KH: Do you work with writers who have a great premise but the piece isn’t quite there?
CM: Definitely. I tinker with almost everything that we run, some more than others. And oftentimes that IS the problem, the premise is great but the piece doesn’t quite meet it.
Even with “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers”, that was a piece that made me laugh more than most submissions. It was hilarious. But originally all the swearing was much more varied instead of just variations on the F word. That was my one little idea that I’m really proud of [laughs].
KH: Is there any such thing as “cracking the code” of getting on the site?
CM: I think the people who crack the code are the people who read the site and are very familiar with what’s been written and our sensibilities and tone. Basically, they’ve done the work.
You had asked earlier about a short phrase of advice and I think knowing your audience — who you’re submitting to — is really important. Make sure it’s a good match. Otherwise it’s just a waste of your time. Take a half hour to investigate where you’re sending your stuff.
KH: It’s interesting, in my very brief experience of being an editor compared to you — I mean I’ve probably looked at four and a half submissions compared to the thousands you’ve looked at — I’m sort of amazed at how many people submit completely wrong material or how some writers respond to rejections. One response was, “Oh I wrote this for my work blog and they didn’t want it so I sent it to you” and I was like, “Oh for fuck’s sake, thanks for wasting my time.” I put more thought into the rejection e-mail than that writer put into their submission. Just, why?
CM: Sometimes — rarely, thankfully — when a writer gets a piece rejected I’ll get something back like, “Well I’ve been looking at your site more and I don’t know why I even bothered to submit” or “Your site’s too twee anyway.” They’ll just say something mean. So it’s like, what were you doing submitting to a place you don’t think is funny in the first place?
KH: My other favorite is “Well, I don’t really like this piece anyway so…” [laughs] and I understand that because when I’ve had pieces rejected sometimes I’m like, “Ugh, I hate this thing” but it’s one thing to think it … and then you just keep that to yourself.
CM: Exactly. 95% of the stuff you think, just keep to yourself [laughs].
KH: And that’s a natural lead-in to your Twitter feed. I can’t even imagine how much you’re holding back on there.
CM: It’s a nice way to vent. I can do it kind of anonymously and if I get a laugh and a couple RTs out of it, it makes the whole experience worthwhile.
KH: Some of those tweets make me think, what’s wrong with you people?
CM: Well I think there’s an attitude, especially given social media, especially with people who are younger — I hate to sound like an old fogey — that they’re used to their writing, whether it’s an update or tweet, being accepted. Their friends read it and favorite it but this just isn’t the same. I don’t think people make that connection. Some people have said, “Oh but this got a huge response on Facebook.” First of all, don’t submit something to me that you posted on Facebook [laughs]. Second, I don’t care what all your uncles and aunts think about the thing you wrote, of course they’re gonna love it!
KH: The age thing is interesting. I feel like we grew up with critical pushback, we’re used to the idea that there are gatekeepers. Of course there are still gatekeepers now but it’s so different. When I was in college you could generate your own content but you’d be talking to yourself. Maybe you’d be writing in a journal or for your college paper. It’s nothing like it is now where you can make a movie, self-publish a book, “I’m just going to put my work out there.”
CM: I know. A lot of times I wish I had been born 10 or 15 years later because I’d have more energy and motivation to take advantage of all that stuff. Because I was making short videos with my friends in high school, I was writing silly things, but I had nowhere to share them.
KH: Yeah, it was pretty contained, it was just you and your friends basically.
CM: I talk to other writer friends and we’re all like, “Ugh, if we were 10 years younger, just 10 years younger!”
KH: The downside of it, at least for me, is that the Internet is so full of assholes. It’s one thing to experience critical pushback in a real constructive way but it’s another thing to just be flamed in comments. I just don’t envy writers who are trying to establish themselves 100% via the Internet.
I personally love the fact that McSweeney’s doesn’t allow comments. Although I did come across one example of people losing their marbles on social media over the piece “Take Your Child’s Meds and Go to Work Day”
CM: Oh yeah. I know. It’s context, they don’t actually get what they’re looking at. They found it on their Facebook feed, who knows, maybe a friend of a friend posted it …
KH: … and they see the title ….
CM: Right and “Oh, I gotta comment on it right away. That’s what you do on the Internet.” I think now on Facebook when The Onion posts something, doesn’t it say “Satire” or something? I wish they would do that with us.
KH: What other suggestions do you have in terms of submissions?
CM: The other advice I’d have is don’t force it. If you think McSweeney’s is really funny, it doesn’t mean you can necessarily write for it without really doing some work. I think some people think, “Oh McSweeney’s is literary and so I’ll just write a parody of F. Scott Fitzgerald waiting in line at Starbucks.” If you’re not careful it just feels too forced and too manufactured.
KH: It’s interesting for me to be on the other side of things with RAZED and hear from first-time writers about how hard humor writing is. I know early on with my own attempts I felt like, “maybe I can’t do this,” it’s just so much harder than I thought it would be. Most people think if you’re just this naturally funny person that it’ll be easy.
CM: Oh I know. We’ve had celebrities submit and the pieces just aren’t funny at all.
KH: I think if you have that perception of yourself you think, “how hard can it be?”
CM: If you’re funny in life then ….
KH: Exactly. There are some pieces that I read and know for a fact that I’d never be able to write them because they’re so layered or in a style that just isn’t mine. But I think when people read something like “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers” it just seems …
CM: … effortless.
KH: Exactly, so I think it can throw people off. They have no idea how hard it is to write something like that that just connects and keeps going and is conversational.
CM: I always have a hard time when people ask what we think is funny. John has always said it’s like that famous line about pornography, you know it when you see it. I know what’s funny when I see it.
But conceptual humor is our thing. Sometimes people say, “Well you’re not opening yourself up to different styles of humor or writing” and it’s like no, there are other places for that. This is what we do. We’ve worked really hard to craft it into what it is so we’ll leave the fake news to The Onion, they do that brilliantly. And funny essays can go various different places.
KH: So how many Trump submissions so far?
CM: We get one or two a day, since maybe August. Even the one we accepted …
KH: … which was amazing …
CM: It’s very funny but I was on the fence about it, because even by that point Trump had become something more than just a clown. I mean, he’s still a clown, but now he’s like a scary clown [laughs]. The Internet is inundated with Trump parodies so I was like, do we really want to go there? But then I felt like, this one’s very smart and I thought [John Flowers] had his voice down …
KH: … he nailed it …
CM: The voice is perfect. And around that time Trump had said something stupid about women so I had him add a section in there. And the things John hit on were timely but will also stand, the piece won’t feel dated. Because it’s not just about the election, it’s something we can run every year when it’s Trump’s birthday [laughs].
KH: I’m sure there are a lot of examples of contributors who’ve gone on to have crazy successful writing careers after getting their start on McSweeney’s.
CM: There are a ton. Teddy Wayne started at McSweeney’s then went on to The New Yorker and now he’s an acclaimed novelist. Wendy Molyneux was contributing before I got there, she’s now one of the Executive Producers of Bob’s Burgers. Colin Nissan, he’s been all over The New Yorker. So, yeah, there’s been a lot. And there have been writers who’ve gone on to write for Colbert or The Daily Show, or were already there and have submitted to us. McSweeney’s means something in the comedy world. Thankfully.
My one big regret is that we can’t pay people for content. Maybe one day we’ll be able to, but right now we can’t.
KH: But it means so much to get on, it feels like a big break.
CM: Right, it’s a weird thing to say because the exposure really does matter. But that feels like the go-to thing that places that don’t pay say [laughs], “We’re giving you exposure”. But in our case we really are.
KH: I was so surprised by the reactions of the people I know professionally when I had my first piece accepted. I received some of the best, most well-crafted love/hate mail I’ve ever gotten in my entire life [laughs]. But it was clear that suddenly there was this respect and “Holy shit, you got on” and I was like, “Dude, I know. I CAN’T BELIEVE IT EITHER.”
CM: That’s what I felt when I first got on too, because I’d been trying for like two years. I just couldn’t believe it. And I was still young enough to think, “Oh, this is it.”
And that was even before Facebook and Twitter. McSweeney’s was reliant on people who just bookmarked the page [laughs]. But it still felt like this incredible thing, this big break. And I think it still does for a lot of people.
Your earlier question [from Part 1] about understanding every piece we run made me think about the earlier version of the site. There was some stuff that was so insular, so acerbic, that people didn’t quite get it. It was a little bit looking down. A little bit. Some of it was funny and back then I didn’t even get half the stuff. But the site was presented in such a clever way that I was just with it, they could’ve done anything and I would’ve read it.
John started the process of making the site accessible to more than just white 23-year-old grad students. I just didn’t want to wreck it when I took over. The one thing I am proud of is that there are a lot more women on the site now then there have ever been before.
KH: That’s what I was wondering. I know from what I’m dealing with on RAZED that early on we were only getting submissions from men. But it seems like there are a lot of women on McSweeney’s.
CM: That’s been more of a conscious decision. Early on I was less cognizant of it. I guess two-thirds of the people who submitted were men. That’s no excuse really, that was just the way it was.
Every year VIDA: Women in Literary Arts does a count of female writers in literary culture. I think our site has come out pretty well every time. That focus has really changed the way I do things. If we have three new pieces a day, I make sure at least one is by a woman. I used to post pieces in the order they came in. I’m not doing that as much anymore.
We still get so much stuff from men but we’re getting more from women so it’s a little bit easier. We just completed the column contest for this year and seven of the nine winners are women.
KH: Are there any pieces, subjects, formats you never want to see again?
CM: Bucket lists about buckets. Anything bucket list-themed. I don’t know how many times we’ve gotten a list titled Bucket List then it’ll be a list of actual buckets. Pail. Whatever other kinds of buckets there are. I don’t know [laughs]. We’ve gotten like 50 of them. I think we added that to the submissions section of what not to send.
What else, funny things you texted to your friend. Social media-type stuff is hard. Redoing classics but in tweets, we get those. Facebook stuff is a really hard sell.
KH: Is there stuff you wish you could see more of or is it just hard to know until you see it?
CM: Yeah. I mean I tweeted about wanting more Ben Carson pieces but I don’t do that very often. Because what if I got like thirty Ben Carson pieces I’d just be like, “Oh my God, what have I done?” And not putting out a call makes it a little more organic. It becomes more about what pop culture is talking about right now.
I keep searching for ways to expand the diversity of our contributors. I think McSweeney’s is seen as a site written primarily by white people. And it is. I mean, I don’t know who’s submitting, they’re just e-mails so I can’t see who each writer is. But my sense is the majority of our contributors are white.
That’s one good thing about the column contest is that we have more of a sense of the content and we always make sure our recurring columnists are very diverse. But it’d be nice to have more voices from various different viewpoints. That’s something I’d like to see more of.
If you enjoyed this interview, please click the heart-shaped recommend thingy below so others may discover it.
Chris Monks is the Managing Editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and the author of The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life. If you meet him at Panera he might buy you an orange juice. No promises. Follow him on Twitter.
If you missed Part 1 of this interview, you can find it here.
Part 3 is here!