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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

Time Flies When You're Having Fun

A Q&A with Chris Monks, editor of McSweeney's Internet Tendency, on the occasion of the release of the website's 21st-anniversary anthology.

November 8, 2019
 
 

From 2003 to 2008, I served as editor of McSweeney's Internet Tendency, a daily humor website that had started in 1998. It was a very difficult and rewarding job, difficult in that it's a fair bit of pressure to make sure there's something funny to put into the universe on a daily basis while also teaching full-time (as I was), and rewarding in that it's enjoyable to work with writers to try to put funny stuff in the world. But as I realized that my energy to dedicate to the task as it had to be done was winding down, I looked for someone who could take up the reins and keep it going. That person was Chris Monks, who has been at the helm ever since and has taken the site to new levels of quality and readership. I often say that the best decision I ever made as editor was identifying Chris as my replacement. Keep Scrolling Till You Feel Something: Twenty-One Years of McSweeney's Internet Tendency was published this week, and Chris and I had a chance to chat about how a little corner of the internet had been able to keep going for so long.

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John Warner: Why a 21-year anniversary book? That’s not a common milestone to honor.

Chris Monks: We didn't realize it was our 20th anniversary until like a month beforehand. We briefly considered throwing something together last minute, but soon figured out that that wouldn't be doable, so a big 21st celebration it would be. In legal terms, 21 is more of a milestone anyway.

JW: In terms of an internet publication focused on one thing, 21 years is a significant lifespan. The past is littered with other publications that haven’t been able to sustain themselves. What’s your first memory of McSweeney’s? What do you think explains the persistence of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency?

CM: The gracious/touchy-feely answer is that the Tendency has been fortunate to attract sharp, talented writers over the years, which has allowed us to maintain a high level of funniness. The no-nonsense/businessy answer is that the site has never been a moneymaking enterprise, so we’ve never had to rely on clicks to feed advertisers. You can say that us never being monetized has really paid off.

JW: There’s a lot of education-related humor in the book, including Mimi Evans's "An Honest College Rejection Letter" and Shannon Reed's “If People Talked to Other Professionals the Way They Talk to Teachers.” What do you think makes education material so tempting for you as the editor and something the audience responds to?

​CM: I used to be an elementary school teacher, and I'm married to a public high school principal, so, unsurprisingly, I'm drawn to satire about education. Teachers, no matter the level of instruction, often get the short end of the stick, so humor that empathizes and/or champions them resonates with me. It strikes a chord with our readers, too, as we have a pretty substantial academic readership. Pieces like Alyse Knorr’s “Professor Minerva McGonagall's Letter to the Tenure Committee” or Stefani Boutelier's "Excuse Me While I Teach Your Child, But First I Must …" go viral because they get right to the heart of the trials of teaching in really funny ways.

JW: When I was at the Tendency helm in what seems like a previous life, I remember thinking that at any moment, the supply of submissions could simply dry up, but they never did, and I’m imagining over the 10 years of your stewardship, the number has only increased. I’ve written here in the past about my life as “the rejectionist.” What’s your relationship with the submissions inbox?

CM: Oh boy, that’s kind of a loaded question. The inbox is our lifeblood. Ninety-nine point nine percent of what we publish is unsolicited, so I am pretty much a slave to our submissions; I have to be, as we get anywhere from 200 to 300 of them a week, and if I don’t stay on top of them, they will grow out of control. Another thing that’s helped with our longevity is our relatively quick response time to submissions (a policy instituted by you, I might add -- thanks). So I respond to every submission and get back to folks within a week -- within a day if the piece is super timely. This creates goodwill with writers and also guarantees that submissions will keep coming in at a steady rate, as they can submit up to four to five times a month. And that’s all great, but what that means is that I have to be reading and replying throughout the day, every day. I’ve been doing this for 12 years now, and it’s to the point that I get a little anxious when I am away from my computer for an extended period of time, worrying about the pile of subs rising and rising. Thankfully, we get fewer of them over the weekend, so I can breathe a little, enjoy a sandwich, watch a game without having to do too much work. But it’s a pretty demanding job during weekdays. And I haven’t even detailed the actual writing/replying to submissions yet.

JW: I remember many an evening on the couch “watching TV” with my wife that was me reading and replying as fast as I could. One of the reasons I needed to find a replacement was I couldn’t imagine such a life as sustainable. How have you kept it going for so long?

CM: I should point out that most if not all of this professional strife is of my own making. I’m a writer, so I am very familiar with rejection. I know the adrenaline rush of clicking "send" and the sinking feeling of the “Thanks, but no thanks” reply. So I try to try lower the boom as kindly and quickly as I can to let writers know that I read their work and appreciate their considering us for publication. This, again, works towards the goodwill we have with our writers. They know someone is actually reading their work and will respond to them thoughtfully.

JW: Not everyone appreciates your quick and courteous replies, however.

CM: No, unfortunately not. Most writers are gracious and perseverant, but from time to time a few reply back and let me know how wrong I was to reject their work. They can get pretty nasty and personal, and it’s hard not to be bummed out by them. I mean, I understand needing to vent after being rejected, but what will telling your editor that he sucks get you? It’s not like I’m going to write back, “You’re absolutely right: I do suck. I would like to retract my rejection and publish your piece.” Other rejectees dig their holes even deeper and rag on the site as well, trashing pieces we’ve published. I get that not everything we run is going to land with every reader, but if you think our site is lousy, why bother submitting to us in the first place? Oof.

I’m getting riled up now just thinking about it. Anyway, I try not to engage with them -- it’s not worth the emotional energy. I am a lifelong Miami Dolphins fan -- I have very little emotional energy to spare. So instead, I save their responses and put them in a folder titled “JERKS.” Every so often I share screenshots of their jerky emails to my followers on Twitter. It’s very freeing.

JW: What’s next for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency? Twenty-one more years?

CM: Twenty-one more years would be great, although I shiver at the thought of what the jerk folder would look like in 2040. I just hope we continue to be a go-to place for new and established comedy writers to share their work. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our Patreon campaign. Thanks to our patrons, we're able to pay contributors while remaining ad-, paywall- and pyramid-scheme-free. As long as that keeps on keeping on, I don’t see us going anywhere for a long time.

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