Inside Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory: McSweeney’s 33—Panorama
I’ve always likened McSweeney’s to Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Behind their magical doors are editors (OOMPA LOOMPA) who get to publish a quarterly literary magazine with a different, wildly imaginative concept each and every time and they have the means and reach to do almost anything they want. An issue as a direct mail concern? If you please. An issue as a box of cards? No problem. A hard cover book? Easy. A ridiculously large 8.5 lb. broadside? Why yes. Of course.
Leading up to its publication, there was a great deal of hype about McSweeney’s San Francisco Panorama—a- literary magazine cum newspaper printed in full color, that would offer a new perspective on the potential and possibilities afforded by the beleaguered newspaper. I ordered my copy of Panorama (a whopping $16 so not at all like a newspaper) and it arrived recently.
Given the extensive exertions of the McSweeney’s hype machine, my expectations were quite high. On Broadway, they say theatergoers want to see their money on the stage. In the case of Panorama, you do see the money on the page but is that enough?
First, some logistics. The folks at McSweeney’s were kind enough to break down the cost and production details of the project, a gesture I really appreciate and as an editor, this Information Pamphlet was one of my favorite parts of Panorama.
20,000 issues of Panorama were printed and the work was handled by two different printers. The issue was sold on the streets of SF on the day it was released for $5 and was available to those of who don’t live at the center of the McSweeney’s universe (more on this later) for $16.
The final product includes 350,000 words, 320 pages of content, a magazine, a books section, and posters, all in full color.
More than 150 contributors were involved in the project.
Ad revenue totaled around $61,000
The unit cost including editorial and art expenses: $7.98
The unit cost for printing only: $5.57
The Information Pamphlet discussed at length that this project was meant to show what can be done with newspapers that cannot be done on the Internet (primarily because, all together now, people won’t read long work online). There were also several mentions of the editorial staff’s passion for this project (more on this later as well). I am a fan of McSweeney’s, and I really wanted to love Panorama but sadly, I did not. I don’t think Panorama lived up to the hype. I didn’t see anything in this issue that has not been done before. There was nothing I read or looked at that made me think, “This is innovation,” and with few exceptions, most of the elements of Panorama were largely unmemorable. It pains me to say this, please do know that.
The design is quite lovely—clean, bold, graphic and accessible and showcases the written content to great effect. There were several articles and features throughout Panorama that could be used in a course on information design. Generally speaking, the writing is always competent, sometimes interesting, but there was not a lot that set my heart on fire or that I wanted to read more than once and there were several articles I simply could not force myself to finish.
Part of what really dimmed my enthusiasm was the intense focus on San Francisco. The editors state they chose SF because that’s where McSweeney’s is headquartered. I respect that choice, but I do think the SF angle really came at the expense of those of us living in the rest of the country. In all the reading I did about Panorama leading up to its publication, I missed the SF angle and that is, perhaps, my fault. They certainly covered a great deal of international news but they largely ignored that vast swatch of land beyond the East Bay and Half Moon Bay and other points near SF. To my mind, they should have charged people in SF $16 and the rest of us $5.
A lot of the content in the issue felt very instructional, earnest and a bit preachy, very much in the vein of let me teach you about this very interesting and important phenomenon, landmark, food, whatever or let me show you how educational a newspaper can be. Reading articles like the absolutely gorgeously designed Living With a Yellow Dwarf, an infographic based article about space weather and something about affecting cell phone reception and the sun and solar cycles felt like taking my vitamins–good for me but a bit chalky and hard to swallow. A lengthy article about the Bay Bridge being built in SF, the staggering cost, how it’s being fabricated around the world etc., was informative, but again, it didn’t grab me. I learned things, which is important, but I didn’t feel enriched. Perhaps that is too much to expect from reading material.
More than once as I read the various articles and infobits, I thought Why should I care? More than once, I thought Someone should submit this to Stuff White People Like before that joke got old. I don’t mean that as an insult but a Stephen King treatise on the World Series and an article about the president of the 49ers and the bridge and the sun and mining in Imperial County—all that feels like it might be of interest to a certain demographic. A lot of the content tried to be globally inclusive in that peculiar way that is largely designed for and interesting to people who are trying to broaden their horizons from the comfort of their well-appointed flats, lounging on their IKEA or (if they’re super fancy) DWR furniture. I’m admittedly part of that former demographic but I possess enough self-awareness to know it.
In the Book section, there was a wonderful, vaguely creepy short short story from Deb Olin Unferth and a good short story from James Franco I really enjoyed until the not great ending. My favorite was an awesome essay about a Mr. Romance Cover Model Competition for romance novel cover hunks written by Joshuah Bearmen. I love learning about strange niche communities. Bearman followed the goings on at a Romance novel convention and managed to do so while being witty and a bit mocking without being condescending. A primer on pronouncing authors’ names and a run down of what it costs to run an independent bookstore added a bit more personality to this section that was largely missing from the broadside.
There were several delightful quatrains including the one below by Matthew Dickman (and for once I knew who he was because I read a profile on Dickman and his twin brother in The New Yorker. Learnin’! It works!):
OH BROTHERS, LET’S GO DOWN
I want her mouth to taste like the ladies of Saint Luke’s
after their annual Spirit Drive, when they all get to take their heavy black
shoes off and sit in the shade of Christ our Father—
their wide summer hats flung around them like flattened moons.
The Panorama Magazine was also engaging (and by FAR the strongest section) with a nice critique by Chip Kidd on the design of Amtrak tickets (I will be using in my class this semester); an essay by Andrew Sean Greer about being a gay married couple at a NASCAR race when the writer much like me as little understanding or interest in cars; an article about Centralia, PA; and finally, The Oakland Girl’s Unofficial Guide to Antarctica by Mary Williams, a black woman over forty who decided to go work for five months in Antarctica. In addition to being well-written and witty, the essay made me want to go to the South Pole for a spell. My parents are going to be so thrilled.
I admire the goals of Panorama to demonstrate the power of the newspaper and serve as an alternative to the Internet, but there was nothing in Panorama that was vastly different from writing I have read in The New York Times or the Christian Science Monitor (when, of course it was printed which say something in and of itself) or online at Salon.com or Slate. That’s fine but it is interesting all too often, publications try to market themselves an alternative to or an answer to rather than as something that can function in partner with extant publications. I would have been far more impressed with Panorama had they also launched a complementary website. Any conversation about the future of newspapers cannot realistically ignore or discount the Internet. That’s so unrealistic as to be absurd. This is not to say that Panorama was doing that but rather to say it would have been useful to set forth ideas combining both old media and new. It would have also been nice for the editors to have offered some insight into how their ideas could translate sustainably for newspapers. Despite the explanations in the Information Pamphlet, I was still left confused about the lessons we’re supposed to take away from Panorama.
All told, Panorama is well-executed and I both appreciate and admire the care and effort that went into realizing such an ambitious undertaking. The challenge with setting high expectations is that you place yourself in the uncomfortable predicament of having to satisfy them. The soaring rhetoric which preceded Panorama’s publication by far overshadowed the project itself. In interviews and other such venues, the editors and those involved spoke at length about their passion for Panorama but the sheer breadth of the undertaking really seemed to dilute that passion. In the end, perhaps, the editors exercised a bit too much control and still, the project grew too unwieldy to express that passion. I wanted to be moved by something, by anything and I wasn’t. In contrast, I am currently reading Caketrain 7. When I read an issue of Caketrain, I am consistently moved. Caketrain is a curious literary magazine–I am absolutely bewildered, dazed and confused by most of the writing but I am always, always moved by the soul of each and every poem, story and indefinable creative work. I wanted to find some soul in Panorama but all I could see was a glimmer of heart.
If someone else would like to read Panorama without spending $16, send me an e-mail (my first name @ my first namelastname.com) with your address and I will mail you my used, slightly wrinkled copy. Caveat emptor: I sent my dad the section about the Bay Bridge because he’s into that sort of thing and I tore a couple pages out of The Panorama Magazine I wanted to keep but other than that, Panorama is intact with original packaging, even. What a tempting offer.