A surprising amount of our humour is about the difference between “us” and “them”. With the cruder forms of humour this is obvious. Most jokes about women, or gay people, or people from other countries, or people with funny accents are clearly meant for an audience of people like the teller, not like the subject. There’s a sort of bonding that goes on; you and I can joke about this because we are the same; our separation from those people is shared. In that sense, most jokes are in-jokes.
If there’s a publisher that understands this, it is probably McSweeney’s. McSweeney’s, the publishing house behind the journal McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern among other things, was founded by Dave Eggers. It’s easy to dislike McSweeney’s and everything connected to it; everything the company publishes is infused with an archness and a self-reflexive irony that can be quite irritating. Eggers himself is best known for his book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and that title is indicative of much of the sort of thing that is associated with his company. It can be smug, it can be overly precious, it is far too concerned with its own cleverness – and all of these criticisms can be found in the works it publishes itself. For example, the website McSweeney’s Internet Tendency boasts a piece titled “McSweeney’s Pretentious Horseshit”, part of a series of letters to “entities unlikely to respond”.
Yet the sheer cleverness of their publications, the willingness to play around with form, and the association with a number of brilliant authors make up for much of what would otherwise be unforgivably irritating. I suppose it is possible to loathe McSweeney’s, but I’ve never fully managed it.
Few publishing houses display so clearly their knowledge that they are directed toward a specific demographic of people. Add to that the recursive nature of a book about books and it makes perfect sense that The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes (published by Vintage, who have published other McSweeney’s anthologies before) should exist.
That the cover is on backwards is only the first indication of the sort of book this is. It is is more about the hilarity of books in general than about particular parodies of specific books. It does not require you to be that much of a reader; what it does require is that you know a bit about books. So there are multiple riffs off the canon -James Joyce gets a couple of entries, as does Homer; Lolita, Macbeth and Beowulf are present and Gregor Samsa has a cameo as a sports coach - but none of them require that much familiarity with it. We all know the basic plots and characters, and that is enough. The number of people who have willingly read Boswell’s life of Samuel Johnson is probably very small, yet Teddy Wayne’s “Johnson’s Life of Boswell” works simply because we know that Boswell existed.
When it isn’t playing with the sparknotes version of the literary canon, the collection focuses on books that it can be reasonably sure everyone has read – children’s books. The Harry Potter parodies fall flat, but John Moe’s “Winnie-the-Pooh is My Coworker” is excellent. As is “Re: Hardy Boys Manuscript Submission” by Jay Dyckman, in which an editor turns down a rather too contemporary manuscript.
Other pieces choose to talk about literariness, rather than specific books. Notable are Brian Bieber’s “Tales of Erotica: Chuck Norris and Me” and a piece in which Charlie Anders has a serial killer explain literary terms (the “Synecdoche vs. Metonymy” section is illustrated through dismembered body parts and is really very illuminating).
If The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes doesn’t require specialised literary knowledge, then, it’s still a book of in-jokes of sorts. It is a book directed specifically at the McSweeney’s reader; indeed it almost manages to be an in-joke about in-jokes.