And now they’re buddies? God, that’s almost disappointing.
“Philebrity’s growing up a little bit,” says Sweeney about why he wanted to take on the responsibility of the 215, but it also applies to the site’s tone. In the past couple years, the bridge-napalming (but frequently very funny) takedowns have tapered off. To that, Sweeney counters, “Nicole Cashman, real-estate bloggers in general, Occupy Philly and more would probably disagree. On the other hand … a few years ago, I think I realized that if you’re railing against everything all of the time, that railing quickly loses power, and you wind up becoming a Johnny One-Note. Also, it is bad for your soul.”
When emailed for comment, Bissinger replied, “I admired his balls in approaching me even though he was too chickenshit to do it directly. … He also promised to clean my leather pants.”
“And then everyone went on with their lives.”
“The first couple of years, it was just so … fun. There was so much friendship and love — I hate to be mushy about it,” says Neal Pollack. “The 215 was sort of a snapshot of a certain kind of literary culture at the time, this generation of young authors coming up that hadn’t established a huge body of work yet,” he explains. “In some ways, I feel like book culture has elasticized back to not being all that much fun. There was this brief moment of youthful vigor, and then everyone went on with their lives.”
“There was just this zeitgeist in the early 2000s,” says Richardson Graham. “At the time, I didn’t realize it was a thing that would, you know, end. But it did.”
She pauses, and gestures to her 14-year-old daughter Madeleine, who’s been drawn into the room by her mom’s stories of the good old days of literary debauchery, listening with an expression of 90 percent fascination and 10 percent horror. “However!” adds Richardson Graham. “I think that all the stuff going on in YA [young adult] lit right now is very much like it used to be. There’s this community of people who are talking to each other on the Twitter.” Mother and daughter laugh over the deliberate old-person-ese. Madeleine recently went to a YA-lit convention in Chicago, and Richardson Graham is eager to describe it: “There were thousands of kids there —” (“Five thousand, and not just kids,” interjects Madeleine) “— and it was much fancier than anything we ever did. It had passes, and it cost $140 —” (“It was $200!”) “— and it was huge! And the YA authors were hanging out together in the same way that the authors used to hang out in the early 2000s who were inspired by McSweeney’s. It seemed very similar.”
Madeleine has clearly inherited her mother’s obsession with books and authors — she even has aspirations to put on a YA-lit festival in Philly, which seems ambitious for someone who just started high school a week ago. “But writers talk to her! They respond to her tweets! She’s met them! Like — I could email Dave Eggers in 2001. I can’t email Dave Eggers anymore.”
Richardson Graham says though she loved the festival, after the moment passed, she started feeling out of touch. “It got to the point where I was, like, ‘OK, it’s another 215, guess I’ll call up John Hodgman or some people from This American Life.’ I didn’t know what the new thing was. And that’s when it ended for me.”
“That McSweeney’s moment was never really moored to Philly,” says Sweeney. “I still find what they do inspiring, but to my thinking, the 215, and especially my motivations for getting involved, are not about rehashing that moment. I think if anything, the lasting inspiration of all that stuff was Create Your Own Moment.”
Coincidentally, after a follow-up interview with Sweeney, we run into Mary Richardson Graham and her family having dinner and stop to say hi. She seems delighted to hear about what he has planned, but quickly drags a shy Madeleine out from behind the table to pitch her idea about a YA event as part of the festival. Soon enough, two generations of book lovers are discussing possibly collaborating — maybe on Saturday? Madeleine, just as hooked by her love of books as her mom was a decade ago, says she’ll be in touch about helping out.