The prefix Mc- is used depreciatively to suggest values epitomised by the McDonald’s chain of fast-food restaurants1, in particular low quality, blandness, standardisation, superficiality.
1 McDonald’s Corporation is a U.S. firm operating a worldwide fast-food chain. The first McDonald’s restaurant was founded in 1948 in San Bernardino, California, by the U.S. restaurateurs Maurice (‘Mac’) McDonald (1902-1971) and Richard (‘Dick’) McDonald (circa 1909-1998). In 1954, franchise rights were bought by the U.S. entrepreneur Raymond Albert Kroc (1902–1984), who founded the corporation in 1955.
The text in which appears an early coinage, McPaper, explicitly associates it with the food of low nutritional value served in the McDonald’s chain of fast-food restaurants; this text is Press Notes, by Jonathan Friendly, published in The New York Times (New York City, N.Y.) of Sunday 17th October 1982:
Fast Start for USA Today
Allen H. Neuharth, the chairman and president of the Gannett company, said last week that the sales of Gannett’s new national newspaper, USA Today, had surpassed even his hopeful predictions. In the first two weeks of October, he said, sales were just short of 220,000, about 10 percent higher than what they were projected to be by December. Buoyed by the showing, he announced that Gannett would begin printing the newspaper in the San Francisco-Sacramento and Seattle-Portland areas next month, instead of waiting until next year.
Local newspapers have reacted with various degrees of concern about a potential competitive threat. Some dismiss the newspaper, with its flood of short articles, as journalistic junk food, or “McPaper.”
Peter Prichard, a managing editor of USA Today, adopted the nickname given to his newspaper, as reflected by the title of his book, The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA Today (Kansas City: Andrews, McMeel & Parker, 1987). This led K. J. Peterson to use the term McBook to characterise Prichard’s book in the review published in the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) of Sunday 18th October 1987:
Prichard’s book […] reflects the sort of packaging that goes into USA Today. It is packed with enough photos, charts and graphics to fill a grade school textbook.
If USA Today can be called “McPaper,” then surely The Making of McPaper can be called “McBook.”
Harry F. Waters used McBook in the sense of an easy-to-read, superficial book in the review of Time Flies (New York: Doubleday, 1987), a book on the aging process by the U.S. comedian Bill Cosby (born 1937)—review published in the St. Petersburg Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) of Tuesday 22nd September 1987 (Waters probably punned on the literal and figurative senses of the phrasal verb cook up):
At 176 pages (for $15.95), it’s two pages shorter (and $1 more) than its predecessor2, which was not exactly a Proustian read itself. Time Flies could be easily consumed by an airline passenger between the salted almonds and the after-dinner mints — even allowing for a trip to the lavatory. But if Cosby has cooked up a sort of McBook, he’s also delivered exactly what his legions of admirers treasure: gently ironic, self-mocking recollections and ruminations, each one infused with his uncanny genius for somehow turning the uniquely memorable into the universally recognizable.
2 Fatherhood (New York: Doubleday, 1986)
In an interview of Bill Cosby, published in the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) of Friday 25th September 1987, Elizabeth Mehren wrote of Time Flies as:
a book so slender and so filled with fat-food-humor [misprint for ‘fast-food-humor’?] that his detractors have dubbed it “McBook.”
The following, from the column Etcetera, by Joe Modzelewski, published in The Miami News (Miami, Florida) of Friday 23rd October 1987, is interesting because the author:
– raises the question of the commercial use of the prefix Mc-;
– mentions actual common nouns, such as McWords, prefixed by Mc-;
– humorously coins words, such as adjectives and a verb, prefixed by Mc-:
McNuts: Tee-hee equals Mc shared
The whole thing seems kind of McSilly . . . except McDonald’s is really McMiffed. The people who gave the world Big Macs and Egg McMuffins do not take kindly to other companies lifting their hallowed “Mc” prefix. A small army of McDonald’s lawyers is now doing battle with a New York bakery called McBagel, a toy company called McToy and a maker of office filing cabinets that dubbed its product “McFile.” [When] Quality International of Silver Spring, Md., recently christened its new no-frills motels “McSleep Inns” McDonald’s was not amused and threatened to McSue. In the journalism business, “McWords” have come to connote something cheap and without substance . . . McBooks, McMovies, etc. USA Today, because of its once-over-lightly approach to news, is sometimes snidely referred to as McPaper (but never in this McColumn).
In McBooks, McBucks, published in The New York Times (New York City, N.Y.) of Sunday 25th September 1988, Sheldon Himmelfarb, writer of fiction and nonfiction, predicted a gloomy future for the book business and for the writing process—and used not only McBook, but also McBuck, McFficiency and McMarket:
The publishing world is buzzing with news of the latest big buyout. Random House will acquire the Crown Publishing Group, pushing the book business still further into the grip of a few conglomerates. When the dust settles, a handful of corporations will control almost 50 percent of an industry that was once made up of dozens of independent family-run companies.
What does all this consolidation mean for publishing? The birth of McBooks.
For more than a year now, the giants have been buying smaller publishing houses for as much as 50 times their earnings. Unprecedented sales will be needed to pay for these megadollar mergers, and that’s where McBooks will come in.
Penned, packaged and promoted with the same efficiency that made Ray Krock’s [sic] hamburgers famous, they’ll sell copies the way McDonald sells Big Macs. “Twenty Billion Sold!” the dustjackets will proclaim. And behind these flashy covers there will be something for everyone. McBooks won’t be written just to read; they’ll be written to film, to export, to serialize and dramatize. Goodbye, literati; hello, Hollywood.
Of course, there will be a price to pay for all this McFficiency, especially by the authors. Publishers will be more reluctant than ever to take a chance on new talent. They’ll want a sure winner, a guaranteed money-maker. So unless a writer comes to them via Washington politics, a bordello, or both, they probably won’t have the right stuff.
Instead, the moguls of bookmaking will rely on McMarket research to put together their new lists. Hence, the ideal McBook will have one page of advertising to every page of text, will offer a trip to Hawaii to anyone who can solve the murder or collect enough bookmarks and will usually have a sequel waiting in the wings. On the nonfiction side, the ideal McBook will be something like “The Mayflower Madam’s Guide to Cultural Literacy.”
The writing process could also change under the pressure of big profits. In the past, writers were likened to being professional voyeurs, watching life from the wings and then interpreting it, embellishing it, sometimes lampooning it. Writers have been envied for their freedom of expression, if not their income, but for the McBook generation, which can’t afford to take chances any more than its corporate backers can, writing will be more like cooking according to a recipe: two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese. . .
I don’t mean to imply that profit and literary merit are mutually exclusive. They are not. But let’s not kid ourselves: the correlation between best sellers and best writers is pretty slim. Just look at the four top sellers at Crown Publishing, all of which sold over a million copies:
“How to Avoid Probate.”
“The Mammoth Hunters.”
“The Joy of Sex.”
“101 Uses For a Dead Cat.”
No wonder Random House couldn’t resist.
The last word on this subject should go to the English essayist Francis Bacon, who, if he were writing today, would no doubt give us the Bacon McBook. Almost 400 years ago he wrote, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
Now, will that be to read here, or to go?
illustration by Nurit Karlin for McBooks, McBucks—The New York Times (New York City, N.Y.)—25th September 1988: