By Jeremy Lott
Normally the launch of a heavy hitting literary magazine would be a big event, but The Believer snuck up on us lit-crit types. There were a few vague hints from reclusive publishing dynamo Dave Eggers that he was toying with a project called The Optimist (or The Balloonist or somesuch) and then—bam!—out came The Believer, fully formed as Athena with 128 pages of review essays, articles, diversions, and interviews with famous and/or very odd people.
The Believer's crew hit the ground running. The editors' note assured readers that though there would be a brief pause between the first and second issues "this is a monthly magazine" which would be unlike other literary endeavors in that reviewers would "focus on writers and books we like" and "give people and books the benefit of the doubt." Co-editor Heidi Julavits opened the issue with a 9,000 word essay in which she attacked "the snarky dumbed-down world of book reviewing" and attempted an explanation (of sorts) of the magazine's odd title. Affirming her faith in the unrealized possibility of literature, Julavits called for a whole new "era of experimentation, and a book culture that will support it." The Believer is meant to usher in that culture.
That's quite the tall order for any magazine to fill. One need not be overly cynical (or "snarky") to doubt that the Believer/McSweeney's talent pool will be up to it. The amount of genius and enthusiasm needed to sustain such an enterprise simply beggers belief (apologies for the lousy pun).
Then again, if The Believer fails to live up to its own expectations, it won't be for lack of enthusiasm. So far, two issues have been released, and a preview of the third has been posted online. The articles have been uniformly well edited and quirkily conceived and written, but there's also an aggressive irony-smothering earnestness about the whole endeavor. Correcting an omission from the first issue, the editors wrote "We are very sorry about this oversight."
And no doubt they were very sorry. What struck me about the correction is the same thing that struck me about many of the essays. Little details matter, and not in some abstract sense. They matter to us personally, the writers appear to agree, and how we feel about them and relate them to our own experiences is important and worthy of barrels of ink. Any pretense of objectivity-in-reviewing is jettisoned in favor of something different and more explicitly confessional.
To wit, in a review essay on the novels of Nicholson Baker, Paul LeFarge begins with a story of a former roommate trying to get him to look at some white nodules that his throat was producing ("small mucoid ejecta"). He locates the "genius" of Baker in that his writing forces us, metaphorically, to look at the nodules. LeFarge writes, with a straight face, that reading Baker lead him to consider "pieces of refuse on the street with ferocious care." In the lead essay for the second issue, a review of W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, William T. Vollman addresses Sebald's charges that novelist Alfred Anderserch's writings were "morally compromised" by his behavior during World War II thusly:
So far Andersch doesn't sound different than many writers I know, including myself. I'm guilty of having a high regard for my own work, and while I may not have brown-nosed any critics, I've certainly compromised; I survive financially by permitting magazines to butcher my stories for money. I guess that's the kind of writer I am.
Much of what The Believer has produced thus far is fascinating stuff. The essays on the novels of Charles Portis and the movies of Terrence Malick are particularly good— learned, well written, surprising, encyclopedic in scope, passionate. The magazine's mission-driven mindset makes room for articles that you simply wouldn't find anywhere else. The teaser for the third issue promises a piece titled "We Are All Harkonnens: Frank Herbert's Dune series is dire prophecy posing as drug-induced science fiction."
But Julavits' promise to eschew negative reviews and the more general editorial pledge to always give books and authors the benefit of the doubt could create problems down the line. Critic Ana Marie Cox took issue with Julavits' attack on pervasive "snark" in book reviewing. According to Cox, the problem is rather the other way around: Most reviews are vaguely positive and bland; the negative ones stand out for their rarity and their forcefulness.
"I fear this blanket of vague positivity bodes something that I truly believe to be worse than snark. … I fear the lack of criticism at all," wrote Cox. Suffice it to say they haven't made a believer out of her yet.
Jeremy Lott writes the weekly "Latte Sipping" column for the American Spectator Online.