For a new magazine from the Dave Eggers stable, The
Believer has had surprisingly little hype. It’s quietly arrived in
bookstores without the Eggers name anywhere to be seen (although his influence
is obvious and everywhere felt) and is clearly attempting to distance itself
from the rapidly-disintegrating Eggers bandwagon.
The editor is Heidi Julavits, who kicks off the debut issue with a 9,000-word
manifesto about the state of fiction reviewing. A quick list of checked names
(just the reviewers, not the reviewed): George Orwell, Jonathan Franzen, Ed
Park, Lionel Trilling, Norman Podhoretz, Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy, James
Wood, Dale Peck, Leon Wieseltier, Harold Bloom, Tom Wolfe, Richard B Woodward,
Lorin Stein, Colson Whitehead, Sam Sifton, Daniel Mendelsohn, Anthony Lane,
David Denby, at least two reviewers quoted anonymously to protect the guilty,
and a hypothetical "home décor columnist" assigned to review
a novel of ambition. Checked publications: The New Yorker, The Village Voice,
Commentary, Partisan Review ("it is sobering to note the following hard
number: Partisan Review rarely enjoyed a circulation of above 10,000"),
The Guardian, The London Review of Books, The New Republic, The New York Times
Book Review, The New York Observer, The New York Press, Vogue, Time, Newsweek,
New York, The New York Post.
At this point, you stop wondering how Julavits managed to get so many people
in, and start wondering how she managed to leave some of the other obvious names
out: Hitchens, Wolcott, Updike, BR Myers, the TLS, the New York Review of Books.
The bigger point is that Heidi Julavits Means Serious Shit. One of the reviews
further back in the book tells us at the very beginning that "Here’s 7,000
words about a guy you’ve never heard of. But should have, we say." Julavits
herself clearly sees this magazine as no laughing matter: "books are my
religion," she says, casting a scornful eye over those (Sifton, explicitly)
who approach the business of reviewing as an opportunity for "snarkiness".
It’s just as well Julavits is so unambigous about this, because there’s a bit
of a disconnect between her rhetoric and what we actually encounter in the rest
of the book. Much of the copy is written in what you might call Eggers High
Ironic: the headline for Julavits’s own manifesto is "Rejoice! Believe!
Be Strong and Read Hard!" over a picture of a hot air balloon (there were
rumours this magazine would be called The Balloonist).
And although the articles are long, they’re most definitely not the kind of
things you’d ever be likely to find in the New York Review of Books. An essay
by Jonathan Lethem proposes that we "read Dombey and Son as though
it were a book about animals". (The sub-hed puts it more graphically: "envision
all the characters as fur-covered and wearing little Victorian waistcoats and
corsets".) It sits opposite a one-page essay by Ben Marcus about putting
a frozen log of pancetta through a Jet 708521 JWP-12DX 121/2 Portable Planer
($349.99). And a seven-page review of the new album by Interpol begins thusly:
"The watershed leg-warmer moment came as Kevin and I were coming out of
the movie theater, three quarters of the way through a John Hughes film festival."
I think the risk, actually, is that the differences of style are going to obscure
the differences of substance. Because The Believer is a radically different
kind of review, and not because most of its articles have a lot of first-person
stuff in them, and not because of the witty drawings and the jokey NYRB-style
insertions ("Query: For several years I have been working on a song involving
both muskrats and love. Some associates have noted that there exists an old
and obscure song that may have explored similar territory. Any information about
this song or its author would be most appreciated. -Gerald Clam Ferrari").
What Julavits wants is a book of enthusiasm, of postivity, of reclaiming the
obscure yet excellent rather than trashing the popular and overrated. "We
will focus on writers and books we like," the editors say on the very first
page. "We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt."
In this, Julavits is following through on something her publisher, Dave Eggers,
was obviously thinking about more than two years ago, when he published an email
exchange with Jonathan Lethem on his website entitled "Some Complaining
about Complaining". In section
three of the exchange (which I blogged
at the time), Eggers writes that "there should be no fighting in the world
of books," and this seems to be the driving force behind The Believer.
If you want conflict, go elsewhere – to The New Republic, actually,
according to Julavits. Or to any number of UK book review pages which love to
see sparks fly. This magazine, in contrast, is going to be a big-hearted place,
free from malice and scorn, a place where, in the immortal words of Alice, everybody
has won and all must have prizes.
It’s not necessarily a bad idea: accentuate the positive, and let the carping
sour the pages of someone else’s journal. But what is lost is any concept of
a dialectic. If I think back over my years of reading the New York Review
of Books, the pieces which stick with me for their excellence are the ones
where an intellectual fight is engaged at a high level: John Searle vs Noam
Chomsky, say, or Richard Dawkins vs Stephen Jay Gould.
And while The Believer has one excellent piece (Paul LaFarge on Nicholson Baker,
giving the master
close reader a masterful close reading of his own, bringing in everything
from Pale Fire to September 11), a huge chunk of the magazine’s 128
pages are taken up with that most wasteful and unenlightening prose format,
the Q&A. A conversation between Salman Rushdie and Terry Gilliam could have
been lifted straight from the pages of Interview; Beth Orton gets seven
pages to talk about nothing in particular; and even Kumar Pallana gets five
(although for some reason he’s the only person on the contents page who doesn’t
merit small caps). Who’s Kumar Pallana, you ask? Is he an exciting young author,
someone whose books we should be rushing out to read? No, he’s a film
Most egregiously, The Believer seems to have decided (according to
article) that there will be an interview with a philosopher in every issue
of the magazine, and that this interview will be in Q&A format. If the first
such interview is any guide, this decision was a big mistake. Galen Strawson,
an English philosopher who claims there’s no such thing as free will, gets lobbed
the softest of soft questions by a Duke grad student, and responds gamely, but
without passion. At one point Strawson is told that he’s written one of the
most effective critiques of his dad’s paper, and is asked what it’s like to
have that kind of a public disagreement with his own father. The answer? "Actually,
I’ve no idea what he thinks" – an answer which is allowed to stand
unchallenged. A review of his book, whether it was positive or negative, would
have taught us more, and even a piece by Strawson himself would probably have
put up some rather stronger objections than this interlocutor did, if only to
keep things interesting.
So is The Believer worth your $8? I can’t see it, really. The New
Yorker, the NYRB, The Atlantic, even, I daresay, Salon
– all these places have more interesting stuff. To read this magazine,
you first need to be able to abide the cheap humour, then you need to get around
the nasty design (columns don’t line up, one story has its final paragraph 100
pages on from its rightful place), then you need a real desire to read long
essays about books you’ve never heard of by writers who are more interested
in showing off their own literary chops than they are in actually informing
you about today’s culture. It’s everything that’s bad about Harper’s,
rebranded for the 24-35 demographic.
But if you see a copy lying around at a friend’s house, read that essay on
Nicholson Baker. It’s really good.