June CoverMcSweetie's

The Believer, the latest product from the McSweeney's literary fun factory, is a square-shaped “monthly magazine,” handsome and idiosyncratic in its design, like everything that Dave Eggers has a hand in. (The magazine is largely the brainchild of novelist Heidi Julavits, who shares a credit as “articles editor” with Ed Park. Though Eggers's name isn't on the finished product, McSweeney's contributed design ideas and unspecified feedback and supplies distribution.)(1)

The issue contents are carefully displayed, like a menu, on the back covers, and the front covers are decorated with drawings, by Charles Burns, “of the four most attractive subjects of the interviews and articles” contained therein. The drawings, capturing the subjects' faces with a few bold strokes and a smattering of cross-hatching in the features, are instantly recognizable as Burns's work. One cover subject, self-styled ninja “Ashida Kim,” is just a pair of eyes and the bridge of a nose framed by his spooky ninja hood, a nice surreal touch. The lovely Beth Orton is depicted looking oddly like a rodent, and Jack White, perhaps as the result of Burns's trying too hard to capture the eccentric nature of his loveliness, has an Edward Scissorhands thing going on. But, for the most part, these drawings are suitable for framing and Grandma's birthday and wholly without the hypnotic sense of menace that you associate with Charles Burns. Looking at them is a little like seeing one of those movies where Kevin Spacey plays a benevolent extraterrestrial or a scar-faced schoolteacher learning to accept love. You can understand the artist's desire to show that he has a wider range than you might have known, but it's just not what you love the man for.

Open up the first issue and you're confronted with a mission statement that looks like a laundry list. “We will focus on writers and books we like. We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt... We will never forget the concept of the Inherent Good.” The tone is less Charles Foster Kane thundering from the ramparts than Ziggy defensively waving a limp daisy. Inside, mixed in with the stuff on books and pop artists and entertainers, some people have been permitted to write about favorite tools and star-nosed moles. An interview with the perpetrator of “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” begins with the poser, “Did you know that Pat Benatar got her start in an off-Broadway sci-fi musical composed by Harry Chapin when she was twenty-two?” The subtle message behind all this seems to be that only a close-minded old grumpus would be so jaded as to declare that this, or any other information, is not interesting.

“The tone is less Charles Foster Kane thundering from the ramparts than Ziggy defensively waving a limp daisy.”

True, there was once a magazine called Might which achieved short-lived greatness by eschewing topical interest and marketable ideas in favor of turning good writers loose to explore all this stuff that they and the editors just happened to find interesting. But those writers and editors were not so undiscriminating in what they found interesting that they seemed to be lost in tranced-out examinations of their junk drawers. And, in the great tough-minded tradition of American magazine writing, they did not automatically give everyone and everything “the benefit of the doubt.”
Well, it's true that it's always easy to find some literate Jack the Ripper type making a name for himself over piles of cruelly butchered books. (As a young book critic, Edgar Allan Poe was so hard on so many books that were scarcely worth his trouble that Lloyd Rose has compared reading his criticism to watching “somebody blow up a chicken with a bazooka.”) “The true function of the critic,” said Mel Brooks, “is to recognize great work and go bananas when he sees it.” Even coming from the director of
Life Stinks, that doesn't sound half-bad, and might even be a path to a lively magazine. But The Believer's embrace of positivism seems motivated less by a wild-eyed desire to bring good stuff to the notice of a blinkered world than by an overreaction to the horror of harsh critical judgment.

Consider: there is by now a vast constellation of writers who appeared in
Might –who now appear in McSweeney's – and who, rightly or wrongly, have begun to be seen as Part of Something. Taken together, they're probably the biggest loosely-connected mob of talent on the American literary scene since people go sick of hearing about Gordon Lish. Through the mid-to-late '90s, it was fun to watch Eggers, Neal Pollack, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, George Saunders, William T. Vollman, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, and the rest of the zany crew cross-pollinate from Might to McSweeney's with side trips to Tin House and Salon and This American Life and the fiction issues of The New Yorker and Esquire. There was this happy clatter of activity from all these smart kids; you sort of pictured them swinging by backyard vines from treehouse to treehouse. Cool beans!

June CoverUnfortunately, you can only be young and lovably promising for so long; start fulfilling the promises, as Eggers and some of the other little rascals did, and people who see you as a threat to their notions of what books are supposed to be will start picking on you. In the last couple of years, a few grumpy critics – most notably James Wood (for whom “D” stands for Decline, Decadence and Don DeLillo), but also Dale Peck, the underappreciated (just ask him) novelist, and James Wolcott, the venerable Bluto Blutarsky of the critical establishment – have started going after
McSweeney's-identified writers with the hard-swinging drive of exterminators determined to track the insect back to its nest and wipe out the whole damn hive.

That these attacks have a lot to do with the thinking behind The Believer is made embarrassingly clear in Julavits' first-issue manifesto, “Rejoice! Believe! Be Strong and Read Hard!” (Randall Jarrell settled for “Read at whim!”, and seemed to say more with it.) Citing Wood and other complainers by name, Julavits meekly calls for a truce in her best Neville Chamberlain voice. “As a general career operating principle, I try not to piss people off,” she announces. That's first-rate advice for any unambitious Mafia underling, but it's hard to see how you're ever going to have any fun as a writer thinking like that. One thing that's gotten Julavits' goat is Wood's having reviewed – trashed, in fact – Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man, despite the fact that he “famously abhors the aesthetic tradition in which Smith works,” and made no attempt to take that prejudice into account when writing his review, big time. In a nutshell, Wood did not give Smith's novel the benefit of the doubt.

Now, Wood is indeed a savage customer, and his taste is not mine, and I feel for anyone unlucky enough to pass before him at the bar of judgment, especially during Sweeps Week. But if I were Zadie Smith, this mousy little plea for good-hearted tolerance towards the books you just know you're going to hate would have me hissing, “Heidi, don't try to help!” If Julavits wants to help, there's a time-honored and often entertaining way of going about it. She's got a magazine of her own (the “articles” half of it anyway), and she has a Rolodex stuffed with writers who've been publicly eviscerated by James Wood, or who have friends who have had the pleasure. Also, by karmic inevitability, having pissed off better than half of the sharpest writers alive during his reviewing career, it just so happens that James Wood has a debut novel hitting the stores right about now. It even has a religious theme! As Willard Stiles, a man who came to realize exactly what a lifetime of giving people the benefit of the doubt can lead to, would say: “Tear him up!”

“By karmic inevitability, having pissed off better than half of the sharpest writers alive during his reviewing career, it just so happens that James Wood has a debut novel hitting the stores right about now.”

The Believer might come to serve a purpose if it follows the Mel Brooks model of critical enthusiasm and stops campaigning for Miss Congeniality. The first issue has a fine tribute, by Ed Park, to the novelist Charles Portis (True Grit, The Dog of the South), which positions him as a Great Undiscovered Writer. It's not as pithy as the column Wolcott wrote a dozen years ago saying the same thing, or as unembarrassed in its warm embrace of the author as the Esquire piece of half a dozen years ago saying the same thing, but it's livelier than the cover story in Readerville from last fall that said the same thing. (The sad fact is, in the zine-and-Internet age, it's getting harder and harder to find anything decent that nobody's really heard of.) Both Rick Moody's piece on whittling the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs down to a perfect thirty-one tracks and Jonathan Lethem's essay on Dickens as “animal novelist” (don't ask) find off-kilter ways of expressing real love for their subjects; in the absence of well-articulated hysterical worship, that'll do. But by a wide margin, the best thing in The Believer so far is Mark Herman's skeptical but not unsympathetic article on the current state of war protests. It benefits from legwork -- Herman actually left his apartment and went out and talked to people and saw stuff —and from, yes, not giving some of the people he met the benefit of the doubt. It's so good that it wouldn't be out of place in an old copy of Might.


[Editors' note: Several alert readers have informed us that Eggers and Julavits are not, in fact, a couple, contrary to the original assertion in this article. To Mr. Eggers and Ms. Julavits, the High Hat offers our apologies. We suspect that Mr. Nugent might blame George Tenet if given a chance, but our theoretical fact-checkers are flogging him mercilessly right now.]