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
contributed design ideas and unspecified feedback and supplies distribution
and Eggers and Julavits are a couple.)
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.
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
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.