October 2003

Randy Schaub

magazine whore

The Believer

The birth cry of The Believer is the much talked-about essay-slash-manifesto “Rejoice! Believe! Be Strong and Read Hard!” by Heidi Julavits. Julavits, a co-founder of the new magazine, uses her pulpit to attack the current state of book culture and, most famously, the world of literary criticism. Ms. Julavits laments the increasing proliferation of impotent bitching and ad-hominem assaults on authors in an attempt to stir up controversy and garner attention for a given reviewer’s publication, a practice she corrals under the label ‘snark’ (named for an obscure Thundercats character). There has been much arguing, much griping and grouching and good-natured character assassination amongst literati about the meaning and importance of this manifesto, even within the hallowed halls of Bookslut’s 23rd floor offices here in downtown Chicago. The fact is, criticism, for most mainstream media, has become merely another form of entertainment, relying on the same bloodthirsty voyeurism, the same catty cry for confrontation, that fuels reality TV. In some cases, a critic will even stoop so low as to insult a given writer’s physical appearance, lifestyle, or even his fans rather than simply his writing. I shouldn’t name any names, but I will anyway—Salon.com. And so, in issuing her decree, Heidi Julavits immediately placed The Believer on a specimen slide. Can it survive its own ambition? Can it maintain quality and still remain appealing enough to justify its daunting cover price?

The Believer is, after all, an attractive magazine. It has inherited the innovative visual design of its parent, McSweeney’s -- distinctive artwork and minimal photography, thick, expensive paper, smooth earthy hues and carnival-flyer fonts. The look is part throwback, part modern, and well illustrated. The Believer is coherently organized, linearly, like a journal, rather than in the irritating, broken, standard of glossies (continued on p. 103). Each issue is completely ad-free, a quality of the magazine that is often overlooked or dismissed, despite its importance. The Believer is declaring, after all, that it won’t sell out.

Each edition features a wide range of content -- there are scholarly treatments of pop-cultural phenomena, pop-culturely articles on scholarship, pop-scholarly studies of culture. The magazine has, of course, a great deal of writing on writing. Authors like Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Nicholson Baker -- they all get The Believer treatment in long, lovingly written profiles and excursions into literary esoterica (and yes, they are, so far, devoid of snark). There are brushes with greatness: the first issue contains a single sentence by Harry Matthews (more than most other mags); an interview with Terry Gilliam by Salman Rushdie; a bit on the Magnetic Fields by Rick Moody. There are long swims with silliness (an interview with Ashida Kim, self-styled martial arts master and possible charlatan behind self-help karate books such as Ninja Mind Control), and an interview with a rock star about upholstery—your enjoyment of these pieces may depend on your supply of irony. There are stories that would stand out anywhere, on politics (see “The Most Pre-protested Would Be War in History?” by Marc Herman), religion (how about stories on est and Mormons in issue 2?), and Showbiz (an interview with Andy Richter that’s got some funny parts). There are strange little one-page exercises in creative writing, where writers like Matthew Derby, Wells Tower, and Ben Marcus spin little webs of prose around the subjects of mammals, power tools, and children. Of course, no issue would be complete without its flowchart, where readers can see a graphically presented history of Magic Realism, or the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series of kids books (Do you: finish this article? -- see next paragraph. Get a snack? -- Try cashews…they’re creamy).

If you enjoy The Believer or despise it, it’s only because you share the contributors’ passion for what they read and write. I, personally, would like to see some fiction thrown into the mix -- of course, that’s McSweeney’s territory, but I think The Believer could safely publish one or two stories an issue without driving the quarterly out of business. The Believer may be able to challenge bloated fossils like the New Yorker or Harper’s for the younger readership, but it’s too early to tell. I will caution anyone reading this that a subscription to the believer could hit the average student or young professional harder in the wallet than, say, Playboy, but it would certainly be worth your while to check out an occasional issue at the bookstore -- the contents are listed right on back, so you don’t even have to open it to find what interests you. And if you like what you read, or if it pisses you off, or confuses you, let them know! The Believer is, above all, a new magazine -- these people aren’t jaded veterans yet, and they’re (probably) not in the magazine business just to trumpet the narrow views of a small, elite group of friends. They want to please you, entertain you, provoke you, and to accomplish these things, they have to listen to you. A lot of these writers exist happily outside the mainstream, and they lend their cutting edge uniqueness to The Believer -- if you’re tired of all other magazines, you could still give this one a try.