among the believers
By A.O. SCOTT
Benjamin Kunkel’s first novel, “Indecision,” published last month, concerns a young man living in Manhattan and trying, as the title suggests, to figure out what to do with his life. He has a B.A. in philosophy and an active, if confusing, romantic life; he gets by on a combination of office work and parental subsidy. In his author’s affectionate estimation, offered over a beer on a recent evening at a Brooklyn bar, this young man, whose name is Dwight Wilmerding, is “kind of an idiot.” Perhaps, but he may also be – the critical response to “Indecision” suggests as much – an especially representative kind of idiot. His plight, after all, is – for people of his age and background – a familiar one: an alienation from his own experience brought about by too much knowledge, too many easy, inconsequential choices, too much self-consciousness. Bred in a culture consecrated to the entitled primacy of the individual, he discovers that he lacks a self, a coherent identity, maybe a soul. He feels that he could be anyone. “It wasn’t very unusual for me to lie awake at night,” he confesses, “feeling like a scrap of sociology blown into its designated corner of the world. But knowing the clichés are clichés doesn’t help you to escape them. You still have to go on experiencing your experience as if no one else has ever done it.”
Of course, one aspect of that experience is the impulse to rebel against it – the desire to rescue thought, feeling and ambition from the quotation marks that seem perpetually affixed to them, to recover the possibility of earnest emotion, ethical commitment and serious thought. That desire can find any number of outlets, one of which might be – why not? – starting a literary journal, a small magazine.
“You’d better mean something enough to live by it,” Kunkel told me, echoing both his fictional creation and, as it happens, one of his comrades in another literary enterprise. On the last page of the first issue of n+1, a little magazine that made its debut last year, the reader learns that “it is time to say what you mean.” The author of that declaration, a forceful variation on some of Dwight Wilmerding’s more tentative complaints, is Keith Gessen, who edits n+1 along with Kunkel, Mark Greif and Marco Roth. All four editors are around Dwight’s age – he’s 28 when the main action in the book takes place; they’re 30 or a little older. Like him, they often glance anxiously and a bit nostalgically backward to a pre-9/11, pre-Florida-recount moment that seems freer and more irresponsible than the present. You wouldn’t, however, call any of them any kind of idiot. Nor, based on their pointed, closely argued and often brilliantly original critiques of contemporary life and letters, would you accuse them of indecision, though they do sometimes display a certain pained 21st-century ambivalence about the culture they inhabit.
N+1 is not the first small magazine to come out of this ambivalence or the first to have its mission encapsulated by a memoiristic account of the attempt to figure out one’s life. Consider the following scrap of dialogue from Dave Eggers’s “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” famously hailed as the manifesto of a slightly earlier generational moment:
“And how will you do this?” she wants to know. “A political party? A march? A revolution? A coup?”
Eggers is talking about an old (in fact, a defunct) magazine called Might, but never mind. Even with a bit of historical distance – five years after the book’s publication, a decade and more after the events it describes – these lines capture both a moment and the general spirit of the magazine-starting enterprise. A bunch of ambitious, like-minded young friends get together to assemble pictures and words into a sensibility – a voice, a look, an attitude – that they hope will resonate beyond their immediate circle. Eventually, as in most versions of this kind of story, they run out of money and energy and move on to other things. In Eggers’s case, those other things included other magazines, as Might begat McSweeney’s, a typographically adventurous literary quarterly, which in turn begat The Believer, an illustrated monthly whose design was conceived by Eggers and that is edited by Vendela Vida (to whom he is married), Heidi Julavits and Ed Park.
At a time when older forms of media are supposedly being swallowed up by newer ones, the impulse to start the kind of magazine Partisan Review was in the late 1930’s or The Paris Review was in the 50’s might look contrarian, even reactionary. If you are an overeducated (or at least a semi-overeducated) youngish person with a sleep disorder and a surfeit of opinions, the thing to do, after all, is to start a blog. There are no printing costs, no mailing lists, and the medium offers instant membership in a welcoming herd of independent minds who will put you in their links columns if you put them in yours. Blogs embody and perpetuate a discourse based on speed, topicality, cleverness and contention – all qualities very much ascendant in American media culture these days. To start a little magazine, then – to commit yourself to making an immutable, finite set of perfect-bound pages that will appear, typos and all, every month or two, or six, or whenever, even if you are also, and of necessity, maintaining an affiliated Web site, to say nothing of holding down a day job or sweating over a dissertation – is, at least in part, to lodge a protest against the tyranny of timeliness. It is to opt for slowness, for rumination, for patience and for length. It is to defend the possibility of seriousness against the glibness and superficiality of the age – and also, of course, against other magazines.
These, at least, seem to be among the ambitions driving The Believer and n+1. Their editors are young, and their circulations are not large. (It may, indeed, be hard to find these publications outside of independent bookstores in larger cities and college towns.) The names of the writers who contribute to them are, for the most part, not well known: first- or second-time novelists, graduate students and moonlighting academic mavericks, with an occasional celebrity professor or foreign writer thrown in for good measure. Modest though the magazines are in scale and appearance, there is nonetheless something stirringly immodest – something “authentic and delirious,” as e.e. cummings once wrote – about what they are trying to do, which is to organize a generational struggle against laziness and cynicism, to raise once again the banners of creative enthusiasm and intellectual engagement.
In some ways, The Believer and n +1 represent sensibilities as distinct as their names. The Believer, which was going to be called The Optimist, puts out a welcome mat for pluralism and wide-eyed curiosity, while n+1 surveys contemporary culture through eyes narrowed by skepticism. Nonetheless, there is much that they share, notably a pointedly cosmopolitan frame of reference and an eclectic internationalism that embraces – or, rather, defiantly refuses to disown – European thinkers (the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the Slovenian mischief-maker Slavoj Zizek) and novelists (the scandalous Michel Houellebecq, whose recent study of H.P. Lovecraft was published by The Believer’s nascent book imprint, and the Spaniard Javier Marias, who publishes a monthly column called “La Zona Fantasma” in the magazine). The magazines themselves feel decidedly youthful, not only in their characteristic generational concerns – the habit of nonchalantly blending pop culture, literary esoterica and academic theory, for instance, or the unnerving ability to appear at once mocking and sincere – but also in the sense of bravado and grievance that ripples through their pages.
In addition to interviews with philosophers, writers, filmmakers, indie-rock musicians, a professional ninja and anyone else willing to sit down for a long, meandering conversation, The Believer publishes page-long appreciations of books, children, motels, light bulbs and power tools and two-page schematics devoted to things like singing drummers and fictional presidents. Mostly, though, it publishes long essays with enigmatic titles, each one prefaced by a list enumerating matters to be “discussed.” For example, from the August 2005 issue, an article by Tony Perrottet called “The Semen of Hercules” promises discussion of, among other things, “The Kentucky Derby, Philostratus. . .Pharmaceutical Use of Squeezed Mustard-Rocket Leaf, Guaranteed Sexual Attractiveness. . .and Ancient Fad Diets.”
The lists suggest digression, surprise and a willingness to explore tangents and not be bound by strictly linear presentation. The typical Believer essay – to the extent that such a thing can exist, given the magazine’s commitment to the idiosyncrasy and multiplicity of voices – ranges and explores, collecting curiosities and offhand insights on its way to an argument and taking as much time, and as many words, as it needs. This formal elasticity is central to The Believer’s critique of other magazines and the speeded-up, superficial culture of reading they sustain.
“It would be easier to say what we saw didn’t exist than to say what we wanted to exist,” Heidi Julavits told me recently. “As a writer and a reader, it felt like topic, topic, topic, topic was this constant refrain. You could never get away from the topic.”
And the topic often seemed to be the same. “The vast majority of magazines in the United States tell you exactly the same thing at the same time,” Vendela Vida said not long ago by telephone from San Francisco, where she lives and where The Believer is published (though two of its editors, Park and Julavits, live most of the time in New York). “We’d all apparently entered into this agreement that every month we’d be interested in the same thing” – the upcoming movies, novels, recordings and television shows.
But, of course, in spite of an elaborate machinery devoted to synchronizing and standardizing cultural consumption – of which magazines are an important part – most people’s habits remain blessedly out of synch. We buy battered paperbacks at yard sales, stumble across movies on cable late at night and hear strange music on our friends’ mix tapes (an experience apotheosized by Rick Moody’s article about a Christian indie-rock group, the Danielson Famile, in the recent music issue). Part of The Believer’s mission is to capture this aesthetic of mixing and matching, swapping and rediscovering. The message of a given issue seems to be, Hey, look at all this neat stuff – or, as Julavits puts it, “Isn’t this amazing?” Philosophers and musicians, the M.L.A., the W.N.B.A., the U.L.A. (that’s Underground Literary Alliance), Tintin and a strange 19th-century Southern novel called “The Story of Don Miff” all receive generous, thoughtful scrutiny, for their own sakes and for their interconnections.
“There has to be an element that reflects how we live and how we read,” Vida told me. “We don’t just run out and buy the new novel or start thinking about Darwinism just because George Bush happened to say something about it.” And so The Believer’s content is often as pointedly untimely as its approach is digressive. Some of its best articles dust off the reputations of half-forgotten writers and historical characters – Charles Portis, John Hawkes, Ignatius Donnelly – and the interviews, with the very, the semi-and the narrowly famous, range far beyond the usual plugging of the latest projects. “In October we have David Sedaris talking mostly about monkeys,” Vida said. “What makes it timely is its untimeliness.”
The Believer grew out of the blending of two different ideas – an interview magazine Vida and Eggers were discussing and a book review Julavits was interested in starting. The magazine, which made its debut in March 2003 and has just published its 27th issue, is older than n+1, which is on its third. It is also larger, both in trim size (an eccentric, pleasing-to-hold 8ð by 10 inches, compared with n+1’s more orthodox and bookish 7 by 10) and in circulation. The Believer prints around 15,000 copies of its regular issues, and more of its special issues devoted to music and visual art, while n+1, having sold out its 2,000-copy first issue, has increased its run with every subsequent issue. Though The Believer pays its writers – the going rate is $500 for a long essay – and its managing editor, Andrew Leland, everyone else associated with each of the publications essentially works for free.
Vida, Julavits and Park all knew one another in the mid-90’s at Columbia, where they all received M.F.A.’s in creative writing. Vida published “Girls on the Verge,” a journalistic look at female coming-of-age rituals, and then turned to fiction with her second book, “And Now You Can Go.” Julavits has published two novels, “The Mineral Palace” and “The Effect of Living Backwards,” while Park, in addition to his Believer duties, is a senior editor (and occasional film reviewer) at The Village Voice.
The four editors of n+1 are also connected by shared sensibilities and school ties. Kunkel, who grew up in Colorado, went from Deep Springs College, a tiny, all-male school in the California desert devoted to the classical ideal of rigorous study in a pastoral setting, to Harvard, where he met Greif, though not Gessen, who was also there at the time. (Actually, they later discovered that they did have one brief encounter as undergraduates, about which Kunkel would say only that at least one of them was drunk and that one suggested the other should get a lobotomy.) Gessen, who lived in the Soviet Union until he was 6, was a football player at Harvard and went on to get an M.F.A. in fiction from Syracuse. Greif entered the Ph.D. program in American studies at Yale, where he met Roth, who had arrived via Oberlin and Columbia to pursue his doctorate in comparative literature. After talking about it for years – another friend from Harvard, Chad Harbach, who edits the n+1 Web site, thought of the name back in 1998 – they decided the moment was right to put their ideas and aspirations into print.
One afternoon in July, I wandered over to n+1’s offices – that is, to the apartment near the Brooklyn Museum that Keith Gessen shares with two roommates – to watch Allison Lorentzen, the managing editor, assorted staff members, friends and interns coax the third issue toward production. As the editors entered data into their subscription lists, pausing now and then to munch on a baby carrot or a morsel of rugelach, we chatted about a variety of topics, many of which happened to be other, older little magazines – Politics, Partisan Review, Dissent – and the legendary figures who wrote for them. The air was so thick with Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, Hannah Arendt and Dwight Macdonald that Gessen later sent me an e-mail message hoping to correct the impression that all he and his colleagues ever talked about were the public intellectuals of the past. “Left to our own devices, we also talk about rock ‘n’ roll music,” he said.
Well, yes, of course. Mark Greif’s essay on Radiohead in the new issue – subtitled “The Philosophy of Pop” – certainly proves as much. Still, their own enterprise is steeped in an awareness of what past journals and small magazines have been and failed to be – not only ancient specimens like T.S. Eliot’s Criterion, which was the subject of Gessen’s honors thesis at Harvard, but also newer models.
A few days later, in a Lower East Side cafe on an afternoon so hot that only a true intellectual would think to order a pot of tea, Greif laid out the immediate prehistory of n+1 – what a certain kind of historian might call its conditions of possibility. “In order to start this thing you have to feel there’s a kind of historical necessity,” he said. The history of small magazines has been, to some extent, a history of grand intellectual, artistic and political movements, for which even the tiniest publications have served as incubators and laboratories. They have sometimes functioned as a vanguard (as Irving Kristol’s Public Interest did with the disgruntled liberalism that would blossom into neoconservatism) and sometimes as a way of keeping unfashionable ideas alive in difficult times (as Dissent, which started at the vanguard of democratic socialism in the 1950’s, has done pretty much ever since). Partisan Review, whose demise Gessen cites, only semi-facetiously, as a pretext for the founding of n+1, is everyone’s favorite example of both. After freeing itself from the Communist Party in the mid-1930’s, it took up the banner of the anti-Stalinist left, a flag which, after World War II, took on the colors of international literary modernism. Though it published some of the postwar period’s most eminent novelists and poets, Partisan Review is best remembered as a vehicle for a kind of cultural criticism that was, at its best, politically engaged without being narrowly ideological and discriminating without being precious or snobbish.
The need for this kind of writing never goes away, even though its extinction always seems imminent. “Coming out of college, it felt like there were people who were really going to be there for you,” Greif said, referring to the journals and Webzines that seemed to be flourishing in the late 90’s, including The Baffler, McSweeney’s, Lingua Franca and Feed. “Then three things happened. The Internet economy burst” – taking with it some of the most interesting Web-based publications – “and you discovered that these things, which had been the intellectual hope of a generation, were based on venture capital. Then Lingua Franca” – the “review of academic life” that existed from 1990 to 2001 – “went bust.” McSweeney’s, though it survived, turned out to be, in Greif’s opinion, a bit of a letdown, because of its mannered quirkiness and what he calls its “orientation to childhood.”
From each of these disappointments, he said, a lesson could be drawn. The first was that “it doesn’t matter if you have money, and you’re better off without it.” (N+1 was started with small sums from the pockets of its editors. It sells a few pages of advertisements in each issue and recently received a modest infusion of cash – some $8,000 from a fund-raiser.) The second lesson was “take what you can from the academy,” but without getting bogged down in pedantry or academic politics. (Thus n+1’s frequent and unapologetic references to literary theory and continental philosophy, presented in language free of jargon and ideological posturing.) Finally, there was a renewed belief in the importance of debate, a desire, as Grief put it, “to convince people that arguing about things could be impersonal, because it advances thought.”
And n+1 is explicitly and without embarrassment devoted to the idea that thought can advance. “The idea of progress is not uncomfortable to us,” they declare in the “preamble” to their inaugural issue. “Who will drive progress? To every tradition, and every art, and aspect of culture, and line of thought, a step is added. This dream of advance in every human endeavor, in line with what we need, not just what we’re capable of, is futurism humanized. It is wanted in a time of repetition. It is needed whenever authorities declare an end to history. It is desperate when the future we are offered is the outcome of technology.”
Somewhat more mundanely, the magazine exists to present work by its editors – and by like-minded writers who discover n+1through word of mouth or Web browsing – that might not have a chance of appearing elsewhere. Gessen regularly reviews books for New York magazine, and both he and Kunkel have published in The New York Review of Books. Greif remains on the masthead at The American Prospect, where he worked for a year. But, Kunkel said, “the most exciting pieces that have been published in the magazine” – he cites Greif’s “Against Exercise,” Roth’s “Last Cigarettes,” and a forthcoming short (and unsigned) article about dating – “could not have appeared anywhere else. For generic reasons, and for their untimeliness. There’s a tendency to ghettoize things that are important to us – there’s fiction, there’s essays and criticism, there’s politics – and you can go and find journals about each of these things, but you can’t go and find journals about all of those things.”
Gessen said much the same thing to me on yet another hot afternoon, in a falafel joint in another part of Brooklyn: “Here I am with all this fiction no one would want to publish, and here’s Mark with these essays no one’s going to publish, and after a while we felt like we had this critical mass of stuff that nobody would want to publish.” Until, that is, they did so themselves, after which things changed – a little. Harper’s reprinted “Against Exercise,” which was also selected for “Best American Essays 2005,” and Marco Roth’s “Derrida: An Autothanatography,” first published on the n+1 Web site, was reprinted in The Boston Globe. (Kunkel, meanwhile, has become the hot young white male writer of the moment, a position once held by Dave Eggers. Now is probably the time to disclose that Kunkel’s literary agent, who was once Eggers’s, is also mine.)
“Against Exercise,” written in the lofty, epigrammatic and mischievously funny style that is Greif’s hallmark (and that does not usually find favor with dissertation committees), interrogates the bizarre, soul-emptying mixture of hedonism and self-punishment that characterizes rituals of fitness. Roth’s valediction to the French philosopher who was, for decades, both a hero and a scapegoat in American intellectual life, is a mixture of homage, memoir and iconoclasm, as good an account as any of the seductions and the limitations of theory. Those articles hint at some key aspects of the magazine’s identity. They show, first of all, a willingness to scramble conventional ideas of genre, mixing criticism, personal essay, fiction and philosophical argument and applying the resulting hybrid to matters both mundane (dating, going to the gym, smoking) and lofty (the meaning of life, the nature of war). Other essays achieve similar blendings of voice, style and genre. Elif Batuman’s “Babel in California,” the longest article in the second issue, is an inquiry into the tragic, enigmatic life of the great Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel wrapped in a comic novel of academic manners – using real names, no less – that would make Mary McCarthy proud (and also jealous). Gessen’s short story “The Vice President’s Daughter” is as much an essay on the delusions and smashed hopes of Clinton-era college students as it is a work of fiction. Kunkel’s “Diana Abbott: A Lesson,” for its part, is an essay on the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee in the form of a fictional narrative about a young book reviewer’s struggle to come to terms with his work.
Such eclecticism is not an end in itself, and the experimental brio of the writing coexists with a regard for aesthetic distinctions, intellectual standards and even cultural hierarchies that can look downright conservative. “I love it when we’re mistaken for a conservative journal of opinion,” Mark Greif said – though the actual political views presented in n+1 tend to range from mildly to ardently left-wing. Their youthful gusto is accompanied by a sense of weary impatience – with the mindless celebration of popular culture, with the coyness of some of their literary peers and rivals and with ignorance of history and tradition on the part of those who should know better. William F. Buckley Jr., founder of National Review, perhaps the most influential magazine of the past half-century, famously defined a conservative as someone who “stands athwart history, yelling Stop,” a description curiously echoed in the last words on the last page of the first issue of n+1: “We’ve begun by saying, No. Enough.”
And it does often seem that way. The reader of n+1 discovers what the magazine is for by grasping what it is against, which is not only exercise but also, in no small part, other magazines – including, as it happens, The Believer. In the first issue, in a section they proudly and cheekily call “The Intellectual Situation” (the intellectual in question being a footloose, self-ironizing composite of Greif, Gessen, Kunkel and Roth), the editors comb through the mail, tossing The Believer onto a pile with The New Republic and The Weekly Standard. Expressing the ambivalence about Dave Eggers and “the Eggersards” that may be the defining trait of this latest generation (it is, at this point, almost impossible to distinguish hero worship from backlash), they note that The Believer “presents their version of thinking – as an antidote to mainstream criticism, which they call snarkiness.” N+1 responds: “Mere belief is hostile to the whole idea of thinking. To wear credulity as one’s badge of intellect is not to be a thinker as such.”
That is well put, but also a bit wide of the mark, and it overstates the differences between the two magazines. The Believer, in spite of its commitment to enthusiasm, is about something more than “mere belief,” and n+1, for its part, fiercely broadcasts its own faith – in transcendence, in literature and in a curiously disembodied activity called “thought.” In the latest installment of “The Intellectual Situation,” a short essay called “The Reading Crisis” examines some of the oft-diagnosed symptoms of literature’s ill health, from slumping book sales to the cancellation of Oprah’s Book Club, and finds many of the proposed remedies – including Believerish hostility to hostile reviews – to be worse than the disease. And yet they also have, in the past, expressed their own reservations about negativity, scolding The New Republic’s James Wood for his uncharitable reviews of modern novelists and suppressing a withering addendum to “The Reading Crisis” dealing with Jonathan Safran Foer. Their ringing, programmatic insistence on progress – “to those who insist the series is at an end, we say: n+1” – can sound an awful lot like The Believer’s defiant optimism. And Gessen’s declaration, on the last page of the first issue, that “it is time to say what you mean,” chimes with The Believer’s stance against what Julavits calls “high irony.”
The Believer, after all, came into being in opposition to what Eggers and Julavits perceived as the snide, vituperative state of book reviewing, a disorder diagnosed by Julavits, in the first-issue article that served more or less as a manifesto, as “snark.” It was a wide-ranging complaint against the superficiality and dismissiveness that she and her friends believed was undermining literary discussion. “We were tired of seeing the same thing every month” was how Vendela Vida put it to me. “Reviews of the big new book that all say the same thing: don’t read it.”
Julavits made a similar point a few weeks ago. We were sitting in her skylighted living room on an unusually hot day in a part of Maine where it sometimes seems that you can’t swing a dead lobster without hitting a rusticating writer of one kind or another. Like Mark Greif, she responded to the heat with hot tea. “I really saw ‘the end of the book’ as originating in the way books are talked about now in our culture and especially in the most esteemed venues for book criticism. It seemed as though their irrelevance was a foregone conclusion, and we were just practicing this quaint exercise of pretending something mattered when of course everyone knew it didn’t.”
Her frustration, it seems, is not so much with book reviewing as such but with everything that conspires to trivialize literary discourse and to prevent books – and not only books but also music, movies, opinions, utopian dreams – from being taken seriously. Like the editors of n+1, she and her colleagues speak a language that is not only literary but unapologetically highbrow, less in its choice of objects than in the way it perceives them. The Believer is happy to write about pop songs or reality television, to make jokes and indulge in whimsy, but it tends to disdain the nonchalant, knowing sarcasm that has become, elsewhere, the dominant form of cleverness.
In the end, this may be the common ground n+1 and The Believer occupy: a demand for seriousness that cuts against ingrained generational habits of flippancy and prankishness. Their differences are differences of emphasis and style – and the failings that each may find in the other (or that even a sympathetic reader may find in both) come from their deep investments in voice, stance and attitude rather than in a particular set of ideas or positions. For The Believer, the way to take things seriously is to care about them – “to endow something with importance,” in Julavits’s words, “by treating it as an emotional experience.” And this can lead, at times, to the credulous, seemingly disingenuous naïveté that Greif finds infantile. For n+1, the index of seriousness is thought for its own sake, which can sanction an especially highhanded form of intellectual arrogance. But, of course, this distinction, between a party of ardor and a party of rigor, is itself too schematic, since The Believer, at its best, is nothing if not thoughtful, and n+1 frequently wears its passions on its sleeve.
Their arguments are likely to continue, and then, eventually, to cool, as the journals themselves turn into institutions or fade into oblivion. Either way, they will serve as incitements to future projects – whether as lost possibilities in need of revival or missed opportunities in need of correction. In the meantime, what they provide is space – room for the exploration of hunches, experiments, blind alleys and starry-eyed hopes, by readers and writers whose small numbers can be a source of pride. Surveying the political scene in the wake of the last election, Kunkel took some solace in the idea that “our lives remain their own great cause.” And if not, then perhaps our magazines will.
A.O. Scott is a film critic at The New York Times.