True Believers

by Henry on September 11, 2005

The NYT Magazine has a long story on The Believer and n+1 magazine as apostles of the new seriousness in literary culture.

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.

It’s an interesting article, which has a lot to say about the role of the little magazine in American culture. Still, its underlying argument misses the mark in its attempt to bundle two dissimilar publications into the same category. There’s a very big difference between sincerity, which is what The Believer is looking for, and the kind of seriousness that n+1 advocates. The one is more or less entirely apolitical, and (in my personal opinion) quite annoying – its underlying claim is that we should abandon our critical faculties and only speak when we have something nice to say. The other is a claim that both literature and politics matter and should be subjected to harsh and ferocious criticism where they go wrong. Randall Jarrell, moved to sarcasm at an editor’s wrath on behalf of an aggrieved reviewee, wrote:

I had thought a good motto for critics might be what the Persians taught their children: to shoot the bow and speak the truth; but perhaps a better one would be Cordelia’s love and be silent.

As best as I can tell, n+1 is of the Persians’ party, and The Believer of Cordelia’s. Not the same thing at all.

(Full disclosure: a piece of mine will probably be published on N+1’s website in the next month or two).

Update: John Holbo reacts to the same article on the Valve.

{ 13 comments }

1

Mark 09.11.05 at 1:06 pm

I feel the opposite way about the two magazines; I’m more annoyed by n+1’s dismissiveness as opposed to what I see as more constructive criticism in the Believer, which really can’t be called apolitical since they often publish pieces which make forthright political commentary (I seem to remember an issue with a large John Kerry drawing on the cover). I found that n+1 article “the Intellectual Situation” more annoying and unhelpful than anything because of it’s negativity–not in the sense that they should have found something to praise about the Believer, but that they offered no vision of an alternative that would be better, they were just dismissive. It’s easy to make yourself out to be critical of something (and therefore “better” than it) if you just dismiss & don’t offer anything specific (which I have usually found n+1 to do, more often than not)… it’s too easy. I’m just tired of relentlessly negative critiques by people who seem not able to imagine anything better than what they’re critiquing. In the articles I’ve read in the Believer I usually at least find something positive to think about adding to my life, rather than a rundown of “why I should hate this”, and I don’t find that that necessarily saps my ability to be politically critical.

2

yabonn 09.11.05 at 2:27 pm

No snark, no nothing : what’s seriousness in literary culture?

I realize i should be able to gather it from the post, but i can’t really wrap my mind around it.

Unless of course it’s just being serious while doing literature.

3

Jeff 09.11.05 at 2:31 pm

I admit that I have not yet read an issue of n+1, but I did read the article, and I find the expression “it is time to say what you mean” a little naive, as though irony is simply a tactic for shuffling off responsibility. Irony is, as n+1 suggests, not saying exactly what you mean, but it is also employed to serious effect, as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Thomas Mann, and hundreds of others, would attest.

4

Max 09.11.05 at 3:10 pm

I took out a subscription to The Believer. I’ve been more disappointed than satisfied or excited. Partly because it’s not what I thought it was going to be and partly because it’s just not that interesting.

I was thinking it would be something like The Baffler. But with loads of reviews of old books. Sadly, not.

5

Keith 09.11.05 at 4:24 pm

Why does literature need to be serious?

I’m going to start a literary mag where we tell fart jokes, make snarky comments and still have something interesting to say about the human condition that can be discussed critically without having to descend into snobbery and elitist fiddle faddle. Enough of this cliqueish nonsense.

6

J. Ellenberg 09.11.05 at 4:38 pm

The myth won’t die that the point of The Believer is to refrain from saying anything bad about books. As far as I can tell, this all comes from one article Heidi J. wrote in one issue — but I can attest that when I wrote for them, I had bad things to say about some of the books I wrote about, and no complaint was heard from the Believers-in-chief. I think it’s one of the few consistently interesting magazines going (along with Transition.) But I haven’t ever read N+1, and I think highly of Ben K., so probably that’s good too.

Also, I want to say that Heidi is not a spooky ghost in real life, despite the photo in the NYT.

And for more on Jarrell’s view of the proper role of literary criticism, see ch. 2 of Stephen Burt’s Randall Jarrell and His Age.

7

Matt 09.11.05 at 4:50 pm

I would strongly disagree with Mark. There is nothing merely “easy” or patly diagnostic about “why you should hate this” in n+1. Quite the opposite.

8

Henry 09.11.05 at 5:20 pm

Don’t get me wrong – I think that the Believer has done some good stuff. But I also think it’s quite fair to say that its ethos is self-consciously less critical than n+1 – the two seem to me to be very different publications, not only in tone but in the substance of what they’re trying to do.

I’ll admit that my use of the Jarrell quote was a bit snarky (it is a wonderful aphorism, though, isn’t it). Haven’t read the Burt biography, though I want to – I’m working my way through Jarrell’s letters, which are wonderful.

9

lemuel pitkin 09.11.05 at 9:34 pm

See, the real difference between n+1 and The Believer is that n+1 is a great magazine. Whereas The Believer is to good magazines as Ann Coulter is to attractive women: in the abstract, the component parts are there, but in reality…

(I was reading Babel in California from the current issue in the bathroom this morning: it made me laugh out loud, and want to seriously reread Babel.)

10

Doug 09.12.05 at 4:20 am

Keith, Unfogged.

11

whicker 09.12.05 at 4:49 am

‘“to endow something with importance,” in Julavits’s words, “by treating it as an emotional experience.”’

There you have it: the equation of importance with ‘feeling it’ shows how these guys are the unwitting products of Oprah culture.

12

amnesiatica 09.12.05 at 8:13 am

I thought it was an exceedingly dull article. I tried to read it all the way through but I kept skipping waiting for him to say something interesting and he never did. I tried to like The Believer also and frequented the damn McSweeney’s store in Brooklyn, but it never took. Something about all that earnestness and precocity stuck in my craw.

13

Matt 09.12.05 at 9:47 am

n+1 is neither McSweeney’s nor The Believer, nor the “unwitting product of Oprah culture” though the person who wrote that may be. Try reading it, really.

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