For devotees of the Inanities, you may remember back to my very first post back at the end of August (I know, waaayyy back) when I said that, one day, in my new blog, I would address my displeasure with Dave Egger's magazine, The Believer. I used to subscribe to it. Then I stopped. Here, in what may end up being a somewhat lengthy (hopefully not) explanation, is why.
I went to a signing some years back featuring Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon, Glen David Gold, and Aimee Bender. It was at the Beverly Hills public library and the authors were gathered to promote their new collection of genre-oriented short stories called McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. For the most part, the book's good stuff. In it I read maybe two of the best short stories I've ever read (one by Neil Gaiman and one by Glen David Gold) and in it I learned that Michael Crichton (who had a story published in the collection) is not a good short story writer, and that my first impression of Sherman Alexie was totally right -- he sucks. Outside the lecture hall, on a table filled with their books that, if you bought them, they would sign for you, was a stack of Believer magazines. Each issue features the same design as on the issue pictured: nine squares, and two rectangles, four of the squares filled with ultra-cool pen-and-ink drawings of people who are, in some way featured inside. The specific issue on the table was right up my alley. There was an essay on Dune in it. Some days later, at the Borders near my apartment in Glendale, I picked it up and read it. Great, intelligent stuff. In it, the writer discussed how the "spice" that is at the center of these inter-planetary conflicts in Dune is a metaphor for our thirst for oil on this planet. Not too long after that, I got hit by a car and suddenly I had more free time than usual, so I subscribed.
It started out fine -- lots of essays about books and writers, and lots of interviews with writers. That's why I signed up. I like reading about books and writers. But even then there were interviews with visual artists, modern dancers, actors, and a weird column about love and sex in Croatia called Seksopolis. I let all that slide; The Believer's indie and hip, so it has to have some completely random, useless crap in there that's just kinda weird and lets the editors say to their friends at parties, "Have you read Seksopolis? It's great! It's this Croatian woman who writes about dating and sex in Croatia every month. Just fascinating." Maybe they don't let the blank stares they get bother them. Who knows? Anyway, they finally axed it about seven months into my subscription. I guess the cool quotient had diminished over time. Then there was the Music issue. They included with it a free CD filled with music that they would mention in the issue. I listened to a few songs but, to me, they all sounded either terrible or completely boring. The issue itself was unreadable. Obsessed, really smart rock snobs writing about the new, indie-est music coming out that's still way way underground, and how much they like it, and how it ties in with the weirdest most indie-est rock music that USED TO be new and is still way way underground, and how they're all related. Of course, I've never heard of any of the people they're talking about, except, maybe, a rare reference to Iggy Pop or someone. But then again, I'm essentially the anti-rocksnob because I know little to nothing about music. In this music issue, Believer told its readers they'd be devoting an entire issue (note: they only publish ten issues a year) every year to new music (read: to rocksnob writing). Each subsequent issue that appeared in my mailbox seemed less concerned with books and writers and more concerned with whatever the hell eclectic thing interested the editors that month. It was like they were trying to shake me loose. So when it was time to renew, I didn't.
I don't know if The Believer will right its course. The magazine came into existence, I thought, because there isn't a lot of material out there that talks about writers like they're members of the artistic community and their books like they're (if done well) works of art. Most of what's out there is stuff that's supposed to help unpublished writers get their work in print. Very commerce-oriented, which is good and helpful, but not really inspiring. For a while, Believer filled that void. Maybe Believer's staff began to feel that most other artists, (painters, cartoonists, dancers, avant-garde singer-songwriters, philosophers, photographers, Pez dispenser collectors) were getting short shrift in our modern culture, too, and Schindler-like, the editors were, and are, forever trying to save "just one more" talented artist from the dimwit, television-obsessed American culture-enforced prison of obscurity all these poor bastards (and they are usually poor as in broke) molder in. The Believer's intentions are admirable, but I think they're killing their magazine. They're going to try so hard to please all of their niche artists readers that, in the end, they're going to please no one. As far as I can tell, the few scraps the Believer still throws at books and novelists still represent some of the best stuff being published on the subject, but at $8 a pop, it just ain't worth flipping through the third interview with David Byrne or the in-depth dissection of Tin-Tin. Anyway, here's hoping they get back to what I thought they were all about in the first place: books and their authors.