New magazine has an abiding faith in the good book review

Times Staff Writer

A magazine long under wraps began showing up unannounced at a few independent bookstores this week, with an improbable name (The Believer) and a curious cover (touting Salman Rushdie's conversation with Terry Gilliam; the dark, indie band Interpol; and poet Anne Carson, a classics professor).

In lieu of a title page, there is an unsigned list of the monthly magazine's intentions, including a "focus on writers and books we like" and a nod to "the concept of the Inherent Good"; and an editor says they also hope to include an interview with a philosopher in every issue. On the back cover, there is only a small hint at the cool orbit in which the Believer already spins.

The $8 magazine, as it turns out, is the latest offering from McSweeney's Publishing, the hip literary journal and publishing imprint founded by bestselling author Dave Eggers. Eggers is a literary sensation at the leading edge of a subgenre of young, irreverent writers since the publication of his memoir, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," in 2000.

McSweeney's, which comes out more or less quarterly and sometimes in hardcover, has its own rabid fan base of literary fiction fans; some of its issues have even landed on bestseller lists. But neither McSweeney's nor Eggers is named on the Believer's masthead; the only giveaway is that the two publications share the same office address in San Francisco and the same publisher, Barb Bersche.

Even the literary world has been caught off guard by the Believer's debut. Don Lee, editor of the literary journal Ploughshares, said he hadn't known that McSweeney's was publishing a new magazine. But when asked, he perused the contents on www.believermag.com.

"I'd definitely read a magazine like this," Lee said. "It really seems like a utopian literary magazine. This is the sort of thing everyone dreams of -- having this quality of staff on board."

The Believer is the dream publication of articles editor Heidi Julavits, 34, and interviews editor Vendela Vida, 31, friends from the graduate writer's program at Columbia University. Julavits is the author of the acclaimed debut novel "The Mineral Palace" (Putnam), a Los Angeles Times Best Fiction of 2000 selection. Vida's first book, "Girls on the Verge," published in 1999 by St. Martin's Press, also was well received. Both are close to Eggers, who helped with the Believer's design but didn't weigh in otherwise. The idea was to create a magazine that focuses on long interviews and book reviews, Julavits said, in a phone interview from Brooklyn. "I think it started out as a pure book review, and, at its heart, that's what it is," she added. "But in our sort of interdisciplinary world, books naturally spill out into these other artistic and cultural arenas. I've been calling it a book and culture review, a literary cultural review."

The Believer has a quirky Eggers-esque worldview, taking on a feel that's part literary journal (lots of text, few graphics or photographs), and part Salon .com (in a feature on what writers are currently working on, Robert Olmstead says: "I'm working on a relentlessly bleak and terminally sad novel set in late 19th century northern Quebec. Some days it goes OK and some days it doesn't").

The magazine is alternately silly -- see the piece on the star-nosed mole -- and perspicacious -- the centerfold is "A History of Magic Realism" chart, "not for use in any educational context," that links the Bible to Freud, and, down a tortuous path, to Thomas Pynchon to William Gaddis to David Foster Wallace.

The editors don't exactly explain the magazine's name, saying only that the working title was the Optimist, and, said Vida, "We believe that writers and artists are inherently good." Ask about the magazine at bookstores, though, and clerks will ask, "Is it a Christian magazine? About UFOs?"

The first issue includes an interview with novelist Susan Straight, a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside, who just got a copy. "This is a great magazine for anyone who loves literature," she said. "I like reading Harper's, I like reading the New Yorker, but this is completely different. This goes so much more in depth into writing and culture."

At the heart of the magazine are writers and writing. Julavits is pushing for alternatives to traditional book reviews, which she takes to task in the Believer's lead article, a 9,000-word rant headlined "The Snarky, Dumbed-Down World of Book Reviewing." Critics should provide more than book summaries and a few lines of appraisal, said Julavits, who advocates reviews that offer a "sense of lineage" and the author's influences.

"My idea of the perfect book review is where ... you get to talk about a ton of other books, so you're not just limited to this one thing, and also you get to put it in this context so you can see where this book is coming from, and it ends up having this weird kind of interactive effect like, 'Oh, I never did read that [John] Updike book that influenced Nicholson Baker.' " The Believer is aimed at cultivating a community of readers, particularly in their 20s, who flip past traditional book reviews, Julavits said.

"The fact that books are treated as if they all exist in a vacuum accentuates the loneliness of the experience and the rarefied quality of that experience, and, really, when you're reading a book you should feel like you're just getting zinged in all these different directions and connected with other writers who have influenced the writer of the book you're reading.... I feel that books can provide this real sense of community if you're aware of the community you're tapping into by reading a book." Julavits laughed, acknowledging that her aim "sounds like the corniest thing ever."

The Believer is a "pro-bono, pull-your-pennies-together real labor of love," Julavits said. She, Vida and the other editors -- including Ed Park, a senior editor at the Village Voice and Andrew Leland, "most recently a student at Oberlin College" -- are not getting paid. The editors contributed money for the magazine's start-up costs, and McSweeney's provided publishing and distribution services, Julavits said.

So far, delivery of the magazine has been erratic. The magazine was due to land mid-March, but by last week, Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore and City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco had copies while Skylight Books in Los Feliz did not. At Skylight, customers haven't been asking about the Believer. "I don't think many people even know about it yet," said the store's buyer, Charles Hauther, who was sent one advance copy. "It looks really good," he said. "It's going to catch people's eyes."

Kevin Larimer, associate editor at Poets & Writers magazine, hadn't heard of the Believer. A quick look at the Web site, though, sold him, said Larimer, who edits the Literary MagNet column for Poets & Writers. "It seems like it would combine the work of a literary magazine with the kind of social awareness of something like Harper's," he said. "I'm sure it'll bring a strong identity and the aesthetic muscle that Dave Eggers brings to any project he touches. It seems like it'll be a great thing, that it holds a lot of promise."

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