Spent some time with the latest issue of The Believer which mostly confirmed my sense that they don't cut as deeply as the folks over at n+1. One of the best things in it is a long letter from an Andrew Ervin taking Jonathan Franzen to task for his denigration of difficulty (in the person of William H. Gaddis in an essay Franzen wrote called "Mr. Difficult," published in his book How To Be Alone) which is an attack on art itself in the Adornian sense: "Contrary to what Franzen would lead us to believe, Gaddis was right: Not-art participates in things as they are and endorses the dominant discoursewhich Paul Ricoeur calls "the practical field" but for the purposes of this letter I will refer to as The Man." That's The Believer at its best, bringing serious and adventurous thought down to earth without clipping its wings. On the other hand, there's an essay like Greg Bottoms' essay "On George W.S. Trow's The Harvard Black Rock Forest and His Formally Unique Cultural Criticism: A Tape-Recorded Monologue, with Annotations." While more or less successful in its goal of bringing a brilliant critic to the attention of a younger generation, the essay's premise practically demands the kind of messy self-indulgence that comes across as condescending to the readerexactly the kind of thing Ervin warns against in his letter when he attacks Franzen for "relishing his complicity" with the status quo lowest-common-denominator universe of discourse. What are we to make of the footnote Bottoms provides for his summary definition of "the cultural condition of postmodernity"?:
Frederic Jameson's title Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism says it all. I haven't read this book, actually, because each sentence, in the first twenty-five or so pages, was as dense and messy as a medieval disembowelment. I threw the book on the floor and shopped for a new pair of Gap jeans online.This is the lowest form of irony, designed solely to cover the writer's ass: Bottoms wants intellectual cred and to be a regular dude at the same time, so he disparages a crucial text while winking broadly at us to suggest that he has in fact digested its import. But the disparagement is stronger than the wink, so that what's left is yet another appropriation of Marxian dialectical energy (at a considerable remove) emasculated by the writer's desire to signify that, you know, he hasn't actually been taken in, that he's a happy consumer like the rest of us, albeit a fashionably dissatisfied one.
Personally I prefer cultural criticism when it engages with the extratextual; that's why I think Jessica Lamb-Shapiro's essay about a seminar she attended given by the author (not writer, she's careful to point out) of those infernal Chicken Soup for the Soul books is an example of The Believer at its best: highly literate subjective journalism. The interviews are good (Tom Stoppard at a cricket match and an e-mail interview with the dirty-minded comedian Sarah Silverman, who reveals in this issue that her oldest sister is a rabbi), as are the book reviews (no poetry this issue, alasmaybe I spoke too soon). I'm less sure about the value of the long essays on outre litterateurs that are the magazine's bread and butter. In this case there's James Browning's essay on J.P. Donleavy, author of The Ginger Man and innumerable imitations of The Ginger Man, and Douglas Wolk's piece on Dave Sim's magnificent train-wreck, twenty-seven years in the making, the graphic novel Cerebus. (Both authors are often accused of misogyny; in Sim's case it's misogyny elevated to the level of paranoid schizophrenia). They're good essays, but I wonder what I would make of them if I hadn't actually read a fair bit of Donleavy and Sim. If The Believer wants to present "untimely" authors, they would do well to give us at least a taste of the actual work in question: maybe a page at the front of the article the way those Paris Review interviews give us a page of the interviewee's work (usually in draft form) before the interview proper. Anyway. It's a good magazine, but I wonder if, in Andrew Ervin's words, it loves the questions enough.