Believe It or Not

The second issue of the Believer contains a confessional essay by a reformed book thief; an essay about the Magnetic Fields by novelist Rick Moody; a diagram of the history of children's literature, beginning in the 1300s; a profile of a three-year-old named Esmé who looks forward to learning how to backwards somersault; and a list of unused book titles, free for the taking (A Fondness for Beheadings, The Basket of Smells). It contains interviews--with Judith Butler, on Sophocles and dehumanization; with a ninja, on ninja-related things; and with Jack White. It also contains some literary criticism.

The Believer, the latest literary project from the McSweeney's camp, is primarily a magazine of literature about literature, on all levels. The first piece in the new issue is an essay, prompted by W. G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, exploring issues of complicity among average Germans during World War II, and it includes a harrowing description of "roasted children."

Some pages later is a list of cars featured in fiction by Mary Robison--a Mazda compact, a beige Ford. Such a stark shift is transparently gimmicky, but it's not just casual disjointedness that makes the magazine provocative. What makes the Believer provocative is that it promotes tough and intelligent literary criticism, which is rare. Certainly it can't be found in the plot summaries issued by the New York Times Book Review, although it's not just bland book-reviewing that the Believer aims to eradicate. Too many reviewers are "snarky," "dismissive," and "dumb"; guilty of a "scornful, knowing tone... employed to mask an actual lack of information about books," wrote editor Heidi Julavits in the first issue. The rise of the novel is pinned to the rise of intelligent literary criticism, she believes; this is, you could say, her religion. (Thus the name of the magazine.)

This month, delivering on Julavits' promise to elevate the form, Sven Birkerts writes about Gary Lutz's bleak, sclerotic, quasi-absurdist prose--and, by implication, the prose of many other young stylists like Saunders, Marcus, and Hemon. Deft and engaging, it is a masterful illustration of what can be achieved in a review. I'm inclined to believe, however prematurely, that the future of literary criticism rests in these hands.