If there were gay marriage, the gang that publishes The Believer could pass for the adorable adopted Malaysian children of Kurt Vonnegut and Garrison Keillor. Well, almost. True if Mr. Vonnegut had never seen war; I imagine the only war to penetrate the Believers’ middle-class upbringings was the nightly assault of Three’s Company and Alice and, similarly, a really expensive East Coast education. (This is not at all to discount the extremely damaging impacts of such onslaughts.)
So, on Monday night, the army of spouses and unangry ironists that publish The Believer presented an evening of literary entertainments to aspiring Believer contributors at the New School Auditorium; tickets, $5. I say “spouses” with a little rancor: I’ve decided all right-thinking heterosexuals should make a lovely idealistic stand and refuse to marry until the gays can. This should be right up the Believer alley.
But the Believers are not by their nature radically disgruntled with the world. They are sweetly, intellectually dismayed. And yet things have worked out so well for them. The result: Their New School evening was a mishmash of celebration and discomfort with celebration.
The centerpiece of the evening was a panel about the state of fiction after 9/11, moderated by Heidi Julavits, co-editor of the monthly. Ms. Julavits enjoys the long question. She prefaces each with a little speech; then she’ll eventually say, “I guess my question is … ” and surprise the question’s recipient-in this case, Look at Me author Jennifer Egan-with something a little off-putting. My notes look something like this:
H.J.: ENDLESS WARM-UP. “Why no fiction best-sellers [about 9/11] after 9/11? … JESUS. ETC., ETC. “I guess the question is … why wasn’t your book a bestseller”? [!!!]
J.E.: “Goddamit, I don’t know.” Laughs … “If I felt ignorant and wanted to educate myself, I wouldn’t go to fiction.” (J.E. seems like a psychiatry student, or a slightly stern but kindly and insightful social worker.)
I can’t possibly be the first to note that this charming quirk of Ms. Julavits’ betrays too many afternoons doing lit crit in cozy seminars.
Another panelist, Stephen Elliott, is the recent editor of Politically Inspired . Mr. Elliott is known for providing a weekly report of his poker game on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Let me summarize each of his filings: “Help! I’m a raving alcoholic!”
The consistently hung-over Mr. Elliott did not disappoint Monday evening. His first line: “I don’t want to vindicate James Wood, who’s a jackass.” (Eight people clapped.) Like the inebriated uncle at the family reunion, Mr. Elliott was there to vent mustard gasses a little too close to the German potato salad. His off-tone remarks were the evening’s sole divergence from the McSweeney’s -style calm wryness that dominated: “I can’t really speak to the taste of the masses,” said Mr. Elliott, and also: “If you want to read dumb books, that’s your prerogative.”
But he also said things like, “Good literature is about truth.” (But how? Is good music?) As he staggered onward, Susan Choi, the author of American Woman -a re-imagination of the Patty Hearst story-looked like she wanted to disappear.
Is fiction-in a bold devil’s advocate by Ms. Julavits-always “escapist and a palliative”? (And how would that be bad?) These novelists agreed to convince themselves that fiction has to be strong, honest medicine . But so many great novels are stagey, fake things-has anyone read Wuthering Heights recently?
“‘We’ have a huge interest in entertainment,” said Ms. Egan. She didn’t actually make the air quotes with her fingers, but she did them with her voice. “Entertainment” is evidently on the Believer list headed “Not O.K.”
But still, they love to entertain. And the Believers love comedy, but seem uncomfortable that comedy is often mean and always cheap. Author Tom Bissell played Appalachian banjo music while wearing a $79 Texan hat. The evening’s master of ceremonies, writer John Hodgman, presented the idea that in all jokes about banjos, the phrase “literary novel” could replace the musical instrument. To wit, Mr. Bissell quoted Mark Twain: “A gentleman is someone who can play the banjo but doesn’t.”
Funny, smart and troublesome. “We” evidently have a huge discomfort as artists. These post-confessional confessors know that a novel is a collection of lies. But they love novels, and more important, they are junkies to writing them-and so the idea that fiction is a higher truth becomes their addict’s denial.
Vendela Vida, Believer co-editor, former Premiere copy assistant and Eggers spouse, came out to entertain with Ben Marcus, the spouse of Ms. Julavits. Mr. Marcus is bald with glasses, and a little beefy. You sort of want to see him in chef’s pants, up to his knees in an icy stream, holding up a big fat salmon.
The two re-enacted an early Believer interview mix-up where only the interviewer’s questions had been recorded. Mr. Marcus played the part of the philosopher interviewed. Ms. Vida would ask a question; he would mime an answer for a long time with shrugs and gestures. After a long minute of silence, Ms. Vida asked, “And are you a vegetarian?”-which was really funny, thank God. The banjo played us off to intermission; New School students swarmed the neighborhood pizza place.
Milton Glaser, design guru and inventor of “I [heart] New York,” delivered a lecture later on the subject of ambiguity. Mr. Glaser was to have a conversation with book designer Chip Kidd, the 23Envelope of the book world. “Sadly,” Mr. Kidd was trapped in Connecticut.
Mr. Glaser is self-effacing and grand at the same time. His speech is like those Chuck Lorre vanity cards, the little journal entries that flash for one second after the credits on Dharma and Greg . “Only through ambiguity,” Mr. Glaser said pointedly, can the truth be revealed. One hopes that idea was directed at the monofaceted Ms. Julavits. He also did a little slide show of some of his recent work. His last slide contained the slogan: “Art Is Whatever Remains.”
Writer Tony Perrottet delivered a pleasurable, rather conceptual piece. He has gray hair and an odd Australian voice and wore a pinkish shirt. He gave a short speech that asked, “Did readings contribute to the fall of the Roman Empire?” The literary readings of that era, said Mr. Perrottet, became mere entertainment. “The sheer volume of words debased the gold standard.” It was absolutely unclear how much of this reportage was fiction, comedy … or truth.
As the crowd of young writers filed out of the auditorium, you could almost smell the unease, the greed to wear the name tag writer ; it sweat out of every hand, along with a puritan pride for taking part in an evening of guilt-free entertainment. They could have been home watching Friends , but no! They ennobled themselves, unambiguously … for them.
Is it a fair criticism that the Believers, despite their fine if flawed principles and good manners, have expressed little sense of a personalized relation to the pain of the world? (No, probably not.) And is it wrong to wish they would reconsider the meaninglessness of the entertainments “we” make? Love your entertainments or reject them, oh no doubt, but get on with the show.
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