Hunting Snark: Heidi Julavits Stomps a Virus

Heidi Julavits, the 35-year-old co-editor of The Believer , the new Dave Eggers–sponsored literary magazine, arrived for her interview dressed in a style that might be called haute zoologist: angular tortoise-shell glasses, khaki zip-front jacket over a white polo shirt, and a denim skirt. And on Friday, May 2, Ms.Julavits acted like she was stepping into a cage with a dangerous beast.

“I definitely felt that by agreeing to do this, I was putting my head in the lion’s mouth,” said Ms. Julavits with a nervous laugh-and all her laughs were nervous-as she nursed a Coca-Cola at Sebastian Junger’s bar, Half King, on 23rd Street.

Ms. Julavits was self-conscious because she recently named The Observer one of the “laboratories” of a nefarious “disorder”: “I call it Snark,” she wrote in an essay of some 10,000 words, “The Snarky, Dumbed-Down World of Book Reviewing,” which appeared in The Believer ‘s premiere issue in March. In it, she earnestly chides the literary-industrial complex of book reviewers for succumbing to a “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt” that is suffocating the creative lives of the literati.

“It’s a tone, ” she insisted. “I was trying to isolate the virus, so to speak.” (Nervous laugh.) “Not to say that you’re a virus!”

The tone of Ms. Julavits’ own essay-its tagline is “We’re sick and tired and really excited”-is spiritually akin to the Gen-X haiku in the opening pages of Mr. Eggers’ beloved 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius : “I am tired. I am true of heart!” The essay, intended as a statement of purpose for the new magazine, defines a “believer” as a kind of holy book zealot, best exemplified by the New Republic book critic James Wood.

As Ms. Julavits herself points out, complaining about the state of book reviewing is an old chestnut, going back to George Orwell’s 1936 essay “In Defence of the Novel.” Ms. Julavits feels, however, that the cycle of complaint has reached a moment of fresh urgency. It’s not, she wants to make clear, that she’s against criticism, or even negative criticism; she points to Norman Podhoretz’s notorious takedown of John Updike in 1963 as a prime example of an “intellectually honest” negative critique. But at some point-she doesn’t say when-the nastiness always lurking in the world of book reviews simply got out of hand.

Ms. Julavits’ essay is the most aggressive attempt yet by the McSweeney’s -of-heart to draw a line in the sand against the unbelievers. And it’s loaded with the kind of literary conflicts that even a 10,000-word essay isn’t likely to resolve. After all, why should a massively popular grass-roots literary movement-whose members have not only established their own rigorously anti-mainstream literary value system (emotional abundance and cultivated sloppiness, good; chilly insincerity and flashiness, bad), but who also have their own publishing house-care about, say, The New York Times Book Review ? And how can an acknowledged literary insider like Ms. Julavits-whose second novel, The Effect of Living Backwards , is about to be published by Putnam-call out the establishment? And ring in a “new era of experimentation”?

Ms. Julavits straddles a dodgy fence.

Part of the genesis of The Believer was Ms. Julavits’ own bad experience with reviews. Her first novel, The Mineral Palace , was published (also by Putnam) in 2000, and its reviews were a mix of the enthusiastic and the less so-par for the course for a first novel. But the bad ones got to her.

“I would read a review with the tiniest little criticisms in it, and I would be completely under the table for three days,” she said. Ultimately, she swore off reading her own reviews: “In the end, since I’m not able to sort out the good and the bad, and I just focus on the bad, it’s better just not to read them at all.”

She said Mr. Eggers had had similar experiences, and a subsequent desire to see a more thoughtful, sophisticated kind of book review.

“We knew he’d be interested in book reviews, knowing he’d been reviewed a lot himself”-nervous laugh at the mention of Mr. Eggers-“and had been vocal on some of those fronts. I think he just doesn’t even read them anymore.”

Yet aside from the shock of her novel’s not uniformly positive reviews, Ms. Julavits has had something of a charmed literary life. Her career took off in 1998, when her short story, “Marry the One Who Gets there First,” was published in Esquire magazine, acquired from her agent, Henry Dunow, by fiction editor Adrienne Miller. Ms. Julavits was then working as a waitress at Alison on Dominick, having recently graduated from the writing program at Columbia University, where she befriended future Believer editors Ed Park and Vendela Vida (who recently married Mr. Eggers). Ms. Miller and Mr. Eggers, then an editor-at-large at Esquire, took Ms. Julavits out to lunch.

Ms. Miller said that Ms. Julavits’ short story was an “instant classic.” “I’ve got lots of letters from college English teachers who teach that story to their students,” she said.

Soon after, Mr. Dunow sold Ms. Julavits’ first novel and rights to her second for a whopping $500,000. “That was definitely uncomfortable,” said Ms. Julavits of the sum. “But now, people get that all the time. I was at the beginning of a trend.”

Thus began her life as a fixture at leafy writerly retreats like Yaddo and Breadloaf, and as a satellite member of the growing universe of Mr. Eggers. In the summer of 2002, Ms. Julavits cemented her place in elite literary circles by marrying the writer Ben Marcus, who was the former fiction editor for the downtown literary journal Fence and is now a professor in Columbia’s M.F.A. program.

So, can someone who’s had the literary good fortune of Ms. Julavits really shake things up in book-reviewing land? And how much is Ms. Julavits’ cry of “Snark!” really a knee-jerk response to good old-fashioned, tough-minded criticism that happens to be about people she likes?

The single book review that Ms. Julavits said inspired her essay-Sam Sifton’s takedown in the March 31, 2002, New York Times Book Review of Marc Nesbitt’s Gigantic- is a case in point. In the most heated moment in her otherwise mild-mannered essay, Ms. Julavits calls Mr. Sifton’s review “one of the more blatant examples of anti-intellectualism I’ve detected recently,” accusing the New York Times Dining section editor of “espousing views that seem more fitting for a Bush cabinet member.”

But more than a few eyebrows were raised by the fact that Ms. Julavits’ critical bête noire is someone she knows personally: Mr. Sifton was, in fact, the best man at her first wedding, to freelance food writer Manny Howard. (The marriage ended bitterly, as Mr. Howard made clear in a 1999 Times Magazine piece that detailed how he secretly siphoned $6,000 from their nest egg to support a period of unemployment as a freelance writer, which sent Ms. Julavits packing.)

At the mention of her personal connection to Mr. Sifton, Ms. Julavits darkened. “Unfortunately, Sam is someone whom I really, really, really like,” she said, sitting up in her chair. “So if it’s not dispassionate, I guess it’s that I read that review, and I was just so upset the whole time I was reading it-and then when I saw who wrote it, it was devastating, because I respect him immensely.”

Ms. Julavits didn’t see her attack on Mr. Sifton as personal, but she admitted that the connections were a bit odd.

“It’s definitely bizarre,” she said, “but Dave Eggers is friends with Sam and whatever, so it’s all-everybody knows everybody in one way or another.”

It comes with the territory, Ms. Julavits said: “At a certain point, you’ve met and had a relationship with a great many people, and that does not preclude your right to have a response.”

(To Ms. Julavits’ point, a disclosure: This reporter is an acquaintance of Mr. Eggers, and his wife has been published by McSweeney’s .)

For his part, Mr. Sifton claimed a lack of interest in Ms. Julavits’ essay.

“I have no inclination to wade my way though it,” he said. “I hear it’s quite long.”

One gets the distinct impression that the debate between Mr. Sifton and Ms. Julavits existed long before The Believer appeared. In his review, Mr. Sifton criticized Mr. Nesbitt’s use of what he considered overripe metaphors, describing Mr. Nesbitt’s book as “the type of hipster fiction the Yaddo and Breadloaf crowd might call ‘rich with meaning'” and calling Gigantic an “M.F.A. thumb-sucker.”

Ms. Julavits said she would have preferred a more respectful and intellectually rigorous review from Mr. Sifton. He had used the review, she felt, to flex his opinions on a subject other than Mr. Nesbitt’s book, namely his dislike of the world of writing schools and writing retreats-the world, that is, that Ms. Julavits inhabits.

“I mean, maybe this reviewer-to be fair to him-thought that the problems this book brought up was that all writers and writing establishments are odious,” she said. “Maybe that’s what this book suggested to him. In which case, possibly it could be argued that it was a fair review.”

Was Mr. Sifton guilty of snark in his review of Mr. Nesbitt’s book? Daniel Mendelsohn, a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books -and a critic Ms. Julavits singles out as having “the highest of standards” and being “impervious to publicity brainwashing and literary trends”-defined snark as “attitude posing as critical know-how.” It has, Mr. Mendelsohn said, infiltrated book reviewing “as much as anything else.” But he also said he didn’t believe that Charles McGrath, the editor of The New York Times Book Review , “would ever allow a snarky note to enter his paper. I think Chip is a serious person.”

(Mr. McGrath declined to comment for this story.)

Mr. Mendelsohn said that while he had not read Mr. Sifton’s review, he himself had criticized works of fiction as “writing-schoolish” and that the use of overripe metaphors “is a problem” in those places.

Even Ms. Julavits’ hero, James Wood-who has famously mowed down stars like Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen-pointed out that when Virginia Woolf started reviewing for The Times Literary Supplement , “her own instinct was to say rude things …. You look back and there was a certain amount of snark in Woolf’s stuff,” he said. “It’s not whether snark is, in itself, bad, but does the subject deserve it?”

“I mean, my whole argument wasn’t about people being snarky,” Ms. Julavits said. “That actually came out at the very end-even though that’s what you’re focusing on.”

As for the title of the piece-“The Snarky, Dumbed-Down World of Book Reviewing”-Ms. Julavits said that “you should know that people give you titles, and titles happen to you,” she said. “Titles are different from the animal-and you know that.”

Perhaps Mr. Eggers wrote the headlines to juice up the cover?

“No,” she replied, “all I’m saying is headlines serve a different purpose than the piece.”

Finally, she confessed to having written it herself: “I’m guilty of doing it, yes.”

In her essay, Ms. Julavits also took on the negative reception of Rick Moody’s The Black Veil: A Memoir . The “cautionary underlying message” she found in Mr. Moody’s bad press-most famously, a blistering attack by Dale Peck in The New Republic -was this: “If you try to be overly ambitious and fail, you will get the heck spanked out of you. You will be mocked.”

But, she was asked, doesn’t a piece like Mr. Peck’s reflect a kind of admirable passion? Was Mr. Peck’s fury at Mr. Moody’s literary sins any less book-centric than Ms. Julavits’ defense of Mr. Moody?

Mr. Julavits considered this, then conceded: “Maybe I should hope I get treated that way and take it as a compliment.”

When asked if she thought the sort of Molotov-cocktail critiques for which New York intellectuals were once famous could add up to a kind of healthy, literary-Darwinian struggle, Ms. Julavits said no.

“Unless you see the struggle for the fittest being between reviewers and writers of books, and then the reviewers are going to win,” she reasoned. “And then what are they going to write about? So that’s not exactly an equivalent situation in my mind.”

Mr. Wood said he felt the wavering line between criticism and hostility is a constant in book reviewing and criticism, and one that’s not likely to go away.

“There undoubtedly is an awful tension between telling the truth and not being a monster,” he said, “and I haven’t resolved it myself. I’ve written things that hurt people, and I’ve read things about me that hurt. I don’t know how you resolve that.” Mr. Wood said that he sympathized with Ms. Julavits’ true-of-heart intentions-to a point.

“The real battle for her is between what she sees as literature and an organ like The New York Observer , which she feels threatens it,” he said. “It can be threatening, but I wouldn’t go all the way with her.”

Ms. Julavits seems to have stepped out-tentatively-onto her own personal platform, and she has future issues of The Believer to try to get her footing. “I’m not a grab-the-jugular kind of person,” she said, calling her essay “about all I could manage.” But to have any impact on literature, Ms. Julavits will have to shake the cage without hurting the animal-or risk falling into quiet, 10,000-word irrelevance. In the meantime, she said, she was in the middle of writing a review of Mr. Wood’s new novel, The Book Against God . How did she find it?

“Um …, ” she said, with a nervous laugh. “I still ultimately very much respect his mission as a writer.” Hunting Snark: Heidi Julavits Stomps a Virus