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American Writing Special — Cough syrup for the mind

Ten years on, the <em>Believer</em> has had to change its ways.

Every time I sit down to write this essay, I feel like I’m writing an acceptance speech for a minor journalism prize – the New York Yacht Club’s Commodore Herman T Rosencranz Commendation for Excellence in the Creation of Literary Ballast. After a few days of trying to overcome this sensation, I’m giving in to it. Please imagine this essay is being spoken into a tinny microphone, that I am seated behind a table draped in a blue polyester cloth, and that you, the guests, are long gone on gimlets. Tomorrow, the only part you’ll remember is when I made a lewd joke about keel-hauling.

So here it is. First, a bit of history. Back when we founded the Believer in 2003 – though technically we founded it in late 2002, with our first issue appearing in March 2003 – it was, as they say, and not all of those people say it nostalgically, a different time. It was such a different time that I wrote an essay for the Believer’s first issue, called “Rejoice! Believe! Be strong and read hard”, one that expressed concern about the squibbish size of newspaper reviews and how it was nearly impossible to cultivate critical thinking – and the health of literary discourse –  in such a tiny space.

Newspaper reviews! Some of you might recall those. Yet if there was a dearth of substantive criticism, this was not because there were no cultural critics, but because there were so few places in which to behave like one. No room to roam, no space to spelunk intellectually through digressive caves to show how books were related not only to other books, but also to politics and films and art and bread-baking and yoga.

We thought we might provide that space. We claimed we wouldn’t publish any “reviews” under 4,000 words. No timeliness required; in fact, timeliness was basically forbidden, because the “new book shelf life” was already so brief (and now it’s a fraction of its former meagre length). We wanted to extend the relevancy of literature by claiming all books worthy of a fresh, extended, intellectually gleeful analysis. One of the first essays we published was about Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, written by a Pessoa-strength melancholic American living in Spain.

The tone, too, was something we chiselled over time; the writers we most cherished were the ones who made you feel as though you’d been pleasantly buttonholed by the most humorous, erudite, ironic-cravat-wearing person at a cocktail party, who made you realise how interested you were in things you had never known could be interesting: long-dead Portu­guese writers, or (as we extended our focus) 1980s Danish feel-good movies about food, or surfing Hungarians, or drunk guys in LA making a game attempt to read Ulysses.

But even before things started to change we were forced to revisit some of our original tenets. In 2004, the New York Times editor Bill Keller gave that now-infamous interview to the blog Book Babes in which he claimed that, at least within the pages of the New York Times Book Review, “fiction has received more column inches than it deserves”. Debut literary novels, in particular, would take a hit, making more room for commercial fiction.

At the time – way back in 2004! – when literary blogs, those that existed, acted more as curators or traffic conductors to other online book-related content and reviews (Salon; Slate) than as lengthy content providers in their own right – this struck us as an issue worth responding to. Maybe we should reconsider our “nothing under 4,000 words and nothing timely!” policy. Because if the Times wasn’t going to review many debut or literary novels (this, thankfully, has turned out not to be the case) shouldn’t we open up a place in the Believer for new books to be briefly reviewed? We decided: we should.

My point is – before things really started to change, we had a history of responding to change. Even so, those other changes, the really big changes, in which online literary venues started to offer lengthier and substantive book criticism, and many publications began reconfiguring their print magazines as apps and offering extensive online co-programming, didn’t immediately concern us. Yes, we had a website, but we’d always had a strong commitment to material thing-ness; the Believer was a beautiful object that offered a reader an experience that an online venue could not; this experience couldn’t, and needn’t, be virtualised.

I can locate the moment when we began to think otherwise. Roughly, it occurred in the fall of 2010, when we noticed a decrease in the quality of unsolicited submissions to the Believer. Many were baggy, structureless, information to which no rhetorical architecture had been imposed. At first we ascientifically attributed this shift to the blogging culture in which many young writers had been raised. (I had once been counselled by a Huff Po blogger that old-school writers, if they wanted to blog, needed to get over their painstaking approach to words and structure; “You write it and you post it,” she told me. Which actually sounded pretty awesome to me.) Perhaps this was why the slush pile had become more slush than pile?

But there was another reason to explain the slushiness of our slush. By 2010, many viable and prestigious venues existed for writers of the lengthy critical essay: the website the Millions published articles akin to the articles we published, as did the Nervous Breakdown and the Rumpus. And if writers were submitting their work to them instead of us, who could blame them? They didn’t have to wait nine months for “page space” to open up; they didn’t have to endure three-month lead times. Moreover, their articles, if published online, had a far greater chance of being seen and read by many more readers than merely the visitors to the site on which they were published. These articles could be linked to and bounced around; they could infiltrate corners of the online galaxy.

Granted, we had our bones-and-sticks website. But its readers, if they came across a mention of an interview we’d run, say, with Julie Hecht, or an essay about Charles Portis, would be able to scan the first few paragraphs on our site, after which they’d be encouraged to read the rest of the article by purchasing the magazine at their local bookseller. Unfortunately – the Portis article, for example, appeared in 2003 – these magazines no longer existed beyond the physical walls of our office. There was no way to procure this article, and no way to link to it, no way to read it. Ultimately we risked losing readers, and we risked losing writers, too. Thus, it seemed prudent (and exciting) to move toward a mixed material-ethereal model that, hopefully in a non-frustrating way, could combine the thrills of rarity and access.

Shifting to a partial online existence, however, poses a number of interesting challenges to the way editors (and writers) think about structure and limits. Previously we’d relied on the form provided by a 4,000-word boundary, or by the impracticality of mailing a magazine that weighed 20lb. We’d set up our perimeter in the material world; how would we negotiate the new online boundaries of no boundaries? When page real estate isn’t at a premium, one might be tempted to build the textual equivalent of the Great Wall, or a Disney Canada, or an Olympic sports city. How, as editors, would we work within these perimeter-less perimeters? Especially those of us whose sense of essayistic architecture was honed in a different medium?

But possibly I was overthinking – or misunderstanding – the challenge. Recently I read, or partially read, thereby proving the point of this book, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (British subtitle: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember). Carr tells the story of a friend who can’t read blog posts that exceed three paragraphs before he starts skimming. So there’s our new boundary, I guess – not page real estate, but people’s evolved (and shortened) attention spans. It suggests an interesting new way to approach structure; and, ironically, it tosses us back into the conundrum of the newspaper review squib, the limits of which initiated the creation of the Believer in the first place.

No matter how well (or not well) something might be written, the new challenge is this: how much time a reader will read any text before his or her brain flips to another text. If, as Carr argues, our brains have reconfigured themselves to comply with this attention-hopping model, shouldn’t we want, in part, to appeal to those brains? In which case how can we justify continuing to produce a print magazine?

Possibly the answer is to create content suitable for the medium. Online writing could respond to a different reader need – and can inspire a different reader hunger – from print writing. Though availability is the expected (and instantaneously beneficial) norm, scarcity, too, has become a treasured commodity. One Believer writer was far more inspired to write an essay about a forgotten novelist because this novelist was, to her shock, “Google-proof”; this required her to make phone calls and interview people and follow a literal paper trail, which made for great, weirdly exotic reading. (It was certainly more dramatically compelling than “and then I clicked on this link. And that led me to this link.”)

An analogue counterbalance movement might already be on the rise; if The Shallows claims our online brains are so neurologically scattershot that even the most literary among us can no longer read a book (or a four-paragraph blog post), well, maybe objects will soon have 

a new place in the world, less as a mark of someone’s curmudgeonly Luddism, or of another someone’s stubborn nostalgia; perhaps they will become the occasionally welcome web detox programme. Books as medicine! Maybe, however, material literary objects like the Believer will be viewed less as a form of mental cough syrup, more as a meditative variety of mental workout. See? Books and yoga. I told you they were connected.

Heidi Julavits is co-founder and co-editor of the Believer

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial