The uses of Heidi Julavits

By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  November 15, 2006

That’s why writers always get asked what kind of pencils they use, because everyone thinks they can do it themselves.
And the thing is that they probably could do it themselves. It’s the strangest thing. It’s not like being a harpsichord player or a composer. It is and isn’t something that you need to train for. I mean, it is something that you need to train for, but, in theory, if you’ve just been a person in the world who has read a lot, and presumably you can spell and speak a language, therefore you have the tools, you have the training. If you’re not a reader then that becomes more problematic. That’s where it starts to mystify me.

It’s probably a pretty fair assumption that the audience for the Believer is made up of readers.
Maybe this is too literal an assumption, but I’ve always sort of figured it is. I see who wants to write for us, so I think you must be the readers. And I do think it’s mostly MFAs, a lot of graduate students. I would say not only MFAs. But we’ve published a lot of people who are getting their PhD at Harvard in some field where they’ve written some kind of essay that doesn’t fit into any academic journal, so they end up giving it to us.

Literary-type magazines often get started to revive or pay homage to some historical movement or moment. Was there any such motivation behind the Believer?
I think that we really were — not to say that we were reacting to something, which would make it seem that we were just a reactionary publication. But it seemed like, here’s where we are culturally in terms of where the book is being presented: it’s sort of ever-shrinking real estate. Even the venues that existed purely for the book seem to be getting ever more squeezed and less thoughtful and less insightful, and there just wasn’t room.

I think, in a lot of ways, that’s how this sort of snarkiness arose; it’s not because somehow suddenly people decided that they wanted to be mean, but it’s like a review is a piece of writing also. And if you’re writing a review, you’re a writer and you want people to read what you’ve written. You used to be able to have a whole page or two whole pages or three whole pages, and suddenly you have a third of a column. And in order to have people pay attention to that third of a column, there’s one sort of easy way to do that, you know? So I think that that, in a lot of ways, assisted in the proliferation of this mode of criticism. So, yeah, I think we saw the direction in which this was going, and it seemed pretty inevitable and it seemed pretty clear, and what can we offer in its place as an alternative?

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