When Heidi Julavits, Ed Park, and Vendela Vida launched the Believer, a publication that would encompass essays, book reviews, Q&As, advice, and capsule reviews of power tools and children, in 2003, they included a few introductory notes on the first page: “We will focus on writers and books we like,” they declared. “We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt.”
Julavits, Park, and Vida also told readers that the working title of the magazine had been the Optimist, a pretty good name for any print periodical conceived in the age of the internet.
Published by McSweeney’s, the once-scrappy, now-eminent San Francisco literary operation started seemingly on a lark by Dave Eggers, the Believer had a nearly-two-decade run as one of the most surprising and unusual magazines on the newsstand. It featured essays by writers like Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, who profiled Dave Chappelle; interviews with luminaries like Joan Didion and Maurice Sendak; and a regular column by novelist-screenwriter Nick Hornby on his monthly reading habits. Bookish, puckish, at times punkish, each issue felt like a rigorously edited and designed zine created by a group of funny-smart nerds who could’ve worked on the school paper or the literary mag but just wanted to please themselves and one another.
Of course, every clique has to break up eventually. A brief closure in 2015 was followed by a run under University of Nevada, Las Vegas’s Black Mountain Institute that ended in ignominy. Then there was a very embarrassing (and mercifully brief) period during which the magazine’s archive was in the hands of a company in the sex-toy-review business. But the Believer has returned.
Backed by a successful crowdfunding campaign, McSweeney’s reacquired and relaunched the magazine in San Francisco. The 144-page return issue (the Believer calls it a “resurrection”) goes out to subscribers at the end of 2022, featuring now Pulitzer Prize winner Ghansah on the late, great Greg Tate, the influential yet still-under-the-radar hip-hop critic; an interview with the luminous Ricki Lee Jones; and Nick Hornby on what he’s been reading. In other words, a return to form but in the best possible way.
Countless magazines have come and gone since 2003, so it’s nice to know that there are enough people willing to put up some cash to keep the Believer in print as its 20th birthday approaches. Under new editor Daniel Gumbiner, the publication has returned as a quarterly, bringing together new and old readers to give another generation of people and books the benefit of the doubt. It’s enough to turn even the most cynical among us into an optimist.•