Start the Presses

With a little help from readers, the ‘Believer’ returns.

believer magazine covers
The Believer

The past few years have been pretty strange for many of us, but for the editors of the Believer, they’ve been especially weird—and very publicly so.

Started in San Francisco in 2003 by novelists Vendela Vida, Heidi Julavits, and Ed Park, the Believer was known for well-considered book reviews, meandering essays, interviews with writers like Renata Adler and David Foster Wallace, unusual reported pieces, and advice from comedians. With its matte paper and text-heavy design and its eclectic, non-topical mix, the Believerserved as counterprogramming to every glossy smiling hungrily on the newsstand.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

Under its original publisher, McSweeney’s, it became a regular outlet for writers like Leslie Jamison, Samantha Hunt, Namwali Serpell, and Nick Hornby, as well as many journalists like Rachel Monroe and Molly Young,who’d occupy prominent spots at some of the biggest magazines in the land.

“The typical Believer essay—to the extent that such a thing can exist, given the magazine’s commitment to the idiosyncrasy and multiplicity of voices—ranges and explores, collecting curiosities and offhand insights on its way to an argument and taking as much time, and as many words, as it needs,” wrote A.O. Scott in the New York Times Magazine in 2005. “This formal elasticity is central to the Believer’s critique of other magazines and the speeded-up, superficial culture of reading they sustain.”

Having survived at least two media recessions, the Believer was sold to the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2017, with author and executive director Joshua Wolf Shenk serving as editor. Under the institute, the magazine launched the Believer Festival and continued to run ambitious articles, like Ben Mauk’s “Weather Reports: Voices from Xinjiang,” an oral history of China’s abuse of Uyghur people that ran upward of 24,000 words.

Then things got weird. Working remotely in 2021, Shenk had a very unfortunate Zoom incident involving a dozen colleagues, a bathtub, and not very many clothes that led to his immediate resignation. The magazine was shuttered soon after, only to have its website sold in 2022 to a digital marketing company that hoped to attract readers with clickbait headlines about “Best Hookup Sites.” Seeing an eccentric little literary magazine dipping its toe into such content shocked, appalled, and generally saddened readers who loved the Believer and, presumably, already knew the best hookup sites. Scathing headlines and widespread outrage ensued.

The story of the Believer might’ve ended there had it not been for a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $300,000 for McSweeney’s to reacquire the title and its archive. Now a quarterly, the Believer is back in San Francisco, edited by novelist and longtime McSweeney’s associate Daniel Gumbiner, with Vida, Julavits, and Park lending their editorial insights. Suddenly, the band is back together.

“I feel a huge amount of gratitude to see the way people rallied, to hear them describe what the magazine meant to them,” says Gumbiner. “You know, it was a little bit like watching your own funeral. You don’t usually get to hear that stuff.”

Out this month, the latest issue (dubbed Homecoming on its spine) has many of the old elements: strange letters, book reviews, poetry, descriptions of artists’ works in progress. It also has some additions, like a new rotating column (kicked off by poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib) devoted to reexamining “critically unacclaimed works of art” called Resurrector. (Gumbiner assures me that the column name was purely coincidental and had nothing to do with the magazine’s own return from the grave.)

“When you’re trying to make a replica of something, it usually doesn’t come out very good,” Gumbiner explains. “You have to let something change with time and take a new form.”

Among the stories in the new issue is a deeply reported piece by journalist Natalie So about a “pan-Asian crime ring” targeting Silicon Valley chipmakers in the 1990s. Running for 17 pages, it required two months—and numerous calls to the FBI—to fact-check, according to Gumbiner.

There are interviews with singer Rickie Lee Jones, actor Alan Alda, and director Miguel Arteta, along with a loving remembrance of writer Greg Tate by Pulitzer Prize winner Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah.

The most striking part of the magazine, though, is a list of almost 1,600 names of people who backed the Believer’s Kickstarter campaign and ensured that this issue saw print. That nearly 2,000 people ponied up their hard-earned cash to bring a magazine back from the dead is a reminder that even as digital platforms continue to eat print’s lunch, there are still people out there who value the experience magazines have to offer.

“I hear a lot of stories from readers about going to their Borders Books in the early aughts and looking for the Believer there,” Gumbiner says. Those Borders may be gone, but those readers are still out there, along with a new generation drawn to the power and possibilities of print. “They want a more thoughtful, considered form of commentary,” Gumbiner says of the magazine’s fans, old and new. “They want to be able to take time and really dig deep into something and learn about the complexity of a given subject.”

May those dogged, stalwart print lovers live—and read—for years to come; they are the true believers.•

Matt Haber has previously worked as an editor at The Village Voice, The New York Observer, and The Atlantic.
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