Daniel Levin Becker is the literary editor of San Francisco-based magazine, The Believer, and member of the Oulipo, a group of writers using mathematical and literary constraints to generate literature. He has also published a book about the group, and is currently writing a second book about rap lyrics.
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Let’s start with The Believer. What’s your role there?
My title as of the last couple of issues is literary editor. I used to be the reviews editor, and so was responsible for the reviews section toward the back half of the magazine. When I inherited that section toward the end of 2010 it was 5-6 pages per issue of 1-page book reviews, and when I came on I changed that slightly to make the length of the pieces more variable and to include reviews of things besides just books; I added song reviews and film reviews, and reviews of other things which were language-y in essence but not actual purchasable cultural artifacts. We’ve had some great pieces critically analysing tag lines from movies or slogans, for example—in the first or second issue I worked on, there was a piece on the various slogans through the years aimed at getting people to participate in the US census.
Roughly a year ago we moved to a bi-monthly schedule, so from 9 to 6 issues per year. One of the changes we made in that transition was to change the reviews section to what we call the Symposium, in which each issue has a different theme around which we assemble 5 or 6 critical mini essays, often about books but also sometimes about songs or films. So that’s what I do right now, amongst triaging the mountain of books that I get in the mail, commissioning critical pieces and accepting pitches, and refining and editing those pieces until they’re ready for print.
What prompted these changes and what was behind the decision to reduce the publication schedule?
Going from 9 to 6 issues was mostly a cost-cutting measure. But the bi-monthly issues are considerably bigger, at least a third longer than they had been, which enables us to be a little more lavish in the space that we give to essays, not that it’s ever been a magazine where we’ve been overly constrained by space. Changing the reviews section to the Symposium is one of a handful of little revisions we’ve made to try to rejuvenate the magazine… I don’t want to say to make it a more competitive or viable periodical publication, because that sounds crass and not really in the spirit of The Believer. It’s not that we asked ourselves how we were going to compete with websites that can run endless listicles or anything like that. But we took the schedule reorganisation as an opportunity to update some things or revisit them more rigorously.
We’re very patient and curious, erudite but willing to be silly, and to learn alongside the reader rather than presenting and regurgitating, rather than being a monolithic edifice of information.
It’s long been spoken about that print is dead and obviously it’s been so long that it’s clear it isn’t happening at the rate that has been suggested. One of the ways that’s often heralded is that to survive you have to become a niche or specialised publisher. Do you think that The Believer bucks that trend in any way? To me it tries to span quite a few forms of culture and that in its essence it isn’t very specialised.
No, we’re not very specialised. I don’t think you could say we are successfully bucking trends, but nor do I think that’s been our mission. I think maybe McSweeney’s in general—the umbrella that comprises The Believer, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and that has in the past included things like Wholphin and other multimedia properties—has been more invested in challenging the notions of the death of print, or in exploring how to make a printed artifact into something that resembles a hypertext. But The Believer has always been one of the most unassuming and traditional print publications in the stable. We are trying to defend a picture of a publication as something that can be generalist and also eccentric and unexpected, and a source of things that you wouldn’t expect to find in your garden variety literary magazine, but The Believer has never had much of a mandate to manifest an opinion on the fate of printed literature.
I know The Believer does have an online presence but it’s established itself as an offline product, and distinctly so; it’s very illustrative and has a strong print identity. But are there elements that you think it could improve in its online presence?
Thinking about what I just told you, I’ve been talking about The Believer as a print magazine, and very conveniently ignoring that we have a Tumblr called The Believer Logger, which is very active, and a podcast called The Organist, which we make in partnership with KCRW. These are both extremely successful extensions of The Believer’s spirit into other media. In the same way I was talking about McSweeney’s being an umbrella brand for its interests, I suppose to some extent The Believer has become an umbrella brand for the magazine, the blog and the podcast, as well as other print forms like occasional Believer books.
Going forward do you think there is an opportunity to have more online exclusives or other digital iterations of The Believer or is that just not necessary?
I think it’s necessary to The Believer in an operational, day-to-day logistical sense, because we are first and foremost a print magazine, and as much as we are believers and optimists—the working title of the magazine was The Optimist—at the end of the day we still need to maintain a certain relationship with the marketplace in order to stay afloat. We have explored the internet in terms of multiplying the tentacles with which The Believer organism reaches out and squiggles around in the world, but as much because it’s been exciting to do so as because it’s been prudent. What The Believer is does not depend on our finding new incarnations for it to take.
How important is that connection with McSweeney’s? And how consistent must The Believer remain to their voice?
Not very. It’s a very lucky affiliation because I think it’s much more likely that people will know McSweeney’s without knowing The Believer than vice versa. McSweeney’s, with the Internet Tendency and Quarterly Concern in particular, has gained a deservedly beloved presence as a pretty special publishing entity, so it’s obviously a privilege to be tethered to that. At the same time I think, although there are kindred roots like not having a lot of time for snark or negativity, the affiliation does not assert a whole lot of editorial pressure on The Believer. We’re very free to evolve in a way that is natural without needing to conform to a party line or uphold a bigger reputation.
The things we offer to discover probably aren’t going to come up at your next job interview. Unless you’re in a really enviably weird line of work.
I’ve always enjoyed The Believer for its literary starting point that looks wider to the world and its culture. Do you think that it’s unique in that perspective or does it sit in a greater canon of magazines?
I do think it has a unique place in a greater canon. We’ve cultivated a voice that is relatively apolitical, which maybe is a contentious word to use, but we are certainly engaged in the world without toeing a party line or agitating according to this or that political agenda. We’re very patient and curious, erudite but willing to be silly, and to learn alongside the reader rather than presenting and regurgitating, rather than being a monolithic edifice of information. I think that particular combination of qualities is something that is unique to The Believer, so much so that if you saw a piece elsewhere with those qualities you could identify it as Believer material. Whereupon we would immediately send our black helicopters to abduct the writer so he or she could toil in our underground content caves.
But I’ve said too much.
In the features you look after what do you do to inject some of your tenets into it? And what do you do to try to make a piece ostensibly The Believer?
My primary constraint when I started, which has always been a mandate for both reviews and for the magazine in general, is that the pieces are always positive. That’s not to say that we only review books that we think are the best thing ever that you should all go buy right now, but there has to be some positive, open-minded direction from which the piece is coming critically. So even if it looks at a very flawed book, film or commercial, it has to take the premise that it’s flawed in an interesting way. Which blends into another thing that’s a little more my own editorial leaning, namely that plot summary has no interest for me, nor does consumer guide-style “here’s what this book is and here’s why you should buy it”. The critical reviews you’ll read in The Believer aspire to be more like a conversation with somebody who has also read the book, seen the movie or listened to the album. They don’t tell you something you couldn’t have figured out yourself, but instead put the work in a broader critical context, or point out the richness in something you maybe didn’t think of as significant.
Is it an ambition to give Believer readers the opportunity to discover something?
Absolutely. But I would make the distinction that it’s not the sense of the word “discovery” that would be operative in a content aggregation engine, or even something like what you’re doing, which, from what I know from snooping around your site, is very responsive to what’s happening in the here and now, and to the current context of things. Not to say that what you recommend or Jon Baskin recommends won’t be worth just as much in three months or three years, but it has more of a functional connotation. Whereas I think The Believer’s sense of discovery and curiosity is a lot more promiscuous in terms of present vs. past and utility vs. frivolity. The things we offer to discover probably aren’t going to come up at your next job interview. Unless you’re in a really enviably weird line of work.
Besides The Believer what else are you currently up to?
I do a lot of freelance writing and editing and translation work, and right now I’m mostly working on a second book, which is a sort of literary critical discussion of rap music.
Are there other previous attempts at attempting to analyse rap in this way?
I don’t think anyone has totally satisfactorily bridged the streams of literary criticism and rap writing. One of the signal predecessors is a book that David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello wrote in the early 1990s called Signifying Rappers, which isn’t especially good but plumbs some of the depths that I’m revisiting. One thing I’m coming to terms with in that respect is trying to make a strength rather than a weakness out of the almost immediate obsolescence of anything in book form, especially with something as dynamic as rap.
What was the first book that you wrote?
The first book, Many Subtle Channels, was about a French literary group called the Oulipo, which I became a member of about five years ago. The collective pursuit is exploring the use of mathematical models and structures to generate literature. The group has included writers like Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and Harry Mathews, and its output tends to be literary applications of fixed forms, sometimes mathematical constraints, sometimes alphabetical constraints. For instance Perec’s 300-page mystery novel, A Void, written without using the letter ‘e’.
How involved are you with the Oulipo?
Not day-to-day, for the simple reason that I don’t live in Paris right now. The Oulipo works very contagiously, so being around is vital, but we do do a fair amount of collective work: on commissioned projects for exhibits somebody’s mounting, for instance, or a member of the group will invent a form or introduce a structure or device with interesting potential and then everyone else will try to explore and exploit it. And that sort of project I’m able to participate in a little more. Also a lot of the translation I’ve done over the last few years has been of Oulipian work, as we try to broaden its accessibility in English.
The fear is that that texture might get lost if we lean too heavily on automation.
Is there more that can be done algorithmically with data that is available digitally? Has the Oulipo explored new technology to generate literature?
It really hasn’t, at least within the group itself. I gave a talk a few months ago to a college computer science department trying to explain why that was the case (so I took pains to establish that it wasn’t a “hey, fuck you guys” gesture on behalf of the Oulipo): there’s certainly a lot of computer-assisted and computer-generated conceptual art and literature, and the Oulipo has by and large remained distinct, not to say estranged, from that. Not for any particular political reasons, though; it’s chiefly just a matter of who the most active members are, and their limited interest in using technological horsepower to solve puzzles that are essentially humanistic in the first place. To the Oulipo the tool is far less interesting than the intent behind it.
Do you think it will remain in that purist form or do you think that some of the younger members might take it in this direction?
I suspect these strands of inquiry will remain separate. There’s something about the theory on which Oulipian inquiry is founded that I think needs to be executed in person, so to speak. You could use a computer to do something like get all of the English words that contain only one vowel extremely quickly, but there’s a privilege that comes with doing it yourself because there’s so much about the process of search and discovery, either with this or that tool or by drudging it up from memory, that gives an important texture to the resulting work. I think that the fear is that that texture might get lost if we lean too heavily on automation.
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