New York Magazine's Ben Williams: My Top Longreads of 2011

Ben Williams is the online editorial director at New York Magazine.

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1. Celebrity profiles are the hardest genre to make fresh. So props to GQ for doing it not once but three times, with Jessica Pressler on Channing Tatum, Edith Zimmerman on Chris Evans, and Will Leitch on Michael Vick. With Pressler and Zimmerman, what’s great is the willingness of both subject and writer to play, and the dynamic between them—these pieces exploit the “profile as date” subtext really well. It’s fun to think about them as a sort of inverse to Jennifer Egan’s brilliant satire of the profile biz in A Visit From the Goon Squad.  In the Vick piece, what I like is the way that Leitch uses the PR apparatus around the process of profiling Michael Vick to reveal what’s at stake for him. He didn’t get much time with Vick, just a photo shoot and a phone call, but he used it to both explain and complicate the Michael Vick Story that the quarterback’s handlers want to tell. 

2. There are a bunch of New Yorker stories I could pick—Ryan Lizza’s “leading from behind” piece on Obama’s foreign policy was so influential; Jane Mayer on Thomas Drake and state secrets was fascinating and moving; Kelefah Sanneh not only wrote a great analysis of Odd Future, he tracked down their missing member; David Grann is David Grann—but my favorite was Jeffrey Toobin’s take on Clarence Thomas. There are so many things going on here: It’s a revisionist view that frames Thomas as very smart and canny; it shows how one justice can move the entire Supreme Court over decades through the way opinions are written; it sets the stage for next year’s healthcare ruling as a culmination of Thomas’s entire mission; and it makes clear once again just what a strange, extremist man he is.

3. Overall, my favorite thing in the new New York Times Magazine is probably the Riffs section—it identified a gap in the preview-and-review saturated culture journalism market, which is (relatively) long form argument/idea-driven pieces. To pick a few highlights: Dan Kois’s piece on avant-garde movies kicked off a fierce, endless, at times kind of ridiculous debate that just about every movie critic had to weigh in on; Adam Sternbergh’s piece on jokeless comedies defined an era; Sam Anderson on Derek Jeter both mocked empty sports hagiography and read like a hilarious version of Donald Barthelme. Alternate winner in this category is the New York Review of Books, which published some of the best cultural essays this year—Daniel Mendelsohn on Mad Men and Spiderman, Lorrie Moore on Friday Night Lights, and Dan Chiasson on Keith Richards were all delightful and provocative.

4. I just loved Paul Ford’s “The Web is a Customer Service Medium.” It’s the kind of piece that would be hard to get into a print magazine for various reasons, but it resonated instantly online. It’s a pretty abstract argument about a subject that’s not exactly under-analyzed—what is web content about, and how is it different from other forms of content?—but it opens by coining a phrase which instantly makes sense to anyone who works on the web: “Why wasn’t I consulted?” And then it goes on to make a very detailed, specific, convincing, and non-buzzword-filled argument that isn’t formulated expressly to piss off anyone who works in “old media,” which is refreshing.

5. Finally, some favorites in the emerging multimedia genre of longform tweeting. I probably read more words on Twitter than anywhere else this year, and I am grateful for the stamina of those who somehow manage to tweet and retweet extended thoughts all day, every day on specific themes. I learned as much about the Arab Spring by dipping into @acarvin’s feed as from any essays about it. @daveweigel is constantly insightful, and one of the few people capable of being funny about politics. Following @questlove’s stream is like listening to the world’s kindest, most passionate music geek.

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