Longreads Best of 2015: Essays & Criticism

We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in specific categories. Here, the best in essays and criticism.

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Leslie Jamison
Jamison is author of The Empathy Exams, hailed as one of the best nonfiction books of 2014. Her work also has appeared in publications including Harper’s, Oxford American, A Public Space, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Believer.

“On Spinsters” (Briallen Hopper, Los Angeles Review of Books)

I love this piece because it offers an instance and vision of criticism as an inspired art, not simply an appraisal or a value judgment. It takes a book as its occasion, but its discussion of what that book does (or doesn’t do) ventures into such exquisitely soulful territory—thinking about identity, intimacy, and marginalized voices—that I couldn’t possibly do it justice here. By its close, it has swelled into a beautiful ode to surprising and enduring forms of spinster community: full of black-eyed peas and repaid student loans (also a one-eyed Chihuahua!). In its reach and its heart, this piece not only illuminates criticism as passionate conversation—the creative act as utterance, the critical act as response—it also explodes any limited notion of “negative” criticism as a destructive act. Its critique sings with the possibility of what can be.

“My Writing Education: A Time Line” (George Saunders, The New Yorker)

So many people read and loved this beautiful piece by Saunders but I’m going to talk about it here because (dammit!) I loved it too. It made my pulse race with the sheer fervor and eloquence and non-photoshopped specificity of its appreciation—its appreciation for teachers, for literature, for teaching. It offers an account of how writing happens across the course of a lifetime—in between the daily realities of kids and jobs (even pharmaceutical company jobs)—and how teachers inspire us to inhabit our best selves, or at least catch sight of what those selves might look like. There are lines in here that are some of the best descriptions I’ve ever read, casually uttered, as if Saunders could just toss them off before breakfast, which he probably could, and probably does. (But of course part of his gift to us, in this piece, is showing us that nothing was easy and everything comes along the course of a long, winding road.) Of his teacher Tobias Wolff, he writes: “Toby is a powerful man: in his physicality, in his experiences, in his charisma. But all that power has culminated in gentleness. It is as if that is the point of power: to allow one to access the higher registers of gentleness.” WTF?? What a magnificent thing to say about another human being. I will never think about power or gentleness in the same way again.


Jia Tolentino
Tolentino is deputy editor at Jezebel, and her work has also appeared in Pitchfork, FADER, Grantland and the New York Times.

“Addy Walker, American Girl” (Brit Bennett, Paris Review)

The American Girl phenomenon is often discussed as a universal part of any girl’s experience who was under 10 in the 1990s: conversations, essays and quizzes position the proto-Sex and the City choices between American Girl identities (were you a Molly? a Samantha?) as a catchall personality test for every girl. But the dolls were aimed at a specific market. They were deliberately expensive—drawing on a subconscious premium we place on the American lifestyle pre-Civil Rights—and of course, save Addy, all the American Girls were white.

Addy was not only black, but a slave. The slim book that introduces her, Meet Addy, tells the story of a slave owner forcing a worm into the mouth of his property, that dark-skinned and adorable American girl. With a deadly calm and phenomenal focus, Brit Bennett’s piece turns over the weight of this shifty juxtaposition—the black doll’s tragedy as a source of joy. The cruelty and the magnificence of it are inextricable. She writes about “the grace of my parents, for whom exposing me to brutal stories was an act of love.” Stories can be transposed; every word here evolves the question forward. Read the first two paragraphs and you’ll know that Bennett, a wholly unprecious but fundamentally literary writer, is one of the most exciting writers around.

“The Mother of All Questions” (Rebecca Solnit, Harper’s)

“There is no good answer to being a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question,” writes Rebecca Solnit, neatly packaging a manifesto’s worth of logic into 20 words. She’s talking about the persistent idea that a woman’s life can be morally dictated, and I’ve never been one for slogans, but I would readily get that sentence tattooed.

What this dictation comes down to is biology, more or less, and what Solnit expresses with her gorgeously discreet sense of logic here is that there is simply no great way to get around the fact that (1) female bodies are seen as service objects and (2) female lives are seen as revolving around childbirth (which is of course the greatest bodily service of all). In light of that fact—and it is a fact; I have been conscious ever since childhood that one day I’d have to sacrifice autonomy for family or the other way around—the messages stuffed down women’s throats seem almost callously optimistic. Get it right via these 1000 particulars, says the universe, and you will receive approval, which is the same as happiness! Solnit, always masterful, reminds us that all of this is a false equation; she models a way of getting under and out.


Roxane Gay
Gay is author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, Bad Feminist, and Hunger, forthcoming from Harper in 2016. Her writing has appeared in A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, West Branch, Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, The New York Times Book Review, and Bookforum, among many others.

“The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning” (Claudia Rankine, New York Times Magazine)

The way Claudia Rankine writes about race so plainly and with such profundity and grace overwhelms me. Her essay, “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning,” was a painful but necessary read. Rankine  was clear eyed and unwavering as she outlined the constancy of mourning in black life and reinforced the importance of Black Lives Matter. Each line is full of patient rage as Rankine outlines the reality of being black in America, and the losses we continue to sustain without respite. The word that keeps coming to mind each time I read this essay is, necessary.  I remain haunted and moved by the last line. “Grief, then, for these deceased others might align some of us, for the first time, with the living.”

“How Not to Be Elizabeth Gilbert” (Jessa Crispin, Boston Review)

“How Not to Be Elizabeth Gilbert by Jessa Crispin” was one of the best pieces of criticism I read this year. I love Eat, Pray, Love and have since I first read it. That said, I’ve always recognized that the book is the kind of travel narrative expected from women and wealthy, generally white women at that. In her essay, Crispin is incisive and provocative, particularly in examining the notion that women can only be experts on themselves. This essay, frankly, made me uncomfortable, but I appreciated that discomfort and expanding my thinking. I didn’t agree with all of Crispin’s points but damn, she made me think about writing as a woman, the expectations we face and the challenges of overcoming those expectations.


Tom Scocca
Scocca is the executive features editor of Gawker Media, the weather reviewer for The Awl, and the author of Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future.

“Ina Garten Does It Herself” (Choire Sicha, Eater)

This piece presents itself as a “profile” of Ina Garten, and was even received as such, with a flurry of OMG I love Ina tooooo tweets, but it is something else entirely: “while many might think of her career as being a person who appears on television, she is rather a cookbook writer,” Sicha writes, and what follows is a chatty-seeming but ruthless exercise in close reading of text and utterance that goes thousands of miles away from the kitchen and countless dark fathoms below the surface of aspirational prosperity and comfort, into the cold lightless gears of power.

“The Bully’s Pulpit: On the elementary structure of domination” (David Graeber, The Baffler)

What is the nature of bullying? “Bullying,” Graeber writes, “creates a moral drama in which the manner of the victim’s reaction to an act of aggression can be used as retrospective justification for the original act of aggression itself.” His essay mostly considers the relationship between the logic of the schoolyard and the logic of military conflict, but the clarity of that central concept—reaction as justification for the action that provoked it—read also as a precise accounting of the theatrics of brutality and backlash that would occur in Paris and beyond after the essay was published.

**Two bonus picks from my own publication: “Prime of Life: The Story of My 20s, as Told in Amazon Purchases,” by Lacey Donohue, on Gawker (“a grimly hilarious piece of experimental memoir”) and “The Player Whose Bell Stayed Rung,” by Dave McKenna for Deadspin (“in all the coverage of the NFL and concussions, I don’t think anything else quite fused of the joys and the horrors of football”).


Ann Friedman
Friedman is a freelance journalist, columnist for New York magazine’s website, and a contributing editor to The Gentlewoman. She also makes pie charts and sends a weekly email newsletter.

“Free Joan Didion” (Haley Mlotek, The Awl)

I went all the way back to January to pick this essay by Haley Mlotek, which made me think about one of my favorite writers in a new way. That’s sort of the point, actually: Joan Didion is one of everybody’s favorite writers. Mlotek’s essay explores how she has made a transition from merely a beloved writer to an easy shorthand for a certain type of literary importance.

“How They Do in Oxford” (Kiese Laymon, ESPN the Magazine)

Can’t believe I’m choosing a sports feature! But Kiese Laymon’s essay helped me better understand a few things I’m pretty ignorant about—the appeal of football and the lived experience of racism in the south—in expansive detail. It’s highly personal but also universal and relevant to contentious issues of the moment, which means it’s hitting on all levels that a great essay should.


Francesca Mari
Mari is a longform editor and writer at Texas Monthly.

A piece of criticism I would have included, if only it existed: a follow-up by James Wood on Elena Ferrante’s complete Neapolitan tetralogy. Wood introduced Ferrante to many American readers (myself included) when the author’s first Neapolitan novel (My Brilliant Friend) was published in the US in 2013. This fall the fourth and final came out. And though many interesting pieces of criticism attended it, I long for Wood’s definitive dissection. Wood’s magisterial style surpasses that of almost anything he might pick up to review. And yet he only seems to add to one’s admiration of a book even as he dismantles and demystifies it.

“Young Saul” (Louis Menand, The New Yorker)

Another biography of Bellow, another excuse for all the East Coast magazines to pontificate on the most laureled man in American letters. Yet, Louis Menand’s piece in The New Yorker is essential for its crisp, short sentences and his incidental insight. Take for example this casual remark in the first graf—”‘Herzog’ turned him into a public figure, a writer of books known even to people who don’t read books—an ‘author.'” Or this brief explanatory remark, “Nobels are awarded to writers who are judged to have universalized the marginal.” Every paragraph is studded with brilliant little baubles.

“In the New Whitney” (Ingrid Rowland, New York Review of Books)

As citizens, I think we’re obliged to read Ingrid Rowland on the glass-and-steel terrestrial ship that is the new house of American art. Rowland’s prose is sharp, both forceful and informative. She explains the compromise inherent in architecture (particularly in designing a museum, a creation in service of other creations), and nods to the difficulties of dreaming up something timeless for the shapeshifting seas of the New York skyline. The piece is stunning, much like the new museum itself.

**Two bonus picks from my own publication: Country Notes by Sterry Butcher (“Butcher is like the modern E.B. White or Marilynne Robinson when Robinson writes from the perspective of Father Ames in ‘Gilead'”) and “The Will of God” by John Spong (“moved me to laugh and cry”).


Rachel Syme
Syme is a writer, reporter, & editor living in New York. Her work has appeared in/on: The New Yorker, The New York Times (print edition and Sunday magazine), GQ, T Magazine, Grantland, New York, Matter, Billboard, The Wall Street Journal, and NPR. She is currently working on her first nonfiction book (for Random House).

“Against Chill” (Alana Massey, Matter)

Full disclosure: Alana and I are now pals IRL, but I had only encountered her via the Twitterverse before I read “Against Chill” in April. We actually met as a result of this essay (which contains so many #firethoughts that it is hard to pick out a favorite line)—after I read it three times through and got my bearings back, I thought to myself, “ok, wherever this woman is in the world, I have to find her, sit down with her, and let her brilliance wash over me in waves.” Massey’s essay was a part of Matter’s “Getting It” series, about relationships, but it stands on its own as a powerful argument about why affecting​​ “chill” is a pose that is working for no one, not just in terms of love but as an entire​ flawed​ worldview. As Massey wrote: “Chill takes and never gives. Chill is pathologically unfeeling but not even interesting enough to kill anyone. Chill is a garbage virtue that will destroy the species. Fuck Chill.”​ She ​dismantles, with a withering but measured tone, the act of putting distance between yourself and the world as not just an insipid social ​trend but a​s a​ ​veneer​ that is holding us all back​ —from feeling how we really feel, ​from ​getting what we really want. I have zero chill about how good this piece is. And so I’ll urge you all to read it, waving my hands around and making a bit too much noise to ever look cool. Because why would you want to be chill when you can be enthusiastic, ​warm, and bursting at the seams? Life is too short to pretend not to care about it.

“The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison” (Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, New York Times Magazine)

I will read every last word that Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah writes, which is why I am so glad that at the tail end of 2015 she announced that she will be publishing a book (though now we have to wait years for it!). It is always wonderful to read a profile that reads like a true meeting of of minds, a kind of osmosis between writer and subject (so many of them can feel at best staid, and at worst predatory). This piece where RKG writes about the long career of Toni Morrison felt like a dance, and it flows back and forth between being a reported profile, a lyrical essay, a deep work of historical research, and a polemic about the states of both black and women’s literature—I appreciate that this piece is so unclassifiable but comes together in the end like a long prose poem, which is what I think the best profiles do; they break down genre boundaries and you start to wonder where the subject ends and the writer begins and you keep learning new things along the way. Even Kaadzi Ghansah’s in-between paragraphs are gorgeous, those quiet moments when she is setting the scene between interviews or quotes from Morrison. She writes, “It was still winter, but the day had spring undertones, a good deal of sun and now a pink evening sky that I could see through the slots of the skyscrapers. Across the way, I could see a dance class that was in session, a row of arms in flight. Yellow taxis scuttled down below like beetles. The building directly adjacent to his office seemed to be a hotel, and someone was turning down the sheets. It was one of those moments in which New York feels timeless.” I don’t think I have read a better throwaway paragraph in a long reported piece this year.

“The Meme-ification of Misandry” (Charlotte Shane, Matter)

2015 was the year I discovered the work of Charlotte Shane (which makes me already late to the game, her amazing TinyLetter, Prostitute Laundry, began in early 2014 and is now being collected into a book). I am so glad I did. Shane writes about all kinds of things—sex work, bodies, feminism, identity politics, emotional labor—but one of my favorite essays she wrote this year was this one, both a look back at the growing “misandry meme” that has been bubbling up throughout the Internet (2015 was also the year it became en vogue to talk publicly online about not liking males) and a passionate argument about why lazy misandry is just as bad for women as lazy misogyny. She writes about how most popular misandrist language comes from a place of privilege (she argues that it is only possible to mock men without the fear of violent retribution) and also says that many anti-men jokes are obscuring the larger systemic issues underneath: “But sometimes, misandrist jokes create a cycle of sisterly confirmation in which discussions about women’s rights begin and end with how we’re wronged by individual men — which may never turn into an analysis of the larger power structures supporting sexism.” I always appreciate Shane’s writing for how clear it is, but also how full of fire it is. It is very rare to find a writer who can fully support an argument while consistently dropping in surprising provocations that make you think in an entirely new way, but that is just what Shane does.

“Not Knowing” (Katherine Bernard, The Awl)

One of my favorite books of the year was Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and like any book that contains multitudes, it inspired some of the best writing of the year as people tried to grapple with its pages. One of my favorite essays to come out of wrestling with Nelson was Katherine Bernard’s beautiful, meandering journey through her own queer identity in “Not Knowing”—Bernard wrote something that is part essay, part memoir, part longform poetry, part performance, and I found myself really hypnotized by her work. It never comes to any one conclusion—instead, it raises questions and makes you think about your own ways of defining yourself. Sometimes the most moving writing doesn’t hit hard, instead it envelops you like a cloak and makes you feel warm and protected, in the hands of someone who, like everyone else, is just trying to figure it out.


Longreads Editor Pick: Sari Botton
@saribotton

“They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” (Jenny Zhang, BuzzFeed)

Zhang fired off this incisive piece in response to poet Michael Derrick Hudson’s admission that he’d appropriated a Chinese pseudonym–Yi–Fen Chou, the name of a woman with whom he’d gone to high school, without her knowledge or consent—to enhance his chances of having one of his poems published, first in Prairie Schooner, and then in Best American Poetry 2015. The essay ranges far beyond that one mortifying example of callous white male entitlement. It’s a bruising, comprehensive catalogue of the many ways in which the white publishing establishment marginalizes and takes advantage or writers of color, making them suffer for their otherness with both discrimination and envy. As an acquiring editor myself, I have been unconsciously guilty of some of these, and I’m grateful for lesson. The piece is also a call to arms. “For those of us who didn’t grow up entitled, those of us who grew up underestimated, underinvited, undersolicited, underacknowledged, underloved, I say let’s expose each other’s excellence.”

“Selfie: The Revolutionary Potential of Your Own Face, In Seven Chapters” (Rachel Syme, Matter)

Syme’s meditation on the selfie as a vital, valid contemporary means of self-expression is as smart as it is fun. In making her argument that taking self-portraits and posting them on social media can be empowering for women, she presents a well-researched history of women photographing themselves spanning more than a century, from Virginia Woolf’s great aunt in 1883 to Kim Kardashian today. In another section, she includes the selfies and stories of others, which she solicited on social media as she was working on the piece. Throughout, Syme takes to task those who would dismiss the practice of taking and posting selfies as shallow and vain, defending it as a way of allowing women to boldly be seen—something misogynist culture discourages—and to project self-images of their own making. She writes, “We are writing the story of how we want to be seen.”


Longreads Editor Pick: Emily Perper
@Emily_Perper

“‘Where’s My Cut?’ On Unpaid Emotional Labor” (Jess Zimmerman, The Toast)

As a woman-type person and a good listener, I connected immediately to Jess Zimmerman’s essay. It’s about all the big and small ways women provide emotional support to their male friends without hope of reciprocation. Zimmerman puts into words what so many people feel but can’t explain: Why is emotional labor—pseudo-therapy sessions with lovelorn dude friends, for instance—seen as effortless when it is, in fact, extremely draining and utterly taken for granted? Zimmerman discusses #GiveYourMoneyToWomen, housework, and capitalism with eloquence and sharpness. Required reading for anyone who has had a friend, like I did in college, who wanted to be a Navy SEAL after graduation, ate lunch with me every day and updated me on the minutiae of his sunrise workouts without letting me get a word in for an entire semester. He hasn’t spoken to me in three years, because (I assume) he can no longer hold me captive over food. Zimmerman’s essay captures the nuances of relationships like ours.

“On Pandering” (Claire Vaye Watkins, Tin House)

No “Best Of 2015” would be complete without the transcript of Claire Vaye Watkins’ lecture from the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop. “On Pandering” inspired discussion about the differences in privilege among white men, white women and people of color, as well as the patriarchal structure of academia and the literary canon. I yelled in recognition as I read lines like “Nearly all of my life has been arranged around this activity. I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.” And: “She can write like a man, they said, by which they meant, She can write.” Watkins’ words inspire me to interrogate my motivations, my chosen mentors and where I find inspiration.

See the entire Longreads Best of 2015 Collection.