Longreads Best of 2015: Arts & Culture

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

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Shannon Proudfoot
Senior writer with Sportsnet magazine

The Late, Great Stephen Colbert (Joel Lovell, GQ)

Stephen Colbert has pulled off the rare feat of being a public figure for the better part of a decade while keeping his true self almost entirely obscured behind a braying façade. Here, with such uncommon intelligence, sensitivity and nuance, Joel Lovell shows us who’s been under there the whole time. The writer is very present in the story, sifting through the meaning of what he finds and tugging us along behind him through reporting and writing that starts out rollicking and then turns surprisingly raw and emotional. But Lovell never gets in his own way or turns self-indulgent; that’s a tough thing to pull off. The word I kept coming back to in thinking about this story was “humane”—it just feels so complex and wise, and unexpectedly aching, buoyed with perfect, telling details and effortlessly excellent writing.

Unfollow (Adrian Chen, New Yorker)

It would have been easy—maybe even justified—to slip into a sneer when writing a profile of Megan Phelps-Roper, one of the most prominent young faces of the Westboro Baptist Church, which traffics in an almost cartoonish sort of hatred. It also would have made for a boring and cheap story. Instead, Adrian Chen begins with Phelps-Roper tweeting “Thank God for AIDS!” on World AIDS Day, and then lays out how she and the rest of her congregation arrived at their beliefs, and how it was that Phelps-Roper ultimately came to turn her back on almost every other thing she’d known. In Chen’s telling, Westboro’s tenets and practices become comprehensible, if still repellent, and a central character who could easily have been a two-dimensional villain instead reveals herself to be intelligent, engaging and reflective—someone you root for. This is a redemption tale for the social media age, without an ounce of the saccharine.


Doree Shafrir
Culture writer at BuzzFeed News

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

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s profile of Toni Morrison is both a stunning portrait of one of America’s greatest authors and a keenly felt meditation on race, particularly in the publishing industry. The first person can often be trying in profiles, but here Kaadzi Ghansah wields her perspective skillfully and judiciously to show just how significant Morrison’s contribution to the world has been — and why we have no right to expect anything more than what she’s given.

Taylor Swift Is Definitely In Her Zone (Jia Tolentino, Jezebel)

I could read Jia Tolentino dissecting pop stars — or actually, pretty much anything — all day. Here, she uses the occasion of a Swift concert in Washington, D.C. (and, nominally, the format of a concert review) to deliver a brilliant, hilarious, complicated consideration of what makes Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift. Tolentino is ruthless in her dissection of Swift’s outfits (“on Swift, lingerie is almost businesslike”), her dancing (“she’s phenomenal at posing and can’t move her hips”), her fans (their screams are aching with “ambient desperation”), and yet, she can’t help but admit that she had the time of her life at the show, “a 12-year-old having the best night of her life.”


Josh Dean
Brooklyn-based magazine writer.

Searching for Sugar Daddy (Taffy Brodesser-Akner, GQ)

I’m not sure if this falls under the category of arts but it’s certainly culture of some kind — a culture of terrible humans occupying a realm that few of us will ever stumble into. I like pretty much everything Taffy writes, because she is so incredibly entertaining in the way she types words into sentences that assemble to form stories, but I’m sure I’ve never had more fun reading her work than I had reading this one. I’m aware that it created a bit of a kerfluffle with certain women who felt it was demeaning to sex workers, but I’m not sure I buy that or care because no one in here is doing anything he or she doesn’t want to be doing, everyone is rewarded in his or her own way, and I have to imagine all parties herein know how gross and terrible these transactions are and probably don’t care at all what we think of them because they are being paid well in money or, um, company. Or at least that’s how I rationalized it over the past 60 seconds while forming that thought. It’s a fun story. I liked reading it. You will too.

“THE STAGE WAS SET. AND WE TURNED UP. AND THE PEOPLE SAID, ‘YES.’ AND THEN IT JUST EXPLODED.” (Alex Bilmes, Esquire UK)

I realize that technically a Q&A isn’t what we think of as a piece of longform, but this is certainly a long read, and it’s a tremendous one. I would read literally any interview with Noel Gallagher —the guy is so honest and refreshing and hilarious — and this is maybe his longest and most entertaining yet. Anyone who’s done celebrity stories, and I’ve done my share, understands that the biggest frustration and challenge is getting the famous person to say or do something, anything, interesting. That’s incredibly hard in most cases. So many of them aren’t that interesting, beyond their talent at acting/singing/painting/whatever, and those who are are trained to be boring – if you’re boring, you can’t create controversy. The mad science of celebrity PR is maximizing exposure of your client while not allowing said client to have a three-dimensional personality. That’s why so many of these stories are conversations about “the project” over lunch. But Noel – Noel doesn’t give a single fuck. He enjoys talking, and that’s evident from this interview’s opening moments, when Alex Bilmes asks him if he has a hobby. Noel answers: “This is my hobby!” Prompting Alex to ask, “You mean, music?” Noel: “No! This: doing interviews. I fucking love it. I could do this all day long. It’s sick.” Even if you don’t know Noel, or care about Oasis or Britpop or even rock, this is well worth your while. But you should also care about Oasis, because they were great. Thanks mostly to Noel.


Taffy Brodesser-Akner
GQ correspondent and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.

The Late, Great Stephen Colbert (Joel Lovell, GQ)

The best profile of the year, in my opinion, was Joel Lovell’s Stephen Colbert profile. Lovell’s work has always been a big influence on me—my first-ever profile was published in the same issue of the New York Times Mag that had his excellent George Saunders cover story—but this one was especially devastating. Lovell comes in sad, but we’re not quite sure why. And that’s the thing to me that is best about this story, that we don’t need to know, and to explain it would be to divert from the subject. Lovell’s sadness is our sadness, whatever that sadness is on the day we read it.

Lovell is too smart and too compassionate to be critical or even too questioning of Colbert’s Catholicism, which was nice to see when so many articles ridicule people of faith. Lovell accepts it as it is, and begins to tell the story of Colbert’s loss and the loss that surrounds him constantly. Lovell gets out of his way and never pretends that this isn’t what it is, which is a writer seeking wisdom during a hard bout in his own life. And yet somehow it is the most beautiful and life-affirming thing I’ve read, so illuminating about Colbert (which is the only purpose of a profile, in the end) right down to its heart-breaker of a finish, and the quiet grace that exudes from everything Lovell writes.

‘I’m No Longer Afraid’ (Noreen Malone and Amanda Demme, New York Magazine)

I think a lot of people wouldn’t think of this story as culture journalism, but it is, overwhelmingly so. Rape culture goes hand in hand with arts culture, simply because arts culture is such a perpetrator of rape culture. What we’ve seen these past two years in terms of how hard it’s been for people to reconcile the fact that someone as beloved as America’s Dad was a serial rapist of the highest and most magnified order was terrifying. This story was great because it quietly and calmly displayed the evidence with painstaking testimony, implicitly asking the reader if he or she still could have doubts after reading these testimonies. This was the definitive story for anyone who was not compelled by woman after woman coming out. It was seeing all these women together and collecting their stories that made this piece so powerful. When I read this, I was reminded of the power of testimony, and of journalism.


Jessica Gross
Writer who lives in New York with her dog, Benji.

A Very Revealing Conversation With Rihanna (Miranda July, T Magazine)

This is ostensibly a profile of Rihanna, but it reveals just as much about Miranda July and the strangeness of meeting a superstar to write an article about her. A substantial portion of the piece describes July’s trips to and from the interview, including long conversations with her Uber driver, and internal monologue. I can be overly bound by category and precedent, so I’m particularly drawn to writers and artists who eschew genre conventions. (Oh, right, you can do that! You can do whatever you want!) This piece is full of gems that made me laugh, that offered a sense of shared humanity:

I spent the next hour and a half with Jennifer Rosales, Rihanna’s ‘‘24/7’’ assistant. We ordered drinks and discussed Jennifer’s reproductive future. Each time I realized I was getting drunk I nibbled some bread, and when I felt my head becoming too clear I drank more. It was hard work maintaining a light buzz for so long, but it paid off. When Rihanna’s manager, Jay Brown, appeared to tell me that this was one of her first interviews in years I just laughed. And then choked. Because here she was.

July manages to convey the cheesiest sentiments in a manner that is simply not cheesy: her main takeaway is that Rihanna exudes goodness, that she is a soul, that the two of them are, for the brief time-slice of the interview, in love. Corny, right? No. I was never all that interested in Rihanna, but since I read this piece, I’ve been listening to her constantly and googling photo upon photo of her eyes.

The Broad Strokes (Rachel Syme, Grantland)

Oh, for the love of this profile! I read the piece, about “Broad City” stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, because I was already obsessed with the show: not a hard sell. And yet, incredibly, Rachel Syme exceeded my desires, not just giving the dirt on Jacobson and Glazer—what their friendship is like, how they work—but also explaining my obsession with the show to myself. Syme deconstructs its brilliance without ruining the humor at all: a real feat. “Their New York is the New York that can be experienced only as a duo: a kaleidoscopic playground made for two, the kind of cinematic, heightened fun-house version of the city that accompanies the most epic, swooning romances,” she writes. And, later:

To end the debate once and for all, ‘Broad City’ and ‘Girls’ are very different shows that depict two very different New Yorks: The New York of ‘Girls’ is a kind of gray cloud in which to explore the low-level depression and self-absorption of millennials; the New York of ‘Broad City’ is a Choose Your Own Adventure, a colorful circus of multicultural weirdos. It is the New York I remember from my twenties.

I think of these lines often as I walk around New York, my city: how lucky to have art that can transform my perception of my own life, and writers to explain what’s happening.

Terry Gross and the Art of Opening Up (Susan Burton, New York Times Magazine)

This is the Terry Gross profile I have long awaited. YES! A big, emphatic yes. As with the “Broad City” piece, I was pretty much the target audience here, and pounced on this piece like a starving armadillo on a pile of grubs. And oh, did it deliver. (Note: despite our identical last names, Terry Gross and I tragically are not related.) The piece is about Gross and about the art of the interview more broadly, and Susan Burton is sensitive and insightful on both counts. The bits I loved and longed to frame for my walls are too numerous to list, but here’s a sampling: “Gross is an interviewer defined by a longing for intimacy. In a culture in which we are all talking about ourselves more than ever, Gross is not only listening intently; she’s asking just the right questions.” And: “She is acutely attuned to the twin pulls of disclosure and privacy.” And: “In her, a fragility—fair skin, narrow bones—is fused with a powerful sense of self-containment.” Also: “She uses the very public space of the interview to access tenderly personal places.” Finally, some excellent numbers: Terry Gross is 4 feet 11 inches tall and has done around 13,000 interviews. Can you believe that?


Maud Newton
Writer and critic, currently working on a book for Random House about the science and superstition of ancestry.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Lili Loofbourow, Post 45)

Last summer Lili Loofbourow read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series while grappling with her sister’s suicide. In the way novels have of seeming to mirror one’s present experience, the story’s “intrusive literary excavation” cast light on the one Loofbourow herself was conflictedly but doggedly conducting. Like Lenu, one of Ferrante’s characters, Loofbourow was struggling to reconstruct a woman who’d erased herself. She went through her sister’s house, photographed her phone bills and bank statements, contemplated a glass brick of a tablet hidden beneath the sink, covered with fingerprints but wiped clean of all the data it once held. And then she found a sheaf of her sister’s writings: “Her poetry, her life story, and pages and pages on her fear, above all, of having her privacy compromised, of being hacked.” Loofbourow is one of my favorite essayists, and this piece, written as part of a group discussion of Ferrante’s novels, blends criticism and autobiography into the best kind of reading journal.

How Much Damage Can It Do? On the Intellectual Element in Modern Fiction (Christopher Beha, Harper’s)

In the past few years I’ve become increasingly less interested in reading literary criticism, and in this excellent essay Christopher Beha encapsulates many of the reasons why. On the one hand, talented but narrow critics like the New Yorker’s James Wood insist that literature is incompatible with “social comment,” or “preachy presentism.” An also-smart opposing camp rejects Wood’s concern with “the Jamesian ‘palpable present-intimate” but, Beha argues, accepts “the binary Wood had established—you can have the novel or you can have social criticism— n+1 accepted the choice and opted for the latter.” Unconvinced that “the warmth of humanity” and “the social novel” are incompatible, Beha finds hope in the criticism of Adam Kirsch, a poet and poetry critic who “writes for a general audience, under the assumption that a general audience is capable of caring about poetry if a critic makes it sound like something worth caring about.” Kirsch doesn’t write much about fiction, and I’ve never been drawn to his criticism, but Beha makes a strong case for it. “What the contemporary novel needs,” he contends, “is a critic who combines Wood’s belief in the novel as a form with Kirsch’s belief in what literature can do.”


Longreads Editor Pick: Aaron Gilbreath

The Really Big One (Kathryn Schulz, The New Yorker)

Measured by conversation-starting power, few culture articles had as much charge as this one. An earthquake of enormous magnitude was going to strike the Pacific Northwest, Schulz said, and beloved Portland, Oregon was not prepared. I live in Portland. For months, everyone was talking about this article. Friends, coworkers, baristas, wait staff and my family back in Arizona, even people who don’t subscribe to The New Yorker, all were asking: Aren’t you scared? Have you stockpiled food? Do you have a generator? Are you going to secure your house to its foundation? Type “New Yorker” and the first word Google auto-fills is ‘earthquake.’ This pending natural disaster revealed powerful fault lines and the power of storytelling. In a narrative sense, it had everything: danger, visions of apocalypse, a vulnerable populace, a popular city having a cultural moment, and the looming dramatic question of “when?”. The paradisiacal vision of Portlandia suddenly looked less appealing to many people planning to live here. Those of us who did fell into two camps: those who turned their terror into earthquake preparedness kits, and those who did not. The danger is real, but Portland’s greatest danger might not be quakes but good food. There’s so much of it. It isn’t safe to live in a place known for fried artisan dough balls, sausages containing “hand-cut fat” and restaurants named Gravy. In these conditions, Portland’s passionate eaters are likely to suffer cardiac arrest before civil unrest. For now, enough time has passed since The New Yorker story that locals have gone back to our unsafe lives. Our hospitals are still on hills. Our commutes take us over the river where some of us think, “What if this bridge fell?” Beyond that, people have stopped talking about the article and have gone back to talking about where we’re eating, and our food allergies.

Invisible and Insidious (William Vollmann, Harper’s)

For the second time, author William Vollmann traveled to Japan to investigate the Fukushima nuclear disaster’s effects on the Japanese people, landscape and psyche. Weeks after the 2011 meltdown, Vollmann entered the sinister-sounding forbidden zone to interview locals and explore the dangers of the unknown; he wrote about it in an Amazon single. In his 2015 Harper’s piece, he returned to see what had happened during the last four years, and to measure not just isotopes, but the effects of corporate cover ups and government subterfuge on the Japanese public’s health and trust. In towns near the power plant, he asked if people were afraid of eating the fish, breathing the air, or living there. With so much conflicting information, what did they believe? Besides the compelling sense of danger and the thrill of peering inside a shadowy area, part of the story’s appeal is its tenor. Vollmann writes about official statistics and decontamination efforts with biting meta-commentary, crafting dry acerbic phrases to reveal the ridiculousness of certain claims. When the U.S. media moved on from Fukushima to other stories, most Americans did too, but Vollmann is here to tell us that Fukushima isn’t just a Japanese disaster. Nuclear energy is a global danger. Look at Japan, he’s saying. This could be you.