Longreads Best of 2016: Essays & Criticism

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

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Kiese Laymon
A Professor of English and Creative Writing at University of Mississippi, and author of forthcoming memoir, Heavy.

Chicago State of Mind (Derrick Harriell, LA Review of Books)

Derrick Harriell wrote a piece on Chicago State that challenged my understanding of what’s possible with form and content in the long lyric essay. The piece narrativizes educational place and the journey of learning in a beautiful black place that’s trying to survive.


Mira Ptacin
Writer whose work has appeared in NPR, New York Magazine, Guernica, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Tin House, The Rumpus, and more. Author of the memoir Poor Your Soul, and teacher of memoir to women at the Maine Correctional Center.

On Domestic Disobedience (A.N. Devers, The New Republic)

I nominate this sharp-eyed and insightful piece not only because it brilliantly gave us a taste of Claire-Louise Bennett’s collection, but it gives it its proper place in the family tree of nature-writers by blowing “nature-dude” writing out of the water. Devers shows readers how important and triumphantly Bennett’s penmanship is, even in its simplicity: how even writing about the goings-on in the microcosm of a kitchen can dip into great depths to the mind and soul.


Tobias Carroll
Freelance writer, managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and author of the books Reel and Transitory.

Advanced Search (Franceska Rouzard, Real Life Magazine)

The right essay can turn an object or memory that I’d previously found mundane into the stuff of gripping narrative. Such is the case here, as Rouzard’s essay opens with descriptions of AOL dial-up in the mid-1990s before segueing into a capsule history of social media, and then extending into broader questions of identity and the sacred. It neatly parallels its author’s life with broader societal questions, keeping the two in perfect balance, and leaving me with a greater sense of both–I can’t ask a great essay to do more than that.


Sara Benincasa
Screenwriter, comedian, and writer, whose books include Agorafabulous, Great, DC Trip, and Real Artists Have Day Jobs.

Southern Fried Pride: What Hattiesburg’s First Pride Means in the Deep South (Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Medium)

The Reverend Jasmine Beach-Ferrara of the United Church of Christ is a wife, a mother, a lesbian, a former college professor (I took her class at Warren Wilson College), and the executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. In this piece, Jasmine takes a road trip across the Deep South to visit Hattiesburg, Mississippi on the occasion of its very first Pride parade. People like Jasmine do the work that all Americans need, whether they accept it or not. In her peaceful, dignified but impassioned manner, she fights for equality for all Americans. That she happens to be a damn fine storyteller is just icing on the deep-fried cake.

More Than Coffee: New York’s Vanishing Diner Culture (George Blecher, The New York Times)

George Blecher paints a wonderful portrait of the diner he loves the most. He also gives a great bit of history about the rise of the diner in New York City. I grew up in New Jersey, which has its own brilliant and thriving diner culture but I lived in New York for many years. The old diner joints there are just as important as George says. Here in my newer home in Los Angeles, a city I love, I’ve got a few diners I can depend on: in Silverlake, Sunset Junction Coffee Shop; in Los Feliz, House of Pies; and more scattered around town. And in Manhattan, at 100th and Broadway, George has the Metro – for now.


Emily Gould
Half of the Coffee House Press imprint and e-bookstore Emily Books, and the author, most recently, of the novel Friendship.

H.: On Heroin and Harm Reduction (Sarah Resnick, n+1)

This year I started teaching writing workshop classes for the first time, and a lot of students want to learn how to do exactly what Sarah Resnick does here–and so do I! Addressed to a relative with a longstanding heroin habit, as well as a host of other problems, Resnick’s essay goes down several different paths, ultimately illuminating a lot of what’s circuitous and maddening about addiction and recovery as they’re currently understood in America, and how harm reduction programs work. The essay’s idiosyncratic, personal approach makes it more convincing than a straightforward argument for a new understanding of addiction could be. Reading it is memorable the way an experience is.

Perhaps Having Kids Saves You From Mourning the Person you Might Have Been (Laura Hazard Owen, Medium and tinyletter)

Owen publishes her essays about parenthood via newsletter as well as on Medium. She’s a journalist with expertise in publishing, tech and the business of journalism, and she brings the same kind of skepticism about received wisdom and eye for detail to her observations about children and parenting culture as she does to her other work. In this one, she takes on the hardest question of all — whether having children could be a mistake, whether parents can allow themselves to think it might have been. She writes about ambition so well. I will always remember the line here about lying on a couch reading in a beautiful house.


Porochista Khakpour
Author of the forthcoming memoir, Sick (Harper Perennial, August 2017) and the novels The Last Illusion, and Sons & Other Flammable Objects, whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bookforum, Elle, Spin, Slate, and many other publications around the world.

The Weight of James Arthur Baldwin (Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Buzzfeed)

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah has become my favorite writer of my generation since I first read her writing about Dave Chappelle in The Believer several years ago (it was a National Magazine Award finalist, collected in The Best American Nonrequired Reading as well as The Believer’s anthology Read Harder). Since then I’ve been a fan of every piece of hers and this chronicle of traveling to the home of James Baldwin in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France is no exception. (It’s a highlight of what I consider one of the best books of the year, the Jesmyn Ward-edited The First This Time). Ghansah writes about Baldwin from all different angles and with every emotion, braided with her own issues of identity. The result is a hard, rough, beautiful diamond of piece, pushed to brilliance from considerable pressure. Ghansah is perhaps one of the only writers we have today who can live up to Baldwin in so many shades of style and substance.

Who are All the Trump Supporters? (George Saunders, The New Yorker)

Saunders has always been one of my favorite writers–it’s physically impossible for me to not read a piece by him–but this classic from last summer will be surely studied for decades if not centuries in the future. Trump and his supporters are a perfect match for Saunders, who although a liberal, often sketches the America Trump supporters know well in his fiction. The trademark Saundersian dark absurdism is a perfect fit for taking to the campaign trail and interviewing Trump supporters at rallies in Arizona, Wisconsin and California. The result is as funny as it frightening. It’s doubly a punch in the gut to read it now that Trump is, somehow, our president-elect.”Although, to me, Trump seems the very opposite of a guardian angel, I thank him for this: I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail,” Saunders writes, and ends almost prophetically: “But I imagine it that way now.”


Emily Perper
Emily Perper is a writer, bookseller and contributing editor at Longreads. In addition to word-work, they’re on the board of The Frederick Center, which provides resources for queer people in central Maryland.

My Son, the Prince of Fashion (Michael Chabon, GQ)

Both of my “best of” personal essay nominations concern the reaches and limits of parenthood. At GQ, novelist Michael Chabon writes about his trip to Paris Men’s Fashion Week, where his young son, 13-year-old Abe, catches a glimpse of his future and yearns after his tribe. I’d never presume to understand the intricacies of childrearing, but Chabon treats his son with a blend of kindness and respect we’d all do well to emulate with the young folks in our own lives–taking their desires, ideas and motivations seriously, and fostering their artistic instincts. And Chabon is simply an excellent writer, blending gentle self-deprecation with astute observation. He doesn’t need paragraphs of adjectives to transport the reader to the studios and runways of Paris. You are there, sweating in the French summer. You are there, checking out the throngs of stylish young men loitering outside shows. And you there, beaming (Guardedly! Be cool!) at your son, when he recognizes and is recognized.

Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid (Rufi Thorpe, Vela)

Novelist Rufi Thorpe upends traditional discourse around the ponderous/condescending/exhausting query, “Can women have it all?” Instead, she makes a distinction between the selfishness of the artist’s way and motherhood’s requisite selflessness. Beyond her powerful and honest observations, the energy behind her language is distinct and exciting; it’s why I’ll read anything she writes. When I read the line “Children are a hinge that only bends one way,” I gasped.


Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Story Wrangler, WordPress.com and Longreads

Champagne in the Cellar (John Temple, The Atlantic)

During the Second World War, John Temple’s parents hid in a basement in Budapest with a French doctor, underneath a home that German soldiers had made their headquarters. After they separated from the doctor, they never reconnected. For the next 70 years, they wondered what had happened to this man who saved their lives. After his parents’ death, Temple turns to the internet to search for this man, known to him only as Dr. Lanusse. This is a touching story about history, family, memory, and — ultimately — a lasting bond between two families, connected by extraordinary circumstances.


Krista Stevens
Editor, Automattic

My Last JDate (Esther Schor, Tablet Magazine)

Esther Schor leaves her husband after 30 years,“for no one at all!” Online dating after decades of marriage is fraught and Schor’s sometimes awkward wobble toward intimacy is at times charming and sweet, like a toddler learning to walk. What’s stuck with me about this piece is the realization that as we age and eventually fall ill — sometimes terminally — we just don’t have the luxury of time to allow intimate relationships to grow slowly and to naturally shed the pretenses that ignited attraction in the first place. What you lack together in time, you make up for in intensity.


Sari Botton
Writer, contributing editor to Longreads, editorial director of the non-profit TMI Project, and owner of Kingston Writers’ Studio.

What I Pledge Allegiance To (Kiese Laymon, The Fader)

Kiese Laymon is expert at conveying the dangers and complexities of being black in both White and Black America. He also lays devastatingly bare the minds of white folk, from patriotic bullies to the well-meaning liberals, many of them morally lacking and clueless as to “how to justly win or gently lose.” A new professorship brings Laymon back to Mississippi after twenty years away–to a much whiter university town than his native Jackson. On the porch of his university-owned house he finds a weather-worn American flag and a state magnolia flag. In considering whether it’s safe to remove them, and whether he’d want to, he reflects on his experiences of identity in different places and different points in his life.

The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale: How Ayahuasca, an Ancient Amazonian Hallucinogenic Brew, Became the Latest Trend in Brooklyn and Silicon Valley. (Ariel Levy, The New Yorker)

Ariel Levy is one of my favorite writers. As someone who’s fascinated with, but also terrified of, psychedelic drugs, I very much appreciated getting to have a sort of vicarious experience of an Ayahuasca journey via Levy’s essay about hers. Like much of her writing, the piece is smart, funny and viscerally alive.

Reefer Momness: I Got High With My Mom at Hempcon (Taffy Brodesser-Akner, GQ)

This is another of the essays that has stuck with me all year. And Taffy Brodesser-Akner is another of my favorite writers. Dragging her insomniac, anxiety-ridden Hassidic mother to a weed convention in California turns what might otherwise be a humorous but hollow piece of reporting into a humorous reported essay with heart.

What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism (Nicole Chung, The Toast)

In this essay–sparked by a thoughtless comment by one of her in-laws’ friends saying she looks like the entire cast of Fresh Off The Boat–Nicole Chung captures the insult added to injury when people of color find themselves weighing their responses so as not to hurt the feelings of well-meaning but clueless white people.


Mike Dang
Longreads Editor-in-Chief and Editor at WordPress.com / Automattic.

427: Ten Years Without Jen, Twenty-Six With (Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com)

Matt Zoller Seitz’s wife, Jennifer, died of a heart attack on April 27, 2006, and this essay, published on the 10th anniversary of her death, is not a typical story about grief. He tells the reader that up front: “This is not another love letter to Jen…Nor is this a meditation on Jen and the experience of losing Jen by way of criticizing somebody else’s art…It is not an advice piece.” What follows is a piece about Seitz’s “experience of being without Jen,” about not dwelling on bad moments, about giving “yourself permission to just live,” about trying to not force meaning into a date, about how it’s OK to be OK 10 years later. Though Seitz insists he’s not offering any advice, there are plenty of lessons to take away from this piece.


See more from our Best of 2016 series