Longreads Best of 2016: Arts & Culture Writing

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

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

Michael Jackson: Dangerous (Jeff Weiss, Pitchfork)

Earlier this year, Pitchfork began publishing Sunday reviews that explore albums released in the time before said site debuted. This, in turn, has led to a whole lot of smart writers weighing in on the classics, the cult classics, the interesting failures, and the historically significant. Jeff Weiss’s epic take on “Jackson’s final classic album and the best full-length of the New Jack Swing era” is the sort of narrative music writing that’s catnip for me, the kind of work that sends me deeply into my own memories, and leaves me rethinking my own take on the album in question.


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

The Fight of Your Life (Lyra McKee, Mosaic Science)

This may on its surface appear to be a sports story, and it is, but it’s also about culture–the culture of boxing, and the culture of idealized masculinity–those men who never speak up about what hurts. It’s a sad story, and an important one. It also helped me understand chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) a bit more, particularly as it occurs among boxers. McKee goes to Belfast, Boston, Chicago and a small town in western Canada to talk to the people who study CTE and those who’ve experienced its horrific effects among deceased loved ones who were boxers. You don’t need to know that McKee is a Northern Irish girl or the history of Irish boxing as a whole to understand the compassion she brings to the piece along with her reportorial eye.

What Is The Best Night Any Celebrity Has Ever Had At Madison Square Garden? (Sam Donsky, The Ringer)

This piece is incredibly long, detailed, and hilarious. Sam Donsky published it on The Ringer on October 14th, at which point I was already sorely in need of sheer laughter. This piece delivered. I grew up in Jersey and have been to dozens of events at Madison Square Garden over the years. This is a goofy pop culture hallucinogenic mushroom trip that should be savored.


Elisabeth Donnelly
A journalist and the co-author of the depressingly prescient young adult trilogy The Misshapes, under the name Alex Flynn (Polis Books).

Is Everything Wrestling? (Jeremy Gordon, The New York Times Magazine)

Donald Trump has been the media’s own chaos monkey, ably controlling the narrative with unstudied precision, due to all the cracks in the ice. He was a reliable source of hits when he was an outsider billionaire with a Twitter feed, his rallies were a place where a slew of writers could feed their ego nobly playing Cassandra, sneering at the Pandora’s Box of racism and fascism that he opened (an exception: Jeff Sharlet’s clear-eyed view of the religiosity of Trump’s appeal and its relation to the American tradition of self-help hucksters), and even when his campaign should have been over, he was still being talked about a billion times more than everybody else – and any terrifying high school queen bee could tell you that’s how you matter.

But one often glossed-over aspect of Trump’s viability is that he is a pure product of our celebrity culture. He’s been a pseudo-celebrity for decades, using his business acumen to be a cartoony rich guy in the 80s and riding the reality TV train with The Apprentice (thus, NBC the corporation treats him as news on one end; ruffles his hair on late night). We gawk at reality TV, but we hardly interrogate it for the values that it brings into our living rooms. That’s why Jeremy Gordon’s New York Times Magazine essay, “Is Everything Wrestling?” has stuck with me. It gets to a truth of “the Donald” persona and that’s the aspect that he’s “playing a bad guy” in the narrative, or “a heel“ in wrestling parlance, and that’s why he’s been remarkably Teflon when it comes to scandals and, well, qualifications, things that would’ve sunk previous candidates. Scandals stick when they sully a so-called good guy – Trump, however, has always leaned into his larger-than-life reputation, becoming bigger than any possible narrative. Cartoons have that power. Or, to quote Gordon: “When everything becomes a story, the value of concrete truth seems diminished.”

Plus, this piece said we’re in a post-truth world way before everybody else got to it.

What Happened to ‘The Most Liberated Woman in America’? (Alex Mar, Atlas Obscura)

I perk up when I see Alex Mar’s byline, as I know that what ensues will be both intelligent and searching, making me more curious about the subject. My favorite piece that she wrote this year was What Happened to the Most Liberated Woman in America, which ran on Atlas Obscura [full disclosure: co-funded by Longreads]. In it, she visits the septuagenarian Barbara Williamson, a co-founder of a 70s lifestyle experiment that played a leading role in Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, settling dimly in people’s memories as an artifact of the sexual revolution.

Mar does a wonderful job outlining how Williamson’s life became the stuff of a possible sexual utopia and its fallout, while highlighting the patriarchal attitudes that also shaped this lesson. There’s a revealing cameo by Talese himself – who, like all of us, has likely had a very bad 2016 – but Mar’s deceptively gentle touch shows that the ethos that drove Thy Neighbor’s Wife is in a very different place in 2016. She actually understands how to use people’s quotes to get the point across, a necessary skill when we’re beyond truth and all.


Haley Cullingham
Senior editor, Hazlitt

Ripping the Veil (Britt Bennett, The New Republic)

“What does it mean when white audiences are suddenly so eager to consume narratives of black suffering?” Bennett asks, offering vital context to the ever-growing body of art focusing on the history and legacy of slavery.


Ben Huberman
Editor, WordPress.com / Automattic

Winona, Forever (Soraya Roberts, Hazlitt)

Back in February, months before Stranger Things reminded me how much I’d missed Winona Ryder on screen, Soraya Roberts’ Hazlitt piece — a mammoth, almost-9000-word, all-in affair — reminded me how much I missed her as a cultural presence, as someone who matters. The story untangled multiple threads that made up Winona’s ’90s persona, from her signature brand of quirkiness to all the inane gossip stuff, yet you still left the piece with a coherent idea of who Winona was and what made her a pre-Millennial icon. (It also fills me with joy that the only person who might think, “Wow, 2016 was an amazing year!” is Winona Ryder.)


Krista Stevens
Editor, Automattic

Speak, Memory (Casey Newton, The Verge)

When her friend Roman Mazurenko died unexpectedly, Eugenia Kuyda created a digital memorial — a bot that responds to communication using a neural network of Roman’s text messages. Speak, Memory made me think more about the anthropological, historical, and sentimental value of the seemingly mundane interactions we all have with family and friends via text. Fascinating and poignant, Newton’s article parses an emerging human conundrum: what could and should happen to our digital artifacts after we die?

The Secret Life of Tumblr Teens (Elspeth Reeve, New Republic)

Who doesn’t want to know more about the generation that will eventually be in charge? Reeve’s piece illuminates Tumblr, a sphere where anonymity gives teens immediate social acceptability. It’s a place to share bizarre yet benign fetishes and absurd jokes alongside your deepest anxieties and social insecurities. What I loved most about this piece is how emotionally intelligent teens have proven how just being yourself is enough; you can find success in creating, sharing, and curating the “relatable,” those awkward moments of human existence we all share.

By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead (John Hofsess, Toronto Life)

John Hofsess was part of a secret assisted suicide society. Before orchestrating his own death, he helped eight terminally ill people — including the poet Al Purdy — to die on their own terms. I’ve witnessed terminal cancer — the pain, suffering, and indignity of futile treatment. Hofsess’ strong case for returning control to the ill resonates with me. If we’re terminal, shouldn’t we have the right to sidestep death’s timetable and organize a gentle exit, with a favourite playlist and a glass of good wine?


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

Why the Literati Love Muhammad Ali (Janan Ganesh, Financial Times)

Written less than four months before Ali’s passing in June–on the occasion of the release of Davis Miller’s second book about the icon–Ganesh’s piece explores his popularity as a literary subject. He decides that the heroic sports figure and activist appeals most to writers not just because of his heroism, because of his demons as well. That he could be mean-spirited, and was a womanizer and negligent father, added to his complexity as a character.

Prince’s Women and Me: The Collaborators Who Inspired a Generation (Porochista Khakpour, The Village Voice)

Since Prince’s sudden passing in April, there’s been no shortage of articles and essays about him as an artist, icon, and human being, and rightfully so. But here novelist and essayist Porochista Khakpour pays homage instead to the women who surrounded him–the musical collaborators, the wives, the lovers. Khakpour says that those women–many of them women of color–and Prince’s shows of respect for them, helped her to define and understand herself as a woman.

Sex, Drugs, And Bestsellers: The Legend Of The Literary Brat Pack (Jason Diamond, Harper’s Bazaar)

Searching for John Hughes author Jason Diamond deconstructs the publishing industry’s mythologizing of the “literary brat pack”–Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz, Donna Tartt, Jill Eisenstadt and other writers in the 1980s as famous for their coke-fueled late nights at the Odeon as they were for publishing celebrated novels before the age of thirty.

“This Is Just What Success Looks Like”: The Illuminating Work of Saeed Jones (Molly McArdle, Brooklyn Magazine)

An inspiring profile of Saeed Jones–author of the poetry collection Prelude to Bruise, and the forthcoming memoir, How Men Fight for Their Lives who’s also a BuzzFeed editor and champion of emerging writers, committed to promoting diversity in publishing.


See more from our Best of 2016 series