Favorite new writer discovery of 2012
I’m always scared of making lists like this, because a year is a long time, and I read a lot, and invariably I’ll forget writers and pieces that I liked very much. But this category is easy for me: Michael J. Mooney. He wrote back-to-back stories for D Magazine this summer that are so different but the same in that they both knocked me on my ass. First he wrote about a brutal rape in “When Lois Pearson Started Fighting Back.” (It is a difficult read, but the ending is more than worth it.) And then he wrote the most amazing bowling story ever in “The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever.” Plus, he’s a straight-up good dude. Love this guy so much.
Best election story
I’m going to seem like a homer here, but I don’t care: Charlie Pierce did journalism on Esquire.com during this entire election cycle that bordered on heroic—and I don’t use that word lightly. In its ideas, in its language, in its sheer volume, his account of this election, taken as a whole, is humbling and inspiring at the same time. Start with the end, “The Greatness of Barack Obama is Our Great Project” and go back from there.
Best personal blog post/essay
I’m going to pick two stories here, both sports stories. Writers hate hearing athletes say, “You never played the game,” but it’s hard to deny that former athletes understand the games they played better than most of us do. Just the other day, The Classical posted a meditation by former basketball player Flinder Boyd about Ricky Rubio, “The Ricky Rubio Experience.” I’m not sure I can say why, exactly, but I was really moved by this story. Some of The Classical guys can be snide little shits, far too Internet cool, but Boyd wrote with real heart here. I love this story.
The second is by one of my most favorite friends, Kevin Van Valkenburg of ESPN. He wrote about the death of a semi-pro football player in a story called “Games of chance.” Kevin played college football at the University of Montana, and he writes beautifully about the pull of the game as well as the charge that comes from hitting and with being hit. Sometimes the first person interrupts; here it informs.
Best crime story
I see the great David Grann has already picked this one, but I’ll echo his pick, because it was that good: Pamela Colloff’s “The Innocent Man” for Texas Monthly is an epic, immersive, amazing story. And full credit to the gang down in Austin for committing so completely to longform journalism. That this story even exists makes me hopeful about so many things.
The story that made me feel the most awesome about just about everything
I’ve always been an optimist about writing, or at least I’ve always tried to be an optimist about writing, and 2012, for me, has been filled with reasons for optimism (like Pamela Colloff’s story above, which is really a multi-layered testament to the power of belief). Yes, this business remains in flux, and yes, many good writers continue to put more love into their writing than their writing returns to them. But I still feel like we live in a golden age, filled with possibility. One of the stories that most made me feel that way—both because of the story itself, and because of its subject—was “How One Response to a Reddit Query Became a Big-Budget Flick” by Jason Fagone in Wired. The title describes the tale exactly, and it’s just as improbable and fun and crazy as it sounds. I feel like this story sums up the modern writing business as well as any: There’s still plenty of lightning out there, and there are still lots of bottles, and every now and then, someone still catches one with the other.
“I wanted to do right by Joey,” Chris Jones now says of “The Things That Carried Him” which Esquire published in May 2008. In 17,000 words, he told the story of one soldier’s return home, structured backward from his funeral to the moment an IED broke his body. He sprinkled details—a girl in a flowered dress and the two yellow ribbons tied to a tree on Elm Street—that act as emotional cues and lend lyricism to the writing. The piece won the 2009 National Magazine Award for feature writing.
David Grann: The Mark of a Masterpiece, The New Yorker, July 12, 2010
Just a perfectly constructed, painful reveal of the sinister side of the art world, starting at its origins, with the artist’s fingerprints.
Michael Kruse: Stories of LeBron and sportswriter intertwined, tangled, The St. Petersburg Times, Nov. 21, 2010
Maybe the best way to approach an over-covered subject: write about him by writing about someone else. (See Breslin, Jimmy. Digging JFK Grave was His Honor.)
Eli Saslow: For a look outside the presidential bubble, Obama reads 10 personal letters a day, The Washington Post, March 31, 2010
For a look inside the presidential bubble, report the hell out of the story of a single letter.
CJ Chivers: A Firsthand Look at Firefights in Marja, The New York Times, April 19, 2010
Every time CJ Chivers heads off to war and sends back a story, I feel like less of a man and less of a writer.
Tom Junod: Eating the Whole Animal, from the Inside-Out, Esquire, April 2010
Pure entertainment by one of the all-time great magazine writers. Also contains the sentence: “The veins are what freaked me out.” Impossible to resist. Reading, not eating, that is.
A personal essay in which Rachel Jones, a Christian American living in Djibouti, reflects on her friendship with a Muslim woman there, and the more universal aspects of faith.
Rachel Pieh Jones | Longreads | December 2017 | 15 minutes (3,733 words)
“And sometimes it’s the very otherness of a stranger, someone who doesn’t belong to our ethnic or ideological or religious group, an otherness that can repel us initially, but which can jerk us out of our habitual selfishness, and give us intonations of that sacred otherness, which is God.” — Karen Armstrong, author of several books on comparative religion.
When God and his mother were released from the maternity ward they came directly to my house to use the air conditioner. It was early May and the summer heat that melted lollipops and caused car tires to burst enveloped Djibouti like a wet blanket. Power outages could exceed ten hours a day. Temperatures hadn’t peaked yet, 120 degrees would come in August, but the spring humidity without functioning fans during power outages turned everyone into hapless puddles. I prepared a mattress for Amaal* and her newborn and prayed the electricity would stay on so she could use the air conditioner and rest, recover.
In 2004 when my family arrived in Djibouti, I needed help minimizing the constant layer of dust; Amaal needed a job. I needed a friend and Amaal, with her quick laugh and cultural insights became my lifeline. My husband worked at the University of Djibouti and was gone most mornings and afternoons, plus some evenings. We had 4-year-old twins and without Amaal I might have packed our bags and returned to Minnesota out of loneliness and culture shock.
I hired Amaal before she had any children. She wasn’t married yet and her phone often rang while she worked, boys calling to see what she was doing on Thursday evening. To see if she wanted to go for a walk down the streets without street lights where young people could clandestinely hold hands or drink beer from glass Coca-Cola bottles. She rarely said yes until Abdi Fatah* started calling. He didn’t drink alcohol and didn’t pressure her into more physical contact than she was comfortable with in this Muslim country. She felt respected. She said yes.
Did you know that generations of writers at other publishers have referred to Conde Nast as “Condescending and Nasty”?
I learned of this in the wake of Women’s Wear Daily publishing what appeared to be a gossip item gleaned through eavesdropping, about Condé Nast fashion editors being catty about incoming editor-in-chief Radhika Jones. According to WWD, “one of the company’s fashion editors in candid conversation with industry peers” said some pretty predictable and mean things about the outfit Jones wore to her first meeting.
Let me pause here to acknowledge a few things. First, my love of Vanity Fair is well-documented in the hallowed pages of this website that you are reading. It is a magazine for rich people, which is a thing I will never be, and yet they cannot stop me reading it! Even though he never responds to my emails, I am Graydon Carter’s biggest fan, and not just because he made my ex-boyfriend cry. I love Vanity Fair and I am so excited Radhika Jones is going to lead it.
Everyone is excited about Jones. I mean, I guess besides this one Condescending and Nasty fashion person. Even the tone of the WWD gossip item was Team Radhika. WWD, arguably a women’s fashion publication (it’s in the name, please don’t actually argue with me), thought it was eye-roll-inducing for this fashion person to be mean at the water cooler about Jones’ cartoon-fox-printed tights and “navy shiftdress strewn with zippers.”
I’m sure many of you disagree. I have had way more conversations than I anticipated about this piece this morning already and lots of people are mad at WWD for publishing the piece at all, and for not calling out the cattiness more overtly. Jones’ New York Times colleague Jodi Kantor tweeted, “So this is the way our brilliant colleague who just shot the moon gets written about.”
I understand that. It’s frustrating. I anticipate being called whatever the media equivalent of a Nazi apologist is for this, but: the WWD is actually a pretty mild introduction to what Jones will receive going forward, particularly as the first female (and non-white) Graydon Carter, and it’s not much different than what you could find in the pages of Vanity Fair for years. If Jones changes that, great. If not, the WWD is a relatively light taste of what she’ll be approving in that magazine going forward.
Why do I dare call it mild? Because the WWD piece is on her side. It is very, very obviously Team Radhika. Lots of people have told me they think it should be more overt, less subtle. I have a strong, steadfast love for subtlety. When I wrote recently about my time at DNAinfo, I told you all that one of the things we believed was that you didn’t have to talk down to readers, you could give them the facts, and some good quotes, and they didn’t need to be explicitly told something, or someone was bad. You could show, instead of tell, that the Manhattan Community Board 2 liquor license committee frequently operated in a way that was arbitrary and capricious, for example.
I undersold the fact that there’s a little bit of an art to that, to how the facts and the quotes are laid out. So let’s look at the WWD piece.
I would argue that even the headline’s specifying “personal” style is already a point for Jones, signaling that the critics to come are picking at something that has nothing to do with Jones’ new job. The sub-headline is solely about Jones’ “extensive literary and editorial experience.”
The second paragraph immediately lays out Jones’ credentials — and does so in a way that signals great disdain for what the Condescending and Nasties chose to pay attention to:
But while Jones may have been editorial director of the books department at The New York Times, an alum of Time magazine and The Paris Review, a graduate of Harvard and holds a doctorate in English and comparative literature from Columbia — none of this impressed Condé Nast-ers. They, instead, were aghast over her sense of style.
The next paragraph reinforces that, noting that Jones’ critic was “remarking not on the context of Jones’ first visit, but rather the outfit she wore.” PRIORITIES, WWD is silently screaming here.
And the next one employs em-dashes to emphasize that point:
According to the fashion editor — who omitted Jones’ admirable literary accomplishments from conversation — the incoming editor wore a navy shiftdress strewn with zippers, a garment deemed as “iffy” at best.
The closing paragraph, to me, is the prizewinner:
The fashion editor did not remark on Carter’s outfit for the occasion. After 25 years at Vanity Fair’s helm, he walks away from the job with a vibrant legacy that is noted, not for his signature wonk hairstyle, but rather his wrangling of A-list celebrities and publishing of writers including Christopher Hitchens and Dominick Dunne.
A friend of mine said that while she is Team Radhika, it might be fair for the Condé Nasties to judge Jones’ outfit, since the magazine is very much part of the “high fashion” world. I understand this point, but would note that Vanity Fair‘s pages have long been filled with ball gowns, and to my (expert) knowledge, Graydon Carter never wore one to a meeting. We can trust that Jones, with her years of editorial experience and impressive education, knows her strengths and less-strengths. Ideally, somewhere in the dark, catty world of fashion, she will be able to find someone to lead that part of the magazine who has savvy, creativity and heart.
In the meantime: Radhika, please email me and tell me where you got the dress and tights WWD described because I desperately want them.