The other day, I saw a tweet of an obituary, seemingly written by a bot. The obituary’s odd but delightful phrases like “Brenda was an avid collector of dust,” “Brenda was a bird,” “she owed us so many poems,” and “send Brenda more life” were hilarious to some people — send me more life too, please! — while others couldn’t help but wonder: Is this really a bot?
You didn’t have to fall too far down a rabbit hole to learn that the obituary, in fact, was not written by a bot, but a human — writer and comedian Keaton Patti — as part of his book,I Forced a Bot to Write This Book. Some commenters, perhaps proud of their human-sniffing capabilities or just well-versed in real machine-written prose, were quick to point out that there was no way a bot could write this.
Even though the obituary was human-generated, it still reminded me of two editors’ picks we recently featured on Longreads — Jason Fagone’s feature “The Jessica Simulation” and Vauhini Vara’s essay “Ghosts” — in which AI-powered prose is a significant (and spooky) part of these stories. Both pieces prominently feature GPT-3, a powerful language generator from research laboratory OpenAI that uses machine learning to create human-like text. In simple terms, you can feed GPT-3 a prompt, and in return, it predicts and attempts to complete what comes next. Its predecessor, GPT-2, was “eerily good” at best, specializing in mediocre poetry; GPT-3, which is 100 times larger and built with 175 billion machine learning parameters, comes closer to crossing the Uncanny Valley than anything, and raises unsettling questions about the role AI will play — or is already playing — in our lives. Read more…
A beautifully written, wrenching story from one of the best feature writers in America. It’s about football, sure, but it’s actually about a son and the mother who raised him — a mother who was blinded in her late 20s by a bucket of bleach mixed with lye. DeAndre Hopkins was 10 years old at the time. Mina Kimes’ brilliant prose tells an incredible story of resilience and love. It’ll stick with you for quite some time after: If her son scores, she explains, her daughter will help her stand up and lean over the barrier so she can accept the football from Hopkins. This ritual serves as a reminder that, while she can’t see her son, he still sees her — and he wants the world to see her too.
This isn’t exactly a feature, but to label it simply a Q&A is to sell it short. It’s just a lovely, lovely interview with Jackie MacMullan, one of the all-time greats in sports journalism. Personally, I can’t imagine being a female sportswriter right now without someone like Jackie Mac to look up to, without someone like Jackie Mac paving the way. She opens up about her crazy career path and her issues with access journalism (preach!) in this day and age in the NBA. She also discussed the problems with writers being fans (again, preach!) openly. I loved all of it, and it’s worth sitting down to read. It’s not quite a feature, but you’ll feel you have a good read on the GOAT by the end. (Also, she references her relationship with Celtics great Red Auerbach … who is the person I named my dog after! Bonus points for that.)
One of the best stories I read this year came in just under the wire, in SI’s Sportsperson of the Year issue in mid-December. Jenny Vrentas wrote a masterful piece on an athlete I thought I knew quite a bit about. But it became clear as I began reading this that there were layers to Megan Rapinoe I was totally unaware of, layers that made her even more intriguing both as an athlete and person. There’s a care and precision to the reporting and writing of this piece that comes through in each and every word. You can tell it’s important to Jenny that just the fourth unaccompanied woman to be named Sportsperson of the Year have her story told honestly and fairly. And she does just that. Read more…
Lady Godiva rides through the streets of Coventry. July 1, 1962. (John Franks/Keystone/Getty Images)
Sarah Haas | Longreads | October 2019 | 11 minutes (2,825 words)
In the days after reading Coventry, Rachel Cusk’s newest book and first collection of essays, I knew I’d been affected — deeply — but struggled to understand how. A binding together of pieces published between 2006 and 2019, it’s not clear whether Coventry was written with its final product in mind. Sure, the architecture seems intentional — as in it makes sense to read the collection from left to right — but without a central nor obvious thesis at its core, interpretation of the whole seemed to require an unfounded creativity. To make sense of Coventry I’d created a narrative that positioned the book against Cusk’s own storied life, imagining the collection as an allegory for the author’s experience of having been pummeled by so many critics. Reviewers of her other nonfiction works have called Cusk “condescending,” “terrible,” and cruel — an adjective that still sticks to her persona today. Wanting for narrative, I imbued Coventry with the arc, protagonists, and villains I’d imagined part of her life story. But then I heard Cusk’s voice like a whisper, proclaiming the death of exposition and character, as she did in a 2017 interview with The New Yorker. Cusk has been careful to ensure the absence of both in her work but, habituated to expect it, I’d struggled to yield. Just past the edge of my attention, my mind filled in the void by assigning Cusk the burden of the narrative’s enactment. It was the first time as a reader that I felt the success of a book depended not on the author’s ability, but on mine. Read more…
This is a story about a woman who was erased from her job as the editor of the most famous literary magazine in America.
In 2011, the New York Times ran Julie Bosman’s energetic and gregarious profile of Lorin Stein, the latest head editor of the famous literary magazine The Paris Review — a position for which she declared, “Bacchanalian nights are practically inscribed in the job description.” The profile portrayed Stein as an intellectual bon vivant who loved parties, party-boy banter, and debating literature as if it were the most important thing in the world.
We know now that Stein, by his own admission, abused his power with women writers and staff of the Paris Review. He has resigned from the literary magazine and from his editor-at-large position at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in response to the board of the Paris Review’sinvestigation into sexual harassment allegations and his conduct. We also know, by his own admission, that he did not treat literature as the most important thing in the world.
Stein himself admitted it in a cringeworthy 2013 online feature from Refinery29focused not only on the magazine’s debaucherous parties but also on the interior decor of the Paris Review’s offices and fashion choices of the staffers, who were nearly all women. “It’s always been two things at once,” he says about the Review. “On the one hand, it’s a hyper-sophisticated, modernist, avant-garde magazine. On the other hand, it’s sort of a destination party.”
We now know, between this and Bosman’s piece, even without details of the accusations or reports printed in the Times,or the far worse accusations listed in the “Shitty Media Men” list, that these are glaringly honest portrayals of Stein’spriorities at the helm of the Paris Review. Unfortunately.
Also unfortunate was the error in Bosman’s piece naming Stein as the third editor to “hold the title in the magazine’s 58-year history, and the second to follow George Plimpton, himself a legendary New York social figure.” Stein was actually the fourth. Brigid Hughes, the editor who succeeded George Plimpton, had been inexplicably left out of the profile. She was also not mentioned in the piece announcing Stein’s successorship of Philip Gourevitch; although there was no factual error, she was simply ignored.
Photo treatment by Kjell Reigstad, Photos by Jeff Christensen (AP) and Joel Ryan (AP)
It was a year in which investigations loomed over us as we woke up each day and absorbed the news. Former FBI director Robert Mueller began investigating whether Donald Trump’s presidential campaign had any links to the Russian government and its efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. The opioid crisis was covered by a few outlets wondering who, exactly, is profiting while countless people are dying. But it is the investigations into sexual misconduct perpetrated by powerful men across several industries that has had the most significant impact in 2017. And much of the reporting has been led by The New York Times. Read more…
Credit: Aidan Monaghan/Amazon Studios, Bleecker Street
David Grann is the ultimate writer’s writer. The reporter and staff writer for The New Yorker has a way of discovering nuggets of an idea (the bare minimum of a pitch), and then, through intrepid and painstaking research, crafting pieces that tend to stick with readers for years.
“Many of the characters are driven by obsession,” Grann once told Nieman Storyboard. “But I’m also interested in what these characters are obsessed with, so it’s not just their obsession, it’s the object of their obsession…I’m looking for multiple elements. On one level, there is a story that is compelling, there are characters that are interesting, but also there are some intellectual stakes.”
For his upcoming book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I., Grann details the murders committed against members of the Osage Nation—which subsequently became the first case investigated by the FBI—and spent more than three years researching and reporting events that happened nearly a hundred years ago. Josh Dean similarly had been interested in writing about the Osage Nation killings, when he was informed by his agent that Grann had, in Dean’s words, “been working on this book quietly for two years.”
I literally fell out of my chair. I admire David Grann; he is one of the best at this thing. I read his stories voraciously. I know what David Grann is doing…One, I know he is going to do an amazing job. He has a two year head-start. If it hadn’t been him…why would I [write the book]? I went into a shell and drank for six days.
While Killers of the Flower Moon will undoubtedly become a blockbuster hit one day (Imperative Entertainment paid a whopping $5 million for film rights), another of Grann’s works will debut in theaters this week. “The Lost City of Z” came to life as a New Yorker feature in 2005, and according to Grann, it was one of his rare pieces that felt incomplete as a magazine article. “It was the first piece I’d done for The New Yorker where I finished and I said, one, I’m not sick of it, and, two, there are so many more places to go. There were still doors to open,” he told Interview magazine. The article became a book, which was published in 2009, and now a film starring Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson.
Hunnam stars as Percy Fawcett, a turn-of-the-century English explorer who disappears in a quest to prove the existence of an ancient and influential civilization in the Amazon. In reporting Fawcett’s travels, Grann journeyed to the jungles where Fawcett vanished, as well as plumbed through his diaries and life, turning what had initially been a piece about this lost civilization into an all-encompassing biography—all the better for its adaptation to screen.
It’s impossible to compose a “best of” list for Grann’s writings, so below is a primer for some of his most compelling New Yorker pieces, which includes some of his earlier (and often overlooked) work. Read more…
It’s been almost a century since a 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald penned “The I.O.U.,” a short story that pokes fun at the publishing industry’s obsession with sensation over substance. But until now, you couldn’t read it; it was among Fitzgerald’s still-unpublished papers. Last week, the long-lost story appeared in The New Yorker, another chapter in what the magazine calls its “imperfect romance” with the author. In 1925, Fitzgerald was “was a little too famous to appear often in its upstart pages,” though they were able to snag two poems and three “humorous short stories” before he died in 1940. Read more…
Sometimes I tried to persuade myself that she was not really deaf. She was a mischievous prankster, and what better way to keep everyone hopping than to pretend she was deaf, the way every child has, at one point or another, pretended to be blind, or played dead? For some reason, she had forgotten to stop playing her prank. To test her, I would slide behind her when she wasn’t looking and yell in her ear. No response. Not a shudder. What amazing control she had. I sometimes ran to her and said that someone was ringing the doorbell. She opened the door; then, realizing I had played a low trick on her, she would laugh it off, because wasn’t it funny how the joy of her life — me — had hatched this practical joke to remind her, like everyone else, that she was deaf. One day, I watched her get dressed up to go out with my father and, as she was fastening a pair of earrings, I told her she was beautiful. Yes, I am beautiful. But it doesn’t change anything. I am still deaf — meaning, And don’t you forget it.
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.