2010 was an incredible year for writing, bottom line. Despite the proliferation of things whose output is mostly antagonistic to great writing — like faceless “content farms” churning out hollow, Google-gaming information lacking anything of substance — great writing persisted. Twitter’s evolving as an aesthetic, yielding profundities from the most unlikely of sources, and a few performance artists, too. Blogging continued to evolve as a craft: some of its once loudest critics are now some of its most significant contributors. More and more people care about things being well written, and they remember them, even if they’re intended to be as disposable as a piece of produce. It’s an encouraging sign of what’s to come.
Putting together this list, I felt like I should make some omissions, like my (previous) employer, The Village Voice. There are too many great pieces I got to work with, but three worth noting were:
· Steven Thrasher’s ranted-essay, White America Has Lost Its Mind, a pitch-perfect picture of America pre-2010 midterms.
· All five installments of Graham Rayman’s The NYPD Tapes, undeniably some of the best investigative reporting in 2010.
· Live from Insane Clown Posse’s Gathering of the Juggalos. Camille Dodero took an empathetic look at a part of America that’s almost unanimously discarded, viewed like a freak museum exhibit. It was feeling, it was fair, it was compelling in every way an assessment of a subculture should be.
Putting this list together is a little torturous. That aside, these are my five favorite — and most personally important — things I read this year. I think you’ll like them. I’m very, very conscious about the omission of women — or anything really other than White Dudes — on this list, and I apologize for my narrow, singular selection.
5. Profiling bands sucks. No matter how provocative the subject, writing about and interviewing “famous people” — but especially musicians — is a sharp, royal pain in the balls. Getting them to elaborate on their art? Inherently awkward. Both parties know exactly how fruitless and overreaching these things are. Nicholas Dawidoff’s April profile of The NationalforThe New York Times Magazineshould have been one of those things. [New York Times writer interviews five white dudes from Brooklyn making Pitchfork-approved music.] Face value: “Groan.” But Dawidoff managed to get as close to understanding this band’s creative process — really, not that complicated of one, either — as anybody in it, and we’re right there with him as it happens. It helps if you’re a fan or a young Almost Famous aspirant, but the story of just some guys becoming one of the most famous rock acts in America over a decade, and doing it without becoming celebrities or selling out fans? And writing the story well? It’s an anomaly. Some people left the piece the way a great band leaves you after a concert: wanting more, but satisfied no less. I did.
4. Michael Chabon’s introduction toFountain Cityis the most motivational thing I’ve read all year. It’s a four-chapter booklet packaged with the latest issue of McSweeney’s. It’s the epic Chabon started that he never finished, a novel “wrecked” by the author …until he decided to annotate what was written. In the introduction, Chabon — yeah, the same guy who wrote Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay — writes about the terrible, beautiful way the 20-something iteration of himself that went on to write those books failed at this book. As it turns out, it’s the same panicked, procrastinating, and eventually depressing way so many of us fail, too. It’s sad, sure. But: Chabon admits he even fell short annotating Fountain City, as he only revisited the first four chapters before watching it “sink” again. Yet that failure yielded the most successful and brutally honest meditation on failing as I’ve ever read. It’s barely ten pages, if that. Hopefully, McSweeney’s or Chabon will put it online. It’s too good to sit trapped in this $24 box, lest McSweeney’s fail something they don’t have to.
3. Technically released late last year, but I read it this year while writing about job changes at the New York Observer, a 23 year-old pink, weekly paper, that’s (mostly) historically striven to be classically New York in every way a contemporary publication born here should be: brilliant, but accessible; hysterical, yet never a joke; above all, true to its citizenry - Manhattanites - for better or worse. There wouldn’t be a Gawker without the Observer. Vanity Fair wouldn’t be the same, because the Observer was the last job Graydon Carter had before he was beckoned there. It was the birthplace of Sex and the City, some of the best writers and editors in New York City, and also, too many trend pieces that took hold nationally to count. And it was the place where Peter Kaplan (the longtime, former editor of the New York Observer) was given rise. You’ll understand why after reading Peter Kaplan’s introduction forThe Kingdom of New York, the Observer ”clippings” book, which tells the entire history of a publication — and the modern era of this city — in 11-ish pages. It’s hysterical and perfect and a little heartbreaking in the way great sentimentalizing and romanticizing — the kind that will make you nostalgic for things you’ve never experienced — often is. But also, endlessly inspiring: as a writer, as a New Yorker, as a reader, and as someone who tries to recognize a good moment when it’s in front of them. And thanks to the magic of Google, you don’t even have to buy the book to read it. Whattatown.
2. Every time you hear about those people who have risen from the most adverse and traumatic conditions a kid could be presented with, into prominence, they’re celebrities or writing a memoir (or both). A blogger is, in so many ways, the furthest thing from that. Some bloggers know this guy’s name, his longtime readers from when he used to blog for The Consumerist know who he is. But none of those people likely know anybody else in the same way they now irreversibly know him after Joel Johnson’s February 2010 post entitled Why I’m Funny. Some people spend years on their memoirs, hundreds of pages of public therapy, a backwards, sick competition where brand-name writers compare how fucked up their childhood was to the next person’s. I don’t know how long Joel spent on this, which begins with the sentence “The first time I ever came in anyone’s mouth, it was into the mouth of my stepfather.” But 6,215 words later, they should all be ashamed, because I know exactly how long it’s going to stay with me: forever, or at least until I write for the last time.
1. Like The Village Voice, I should probably also omit my top Longread of the Year, because it comes from the new job I started at on Monday. But I can’t, because Chris Jones’ profile of Roger Ebert in the March 2010 issue of Esquire was undisputably the best and most memorable thing I - and plenty of others - read this year. It introduced him to a new generation of people unfamiliar with the man and his impact. It made people who couldn’t give a shit about magazine profiles or Roger Ebert sob. [I’ll admit it, I got weepy.] But maybe most significantly, it redefined Roger Ebert to America. This wasn’t investigative journalism or the most hard-hitting interview ever conducted. It was quite simply — and incredibly — the product of great magazine writing. F. Scott Fitzgerald, you want a second act? Well, here’s a third. “Old Media” publications, like Roger Ebert, are supposedly dying. Yet, neither have seemed more alive than this in the last ten years.