David Roth is a co-founder of, writer for and editor at the sports website The Classical. He writes columns for Sports On Earth and Vice, co-writes The Daily Fix blog-column for the Wall Street Journal online, and writes for The Awl, GQ and other places when there’s time and when they’ll have him. He’s on Twitter, a lot, @david_j_roth.
I don’t keep track, although I probably should, but I’m fairly certain that I read more words in 2012 than I have in any of the previous years of my life. Some of this is because I think that’s the best thing to do when presented with words and most of it is because I’ve read so much stuff for The Classical, which I started with some other people a little over a year ago; a really healthy (or unhealthy, depending) percentage of the words I’ve read have been for that site, and I’ve read a lot of them as an editor. I suppose I should recuse myself from mentioning any of these pieces, and I’ll do so after acknowledging that the majority of my favorite new writers of 2012 were people I worked with on essays written for The Classical. That’s all the plugging-of-site I can do without getting embarrassed.
Best Crime Story
The New Yorker is The New Yorker, and generally seems to operating at a level a tick or two above virtually any other magazine. I am always amazed at the way it turns itself into an ultra-fatuous luxury publication, all drollery about shopping and famous people’s kids and whatever, for a couple of issues a year, but the depth of the talent on that invisible masthead, and the quality of the work that all those people do, is astonishing. The stories that have stuck with me the most from the magazine over the past year, and which are thus pretty much the best thing I read in a magazine over that period, both have to do with crime. One is Sarah Stillman’s piece on the unconscionably irresponsible misuse and exploitation of wildly unprepared (and very much in danger) informants by law enforcement. The other is Nadya Labi’s story on the bleak, wild life of Detroit hit-man Vincent Smothers. (The latter is, sadly, only available to subscribers in the magazine’s online archive.)
There are several larger critiques embedded within each piece—the drug war and its warping effect on a wide array of priorities, in both cases—all of which emerge organically and forcefully through the simple forward movement of the stories. There isn’t necessarily a dazzling sentence or an image or anything similarly flashy that still sizzles in the memory months or even days after reading, but the stories stick all the same. So, yeah: two great New Yorker stories, in a year that had a great many.
Best Political/Media/Political Media Story
There was, certainly, a great deal of good political writing done during the endless election season. I don’t remember any of it, and what I remember I don’t remember particularly fondly, but given the number of words written—all those anonymous strategists and undermine-y underlings speaking tartly off-the-record; the reverent profiles and irreverent takedowns; the trends and themes and memes and so on—it would be surprising if some long piece or two in there wasn’t especially good. Much better and more illuminating, at least to me, was Alex Pareene’s essay for The Baffler on the pervasive and mostly pernicious influence of the repellent and vexingly influential Politico seemed to distill all the things that were infuriating, facile and otherwise wrong about the way we read the election, day by day. It was also a lot of fun to read. Which, about that:
Best Stylistic Trend
There’s no fixed way to write anything, of course. There’s a way that some types of pieces generally sound—a profile reads like this, a review reads like that—and many magazines have a house intonation and perspective, if not necessarily a house style. What I’ve enjoyed most about the essays I’ve most enjoyed over the last year, though, is the way in which they reflect an emerging style of colloquial, unpretentious, deceptively erudite writing that’s flourishing on the web. This is there in Pareene’s essay on Politico or John Lanchester’s consideration (it’s adapted from a speech) of Karl Marx at 193 years of age in the London Review of Books. It’s also in Adrian Chen’s dazzling piece for Gawker on Reddit, its troll culture and the man who was its foremost embodiment, or in the writing of Maria Bustillos at The Awl—start with her thumbnail history of James Thurber’s Walter Mitty and its weird afterlife, or on the deathless and wearying discursive concern with irony.
Of those, only the latter two live entirely on the web. They’re not about similar things, or written for similar publications or audiences, or really even written in ways that outwardly have much in common. But there’s an energy and vitality to all of them, a sense that the people writing respect their obligation to tell the stories they’ve chosen, but also that they’re intensely into those stories. There are some good jokes and striking sentences and a great deal of elegant (or infuriating) and illusion-free (or opinionated) thought in all of them, but there is not show-offery or grandiosity or stuffiness. They’re stories told and arguments made by people who seem impassioned and informed, and told in the voices—different-sounding, as they should be—of people alive in and engaged with the world and the ideas loose in it, and conversant with both in the fast, open way of the web. I don’t know, maybe it’s just good writing.
Read more guest picks from Longreads Best of 2012.