Editor’s List: Required Reading

The Bureau Editors pick their favorite web (and some non-web) writing from the first half of 2011.

Illustration by Hallie Bateman

“Confessions of a Former Puck Tease”

by Katie Baker at Deadspin

When I was growing up in the ‘90s, my parents did very little to restrict my internet usage, but I was told explicitly to never enter chat rooms. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t give out personal information. And under no circumstance should you try and meet someone from the internet. Chat rooms were like the internet equivalent of the elephant graveyard from The Lion King — the only place I wasn’t allowed to go.

Katie Baker, on the other hand, did all the things kids weren’t supposed to do. In her delightful personal essay “Confessions of a Former Puck Tease,” Baker recalls chat services long extinct and long forgotten. At age 13, she was a paid chat-room moderator for a long-extinct service called Talk City. She made and met many friends in person, and even went out on a date to see American Pie with user twice her age from a Philadelphia Flyers newsgroup.

But the piece works not just as a profile of her adolescence on the web, but as a compelling portrait of the internet’s formative years. Today, anonymity allows users say whatever they want without consequence (hence trolls), but in 1995, the same sort of anonymity allows Baker to be accepted among a group of much older peers, even after they learned she was 13. Yet her adolescence seems to parallel that of the web’s. As she gets older, Baker begins using that anonymity to construct a fake identity for herself, and eventually, her teenage cruelty has real-world consequences. It’s a modern coming-of-age story.

Growing up with the internet is a new but relatable experience, it’s nice to know that the internet grew up with us.

“The Lie Guy”

by Clancy Martin at The Chronicle of Higher Education

Oddly, my second pick is also about lying. In fact, it’s all about the business of lying (a.k.a. the jewelry business). Clancy Martin, then a University of Texas dropout, reflects on his life as a professional con artist, upselling the grade of diamonds to unsuspecting shoppers. He quickly gets to the root of dishonesty:

If you want to be an expert deceiver, master the art of self-deception. People will believe you when they see that you yourself are deeply convinced. It sounds difficult to do, but in fact it’s easy—we are already experts at lying to ourselves. We believe just what we want to believe.

But years of self-deception start to wear on Martin (“though I don’t believe in the existence of a soul, exactly, I came to understand what people mean when they say you are losing your soul”). The revelation isn’t as fascinating as Martin’s escape from the lying life… into academia of all places! It turns out that there’s a similar level of phoniness that pervades campus life, but at least Martin feels a little more settled, a bit more honest with himself.

“The Year of Wonders”

by Alex Shakar at The Millions

What is it like to score a six-figure book deal? After selling his first novel to HarperCollins, Alex Shakar finds himself suddenly a part of the publishing institution, attending parties with literary luminaries, and of course, with more money than he’s ever had. (He writes, “I was 32. I’d never made over $12,000 in a year.”) It’s a fascinating read for anyone that has even a passing interest in the publishing industry, although everything turns out be short-lived — even the money, which turns out to be less than Shakar had expected:

Part of the purpose of a large advance, I understood, was to gain a book publicity. But I told nearly no one. Instead, for weeks, I did math in my head. I subtracted my agency’s cut and divided the figure by the five long years I’d lavished on the book and came out with a perfectly reasonable — boring, even — middle-class salary.

See Also:

“Review: Infinity Blade” by J. Nicholas Geist at Kill Screen

“State of Play” by Mike Deri Smith at The Morning News

“My Classmate Saif Qaddafi” by Doug Flahaut at Zocalo Public Square

—Editor Kevin Nguyen

“In All The Wrong Places: A Response to N+1″

by Matthew Burns of Magical Wasteland

I want to pull a quote out of every paragraph of this piece because it’s all too perfect. The argument over whether videogames should be considered art is one of the dumbest, least productive debates imaginable (the highest profile critic against the notion was someone who has never played videogames*) so it’s some sort of perverse justice that it would spawn such a smart essay. Burns does a ton of patient, methodical heavy lifting, clearing away the cruft of lazy thinking that seems to have built up around the gaming medium. The part that resonates with me most strongly begins:

Much of the consternation about games and art seems to arise from the application of a critical apparatus from some different medium — literary or filmic — and finding games disqualified to be considered at all.

It’s a long piece that covers a lot of ground, but once I reached this point and it’s eventual culmination, I felt there was nothing left to say on the subject.

*I know Ebert recanted, but still.

See also: Tom Bissell on L.A. Noire for Grantland

“The Best Animated Sports GIFs Of June: A 20-Act Play”

by Jon Bois of SB Nation

To be honest, I don’t need any extra motivation to click on a list of sports-related animated GIFs. But I’ve been surprised and delighted as Bois’s round-ups of such have become both more frequent, from yearly to seasonly to monthly, and more gleefully fucking bizarre. Bois seems to have realized that describing and contextualizing GIFs is boring and unnecessary, so instead he’s turned the captions into a platform for deeply strange humor writing of the best sort. In this month’s edition, figures in each animation are given lines of dialogue, whether it’s the arm of a knocked-out MMA fighter making awkward smalltalk with his opponent or a baseball bat pleading to be dropped by a hitter who holds it too long. And if those descriptions don’t make any sense now, well, they won’t really after you read the piece either, but you’ll emerge with a smile on your face.

See also: Bois’s guide to pick-up basketball

“Some Approaches to the Question of Chewing Gum Litter”

by Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography

It’s no secret that we’re huge fans of Edible Geography. And, in a nutshell this piece is why. Twilley raises an easily overlooked aspect of how food relates to our environment, in this case dots of mushed chewing gum that blacken the pavement of urban areas worldwide, and rather than posturing or lecturing or berating, she explores the topic in a way that both illuminates and humanizes it. After I read this post, I couldn’t stop staring at the street when I went out. In fact, I never step away from an EG post feeling anything other than enlightened, and in a world of noisy and useless rhetoric, that’s truly valuable.

See also: Geoff Manaugh’s interview with Hellboy‘s Mike Mignola on EG’s sister site BLDGBLOG

—Editor Nick Martens

“Our Psychic Living Room”

by Rebekah Frumkin at the Common Review

It’s been a bonanza year for remembrances and reappraisals of David Foster Wallace, not least because of the publication of his unfinished The Pale King. And, because I’m someone who usually considers Wallace somewhere between uninteresting and unlikable, I’ve found the frenzy of attention a bit obnoxious. Thank god, this essay is not a breathless panegyric, or a sentimental eulogy, or even a hyper-critical dismissal. Which is to say that it is atypical of most criticism about Wallace. Instead, in good faith, and without much pretense, Rebekah Frumkin walks the reader through the main points of Wallace’s fiction and biography, tying them together into the surprising conclusion that Wallace’s fiction was in fact an exercise in simple philosophy, and that “ultimately it turned out that what he was trying to say wasn’t that complicated.” I’ll leave it to Frumkin to explain exactly what she means, but suffice to say, she introduced the tiniest grain of doubt into my mind that perhaps I ought not to be staunchly indifferent to David Foster Wallace.

“On Expectations (And a Writer’s Lack of Same)”

by S.J. Culver at The Awl

The publication of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing led to a frenzy of soul-searching about MFA programs in creative writing: Are they good or bad for students, professors, and/or literature? S.J. Culver’s take on the whole thing — she has an MFA, and is in it for the long, professional haul — is a lot more personal, and palatable, than any instance of big-picture hand-wringing or bitchy cross-publication sniping that I’ve read. In other words, she avoids the Scylla of hyperventilated melodrama and the Charybdis of ethereal pretense that tend to hang around most accounts of the writer’s life and gives us something that’s understandable and, miraculously, even relatable. (Full disclosure: S.J. has written for the Bureau, too; go read that when you get a chance.)

“The frailty of man, as reflected in the daily paper”

by Philip Schaenman in the Washington Post

“I am offended by being considered, as a reader, kinsman of letter writers who are without senses of humor and who are perfection bigots.” So begins one of the funniest and most correct letters to the editor ever written. I don’t remember who said this, but in most newspapers, the only place where readers can actually leave a mark is in the classifieds and the letters to the editor. If true, the Washington Post should be proud of its readership.

Honorable Mentions

“How Do You Hire Mercenaries?” by Joshua Keating in Foreign Policy

(Your average “down-on-your-luck autocrat” has at least one thing in common with the Pentagon: recognition that sometimes, mercenaries are the best way to go.)

“How to Cure a Hangover” by Sarah Walker

(“Other rules on your Life Rules list include, ‘Go home if you catch on fire, even if it’s just a little bit’…Rip these rules up! Even if you’ve laminated them!”)

—Assistant Editor Darryl Campbell

Read our Required Reading list of 2010

Illustration by Hallie Bateman