Best Web Writing 2013

The Bureau editors pick their favorite essays from the past year.

best_web_writing

Illustration by Hallie Bateman for The Bygone Bureau

Jonathan

To speak of guns in America is to walk into a rhetorical Minotaur’s labyrinth without even a spider’s thread of sanity with which to find one’s way. There, lining the dark corridors of the beast’s lair are dead-ends with emphatic paeans to the freedom to shoot and tragic tales of dead loved ones, many of them children. Nathan Hegedus dared to enter this maze of madness with his article in The Morning News, “Bad Land.” In it, he weaves a personal story with solid research. He attempts to make connections between our history and our violence. But what I really appreciate is the tone of the essay. He manages to hold on to the thread of humanity necessary to confront the hulking horned beast that is gun violence in America. Along with Hegedus’ essay, Slate’s gun death tally is a good antidote to the nowhere corners of the gun-debate. The tally is an on-going list of reported gun deaths since the Newtown massacre. As of this writing: 11,592. And that’s just the reported deaths that they were able to gather by scanning news sources. The real number is probably about twice that. It’s worth reading their year-end wrap-up of gun deaths just to contemplate the difficult task of even describing the size of the monster we face.

Best of the Bureau: “First Night Out” by Avery Edison

Darryl

I grew up watching football (GO SEAHAWKS), and in the past few years we’ve been able to see underneath the surface of football-as-a-game and see the mechanics of football-as-a-business to an unprecendented degree. Some of it’s been instructive — like when Sports Illustrated writer Peter King got to “embed” with an officiating crew for a week — and a lot of it has been horrifying (see: concussions, retired players’ health care, “The Shame of College Sports,” etc.).

But if this year’s NFL slogan is true — “together we make football” — then nowhere is it more true than in the mobile production units that televise every game, in real time, in a pretty manual process. And The Verge took us on a pretty thorough, and pretty humanizing, tour of the Fox Sports’s A-team for one game this past season.

It amazes me how much of the telecast relies on the old eyeball test. Of course, it’s usually eyeballs with a couple decades of experience, but still. And you can understand why, with so many unpredictable elements and no safety net, these guys get a thrill out of their work. There’s nothing like having your screw-up beamed into ten million households, and there’s nothing like picking up that one soundbite that shatters the polished public facades that most players have. To be able to coax those moments out of a game that, by definition, you can’t plan for takes a huge amount of work — and it’s never been clear to outsiders until now what that involves.

Best of the Bureau: “Ladies, What Genre Are You Writing In?” by Molly Schoemann

Gabriella

Something that never ceases to disturb me about American culture is the willingness to mindlessly adopt a slogan that doesn’t mean much of anything in the face of tragedy — from “Boston Strong” to “Never Forget.” But the most pervasive, by far, is “Support the Troops.” It’s been unquestionably repeated since the start of the Iraq War ten years ago. When Abu Ghraib shocked the nation, when news broke of massacre upon massacre in Afghanistan, we were all urged to continue to “support the troops,” even if we disapproved of such deeply disturbing acts of unlawful violence. But the United States is undeniably built around a military-industrial-complex — corporate interests ensure that our troops will, in fact, always be supported, whether or not we proudly slap a yellow ribbon bumper sticker on our car.

In his Salon piece from August, Steven Salaita calls bullshit on those meaningless, parroted words — and is perhaps the first writer I’ve come across to do so. In his eloquent and well-researched argument, he presses, “it is the ideal slogan for suppressing the practice of democracy, presented to us in the guise of democratic preservation.”

Best of the Bureau: “Chippy the Cat” by Christie Arnold

Kevin

Grantland has a lot of big-name contributors who seem to like writing for the site because they’re allowed to go as long or as short as they want. (Probably worth noting that I contribute regularly to the site, but I’m not really involved with it beyond that.) Grantland‘s best get has been Wesley Morris. I grew up reading his movie reviews in The Boston Globe, and the Pulitzer Prize he won in 2012 was a surprise but well deserved (I still maintain that this piece about the Fast and Furious movies is one of the best things I’ve ever read about representations of race in pop culture.)

It’s probably no surprise that Morris is such a great fit at Grantland. He always seemed like he had more to say than what the 750-word limitations of print would allow, and nowhere is that more evident than in Morris’s review of Fruitvale Station, a film that had extraordinary relevance just after George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder charges for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin. Morris’s piece is part movie review, part personal essay, and most effectively, a cogent examination of the political and social implications of the Zimmerman trial. Morris declares that Fruitvale‘s “empathetic gentleness suddenly feels crucial,” and praises the film’s tone for feeling “rational and reasoned, as opposed to righteous and resentful.” This is how the President handles such a tragedy; it is how a matured nation handles such a tragedy. “More than ever,” Morris writes, “we live in a time of racism without racists, just racist laws, racist policies, and racist ideas.”

It’s perhaps a coincidence that Fruitvale Station was released on heels of the Zimmerman trial, but it was a necessary film for that moment in time. Morris’s piece feels just as vital.

Best of the Bureau: “My Mother’s Dog” by Jenn Frank

Nick

“Culturalism, Gladwell, and Airplane Crashes,” from Ask a Korean is close reading at its finest. Motivated by the crash of an Asiana Airlines flight this summer, the heart of the post, by the titular and pseudonymous Korean, is modest in scope. The Korean provides a careful and thorough obliteration of Malcolm Gladwell’s argument in his book Outliers that a pilot’s home culture is the most significant factor in plane crashes. But as the Korean unravels each of Gladwell’s points, his reach broadens to include issues of language, airline history, military rank, and much more.

It’s interesting enough to learn so much from a single essay, but the sprawling nature of the information the Korean considers also reinforces larger themes he builds from small dissections. Ultimately, the essay argues against the trend toward “culturalism,” the Korean’s own coinage, of which he says:

“Culturalism is the unwarranted impulse to explain people’s behavior with a ‘cultural difference,’ whether real or imagined. Because the culturalist impulse always attempts to explain more with culture than warranted, the ‘cultural difference’ used in a cultural explanation is more often imagined than real.”

By making his own writing so expansive, and detailing how many factors contribute to an event like a plane crash, the Korean not only shows why Gladwell’s argument specifically is wrong, he also demonstrates that any evocation of cultural difference is likely to be overly simplistic. Although the essay is long, and touches on so many topics that it could feel disjointed, the interplay between its form and message unifies the piece. Despite its heavy subject matter, it’s an easy and enjoyable read.

Best of the Bureau: “Manic Pixel Dream Girl” by Elizabeth Simins

Nathan

Not sure if it qualifies as “writing,” but by far my favorite bit of internet publishing was “Keep the Things You Forgot: An Elliott Smith Oral History” over on Pitchfork on the ten-year anniversary of Smith’s death. (Someone had to transcribe and compile it all, right? That’s writing, sort of? Whatever. The fact that it’s the words of many people in one column, not to mention the design, makes it more internet-y to me than most bits of internet publishing I saw this year, whether it qualifies as “writing” or not.)

I have long been a huge fan of Elliott Smith’s music, and, weirdly, it seems to me that as his status as a songwriting genius has grown, and as a wider swath of the cultural landscape has come to love his fragile, acerbic music since his death, very little childish, I-liked-him-before-you, hipster-y bitterness has sprung up around him. A lot of people love him, but not as many people as one would expect possessively claim him. In fact, the unity of his persona and the huddled together quality of his fan base, even as it has edged toward the mainstream, strikes me as one of the few examples of a musical legacy staying true to its origins as it solidifies in the cultural consciousness.

To me, this oral history reflects that. The voices on the specifics of his story sometimes differ, even on such important topics as the nature of his death. But most people who get his music at all seem to feel the same thing, mainly that he was a genius whose work defies categorical analysis apart from the gut emotional reactions he sang about.

Best of the Bureau: “I Should Explain: I Sweat Profusely From My Face” by Scott Eckert