Review: The Best American Magazine Writing 2017
Sid Holt compiles this year’s Best American Magazine Writing for the American Society of Magazine Editors. For anyone who loves topical, well-written and affecting long-form journalism, this year’s collection of award-winners and finalists is excellent.
It should come as no surprise that the selections swerve heavily towards the political. Some of the strongest standouts include multiple journalists’ dispatches from the Trump campaign trail and a moving, informative and revealing end-of-term portrait of President Obama.
Here, some summaries and/or quotes from the pieces included:
Sarah Stillman’s “The List” looks at those on the national sex offender registry and how it sometimes does more harm than good, and I say this as someone who’s all for such a tool. The personal stories she tells, of people who have had their lives irreparably destroyed, particularly as juveniles, over what amounts to children not understanding their actions, or consensual relationships with one partner a few years over the age of consent and one below, were horrifying.
Even Patty Wetterling, an early advocate for the registry and mother of Jacob Wetterling, a child who disappeared and whose case was only very recently solved, is disturbed by what the registry has become. “Wetterling had watched the registry evolve into something very different from what she’d fought to create. The database was no longer for the private use of law enforcement. Nor was it confined to high-risk offenders or adults who targeted kids. In some states, the registry pooled juveniles and those charged with public urination together with adults who had repeatedly raped children.”
It’s an example of long form journalism doing what it does best – bringing an issue of social consciousness to the fore in a compelling, readable way.
From George Saunders’ “Trump Days”: “His trademark double-eye squint evokes that group of beanie-hatted street-tough Munchkin kids; you expect him to kick gruffly at an imaginary stone.” I loved this evocative, descriptive piece.
Outside a Clinton rally in Phoenix, a Native American-looking man in an Aztec-patterned shirt joined the line of Trump supporters, with his megaphone, through which he slowly said…”Make. America. White. Again.” Once the Trump supporters caught on to the joke, they moved away, but he was a good sport and scooted down to join them.
“Make. America. White. Again,” he said, in the calmest voice.
“We don’t want you,” one of the Trump supporters said. “We don’t want your racism!”
Three of Matt Taibbi’s pieces, similarly about the Trump campaign, are here, including “Appetite for Destruction” and “The Fury and Failure of Donald Trump” from Insane Clown President, his popular collection of articles from the campaign trail for Rolling Stone. I first read them here and knew I had to read his book. That’s why I love anthology collections – they’re such a great way to find love ’em or leave ’em writing or writers that you maybe wouldn’t have discovered otherwise (or in my case with Taibbi’s, inexplicably ignored).
One of the most powerful articles is the longest, former Mother Jones writer Shane Bauer’s “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard”. My only knowledge on this comes from a plot line on “Orange is the New Black”, when the prison turns private and a bunch of incompetent, inappropriate new guards are hired. I know that’s not reasonable background knowledge, but the show does focus on real, topical issues, and we do see some of the same narrative points reflected in Bauer’s true, and incredibly disturbing but eye-opening account of prisons for profit.
On a lighter note (we need some lighter notes in this one) Bauer also makes succinct yet wonderfully descriptive observations of the people he works with, like of one fellow CO-in-training: “a stocky redhead cadet in her late fifties, thinks that if kids were made to read the Bible in school, fewer would be in prison, but she also sticks pins in a voodoo doll to mete out vengeance. ‘I swing both ways,’ she says.”
The whole piece is a great example of well-structured narrative nonfiction writing, again serving to drive home the importance of an often ignored social issue.
Pamela Colloff’s “The Reckoning” hit me hard and I’m still trying to figure out exactly why. Colloff writes about Claire Wilson, a survivor of the 1966 University of Texas sniper shooting; Wilson and her boyfriend were among the first shot. He didn’t survive, and neither did Wilson’s eight-month-old fetus. It took a long time for her to get back on her feet, she endured many painful years – painful in multiple ways, including her loving relationship with a troubled adopted son.
It’s such a strange, surreal glimpse at a time before deadly mass shootings were a heartbreakingly common occurrence in America, and the lifetime of aftermath on a victim. It shocked me that a book was written about the shooting and the author didn’t even interview Wilson – one scene in this piece is her recollection of paging through the book in an airport bookstore, seeing her name in the index. I’m glad that Colloff gave her the opportunity to tell this personal, raw side of her own story.
Zandria F. Robinson’s “Listening for the Country” weaves together the author’s complicated father, his love of music, their southern identity, Memphis, and her experience growing up black in the south, with all the inherent complications of race and class, including the clash between her parents’ differinh backgrounds. It’s a powerful piece.
Rebecca Solnit’s “Bird in a Cage”, “The Ideology of Isolation” and “Giantess”, about the 1955 Elizabeth Taylor film that was socially ahead of its time, made me appreciate Solnit more. I liked the title essay of Men Explain Things to Me, but wasn’t in love with the rest of it. These selections showed me more of what she’s capable of, although her essay included in Tales of Two Americas is still the best I’ve read of hers.
Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Obama Doctrine” broke my heart ten times over. Goldberg shadowed Obama near the end of his time in office, interviewing him for The Atlantic on policy and his reasoning behind specific decisions. He shows the former president in an honest, revealing light – Obama’s irritations and frustrations at misunderstandings or situations that didn’t resolve as expected, his perceived failures and what lay behind or influenced them, and, most beautifully but painfully, his shining humanity. I learned so much more about him through this journalism. It made me miss him more than I thought possible.
David Quammen’s “Yellowstone: Wild Heart of a Continent” is part of a bigger piece about the fragile ecosystem of Yellowstone and what happens when humans meddle, intentionally or unintentionally, with it.
Andrew Sullivan’s “Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic” was somewhat uncomfortable. It’s another examination of 2016’s political upheavals, but puts some of the blame for Trump on democracy itself, in a weird, complex way based on Plato’s writings and philosophy. It has some interesting moments but I think there’s better writing on this subject. Taibbi writes an interesting criticism of this piece in one of his essays in Insane Clown President.
Gabriel Sherman’s “The Revenge of Roger’s Angels” looks at the women sexually harassed by former FOX News head, Roger Ailes, for years before a dam broke and allegations began leaking out. Sherman considers how they risked their own careers to expose and bring down a powerful mogul.
Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “Worlds Apart” addresses diversity and inequality in Brooklyn’s public school system, and her family’s difficult but considered choice to attend a school then considered less desirable than others, only to end up fighting for it later in the complicated, unfair world of big city public schools and their unfortunate connection to race. It’s a topic I know little about, but with school choice such a heavily present national question, I think her opinions and personal experience on this are not only topical but crucial for understanding why it matters.
I had three skims:
Becca Rothfeld’s “Ladies in Waiting” was one of the weaker pieces for me. It describes her romantic experiences in connection to the idea of waiting, and how such a situation hearkens to literary examples, but it didn’t hold my interest.
Mac McCelland’s “Delusion is the Thing with Feathers” also didn’t grab me. Stylistically I found it hard to get into and considering it’s the collection’s opener, I knew I needed to tread lightly or else I’d get annoyed and ditch the whole book, so I briefly skimmed and didn’t finish. It’s something about extreme birders.
Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Improvisational Oncologist” has got to be good, for sure, but a cancer death of a loved one is still too fresh for me to be able to read anything about it.
Like any anthology collection, there are bound to be pieces you adore and others you don’t, but in my opinion this one leans toward the former. Smart, sometimes funny, thought-provoking, emotional selections, with a great focus on social responsibility and awareness, and a lot of impressive journalism and narrative nonfiction writing. My rating: 4/5.
The Best American Magazine Writing 2017
compiled by Sid Holt
for the American Society of Magazine Editors
published December 19, 2017 by Columbia University Press
I received an advance copy from the publisher for unbiased review.