Best American Oliver Bateman Writing 2016
2016 was a bad year in most respects, but I was nevertheless able to make some halting progress toward creative self-sufficiency. I left academia forever, signed with Inkwell Management Literary Agency, and published a bunch of articles and essays. I’m reasonably certain that my mother is the only person who read all of these — she even finished my article in the Duke Law Journal! — so I’d like to bring the year to a conclusion by compiling the best stuff I wrote over the past 365 days.
But before I do that, I’d like to thank the editors who worked with me this year. Good people such as Rachel Syme, Dan Piepenbring, Ted Scheinman, Silvia Killingsworth, and Jordan Ginsberg were willing to gamble on my oddball pitches. Without competent editing, writing is just fanfiction — self-indulgent crap catering to an audience of one (or none, as is sometimes the case). Because of these folks, I was able to take ideas I’d been sitting on during my time as a history professor and use them as starting points for accessible stories.
None of these pieces went viral or triggered a troll backlash, but that doesn’t matter. I’d waited a long time to write them, and the finished products exceeded my expectations. “Wrestling, Politics, and the Violent Realities of 2016” was especially satisfying: I can state with absolute confidence that this is the best essay on wrestling and culture published in 2016. The rest of the material is what it is, but I’m glad it is instead of isn’t.
“The Day the Laughter Died” in The Awl, December 2016
I’d been making this argument in various forms for several years — many years before everyone else turned on John Oliver et al. — but this was perhaps the best version of it that I’ve produced to date. People didn’t seem to hate it, which was nice.
“Being a Bumpkin” in The Paris Review, October 2016
Subsequent negative reviews of Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy have received greater fanfare, but this was the first of its kind to appear. None of us seem to have impacted this shitty book’s sales one jot or one tittle. The real highlight of “Being a Bumpkin” was when one of my smartest and most exacting grad school mentors reached out to declare the essay “brilliant.” Once that happened, I realized the odds of this piece reaching a wider audience were next to nil. Given that several people told me the review impelled them to buy Hillbilly Elegy, I’m glad Sarah Jones’ much more scathing take came along.
“Playing WWII Sim ‘Hearts of Iron IV’ Makes the Modern World Look Like It’s on the Brink” in VICE, August 2016
Paradox Interactive is the undisputed heavyweight champion of gaming companies, so I was honored to write an essay about Hearts of Iron IV, which is my choice for the best game of 2016. Paradox was responsible for hundreds of hours of fun with my two best friends; this was a chance to give something back.
“The Year in Lifting Weights” in Hazlitt, December 2016
My trip to cover the Mr. Olympia fitness expo for VQR yielded several other interesting stories; this was by far the best of those. I’ve rarely devoted much time to exploring my own “inner space,” preferring to use that space for the storage of irritation, anger, and repressed memories. “The Year in Lifting Weights” is a welcome exception. If you read only one thing I wrote in 2016, instead of the way more understandable choice of reading no things I wrote, read this one.
“Beyond Myth: When Steroids Are Just a Fact of Life” in Pacific Standard, July 2016
No feature-length profiles of “normal, everyday” steroid users existed, at least not in mainstream publications. PSMag gave me 4,000 words and I set about changing that. Mark Bell, brother of Bigger Stronger Faster* director Chris, proved to be a remarkably candid interview subject.
“My Father, Donald Trump” in Matter: Total Power Move, November 2016
I read this essay at the Matter event “Total Power Move” on the eve of Donald Trump’s election. Thanks to Rachel Syme’s precision editing, “My Father, Donald Trump” became the rare piece that kept my friends engaged from beginning to end. It’s punchy, sharp, and powerful — an exploration of my father’s melancholy, maniacal e-mail archive and an introduction to much of the recent work I’ve done about toxic masculinity. Despite Trump’s victory, my point still stands: the times they are a-changin’.
“Wrestling, Politics, and the Violent Realities of 2016” in Pacific Standard, December 2016
I’d waited half a decade to write something like “Wrestling, Politics, and the Violent Realities of 2016.” This essay, intended as the ne plus ultra of wrestling and culture pieces, collects everything I’d done at UTA (including this photo exhibit) and includes comments from top academics, veteran wrestlers, and the former owner of Dallas-based Global Wrestling Federation. If I write nothing else about wrestling — heaven forfend! — I’m happy to have this serve as my last word on the subject.
“The Big I” in The Paris Review, August 2016
Some Gen-Xer pals seem nostalgic for the 1990s, occasionally remarking about how great The Smashing Pumpkins and the Sega Genesis were. I do not share their views: I was a total outsider throughout this period, largely confined to a broken home with my batshit crazy parents, and the few culture vultures I met during this era were narcissistic showoffs. This essay is my attempt to come to terms with those “everyone is stupid but me” alpha nerds. “The Last Days of the Boy Masterminds,” published in The Awl, covers similar ground.
And as for what 2017 holds…one never knows, after all, now does one now does one now does one. Stay tuned!