Nonfiction essayists and bloggers who bring it
Prose style is typically besides the point in professionally published nonfiction. When people say they want to be writers, in the sense that they want to write for websites and magazines rather than to write a novel, usually it means they want their ideas to be their currency, not their words. Attention to style and voice is more often found in creative writing than in the kind of writing that is referred to, unfortunately, as “content.”
But prose matters. Ideas matter too, but ideas are cheap and easy to find, and good prose certainly isn’t. I’ve taught writing for years, and I firmly believe that anyone can become a competent writer, and I believe that most who are competent can become confident and skilled. But that does not mean that writing is egalitarian. It isn’t; there’s such a thing as talent, and while I could never tell you where it comes from, I can tell you for sure that it’s not a vein that can be tapped by anyone. There are some writers who can do things that others can’t, and that’s just how it is.
In baseball, there are pitchers who can pitch well without throwing fast. They’re smart, they’re experienced, they can work the strike zone, they can play to their strengths. Those things can be taught, developed. Velocity isn’t everything. But a guy without an arm can never be taught to throw heat, and when you see it, it’s electrifying, ball moving so fast as to make the air groan. This is my list of 10 writers who throw heat.
Not everybody could show up on this list. As I said, prose isn’t the point in all writing. I’m sure there’s a lot of traditional journalists with serious chops who can’t display it thanks to the nature of reporting and the publications they write for. And there are many writers, for good or bad, who don’t much care about their actual writing. As I said, for many, the idea is ideas. Writing is merely the technology they find most convenient for the expression of those ideas; if they could, they’d use computer graphics, balloon animals, or needlepoint. I wouldn’t call Matt Yglesias a bad prose stylist, for instance, just an indifferent one.
This list is neither sensible nor fair. There is no methodology. Understand that my choices here are determined in large part through absurd and arbitrary distinctions between what constitutes style and what constitutes content. Daniel Larison is not on this list, although he tears through neocons like cellophane. I ascribe that power to the clarity of his thinking and the depth of his historical understanding, rather than to his writing itself. Is that an arbitrary distinction? Of course. Anthony Lane, whose voice is as distinct and distinctly brilliant as any I can think of, isn’t on this list, because he’s a print writer, and here I’m talking about people who write mostly for the internet. Is that a bullshit distinction? It is.
But at the same time, this list is true. Because each of the writers here have, at times, unsettled me, made me walk a little more straight, made me uncomfortable, or made me clap my hands in happiness, or made me wince. Each has moved me in a way that ideas never could, never can. Great prose is like that. So here they are.
In high school I was friends with this guy Trevor who, if you didn’t know him, you’d expect to hate. He was popular and his dad was rich and he was the best athlete at school by a country mile and he was president of everything he felt like being president of. Some high school genius nicknamed him, perfectly, Treasure. Like I said, he sounds so hateable. But he was, actually, an impossibly sweet guy, friendly and goofy, a mensch. And genuinely weird, too, which always helps; nothing negates the power of petty resentment like being legitimately strange. I haven’t seen him in a long time. I miss him.
Noah Millman is like that, to me. If you described his idiosyncratic, post-partisan analytical style to me without letting me read it, I’d expect to hate it. I typically find the pose of dispassionate analysis, so common in political writing, to be a mistake both for politics and for writing. But I guess that’s just it: nothing is a pose with Millman. I find his writing devoid of affect. The precision and care with which he writes does not come from being passionless but from being careful. As a man who is perpetually held hostage to his own anger, who believes in the moral and practical necessity of anger, I admire and envy Millman his restraint. It comes from taking people seriously, from taking the world seriously.
“Unpretentious” is not a word that I typically use as a compliment. The way most unpretentious people achieve that state is through being totally boring. But here, too, Millman subverts my expectations. One of his great loves is the theater. I grew up in the theater, the son of a theater professor who for years was a director in the experimental theater in New York, brother to a theater-obsessed sister, brother-in-law to a costume shop manager…. A commitment to the theater in the face of broad assumption of its irrelevance— that’s exactly the kind of romantic conviction that I hold and pretend has real meaning. In the back of my mind, though, I am always aware of the force of culture, the derisive and belittling voice that insists that these artistic affinities are anachronistic or self-important. It doesn’t change the things I believe or value, but I am always aware of the social irrelevance of the art that I value.
The thing about Millman is that I suspect he has no such voice in the back of his mind. His writing is that of someone who is fully himself. When he writes about the theater, or about literature, there is no apology and no explanation. Those things matter to him and so he writes about him. That, to me, is emblematic of his great strength, to see himself and the world clearly, and to write clearly in kind.
I guess it’s unfortunate for someone so talented and dedicated to be so bound up with the object of her derision, but then again, there’s something romantic and powerful in one writer stalking another, one of considerably less skill and considerably more prestige and power. Fernandez’s pursuit of Tom Friedman, the vaguely person-like substance that has stained the NYT op/ed page with lip wax and cliche grease since forever, is a natural and necessary reaction to a world where someone like him is given a platform like that. Going after a whale like that, you might drown in the undertow, but you’d die with the smile that comes from harpooning that kind of motherfucker.
To me, the writers who write best about injustice and oppression are not so much those who beat their chests the loudest, but rather those who reveal, with every phrase, the cold absurdity of entrenched power. Fernandez doesn’t write like a polemicist, though she could, and she doesn’t write with malice, though she’d be perfectly entitled. She writes with the reservation and concision of a coroner delivering an autopsy; the deed is always already done. That might sound cold, or cruel, but it reminds you that the greater part of “things are not as they should be” is “this is how they are.” Fernandez is an activist, but first she’s a clinician.
We are living in an America that has spent over a decade engaging in the systematic punishment of the Muslim world. In the commission of that crime, we have cloaked ourselves in a garment of our superior righteousness, our democracy, and our victimhood. If you let yourself dwell with that, you can go a particular kind of crazy. What Fernandez’s work allows me to do is to reclaim the disbelief that came before disgust. The clarity of her writing and her thinking remind me that I am allowed to say this is crazy. That may be a cold comfort, but there are times when it’s all you need.
As much as any on this list, this is an expected entry, and that’s a compliment of its own. I think Coates, as much as any writer online I can think of, has a project, in the fullest sense. He is as deliberate and self-possessed about the subjects he doesn’t write about as he is about the subjects he does. When he responded to racists talking about IQ by saying “I will not debate humanity,” that was a particular argument about a particularly pernicious idea. But it was also, to me, something of a mission statement, about how Coates has attempted to navigate the life of a writer in an age where the ubiquity of our opinions has led inevitably to their triviality.
Coates is a history buff, and writes about history, but he writes about history like a journalist, which suits him. The arc of his career, to me, makes the case for younger bloggers trying first to make their bones in more traditional journalism and magazine writing. The stereotype about journalism is that it’s all about immediacy, but journalism is also about waiting, and I think Coates knows the value of waiting to see. In a world of internet writing that’s full of 5 minute popcorn, it’s important that some try the long slow cook.
I have complained, in the past, about the way that some of Coates’s fans have treated him as the Wise Black Sage. This is a political complaint, of course, one about white guilt and white condescension and the role they still play in defining the reputations of black writers. But it’s also a statement about the shame of reducing writing of this quality to empty piety. Nothing drains writing of its life more surely than treating it like church. Coates is a far more playful, more unpredictable writer than that, and a far more radical one.
Angrier, too. It is not the habit of politically savvy white people to call black men angry, under almost any circumstances; it speaks to too many ugly stereotypes. But the fact is that Coates’s writing is frequently angry, though it is a remarkably restrained, concise kind of anger, the kind that reveals itself in the space between paragraphs. It would feel wrong for me to pretend like it isn’t there. I don’t know how it could be anything else but angry, given his frequent subjects. That, too, is an element of Coates’s hidden strength, a talent for target acquisition. And it’s that way that I want to understand his writing— appropriate to its mission, defined in its scope, and lit always by history and also by fire.
I consider it part of the glory of our postmodern world that the internet’s greatest conservative Southern gentlemen is a gay New York liberal.
The endless, stupid debate about irony has always been predicated on misunderstanding. Irony is a neutral quality; there is no such thing as too much or too little in the world. What people fear, and rightfully so, is the blank, unearned sarcasm that wallpapers the internet. The failure is not of attitude but of experience. 13 year old boys have no right to wax cynical, and so many of the people who operate in an idiom of showy disinterest have neither the experience nor the discrimination to have earned such a stance, which like all weapons must be distributed with discretion. Sicha, on the other hand, has earned his default posture, however you’d like to define that, through understanding: all cynicism comes first through kindness. Sicha wants enough for people to wish that they do their best but is wise enough to know that they won’t.
The relationship between all writers and their readers is defined by presumption. The presumption cuts both ways, but is inherently unequal and takes different forms. For example: it is my suspicion, from reading Sicha write about New York City ephemera and occasionally listening to him reading from a list of things to do about town, that Sicha is in person like everyone you ever had a desperate, doomed crush on. I suspect he likes those best that need him least.
Weariness in writing is dangerous territory. Deployed clumsily, it risks degrading your work and insulting your audience. Take, for example, film critics who spend every review letting you know how terribly tiring they find it to write about movies. You can always just quit. But, in spite of that danger, when you find the genuine article— when you find someone whose exhaustion is not an affect, but a profound moral conviction— there’s something lovely about it. Sicha is a writer who knows not just how to write like a tired man, but why.
For a little while there, Gawker descended into being what its critics had always accused it of being, a house for vacuous, omnidirectional snark. It was a classic example of a website’s ethos overwhelming its staff; the bloggers there were not so much writing as Doing Gawker. How did Nick Denton overcome this stale period? Simple. He hired talent. It’s not hard to improve when you have Adrian Chen reporting and Tom Scocca being the ombudsman of the human race.
And, thank goodness , he brought us Catie Weaver.
Although I’m an internet skeptic, I can’t dispute the fact that we are immensely spoiled as readers. There’s just so much to take in. Maybe too much: I’ve become harder to please, particularly given how fads in styles and idioms come and go. Voices seem fresh, for fifteen minutes, and then it’s just the thing that everyone is doing. But people can’t just do what Weaver does. I feel genuinely disoriented when I’m reading her stuff. She doesn’t so much bob and weave as rattle and shake. Reading her is kind of like looking at those drawings where a rabbit is also a duck, only the duck is Justin Timberlake and the rabbit is Lena Dunham wearing a pantsuit she got at a white elephant party, you feel me?
Now there’s a bigoted part of me that wishes Weaver wrote more stuff that wasn’t about celebrity culture. But at the same time, she is really, really fucking good at that. The thing is that she demonstrates the ridiculousness of the thing that she is currently discussing with rapt attention. Which sounds awful! And in fact there’s a lot of people who are trying to do just that: to write on the internet about celebrities in a winking, self-conscious, “we don’t really care about this but let’s all go along for the ride because that’s clever” sort of way. That is not the way Caity Weaver does it. She does it as if celebrity culture is very, very important, but will also give you a massive brain injury if you pay enough attention to it, so you have to look at it kind of sideways.
I guess my point here is this: oftentimes I am bored even by those writers I like the most. A monkey typing into infinity eventually writes Hamlet, and a million monkeys typing gives you your daily internet, and they look over each others’ shoulders. People say Caity Weaver is funny, and yeah— she’s hilarious. But what I more value in her writing is something that’s much rarer for someone who writes multiple pieces a day: the capacity to surprise. She is, as they say, effectively wild.
The shame of things at the moment is that the social justice movement is one of the most necessary and essential of human endeavors and also an insufferable pain in the ass. I get that you have to make it cool to fight racism and sexism and to generally give a shit about our hideous inequality. But when you make it cool as in pants instead of cool as in necessary, Christ, you get a lot of bullshit. Look, politics is more important than culture. I’ve been saying that for years. Being on the right side of things is what matters, and trumps being annoying. The problem is that the petty annoyances keep bleeding from the cultural into the political, leading to genuinely unenlightened politics, defended from criticism under the guise of commitment to the cause.
What you need, in that context, is someone with real activist and local politics experience, someone who’s read everything, someone with history and credibility, someone who knows how to mix compassion and forgiveness in with the anger, and someone who absolutely will not tolerate getting hip checked by some adolescent from the Twin Cities area who looked up intersectionality on Dictionary.com last week and now has “bell hooks gif” in her search terms. You need Yasmin Nair.
Nair is, I’d guess, the least familiar name on this list, to many of the people who might read this, and that’s enough for me to kind of hate the world. She’s a brilliant observer, someone whose work demonstrates a profound, lived-in familiarity with politics, with political people, with the city. She reminds me, in the best way, of the old alternative weeklies, the Voice or the Reader, crabby old Jewish columnists who just seemed to know everything, to have experienced everything. In a world of left-wing discourse that has become enamored with a kind of shit-eating tween preciousness, Nair’s voice is serious without being dour, and playful without being cute. Her writing is invested with quiet, unfussy power.
But not authority. Don’t get me wrong: Nair is not some “kids these days” scold. I like those best who articulate their beliefs with strength and resolve but without certitude. It’s a tricky line to walk, to remain alive to the limitations of your own understanding without descending into an affected, “look at how open minded I am” pose. To be corrigible, but not manipulable; to listen to advice but to follow your own. On a typical day I feel like doing both is impossible. When I read Nair I feel not only that it’s possible but that I should have already gotten it together to get there, a long while ago. There’s little more to ask of a political writer: when I read Yasmin Nair I whisper to myself, “Be smarter; be better.”
Once the mighty IOZ, now the only-slightly-less-mighty Jakey Backpack. Which is fine; IOZ was never long for this world. IOZ briefly stalked around the internet like some sort of monster out of prehistory, wreaking havoc, cackling the whole time. His club was his ideology, a sui generis anarchism, Emma Goldman with a copy of Ubik in her back pocket, a laughing, despairing worldview filled with the black humor of absurdism and despondency. And he swung that club. There was such wonderful violence to his pacifism.
But IOZ is dead, and I get it. He had to die. I am content that the writer remains. I would pay real money to write sentences as wonderfully, effectively stuffed as Bacharach’s. Plenty of people try to squeeze too much into their sentences, but Bacharach can stuff them in, then stretch his arms out so the sentences expand like an accordion, and like an accordion, they make sweet music. The man can pack a suitcase. Same with his references: many try what he tries, few succeed. If you’re going to weave obscure references through your writing, for god’s sakes, you better know what you’re doing. If you aren’t careful you can end up sounding like Dennis Miller trying out his new Toshiro Mifune joke on Dan Fouts when its 31-6 midway through the third quarter. I’ve never read a reference from Bacharach that didn’t precisely land, whether I got it or not; if not, the fault was me, not him. It’s like when someone mumbles and you apologize to them for not understanding.
The mistake so many young writers make is to believe that writing is a tool to reveal the self, or even worse, that revealing the self through writing is inherently interesting. Good writing typically obscures the self while clarifying others. I think of Bacharach writing about liberalism from the anonymity of IOZ as a natural culmination of that ideal, the writer as an instrument for the examination of every psyche but his own. Bacharach’s disbelieving, darkly amused attention focuses on establishment liberalism’s petty hypocrisies like Alexander Fleming squinting through a microscope at staphylococci. There’s a strain of liberalism that likes to see itself as Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Those people are right, but they forget— Smith solves his problems by punching people. The unapologetic militarism of neoconservatives is at least straightforward in its evil. The dopey, aw-shucks violence within American liberalism, that’s a real sickness. I need Bacharach to mock the idiocy and condemn the aggression. I need it, even if it’s just gallows humor, at this point. Buy his book, all a yinz, when it comes out.
Oh, Edith Z.
I think it’s perfectly logical to perceive a kind of toughness that you admire so much you want to treat it like delicacy. I think most anyone who reads Edith Zimmerman can’t help but note a certain pragmatic self-acceptance in her writing that, as tough as it is, makes you want to build her a dream cottage made of marzipan. It’s just a recognition that there’s something rare in how she writes— rare, and valuable. Never precious. Certainly not weak. Just something so rare in the unornamented, forgiving portrayal of herself that you want to defend it the way you defended your couch cushion fort. Not to infantilize. I just kind of want to carry her around in a little papoose, if you know what I mean.
A good rule of thumb for recognizing the quality of a piece of writing: what’s more specific and what’s more generic, praise for it or criticism against it? When she wrote her wonderful and funny profile of Chris Evans, she got a lot of specific praise and a little generic blame. “She made it all about herself! Postmodern tricks!” Which are just jackass complaints: everybody has tried to write that piece, to write a celebrity profile that talks about the author as much as the subject, to talk about the weird way we think about fame while demonstrating its effect, to admit the artificiality of the relationship between a celebrity and a profile writer while showing how poignant it can still be. People tried all that. They failed. Because that shit is hard. Only execution matters, and Zimmerman had the chops where almost nobody else did. She has the craft.
Self-deprecation is a seductive quality, in writing and in life, and it’s essentially always a mistake. Tell the world that you’re a loser and the world will believe you. What was amazing about Zimmerman’s work at The Hairpin was how she could demonstrate her value in a way that conveyed how she was barely holding it together. It wasn’t “sometimes I feel confident, sometimes I feel insecure!,” which is an angle that should be packed into a rocket and sent into the sun. It was “there’s really no space between the feeling like I’m a pretty cool person and the fact that I just lost a shoe between the subway car and the platform.” For me, personally, it’s not at all that there are times when I feel cool and times when I feel shitty about myself. It’s that the personal momentum that creates the former ensures the latter. Self-confidence is like Mario Kart, where no matter how fucking far ahead you get, the game is rubber banded so that some a-hole who kept hitting the penguin always gets the blue shell at just the wrong time. But sometimes, you’re the one who’s behind, you get the blue shell, and it feels pretty good, because fuck Donkey Kong, anyway. Edith Z really knows how to write about those feels.
If the nadir of our condescending “single lady writer livin’ the dream in NYC” fantasy is Carrie from Sex and the City doing her “I’m a klutzy self-doubting person but I got the shooooooooooes and also I’m horrid and really I get feminism and all but sluts are a thing,” then the flipside is Zimmerman, who writes like someone who is brilliant and funny and really put together but also spends a lot of her time with lipstick on her cheek. I never got swagger, never thought it was real, and don’t know why people want it. To humanize success in the aspirational lifestyle that so many people crave— to make it seem ridiculous without ever ridiculing anybody— that’s a beautiful thing.
On her birth certificate, her middle name reads “Motherfucking.” Tkacik is a woman who endured the absurd, wearying Thinking While Drinking controversy, the kind of reductive stupidity that the collective internet likes to treat as indicative of a person’s character forever. But nobody mistakes Tkacick for that person from that thing. They don’t dare. They know to fear her words, because when she wants them to be, they’re pure destruction. I’m not a professional writer, but had I written “Omniscient Gentlemen of the Atlantic,” I could retire happy, I could die happy.
Derision is a mode that people think is easy, but it couldn’t be harder. You can’t sell it; by its nature, contempt must indicate effortlessness on the part of the person feeling it. I could write a 3,000 word essay and not approximate the deserved scorn or inherent feminism in the five words “Crap Emails from a Dude.” The woman can just sling it, funny as fuck and so wonderfully mean it can cause the screen on your laptop to bubble. I was Facebook friends with her but I ended up clicking unfriend because I was afraid I would post something stupid and she would write a comment so cutting I’d jump out a window. Is my name on this thing? I’m a little worried. That’s the kind of heat I’m talking about here. And I’m no hothouse flower.
And she does the legwork. I mean she’s a real journalist, not a jerk with a Blogger account like me. I think of Moe getting into the financial world like a parasite working its way deep into the bloody interior of a diseased animal. I realize that isn’t a very flattering image, but I guess that’s my point: the world of contemporary investment banking is so stuffed with shit and filth and bile that you really need somebody who’s entirely unafraid to wade through rivers of excrement to get to the truth. Moe is not afraid. I mean I almost feel sorry for Jamie Dimon. Jamie Dimon. We need Tkacik in an America that has become so habituated to the capture of our whole system by the wealthy that we’ve moved into a kind of decadent, postmodern phase with it, people can barely keep down the laughter when they’re proposing financial reform. During Congressional hearings, you can almost see the CEOs winking at each other. Nobody believes this shit is redeemable. It’s theater, Beckett without all the cheer and optimism. Everybody is just hoping to get their piece before whole thing comes down. Under those conditions I want writers who are proficient in throwing acid.
The boss, currently, the chief. Talent and polish and work ethic and guts. I couldn’t give less of a fuck about the Pulitzer Prize, but sometimes they get it right.
The necessary preamble and predictable joke is that I frequently think Morris is wrong about movies. Wrong, and occasionally infuriating. I don’t share his taste for movies. But his writing reminds me that admiration is better than agreement. He’s got all the tools: precision, ambiguity, concision, expansiveness, minimalism, maximalism, reverence, mockery. Heat. Always, throwing heat.
Morris’s style is conversational except when it’s soaring, playful when not reflective, unfussy except when fussy is perfect. I know that can be true of any writer, but Morris can cycle through each and all within a single sentence. That might sound like stylistic schizophrenia, and it would be if Morris weren’t up for it. He makes it seem effortless, juggling registers and syntax, making the next mental turn seem inevitable even as your marvel at how unexpected it is. The digressive and allusive thing is a common style, and though I am inclined to love it, I’ve come to find it predictable and stale. But Morris makes it inimitable and fresh; his references don’t push, like so many of ours do, trying to uncomfortably occupy an argumentative space where they don’t quite belong. His digressions meander without distracting. In all of it, he trusts the interior logic of his style, a kind of DNA internal to his prose, a self-replicating design that spools out beautifully into complex patterns in all directions.
I am reminded, when I read good prose, that all complicated things can masquerade as simple, if only they achieve true beauty. American prose style has been strangled, for forever, by the serial killer called minimalism, a dimwitted ghost of somebody’s misunderstanding of Raymond Chandler’s parody of Ernest Hemingway’s homage to a Sherwood Anderson who never actually existed. I have read writer after writer ruining themselves, under the profoundly mistaken notion that a sentence of five words has twice the power of a sentence of ten. The advice to “write less,” always expressed as some sort of rare, sage wisdom, now has the character of your grandad looking around your new Kia for the choke. It’s bad advice that has been left on the stove for ages and has become tough and stringy. But so many people still want to chew.
Morris, right now, is my go-to for the refutation: with words, there is no such thing as too few or too many. There is only wrong and just enough. If you are in the habit of giving advice to young writers, and you pull out the same tired advice about adverbs or using no alternatives to “said”— as if that were the root of the problem— I’d ask you to consider that every bad writer has already heard that advice. No one who has contemplated writing for more than a half hour could have possibly missed the appeal to minimalism. If that advice solved the problem, we wouldn’t be surrounded by shitty prose.
And if we all followed it, we wouldn’t have writers like those on this list, writers with the capacity to shock, to unsettle, to amuse, and to inspire. They’re all different, in style and voice and register, but they share the ability to remind me of the teeming possibility of words. Right now, Wesley Morris best realizes that possibility, best makes the turn from what he’d like to express to what he has. He’s got the chip. These things change quickly. But for now, Morris is Aroldis Chapman, hitting 104, live-armed, painting the corners, throwing heat.