Our Favorite Literary Hub Stories of 2019
The Best Writing at the Site in the Year That Was
From essays to interviews, excerpts and reading lists, we publish around 300 features a month. And while we are proud of all the 3,000+ pieces we’ve shared in 2019, we do have our personal favorites. Below are some of the pieces we loved best on Lit Hub from 2019.
Jonny Diamond, Editor-in-Chief
In looking back at the year there are dozens of pieces I truly loved, each of which could be called a favorite—but if anything unifies the three essays below, it’s their clear-eyed and simultaneous readings of landscape and text, something like literary criticism hybridized with travel diary. These pieces are personal without being sentimental, erudite without being academic, and inhabit the political without veering into the polemic.
“Hiking Cormac McCarthy’s Western Wilderness During an Immigration Crisis,” by Raksha Vasudevan
Uncertain of his fate in the country he’s come to call home, Raksha Vasudevan travels to its most forbidding landscapes to try to match myth with reality. Specifically, the sere, foreboding west of Cormac McCarthy, in whose pages a ten-year-old Vasudevan first discovered America. “If I had to leave, I wanted to experience the America I had first imagined as a child. Entering Big Bend, nothing appeared as I’d imagined: the land was far from desolate. The campground was nestled in a basin circled by emerald cliffs; golden cottonwood trees shaded the campsite. I breathed in the scents of sagebrush and oncoming rain.”
“On Patrick White: Australia’s Great Unread Novelist,” by Madeleine Watts
In this searching personal essay-cum-literary profile, novelist Madeleine Watts heads back to Sydney after five years, and though it’s a kind of homecoming, Watts isn’t really looking for the usual signifiers of return. Instead, she’s on the trail of Patrick White, one of the most important, least-read Australian writers of the 20th century. “White delivered to me my country and my city in a way I had not recognized before I saw it in his words. The Tree of Man gave me a blueprint for what an Australian writer could do with their Australianness, and then, two months later, I left Sydney and moved to America. I did not go home again for five years.”
“Ignoble: On the Trail of Peter Handke’s Bosnian Illusions,” by John Erik Riley
Much ink has been (and will continue to be) spilled over the Nobel Prize committee’s baffling choice to confer upon Peter Handke the ultimate validation of his life’s work. Insofar as the decision gives cover to Handke’s denial of Serbian atrocities and his support of war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, it has been widely and angrily condemned. Following on a similar controversy in Norway writer John Erik Riley headed to eastern Bosnia to see for himself what exactly Handke saw—or didn’t, as the case may be. “Beneath the ornate and intricate linguistic workings of Handke’s text, one can hear the rumbles of some of the worst tendencies of our present age, which have, in recent years, been amplified to a fierce din.”
Emily Temple, Lit Hub senior editor
“Writing Sex for Money is Hard F*cking Work” by Sandra Newman
The literary world still has a hard time talking about money. As a general rule, we like to pretend that all books are Art, their creators moved by the Muse and free from such petty considerations, but then we fixate on six-figure book deals and film adaptations. We side-eye Jessica Knoll. We celebrate Jessica Knoll.
So it’s always refreshing—and practical—to read an author writing honestly about the fact that writing is . . . a job, and that they do it for money, even if that money is one thing among other things. “Writing for a living can also help cure you of preciousness, of your idea of yourself as a superior soul,” Newman writes in this sharp and witty essay. “It reminds you that the reader is who it’s all for; that the point is to communicate, not impress. The best work I’ve done has come from a friction between artistic aspirations and worries about the sales department.” But she’s also written a lot of work that’s not her best, including “unforgivably bad” erotic novels, and she’s done it for money. Her description of this is one of the funniest things I’ve read this year. Plus, as someone who has written many dumb things on the internet for a paycheck (but never here at the venerable Literary Hub, of course, how dare you), I have to say I relate. At least a little.
“What We Don’t Know About Sylvia Plath” by Emily Van Duyne
I love other people’s obsessions. I love reading about them, I love participating in them, I love knowing they exist. I also love Sylvia Plath—though not as much as Emily Van Duyne does. This is why I trust her, and why I adore this essay (as well as all of her writing on Plath here at Lit Hub), in which Van Duyne makes an accidental pilgrimage to Sylvia Plath’s grave and there happens upon a stranger who is not a stranger: Frieda Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s only daughter. “I thought, I can’t talk to her. If I try to talk to her, I will sound like a lunatic,” Van Duyne writes. “I thought, If I don’t try to talk to her, I will regret it for the rest of my life.” Reader, she talks to her. Obsession wins again.
“The Octopus: An Alien Among Us” by Michael S. A. Graziano
I have to admit that I’m a sucker for any and all investigations into the nature of consciousness and the brain—and I’m fascinated by the octopus for being an example of an intelligence that evolved in an entirely different way than ours. As Graziano puts it, “No other intelligent animal is as far from us on the tree of life. . . . big-brained smartness is not a one-off event, because it evolved independently at least twice–first among the vertebrates and then again among the invertebrates.” But does that mean that octopuses are conscious? That is, Graziano asks, does it mean that they have subjective experience?
It might say, “Getting a fish out of a jar requires turning that circular part.” It would say many things, reflective of the information that we know is contained inside the octopus’s nervous system. But we don’t know if it would say, “I have a subjective, private experience—a consciousness—of that fish. I don’t just process it. I experience it. Seeing a fish feels like something.” We don’t know if its brain contains that type of information because we don’t know what the octopus’s self models tell it. It may lack the machinery to model what consciousness is or to attribute that property to itself. Consciousness could be irrelevant to the animal.
Maybe, but maybe not. The truth is, he says, we just don’t know enough yet. Which, on its own, is pretty exciting.
Emily Firetog, deputy editor
“What Happens When You Pose as Susan Sontag on Twitter?” by Rebecca Brill
“There are a number of things you should expect to happen in the event that you start posing as Susan Sontag on the internet.” Brill (a former Lit Hub intern!) is also (to my surprise!) the brains behind @sontagdaily. The account posts daily excerpts from Sontag’s diaries, an exercise that “required little thought or scrutiny” and an activity that, bored and lonely, gave Brill something like purpose. The nature of diary-as-art discussion is astute, plus you can learn about Sontag trolls.
“Traveling Scene to Scene in the Streets of Vienna, Before Sunrise” by Stephen Kelman
If you were lucky enough to have seen Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise when you were age 12–17, then you know it’s the perfect love story (and you likewise have a lifelong love of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke). Essentially, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) meet on a train, spend a solitary night walking around Vienna, and then leave each other (seemingly forever). Kelman does the kind of romantic retracing that most of us can only dream about, following the path that the couple takes through the city with his partner, on the one hand experiencing the hospitality of Vienna while also learning the impossibility of cinematic perfection
“Ten Thoughts on Having Your Novel Translated into Your Native Tongue” by Johannes Lichtman
It’s one thing for your novel to be published, yet another for it to be translated, but to have it translated into the language from your mother-tounge––a language you no longer quite speak––is something entirely else. Lichtman writes, “Swedish was technically my first language, but English is the language in which I grew up, the language in which I became myself, and the language in which I feel at home… I lack the vocabulary and cultural fluency to write a novel in Swedish.” This is a fascinating essay on the politics of translation, the anxiety of a debut novelist, and the way in which our own language often fails us.
Eleni Theodoropoulos, Lit Hub editorial fellow
“Ophelia and After: Inventing the Literary Lonely Woman” by Angela F. Qian
Everyone is familiar with the type of the lonely woman. Angela F. Qian begins by breaking down the etymology of “loneliness,” contrasting it with solitude, and with its former variant, “oneliness.” When Shakespeare applied the term “lonely” to Ophelia, it became suggestive of “a new form of isolation, a gendered one in which silence is paramount.” So, the lonely, silent woman was borne, to bear her burden of loneliness alone—until, that is, the independent woman came to replace her. Visiting the work of Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick, Doris Lessing, Vivian Gornick and others, Angela F. Qian journeys through the literary history of the lonely woman, shamed for her isolation and shamed for her independence, her silence and her vocalization, and acutely confronts this ever-growing, ever-shifting female archetype.
“The Complexities of Talking About Race When Trapped Within Its Confines” by Thomas Chatterton Williams
In Self-Portrait in Black and White Thomas Chatterton Williams discusses with great emotion what it means for him personally, and for us as a society, to unlearn race. “Just like that, in one casual exchange, I see a history, a struggle, a culture, the whole vibrant and populated world of my ancestors—and of myself—dissolve into the void.” Father to two white-looking children, Williams reflects on his lifelong understanding of race, the future of racial identity, the crux of the problem of thinking in terms of a racial dichotomy. The descriptor of black or white, one or the other, will always come short of capturing the ancestry, lineage, and complexity of a person’s history, but has and more likely will continue, nevertheless, to determine one’s ascribed place within society. Rome was very much not built in a day.
“Who Has the Right to Be A Writer” by Stewart Sinclair
Stewart Sinclair tackles the question that will nag every writer, budding or established, at least once, but more realistically, about a thousand times during their lifetime. He writes, “The crux of the matter concerns who does, and who does not, have the privilege of engaging in what are often referred to as labors of love.” Through dialogue with one of his creative writing students and a discussion of the elusive literary market, sometimes seeming like “an eternally expanding Ponzi scheme” and others like a safe harbor that will allow for “the respite of writing,” Sinclair elegantly grapples with the conflict nested at the core of the writing practice; to be a writer and to want to be a writer seem forever at odds—practically, idealistically—and yet, we do it anyway.
Jessie Gaynor, Lit Hub social media editor
“Why Do I Recite the Same Paul Celan Poem to All My Dates?” by Sara Martin
I am favorably disposed toward any essay that can combine a reflections on Paul Celan and the power of poetry itself with casual references to exploding warts, dating an Abercrombie & Fitch manager, and a childhood belief that one’s father is Bruce Springsteen. This piece, about what happens when you deputize a poem as vulnerability, says so much about literature and intimacy and the ways in which connection can be sought, that I recommend reading it between two and a million times for maximum impact.
“Some Writing Advice: Don’t Take Others’ Advice” by Guy Gavriel Gay
Writing advice is high on my list of most attractive types of clickbait, right up there with “cheap skincare young forever.” I also recognize that—like most skincare—it’s largely worthless. Or, at the very least so personal as to be helpful only to very few. Guy Gavriel Kay begins this piece by declaring himself “allergic to writing advice,” and instead of prescribing, he describes, sharing anecdotes of things that have worked for him (writing in a fishing village in Crete, for example). Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded, after all, that there are no rules.
“Against Catharsis: Writing Is Not Therapy” by T Kira Madden
This essay deftly weaves together so many forms: it is deeply personal narrative of what it is—and isn’t—to recount one’s own trauma, it is an exploration of what memoir means, and it is stealthy craft essay. To borrow an image from Madden herself, it’s a bit of sleight of hand, which at the end reveals itself. Rather, Madden reveals it, precisely, like a generous magician.
Dan Sheehan, Book Marks editor
“On Being a Woman Who Loves Math” by Catherine Chung
“All my life I’ve been aware of the disheartening fact that as a society, we generally find intellect off-putting in women, and do our best to squash it,” writes novelist Catherine Chung in her fascinating essay on encountering the sexism endemic in the mathematics world-from middle school to the upper echelons of academia and beyond-and the inspiration she found in the stories of some of the great unsung mathematicians of the twentieth century. “I had to imagine the possibilities that are usually denied women, and in the act of imagining a woman who by luck or genius or sheer perseverance rejects that denial-a woman who insists, above all, in being free in her mind-I found that she had opened a new door for me, that I could walk through, as well.”
“Surviving False Dawns: On Joy Division and Life in a Far Distant Suburb” by Justine Hyde
Australian writer Justine Hyde’s haunted, elegiac ode to the music and spirit of Joy Division is about the Manchester post-punk band and their tortured leader, yes, but it’s also about adolescent isolation, finding your tribe, depression, motherhood, and the how the music that spoke to us as teenagers reverberates through the changing phases of our adult lives, providing both solace and despair. “The music of our adolescence holds a special place in the brain, beyond simple nostalgia: psychologists call it the ‘reminiscence bump,’ writes Hyde, “My pre-frontal cortex fired up when I listened to Joy Division as a teenager, my hormones surging through that intense period of self-discovery, and rapid psychological and social development. The music imprinted on me. While I can unthread and cast off other aspects of myself, the music remains, playing forever on a loop.”
“When Even the Greatest of Writers Grapples With Self Doubt” by Gabrielle Bellot
This meditative piece by Gabrielle Bellot on the last poems of W. B. Yeats—wherein he grappled with aging, self-doubt, and despair—is a beautiful, lyrical reminder for writers everywhere not to give up, even when it seems that the well of creativity has run dry and inspiration will never strike again. “With or without fame, we can never know if our work will live on,” Bellot writes. “Perhaps it’s enough to sing, and keep singing, and hope, after our own night-shawl has closed around us, that someone else will hear it, and, hardest of all, remember it.
Corinne Segal, Lit Hub senior editor
“How to Free Yourself From the ‘Walking Essay’” by Lucy Schiller
Facing a brutal Iowa winter, the cancellation of classes due to cold, and a flare-up of Raynaud’s syndrome, Lucy Schiller reconsiders the “walking essay,” challenging a common and all-too-convenient narrative flow. Sitting in stillness, Schiller instead lets her mind wander to what movement has meant to her family lineage, what it signifies for storytelling, and how our capacity to travel freely is bound to change in an era of climate crisis.
“Living Fernando Pessoa’s Dreamlife in Lisbon” by Saleem Haddad
In a season of deteriorating mental health and a general feeling of stagnancy, Saleem Haddad and his partner decided to move from London to Lisbon on a whim. Soon after arriving there, he began reading Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet; its disjointed structure and fragmented progression resonated with him and formed the bedrock of the mornings that he spent rebuilding his sense of self.
“Searching for Women’s Voices in the Harshest Landscape on Earth” by Elizabeth Rush
When Elizabeth Rush learned that she would be able to join a research expedition heading to the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, she turned to the canon of writing on Antarctica—and found almost no stories written by women. Her essay, a contribution to Lit Hub’s
Katie Yee, Book Marks assistant editor
“What stories and perspectives are missing in today’s newsfeeds?” If you’ve wondered this, you are not alone, and you should probably read award-winning journalist Jenni Monet’s personal essay, which we ran last January and which is still as timely as ever. She describes her experiences in colonized newsrooms and her decision to “sequester the editorial gap” by self-publishing her stories. From rejected edits to questionable photo choices, this piece will offer some insight into the editorial process and point you in the direction of some of Jenni Monet’s untouched work.
Because I’m continually haunted by The Third Hotel, because I consult the cards every morning before getting out of bed, because I once paid a psychic to tell me about my spirit guide, and because I’m still thinking about this piece we published in October, I am here to recommend “Laura van den Berg on Divining the Unseeable, and Her Family’s History with the Paranormal.” If you’re like me and you’re into this kind of thing, it’s a delightful essay on, yes, psychics and pet mediums. (Her dog outright told the mystic animal communicator that he refused to stop barking at runners because “some things are too fun to give up,” and, quite frankly, I respect that.) But it’s also an essay on being brave in editing, the weak spots and the hopeful parts we inherit from our parents, and dealing with uncertainty.
“How Sharing Books With My Dad in Prison Made Life Bearable for Both of Us” by Tyler Wetherall
“Operating a system of mass incarceration requires an act of aggressive dehumanization,” Tyler Wetherall writes. This is something we all know, on some level, but in her essay, she speaks from a strikingly honest and specific place. When she was a teenager, her father was serving a ten-year sentence, and they were able to bond over books: “we did share the imaginary landscape offered within its pages, a place we could occupy together from afar.” This moving essay touches on book banning in prisons and other policies that further dehumanize incarcerated individuals, as well as offers us a glimpse at her relationship with her father—the way they would both read Wilbur Smith’s The River God before bed. She also calls attention to Books Through Bars, a vital organization that sends books to prisoners upon request, and shares brief, heartbreaking stories about her volunteer work with them. (Maybe something to look into if you are thinking of volunteering! ’Tis the season of giving.)
Molly Odintz, CrimeReads editor
“Barbara Neely: The Activist-Turned-Crime-Writer Who Inspired a Generation” by Kellye Garrett
It’s a fitting time to revisit Kellye Garrett’s ode to Barbara Neely, now that Neely has just been named the 2020 Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America. Neely was a longtime activist before she began writing the Blanche White mysteries, featuring a protagonist who worked as a maid and did double duty as an amateur sleuth. As Garrett writes about Neely’s famed sleuth, “Blanche uses her societal position as someone often viewed as invisible to her advantage…She also uses her vast network of domestic workers and black folks to learn the secrets that the upper crust white families don’t want anyone to know—and would kill to keep.”
“The Playboy and the Publisher: A Murder Mystery” by Curtis Evans
Sometimes, life is stranger than fiction, and sometimes, life and fiction are equally strange. Curtis Evans has spent a lifetime researching this and similar stories, and his deep knowledge of the subject shows. Here, Evans details the lives and works of Willoughby Sharp, a dilettante crime writer, and Claude Kendall, his golden boy publisher. The two were united by murder mysteries, and later murder, when Kendall fell victim to a homophobic assault. The story of these two is the story of early 20th publishing, and its vast hypocrisies.
“The Evolution of the Femme Fatale in Film Noir” by Halley Sutton
Halley Sutton’s guide to the evolving femme fatale is funny, biting, and informative. Sutton begins in the early days of noir, when villainesses could do whatever they wanted, as long as they were punished by the end. Later revivals of the femme fatale added more agency and less judgement to the mix, culminating in femmes fatales that “aren’t just sympathetic; they’re actually human.”
Olivia Rutigliano, CrimeReads editorial fellow
Wilkie Collins and the Prison of Marriage by Radha Vatsal
Wilkie Collins is the author of so many novels about incredible women—many of whom are oppressed by terrible, constraining, or exploitative marriages, and spend their time battling for rights and respect. So it’s kind of weird that Collins himself had a really complicated attitude towards women and marriage, in real life. Radha Vatsal presents a fascinating look at the nineteenth century’s ultimate feminist-bro writer. So woke on paper, such a problem in actual life.
In this clever and thorough article, S.J. Paris clearly illuminates a fascinating and often-overlooked bit of history: that in 1577, Sir Francis Drake grew insanely power-hungry and demanded for the execution of Francis Doughty, an aristocrat with whom he sailed. Reputedly, Doughty was trouble, talking about mutiny and his abilities to summon the Devil and control weather. Drake’s decision to kill him presented a complicated legal precedent; the Queen didn’t commission it, so it was not a sanctioned, conventionally legal decision. The essay is a great reflection on history’ most timeless theme: how the powerful bend the rules when it’s convenient for them, to keep their power unchecked.
Three Books that Explore the Violence of Women’s Appetites by Katie Gutierrez
In this smart and witty reflection Katie Gutierrez, discusses three new books with complicated takes on women in crime stories: Oyinkan Braithewaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer, Madeline Stevens’s Devotion, and Rachel Monroe’s Savage Appetites. She discusses the phenomenon of featuring more and more women whose interests and relationships to violent crime border on “creepy,” arguing that female characters should be entitled to this kind of negative quality. “[Rachel] Monroe suggests,” she writes “it may not always be our own history, personal or collective, of violation that draws us to stories about violence. ‘A different, more alarming hypothesis was the one I tended to prefer: perhaps we liked creepy stories because something creepy was in us.’” Allowing female characters access to voyeurism and other, less desirable qualities allows for better, more realistic and relatable, but also more productive protagonists.
Aaron Robertson, Lit Hub assistant editor
“In the Aftermath of Civil War, a Writing Workshop Aims for Peace” by Sarah Hoenicke
I was so pleased when Sarah Hoenicke approached Lit Hub with an exciting proposal, which was supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. Hoenicke had traveled to Sri Lanka to interview diasporic Sri Lankan writers, trauma experts, and participants in a writing workshop called “Write to Reconcile,” which aimed to address ethnic and cultural divisions in light of the country’s devastating civil war. Hoenicke sensitively renders the history of European colonizers in Sri Lanka. The linguistic influence of the British, in particular, would eventually play a role in Sri Lankan class struggles and nationalist conflict. “Write to Reconcile” was a relatively brief but exciting initiative that enabled young Sri Lankans whose families were on opposing sides of the conflict to come together and articulate sentiments they’d perhaps never expressed before. This was a great, ambitious piece of journalism.
Investigative reporter Sally Denton’s round-up of recent books about “cowboy militias,” anti-government sentiment, and battles over public land in the American West is my favorite essay review of the year. Here Denton zooms in on the armed seizure, led by Mormon patriarch Ammon Bundy, of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. While the media frenzy around the incident highlighted the occupiers’ wish for the federal government to “return” millions of acres of public land, Denton paints a dazzling picture of Mormon religious utopianism, explaining how the concept of Bundy’s “divine mandate” intersects with notions of (white) American entitlement. Recently, such feelings have been associated with theatrical displays of unrest and violence, as at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. We now know that the case of the Oregon militia standoff was a strange harbinger of divisions to come.
“The Art World Doesn’t Want Us to Ask Where the Money Comes From” by Barbara Bourland
As someone who does not understand the appeal of pop artist Jeff Koons, I found Barbara Bourland’s feisty commentary on excess and valuation in the absurdist contemporary New York art market a welcome read. Bourland dismisses the notion that we, the audience, should separate our hang-ups about money from our reception of art as “pervasive, rhetorical propaganda crystallized from the diamond vein of elitism that rises beneath every landscape to separate the haves from the have nots.” Yep, Bourland’s entire critique is more or less written in this register, and the result is marvelous.
I’m going to take a pass this year on picking out a single piece or three. I was involved in hundreds of pieces this year at Literary Hub: poems, essays, diaries, reports, paeans to books and popstars. I loved them all. I feel incredibly lucky to work with writers so good they make the world a bit interesting, a little easier to live in, more vivid than life itself, and yet more mysterious. To all those writers and to the ones who make this site worth reading, the ones who make it run, the ones from Freeman’s who let me run their work here, I just want to say thanks.
–John Freeman, Lit Hub executive editor