AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

8 EXPERTS REVEAL THEIR TOP 5 IN THE DECADE’S WRITING

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florida

Florida (Lauren Groff, 2018)

This year marks the end of the second decade of the 2000s. In honor of this, we thought we’d take a look back at our decade with an end-of-year series.

The internet loves lists, especially year-end ones, and we’ll feed that love a little bit this December. We’ll be hosting seven lists of expert Decade-Best picks. We’ve done movies and games, and you can look forward to television, music, traditional visual arts, and one surprise list at the end. Our experts will include philosophers and other academics whose work concerns these topics, and people working in the relevant media. Up today: writing!

Writing is a curious category, one that can be extremely broad, as writing touches so much of the arts. Movies have scripts; songs have lyrics; cookbooks have written instructions. So in our lists below, you’ll find novels as well as a selection of the best of what writing and storytelling had to offer this decade.


Our contributors are:


Wesley Cray

Wesley D. Cray is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Texas Christian University.
They read a lot of comics and write about ontology and art
.

building

from Building Stories (Chris Ware, 2012)

I’ve chosen to focus my list on comics, an underappreciated medium. So here are my top five comics of the decade.

  1. Building Stories, Chris Ware (2012, Pantheon Books)
    Many will say that Jimmy Corrigan is Ware’s masterpiece, but by my lights, it’s Building Stories. Several interlocking mini-comics of various formats that can be read in any order, this “book” is not just an achievement of modular storytelling, but also a darn cool physical artifact.
  2. Here, Richard McGuire (2014, Pantheon Books)
    A long-form development of a six-page comic that originally appeared in RAW magazine in 1989, Here tells the story of a single, small region of space over an extensive timeline. It’s a non-linear, fragmented narrative, both haunting and bittersweet, as well as a powerful meditation on comics’ portrayal of temporality.
  3. Saga, Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan (2012 – Present, Image Comics)
    It’s rare to find an ongoing, serialized comic that wins over both comics enthusiasts and those who typically don’t pay any attention to the medium. A raunchy and emotional family-driven space opera, Saga will make you gasp, giggle, and weep.
  4. March, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (2013-2016, Top Shelf Comics)
    A three-volume tale of U.S. Congressperson John Lewis’s experience in the American civil rights movement, co-authored by Andrew Aydin and Lewis himself and illustrated in black and white by Nate Powell. The Eisner Award, Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, National Book Award, and Coretta Scott King Book Award were all well-earned: March is fantastic and you should read it.
  5. My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Emil Ferris (2017, Fantagraphics Books)
    The strong narrative, impressive crosshatching, and frequent homages to classic horror comics make this book worthy of your attention, but the fact that Ferris started working on it as part of her recovery from West Nile virus-induced paralysis makes it even more impressive. A prime example of the medium’s ability to explore the interior projected onto the exterior.


Cynthia Freeland

Cynthia Freeland is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of Houston
and a past president of the American Society for Aesthetics.

hawk

I have chosen long-form books, mostly novels except for the first, simply because these are what I read.

  1. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald (2014)
    The author’s searing grief at her father’s sudden death prompts her, oddly enough, to try training a goshawk, and she patiently develops mutual trust with this wild, alien creature. A Cambridge professor, she isolates herself and becomes as savage as her hawk, along the way meditating on T.H. White’s parallel journey training his own goshawk, the lore of falconry, and how the deliverance of death is an essential part of nature.
  2. Salvage the Bones, by Jessmyn Ward (2012)
    The excruciating story of neglected children in rural Louisiana coping with challenges of hunger, sexuality, and school. The author conveys their dignity even as the young boy makes money from dog-fighting with his fiercely beloved bitch China White. All the while, Hurricane Katrina is approaching to confront them all with deadly choices.
  3. Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel (2012)
    The fictionalized history of how Thomas Cromwell achieved his own horrific revenge while helping Henry VIII rid himself of the now-tiresome Ann Boleyn. Narrated through Cromwell’s eyes, the book recounts how a low-born boy rose to power in a realm rife with schemes, sensuality, and ruthless violence.
  4. My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard (trans. Don Bartlett, 2012-2018)
    Book 1, A Death in the Family, 2012
    Book 2  A Man in Love, 2013
    Book 3, Boyhood Love, 2014
    Book 4, Dancing in the Dark, 2015
    Book 5, Some Rain Must Fall, 2016
    Book 6, The End, 2018
    A Proustian and monumental assemblage of intimate details. Its beautiful prose and imagery afford insights about family, love, ambition, and art. Book 1 is an especially piercing memoir of a father’s cruelty and of the hideous yet pitiful revelations that emerge after his death.
  5. The Ibis Trilogy, by Amitav Ghosh (2008-2016)
    Sea of Poppies, 2008
    River of Smoke, 2012
    Flood of Fire, 2016
    A vast epic of the opium trade written in an inventive mix of Hindi-English. Sweeping from the Ganges to Canton, Ghosh tracks an amazing array of characters from diverse countries and castes as their paths intersect. Along the way, he presents fascinating tidbits about poppy-growing, botany, river travel, cultural confrontation, addiction, love, cruelty, warfare, dynasty, and the sinister pathways of colonialism.


Keren Gorodeisky

Keren Gorodeisky is a Jane Dickson Lanier Professor of philosophy at Auburn University.
She reads miscellaneously (but not sci-fi) and writes mostly on
aesthetic appreciation, rationality, and value.

flypaper

The most urgent stories of this decade reverberated across the world in no more than hundred and forty five characters, and vision’s enthronement was solidified by the all-encompassing availability of images. This could have been an immense blow against the written word. And yet. Here is only a fracture of this decade’s feats of writing (leaving out some great works of criticism and many others).

Best Novelistic Series:
The Neapolitan Novels, by Elena Ferrante
My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Serialized novels in the age of twitter?! We are increasingly programmed to think of slowness as a defect. But the slowness of these two voluminous series is a literary triumph.  Savor the closeups on the most mundane activities (spreading butter on a slice of bread, walking a few blocks with the toddlers). In arresting a feeling, a thought, in haunting the real, Knasugaard offers adventures in freezing the ephemeral, without ever shirking from soberly facing death. At the other side of reading both series, we see the familiar everyday as if for the first time. While Knausgaard grapples with the moral responsibilities of the artist and the parent, in Ferrante’s novels women’s power shines forth catholically. And childhood and the working class emerge as looking a little bit alike: both are shaped by dependence—on others with power, on reading, on fiction—despair, uncertainty and a great dose of imagination and hope. If Ferrante is right, reading, writing, friends, understanding and passion for all these are indispensable for life.

Best Short Stories:
Lauren Groff, Florida (2018)
Pain is the middle name of Groff’s superb stories. Two girls are abandoned on an island, a concussed mother and her two young boys are confined to an isolated cabin with a panther lurking outside. Nature too, teeming and swarming with wildlife, stench and death, is a central character. The main figures are imperiled from within and from without, some by natural disasters, some by disturbed parents, some by both. But many of these characters are imperiled simply by being (like Groff, like many of us) a writer, a working mother, living in America in the 2010’s. Our everyday here is as real as it is surreal, and nature is our own self, our own doing and our own doom.

Notable Poetry:
Monument, by Natasha Trethewey (2018)
“Why is everything I see/the past I’ve tried to forget?” Trethewey asks in a book that is as much poetry as it is history, collective and personal: “a poetics of grief.” 

Notable cookbooks:
Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (2012)
The sense and the smell of a place, the tapestry of cuisines and histories, the photographs and above all the recipes make Jerusalem one of the best cookbooks of the decade.

Best in Books with Pictures (excluding comics/graphic novels)
The Sweet Flypaper of Life, by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes, (reprint, 2018)
A Sick Day for Amos McGee (2011) and Lenny and Lucy (2015) by Phillip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead
First published in 1955, The Sweet Flypaper of Life is an utterly beautiful, sad yet funny and joyful song to Harlem in the late 1940s-early 1950’s in words and photographs. Please don’t miss it.
Subtle yet simple, the Steads’ moving children picture books are no more children books than poetry. These are books that I hope that my 5 year old, and I, will never grow out of. Good books are born in a decade but never die in it.


James B. Haile, III

James B. Haile, III is a philosopher and fiction writer from Louisville, KY, whose work focuses on the relationship between science fiction, black literature, and philosophical aesthetics.

merriweather.jpg

SEEME (Murjoni Merriweather, 2017)

There are multiple ways to tell a story, as there are multiple stories to tell. Just as “reading” and “writing” may take many forms, what we call “literature” and how we read it, discern from it multiple meanings and multiple forms, we find ourselves, at each stage of the interpretation, embarking on and at the precipice of the advent of self-understanding.

The multiple ways we tell a story, and multiple stories we tell tells us something about ourselves, our moment, and how we, having constituted ourselves as ourselves in this moment, can come to start thinking about it and us. And, understanding that black “literary” productions don’t just tell us, but remind us, instruct us, and direct us as to the meaning of our moment, and how we have been reacting to it as we have been constructing it, the following is something of a “list” with something of an explanation, not so much of the “literature” itself, or the artists themselves, but of our own process of “reading” and “writing,” and the meaning of its social significance in a certain span of time—the 2010s.

  1. DAMN, by Kendrick Lamar (2017)
    Incomparably complex compositions kill off commonplace conservative condescension.” It began with 80, which begat the rest. Good Kid, m.a.a.d. city, and To Pimp a Butterfly. Then, Damn. Having won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for “storytelling,” “unified by its vernacular authenticity… capturing the complexity of modern African-American life,” it is good to remind ourselves that, taken all-together, these are not just words, a composite picture or an argument; they are “shards of metal dropped from eight-story windows” burning a hole into the meaning of what we take to be “African-American,” and how we have come to understand “life”; they are phrases, emptied of their content, and given light and breath, arms to swing and legs to run, asking: “When you’re lookin’ tell me what do you see?/I love myself.”
  2. SEEME and DAMN, by Murjoni Merriweather (sculptures, 2016-2017)
    In the era in which conversations on and about “the Black body”, and annunciating the mainstreaming of “Black Lives Matter” as prophecy and slogan, Merriweather reminds us that what we call “bodies,” when they are black, are but elements of a collected and organized naturalized social substance, and, thus, what it means for them to “matter” in the realm of the human is negligible. Rejecting the “human”, as it were, Merriweather’s statues are crafted, articulated refusals of the given order and its values without, at the same, refusing its own sense of identity; and, in the process, reminding, instructing, and directing us to a blackness that is unsurpassed, and with this, to that element that is at once necessary and unforgiveable—the self-constructed second skin of self-mattering, “tamed down, patent-leathered now until it gleams like jet—were jet a crown.”
  3. Get Out, by Jordan Peele (film, 2017)
    “Coagula”, a central and galvanizing notion of Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out, is about many things, one of which is the figurative unfolding of a post-racial capitalist dreamwork notion that itself doesn’t need to be exaggerated or fictionalized, only to lean into the strangeness of reality of/for black life. As per this strangeness, Jordan Peele alerts us to the fact that though “we” are hunted by state apparatus, and “we” at times hunt ourselves. He offers us this revelation: “we” are always in relation to the consumptive practices of buying and selling, whether we peddle ourselves or whether we are being equally peddled. Jordan Peele reminds us, instructs us, and directs us that before we get out, we also have to ask why we were “in” in the beginning. As such, Get Out is not so much a metaphor or a satire, but a two-hundred-and-twenty-four-page jigsaw puzzle sent to us from the after-future.
  4. Dear White America”, by Danez Smith (poem, 2015)
    In 2015, poet Danez Smith recalls, with a gesture stuck in his throat, that there may be somewhere else for us to go. Smith’s poem is an open letter, ostensibly addressed to white America, but, when unclothed, was a distress signal sent from those of us who had not yet left to those who had and had taken up refuge and made a new life in an undisclosed Lagrange point.
  5. Lemonade, by Beyoncé (audio-visual album, 2016)
    It began with a bounce. Something of a rubber-banded-sounded, stretching across the space and time of generations of black women, connecting to the sonic and poetic of black cultural production, connected to the ground, to the earth, rooted in place. It is a concept more than an album; it is a gesture, a conjuring instructing and directing us to remember how it feels to remember.


Darren Hudson Hick

Darren Hudson Hick is walking the earth.

hawkeye.jpg

from Hawkeye (Matt Fraction, David Aja, et al., 2013-2015)

I read a lot. On my last move, they had to bring in a second moving truck because of the weight of my books. But I’m random. There’s a two-foot-high stack of books next to my bed waiting to be read. Some of those are bestsellers, some are comics from 40 years ago that I’ve pulled out of the files. Some are classics of American literature that I feel guilty about not having read when I was 12. Some are dog-eared paperbacks I found at thrift shops that looked interesting. I’ll spend months reading nothing but horror novels, and then thoroughly engross myself in the history of socks. So, this is a list of some of the 5 best things I’ve read from the past decade—it can’t pretend to be anything else.

Best Biography That Isn’t The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:
Educated, by Tara Westover (2018, HarperCollins)
Reading this book is like watching someone getting thrown from a car wreck in slow motion over the course of 20 years. It’s riveting.

Best Book About Books:
Paperbacks from Hell, by Grady Hendrix (2017, Quirk)
Grady Hendrix loves horror novels. He loves them as flawed and beautiful art objects, and his love is infectious. He makes me want to read every single book he talks about. This volume inspired publisher Valancourt Books to launch a vintage horror reprint series and I will buy everything they publish.

Best Comic:
Hawkeye, by Matt Fraction & David Aja (& friends) (2013–2015, Marvel)
Fraction & Aja’s Hawkeye is wonderfully quiet and domestic. There’s a lot that reminds me of Miller & Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil—but, like, if there were whole issues devoted to Matt Murdock’s laundry day or interceding in a fight between his neighbor and his garbage man. There some Chris Ware in there, too. But Ware’s stories are alien and cold, while Fraction and Aja’s stories are intimate and personal. Simply beautiful work.

Best Book About My Childhood:
Life Moves Pretty Fast, by Hadley Freeman (2016, Simon & Schuster)
I wouldn’t have expected a collection of essays about ’80s movies to be so personal, so insightful. Freeman writes like I want to write.

Best Stephen King Book:
11/22/63, by Stephen King (2011, Scribner)
Best Stephen King novel since Misery. Fight me.


Robbie Kubala

Robbie Kubala is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at UC Santa Cruz. He works on
ethics and aesthetics (including philosophy of/in literature, especially Proust).

motherland

Best Novel:
At Last, by Edward St Aubyn (2011)
St Aubyn is our best living novelist at the level of the sentence. On a prominent philosopher (probably meant to be Parfit): “like a masterful broom, his new book had scattered the dust long settled on the subject of identity, and swept it into exciting new piles.” The earlier novels in his Patrick Melrose series are mordant satires of British elites. But this fifth and final installment puts his linguistic brilliance in the service of something like therapy, as Patrick achieves a detached perspective on the psychological damage of childhood sexual abuse and the moral damage of stratospheric financial privilege. The novel form is tailor-made for the deep exploration of selfhood; St Aubyn pushes that further than anyone else.

Best Short Stories:
Florida, by Lauren Groff (2018)
“I have somehow become a woman who yells…”, begins the first of these 11 terrifying stories. Groff’s protagonists, more often than not educated white women with benign husbands and stultifying children, face mortal danger from hostile environments—hurricanes, snakes, panthers, predatory men, crushing debt, bourgeois life, etc.—but somehow manage to survive. The one about the literature Ph.D. student who becomes homeless made me forget to breathe.

Best Biography:
James Merrill: Life and Art, by Langdon Hammer (2015)
The high modernist poet was born in 1926, the son of the co-founder of Merrill Lynch, and died in 1995 of AIDS-related illness. Financially independent thanks to his father’s legacy, Merrill swanned around Athens and Key West, cruising in parks and hobnobbing with literati, but returned every morning to the writing desk. I hadn’t read a word by Merrill before tackling this doorstop of a book (and still haven’t read much) but was utterly gripped by Hammer’s interpretations of Merrill’s thorny, arch verses—his best-known based on Ouija-board seances—and his narrative skill at evoking an utterly singular, century-spanning gay life.

Best Essayist:
Zadie Smith
Generous and probing, gentle and provocative, Smith’s richly associative essays are masterpieces of the genre: they give the impression of the actual unfolding of a mind on the page. Start with Part V of Feel Free (2018) for her take on diaries, bathrooms, Renaissance anatomy drawings, Justin Bieber, public gardens, and the American cult of happiness.

Best Poet:
Patricia Lockwood
Sometimes called “the Poet Laureate of Twitter” (I’m not on Twitter but keep her page bookmarked), Lockwood is filthy, zany, and deeply weird (“@parisreview So is Paris any good or not”). From her brilliant memoir Priestdaddy (2017): “I know that the most popular hotel paintings are: beach after everyone is dead, beige interpretation of the rage of a cat, squares going wild, a rose’s period.” I went to a book signing and she drew me a picture of Jonathan Franzen too lewd to print here. Here she is reading from The Corrections. Here’s her poem “What Is the Zoo for What.” I love her so much.


Jonathan Neufeld

Jonathan Neufeld is Associate Professor of Philosophy with appointments
in Music and Arts Management at the College of Charleston.
He also writes music criticism and is a recovering violist.

charliechan.jpg

  1. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, by Sonny Liew (2016)
    A critical history of the Singapore’s fight for independence and political development disguised as a comic book biography of a comic book artist. Through illustrations in a variety of styles, presented as though clipped out of books from stages in Charlie Chan’s own development and then discussed by an animated version of, we learn of a number of actual historical characters that have been written out of Singapore’s official history.
  2. The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, by Jessica Hopper (2015)
    A fabulous collection of essays on, e.g., Emo (“Where the Girls Aren’t”), Bruce Springsteen (“When the Boss Went Moral”), and our problem with female image-making in rock and pop (“Taylor Swift, Grimes and Lana Del Rey: The Year in Blond Ambition”). Hopper’s writing combines reflections on artists and their music with sharp funny cultural insight and observations about music criticism itself.
  3. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
    A post-apocalyptic mystery novel, of sorts. Rather than dwelling on the grim survival tactics immediately following the devastating flu pandemic, as another post-apocalyptic story might, Mandel explores on the importance of art and memory in the community-building that begins after the dust has settled.
  4. Embassytown, by China Miéville (2011)
    Embassytown is a novel driven by the imaginative pursuit of a philosophical problem. It asks us to imagine a species whose Language (the capital letter distinguishes it) only has a direct connection to the objects spoken about. Only the most literal truths can be spoken, abstraction is impossible, figurative language incomprehensible. Communication and political interactions with such creatures are profoundly difficult. More interesting than this difficulty, though, is the effect that contact with ordinary language has on the speakers of Language and their society.
  5. Loving Day, by Mat Johnson (2015)
    An absurdly funny story about race and family. Recently divorced, a struggling comic book artist moves into his dead father’s dilapidated mansion in Philadelphia’s Germantown. The child of an interracial marriage who seems black to white people and white to black people, he is haunted by questions of race—and sometimes by actual ghosts. The need to perform his own identity becomes particularly acute when he meets his teenaged daughter he didn’t know he had who has been raised believing she is white. As they both try to figure out what it is to be white, or to be black, or to be a family, people around them who are quite confident in their ability to help, don’t. I realize that this short description makes it sound like a terrible 80s sitcom, but that the book really is about what I say and is smart and funny makes its achievement all the more remarkable.


Elizabeth Scarbrough

Elizabeth Scarbrough is a lecturer in philosophy at Florida International University.
She writes on the aesthetics and ethics of cultural heritage sites, and is a former
art house film projectionist.

yanagihara

Here are my favorite novels of the past ten years.

  1. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
    A polarizing pick (as evidenced by The New York Review of Books’ review and editor’s response). No Hollywood endings here – a book about abuse and suffering. It is unrelenting, and beautiful.
  2. Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi (2016)
    While reading this book on the beach (it is not a beach read), a frat boy jogged up to me and said, “That book is soooo good. The ending will blow your mind!” It was; it did.
  3. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk (2009; English translation 2018)
    This novel has been deemed “almost impossible to categorise.” Nominally, it’s a murder mystery. But it reads as an eco-feminist manifesto. The protagonist is old, ill, obsessed with William Blake, and utterly charming.
  4. The Vegetarian, by Han Kang (2007; English translation 2015)
    One review remarked that this book should come with all the trigger warnings. It was a trauma to read. Yet, this novel about a young homemaker who stops eating meat, and her family’s reaction to her small act of defiance, is powerful.
  5. The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin (2015, 2016, and 2017)
    This is a bit of a cheat since it comprises three books, all of which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Jemisin is the only author to win the Hugo three consecutive years and the first black author to win the award. Her sci-fi/fantasy refreshingly breaks down gender stereotypes (instead of trading on them), and deftly deals with marginalization and race.
Edited by Alex King

One thought on “8 EXPERTS REVEAL THEIR TOP 5 IN THE DECADE’S WRITING

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