The Ten Best Things We Read In March 2019

It’s the middle of April, and you know what that means: it’s time to finally roll out our best reads of March. Enjoy!

The Banality of Empathy by Namwali Serpell for The New York Review of Books

One argument about the political and social efficacy of art that I hear a lot is that it enables audiences to imagine what it’s like to inhabit experiences, and particularly marginalized subject positions, that are different from their own. In this essay, Serpell weighs evidence for and against this theory of art-as-empathy-machine from Paul Bloom, Hannah Arendt, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Amandla Stenberg, Tom McCarthy, and the Netflix episode “Bandersnatch” before arriving at a critique of empathy as an artistic project that resonates with Sontag’s observation that So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent—if not an inappropriate—response.” Serpell mobilizes this argument with a reading of The Venus Effect by Violet Allen, a short story which you should also read, about a Black superhero who dies over and over again, and a narrator who can’t find a way to make his death mean something.

Lesbian Velocity: A Chat with Grace Lavery and Daniel Mallory Ortberg

I know that recommending a Daniel Ortberg piece on a website founded by a group of people who were inspired by how much they missed The Toast is not a real deep cut. However, this two-part conversation between Ortberg and his fiancée, the scholar Grace Lavery, is genuinely delightful and I would feel remiss not including it. Grace’s substack is amazing, and I’ve been reading it avidly this month, so consider this a plug for the entire blog. (I’m a particular fan of her piece on Paul Simon and transmasculinity, which did make me tear up in the middle of a tech rehearsal break a few weeks ago.) Anyway! It’s very difficult to talk about gender, and I love to read the silly vocabularies that trans and gender-variant people use to negotiate those discussions in their everyday lives. I especially like the part where Grace Lavery says that “the mustache is an underused femme style resource, for cis and trans femmes. It’s sexy, and it flags “I am in disguise,” which can be a v. femme sentiment.” True!

The Making of the Fox News White House by Jane Mayer for The New Yorker

Again, not a deep cut, but this article is absolutely stunning. I’m currently reading Mayer’s book Dark Money: The Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, and I appreciate Mayer’s journalistic style of combining extremely thorough, careful investigative work with a healthy amount of shock and horror at the machinations through which capitalist interests maintain their control over American politics. I do wish that she were farther left than she is (for example, her claim in this article that “Far-left Web sites post as many bogus stories as far-right ones do” doesn’t ring true to me), but her ability to remain surprised by the things that the powerful do to hold onto their power is admirable. On the other hand, I thought that I had lost my ability to be shocked, but I did gasp out loud at the part where the young Fox News journalist trying to write a story about Stormy Daniels is told to drop it by her manager, who says “Good reporting, kiddo. But Rupert wants Donald Trump to win. So just let it go.”

Fearing for his life by Chloé Cooper Jones for The Verge

Ramsey Orta filmed his friend Eric Garner’s murder at the hands of the NYPD in August of 2014. In February of 2015, he was arrested on drug-related charged and imprisoned in Rikers Island, where he has experienced constant targeted harassment and abuse at the hands of correctional officers. He was put in 60 days of solitary confinement for smoking a cigarette in the wrong part of the prison. In the first month of his sentence, his food was laced with rat poison, and since then he refuses to eat anything other than food he buys in commissary or receives in packages sent to him by his girlfriend. Meanwhile, the 2014 federal initiative to put body cameras on American police officers in the wake of Michael Brown’s death doesn’t seem to have changed the near-total lack of accountability put on officers who kill civilians of color, provided that those officers claim that they “feared for their lives” at the time of the killing. This article is difficult to read, but it’s worth reading.

“Now What” by Solmaz Sharif, published by the Academy of American Poets

This poem makes me feel the way that reading Kropotkin or Angela Davis feels: quiet, and settled, and ready to act. It’s sharp and bracing and beautiful.

Psycho Analysis by Andrea Long Chu for Book Forum

If there’s one thing Andrea Long Chu does exquisitely well, it’s take-downs of bad books (see “No One Wants It,” her scorched-earth review of Jill Soloway’s memoir), and this review of Bret Easton Ellis’ White, a “shapeless, roving, and aggressively unedited” “series of blog posts” that “makes a few gestures at the memoir genre,” does not disappoint. On the one hand, as Chu points out in her review, it’s worth questioning the usefulness of critiquing a very loud, very stupid man whose every action seems to be a cry for attention. On the other hand, watching someone pick apart the arguments of said man as well as Chu does here (or as well as Isaac Chotiner does in his interview with Ellis for The New Yorker) is a lot of fun. The fact that it takes much less energy to explain Ellis’ brand of nonsense than Jill Soloway’s makes this review slightly less fun than “No One Wants It,” but it’s still an admirable contribution to the one-star review genre, and I, for one, can’t wait to see which widely-acclaimed, completely insufferable public intellectual Chu will drag through the mud next. I do love a good read.

The Obama Boys by Nathan J. Robinson for Current Affairs

Speaking of one-star reviews, his review of the memoirs of three young, white, male, Ivy-League educated staffers of the Obama administration, as well as various pieces of related Obama staff literature, is almost as much fun of a take-down as ‘Psycho Analysis,’ but unfortunately, the stakes here are much higher. As the democratic primary race kicks into agonizing high gear, the lessons that (a) inspiring rhetoric does not necessarily reflect strong policy, and (b) it’s just as important to look at the people on a candidate’s team as the candidate themself, feel important to keep in mind.

Trans Visibility Does Not Equal Trans Liberation by Kai Cheng Thom for them.

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Can’t Take a Joke An interview with Lauren Berlant By Charlie Markbreiter for The New Inquiry

Why are p.c. debates so unfunny, and why did these charges of humorlessness stick to trans people in particular? Is the question that the gender theorist Lauren Berlant and the writer Charlie Markbreiter, whose twitter handle is @BerlantBro, try to answer in this patchwork interview, which Markbreiter cobbled together from emails, instant messages, and Google Doc coversations. I won’t try to summarize the many places this question takes them, but I will say that I love Berlant and Markbrietier’s refusal to argue with bigots on their own terms and their choice to ask, instead, why the wounded anger of the powerful seems to be expressing itself in complains about trans people being unable to take a joke.

A Tortoise Stakeout with Patricia Lockwood by Richard Cooke for The Paris Review

It’s nice to read an interview with a writer where the interviewer knows that the writer is two steps ahead of him at all times, but isn’t stressed about it. One of the things that makes Lockwood’s memoir Priestdaddy so beautiful is the combination of distance and bemused affection with which she writes about all of her subjects, and in this interview, she turns that gaze on her interviewer, hanging out and waiting for a mysterious tortoise, making him teach her to play cricket as a joke, and gleefully going through Flannery O’Connor’s childhood bedroom with him, in what becomes almost as a parody of a literary profile. Also, she says “Poets are against presidents” in this, which seems like a good rule to me.

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