Only essays comprise our most-read prose this year, but it’s a list that proves how capacious the essay is as a form, with criticism that changes the way we encounter a text, personal reflections, and reconsiderations of literary figures we thought we knew. The list includes Garth Greenwell’s rousing defense of the indefensible in art, classics scholar Emily Greenwood’s review of Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Iliad, and Alec Pollak’s compassionate unearthing of Lorraine Hansberry’s fraught relationship with queerness. Collectively, they bring depth and humanity to questions as varied as where the dead go, whom we write for, and whether failure is a blessing in disguise. These essays represent some of our favorite work of the year, and we invite you to enjoy them—or enjoy them again.
Garth Greenwell, “A Moral Education”
Greenwell offers a lesson in art, morality, and God in an unexpected reading of Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth.
Kamran Javadizadeh, “Ahead of Time”
Javadizadeh picks up the threads of his sister’s diagnosis and death by returning to the poems they shared.
Becca Rothfeld, “In the Shallows”
As intellectuals and academics write for a public readership, Rothfeld makes a case against condescension.
Percival Everett, “Abstraction and Nonsense”
Everett reconsiders his lifelong quest to write an abstract novel.
Emily Greenwood, “How Emily Wilson Reimagined Homer”
Greenwood, a classics scholar in her own right, considers the choices that make Emily Wilson’s translation of the Iliad a new classic.
Elleza Kelley, “Ordinary Allurements”
Kelley traces the tenderness and rigor that structure Christina Sharpe’s reading and writing of black life in Ordinary Notes.
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, “The Consolations of Failure”
Reviewing In Praise of Failure by Costica Bradatan and Political Disappointment by Sara Marcus, Ratner-Rosenhagen asks what it might mean for a book about failure to succeed.
Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, “James Baldwin in Turkey”
Van der Vliet Oloomi considers James Baldwin through the lens of the decade he spent on and off in Turkey, where he—and his writing—blossomed.
Kathryn Lofton, “Cancel Culture and Other Myths”
Lofton asks us to examine the mythology of cancel culture as we reckon with its effects on society and art.
Alec Pollak, “Lorraine Hansberry’s Queer Archive”
Pollak delves into Lorraine Hansberry’s unknown lesbian writings, giving new breadth to our understanding of the playwright’s life offstage.