A Firm Farewell: 2020 Best of My Writing and Miscellany

A Firm Farewell: 2020 Best of My Writing and Miscellany December 31, 2020

Let’s start with the five best things I wrote this year. Not counting the Gay & Catholic sequel (forthcoming, if the Messiah tarries and they don’t cancel my contract). Oh and if you want my other year’s-best posts, here are the links for movies and books.

5. “Out of Line: ‘Sticking It to the Man’ and the Pulp Revolution: “Publishers struggled to keep up with the demand for cheap fiction. The hunger for writers allowed unexpected, previously-unpublishable voices to break into the industry: black men coming out of prison, gay and lesbian authors, sardonic and utopian visions of sex and violence. Sticking It to the Man implies that pulp fiction was a genuinely revolutionary arena—even if one of the most successful revolutions fostered there was the law-and-order ascension of Ronald Reagan.”

4. Five Novels of Twentieth-Century Apocalypse: “Was it really an apocalypse? Did the world really end, somewhere between the Mayor’s arrival at Don Fabrizio’s in a tailcoat and the bomb that kills the mother of the Crouchback heir?

“People are killed every day, their children are taken from them, their city is bombed or burned to ash. In every age the eschaton is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed. The main characters of these novels saw their world ending, true enough. (‘Only one world?’ as the mother from The Grifters might say.) But did the world end? Is it gone?”

3. “What Does Pope Francis Believe About Same-Sex Love? Parts of this offer a preview of parts of the new book; I’m also happy that I managed to get a bunch of things done in a tight word count, although I realize you guys don’t necessarily need to care about that aspect.

2. “Ursula de Jesus and the Fortress of Patience.” A very personal piece about the theology of an enslaved mystic. I discovered Ursula via Shannen Dee Williams, @BlkNunHistorian.

1. “Is Everyone Female?: I review a chapbook of queer theory/comedy. “Perhaps the greatest indictment of Christianity is that it has induced so few men to become ‘female’ in this sense.”

SPECIAL GUEST STARS Tomata du Plenty and Sheela Edwards, in “Population: 1”: “Imagine Laura Ingalls Wilder as the prequel to 2015’s The Witch. Daalder’s film could’ve just as easily been titled ‘Little Bunker Under the Prairie.’ And the movie enjoys the hell out of this violent, paranoid nation, a country whose laughter sounds like gunshots. There’s a carnivorous pleasure, a willingness to give us the very entertainment it condemns. It’s Savonarola cabaret.”

Piece by me with which I’m least satisfied: that overly-theoretical look at work in recovery culture. I already expressed quite a bit of ambivalence when I published it and that ambivalence has only grown! A lot left out here, including the pressure from employers to make people work more like robots and less like craftsmen. There’s an anecdote in Phil Christman’s new Midwest Futures where a union man puts up a banner on the shop floor saying QUALITY IS OUR CONCERN TOO! and got “besieged with angry phone calls from management who reminded him, citing his own contract, that it wasn’t”–by contract only management was allowed to get involved in issues of quality control. That’s a good, sharp correction to what I say in my America piece about “autonomy.” I’d understand if you found what was left out of that article more important than what was in it, and anyway I’m not convinced these questions can be discussed well in nonfiction rather than fiction. (You can see various aspects and critiques of a theology of work in Punishment obvs.) But I’m still thinking about this stuff, I hinted at it in my review of The Pale King and will come up again when I review Convenience Store Woman, and so I continue to welcome anything you all have to say about it: thoughts, questions, howls of execration etc etc.

Best articles I read by other people: This year’s list is all “reporting from a certain angle,” rather than my usual list of essays. As always, six (lol seven) instead of five.

6. Cheating by grouping together two explorations of parallels between civil and criminal legal problems. This New Republic piece looks at the ubiquity of civil legal problems for poor people, and the difficulty of going to civil court or administrative proceedings without any right to an attorney; this from Technology Review looks more specifically at the rise of algorithms to determine who gets benefits, who can get housing (both public and private), and more.

5. Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi, “Targeted: Pasco’s sheriff created a futuristic program to stop crime before it happens. It monitors and harasses families around the county. Always read Florida newspapers tbh.

4. Caroline Spivack, Curbed: “From Prada Bags to Sacks of Rice, It’s All Free at These North Brooklyn Stores.” A vivid and even charming look at mutual aid as portrait of a neighborhood.

3. Lizzie Presser, ProPublica: “When Medical Debt Collectors Decide Who Gets Arrested.” Also a portrait of a place and its people.

2. Louise Matsakis, Wired: “Behind bars, but still posting on TikTok.” Uses “prison TikTok” as a window into larger issues of tech and connection, cell phones as tools to resist dehumanization.

1. Julia Lurie, Mother Jones: “They Built a Utopian Sanctuary in a Minneapolis Hotel. Then They Got Evicted.” I think if you start reading this long piece you’ll finish it. Via Jesse Walker.

And this is not a “best article I read” but I do want to remember it.

Also notable: Simcha Fisher on teaching kids about confession with “the sheep game“; and an honorable mention for the Catholic Herald, which got Eduard Habsburg aka the Twitter Habsburg to review a book about his family. It’s a good review! From now on I only want to read reviews of Habsburg histories written by those most affected, viz. Habsburgs.

Some examples of powerful people yielding power: this boss; this ex-politico; these priests (and many more who are doing this work); the city of Philadelphia (more); and the director of the Uffizi Gallery.

Best music I discovered this year: “Star in the East“; a Yiddish “Hallelujah” from Daniel Kahn; “Ride On, King Jesus” (performed by the Wilmington/Chester Mass Choir); and Jim Henley’s Harrowing of Hell song. Oh, and the Hillbilly Thomists’ “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.”

Unexpected late discovery: “Every Frame a Painting,” a really crisp, thoughtful set of brief introductions to editing and other aspects of film direction. I’d suggest the Edgar Wright visual comedy one and the one about the “geometry” of The Bad Sleep Well to start you off.

Unexpected midyear discovery: Meg Hunter-Kilmer’s series on the wild diversity of the saints for Aleteia. Saints who struggled with addiction, lesser-known indigenous American saints, saints who experienced thoughts of suicide, saints whose early “goodness” or respectability had to give way to deep holiness, fail!saints, politician saints… all kinds of saints. Seriously, if you click through and take a look I suspect you’ll find at least one or two categories you’re really curious about–and some helpers you may have longed for.

My most underrated twittering: “Ideas Have Consequences II: Ideas Have Unintended Consequences.”

My best line in an otherwise merely okay post: “(We demand a Disney princess with d.t.s!)

Photo of the year: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Tired Christmas cat via Wikimedia Commons.


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