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What Are the 10 Best Nonfiction Essays of the Past 50 Years?

There were innumerable notable essays written between 1961 and today. However, even though it’s a crazy idea to attempt to make a top ten list of the pieces that shaped the era, that’s what we do at Flavorpill — so go with it, and tell us what we left out in the comments section below. This post was inspired by the University of Iowa’s nonfiction Essay Prize, which is “given each year to the work that best exemplifies the art of essaying — inquiry, experimentation, discovery, and change.” Get more details on the 2011 nominees here.

1. “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” by Manny Farber – Film Culture, Winter 1962

Farber defends the unpolished, B-grade, underground films and directors that make what he deems “termite art” great. The author is sick of the overwrought attempts at creating and sustaining masterpieces, instead calling for art to devour its own boundaries. Let’s shake it up already!

2. “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” by Gay Talese – Esquire, April 1965

This was an incredible essay, not only because of the insane amount of reporting involved, but because of the fact that Talese overcame the blow of not being able to access his subject by interviewing every single person possibility affiliated with Sinatra. Through this prismatic lens, we get a clearer view of Ol’ Blue Eyes than we ever could have with him stealing the show. He writes, “They are wise to remember, however, one thing. He is Sinatra. The boss. Il Padrone.”

3. “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” by Joan Didion – The Saturday Evening Post, 1967

On the hunt for a hippie named “Deadeye,” Didion takes us to the nexus of counterculture: San Francisco. It’s an astute analysis of American society, but also one that is ultimately empathetic; the author attempts to understand what others would merely disregard or shun.

4. “The Long-Winded Lady” by Maeve Brennan – The New Yorker, January 10, 1970

It’s as if Brennan is simply writing her weekly letters to a good friend; there’s an intimacy to her work as she details the perfect moments of living in a city. In this particular essay, Brennan explains a night out on the town and an encounter with a woman who was absolutely blotto on the corner of 45th and Broadway.

5. “Fascinating Fascism” by Susan Sontag – The New York Review of Books, February 6, 1975

Sontag dissects the jacket copy in The Last of the Nuba by Leni Riefenstahl line by line in order to take down the lauded filmmaker by reminding us of her Nazi past. It’s a convincing tack by the master of the polemic.

6. “Dark Icons” by Gary Indiana – Random House’s Boldtype column, 1997

Christopher Fowler writes in the Independent: “Indiana is as detested as he is adored.” In “Dark Icons,” he profiles the criminal superstar, Charles Sobhraj. He writes, “We have made these people stars because their implacable nature is somehow unbelievable, and utterly fascinating in a nauseating sort of way.”

7. “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace – Gourmet, August 2004

DFW attends the 56th Annual Maine Lobster Festival and investigates how and why we indulge in consuming this aquatic arthropod with such gusto. (Yes, there are footnotes.)

8. “I Can’t Get it for You Wholesale” by David Rakoff – Harper’s Bazaar

Rakoff’s sardonic take on Paris Fashion Week makes this one of his most memorable essays. Here’s what he has to say about Mssr. Karl Lagerfeld: “Seated on a tiny velvet chair, with his large doughy rump dominating the miniature piece of furniture like a loose, flabby, ass-flavored muffin overrisen from its pan, he resembles a Daumier caricature of some corpulent, inhuman oligarch drawn sitting on a commode, stuffing his greedy throat with the corpses of dead children, while from his other end he shits out huge, malodorous piles of tainted money.”

9. “Getting In” by Malcolm Gladwell – The New Yorker, October 10th, 2005

A Canadian outsider looks into the Ivy League college phenomenon in the US and analyzes the social logic involved in the process. It’s a fascinating rumination on the history of the admissions process.

10. Carl Wilson, “Let’s Talk About Love” – The 33 1/3 series collection, December 2007

In this essay (which is really a novella), Wilson attempts to understand the appeal of the award-winning Quebecois chanteuse, while also acknowledging his previously held disdain for Dion’s music and personality. It is a masterful “journey to the end of taste,” and by the end we’re all thumping our chests and rooting for Céline Marie Claudette Dion.

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