11 Pieces of the Best Longform of 2014

Longform about Paula Deen, “body farms,” reasonable doubt and more, for everyone’s eyes only.

by Paige Pritchard

illustration by Grace Molteni

Before this year, the journalism industry questioned the lifespan of feature-length writing on the web. At the time, click-rates supported a consensus that readers preferred short, summarized content rather than lengthier work. However, publication of the New York Time’s seminal “Snow Fall” in December of 2012 helped refresh the genre’s image, and established digital feature publishing as an opportunity to show off design skills and multimedia in tandem with great writing. Soon after this turning point, terms like “longform” and “longread” reached buzzword status. They appeared as the subject of think pieces, aggregate lists, verticals, even entire websites and apps. In true digital fashion, this popularity fostered a backlash, which then resulted in a backlash to the backlash. Despite this drama, longform survives, seemingly flourishing against the odds.

To round out this year of excellent reading, I surveyed my Instapaper archives and bookmarks to find my favorites of the past 12 months. Admittedly, my taste tends to lean toward features on science, culture, and history, so that makes up the majority of my list. I reached out to The Riveter editors for their picks as well. In following our mission to call attention to longform writing by women, the following links are all by female writers, both new and established. Please feel free to leave your own recommendation in the comments below.

My Favorite Longform of 2014

1. “The Disruption Machine” by Jill Lepore, 

The New Yorker – June 23, 2014

“’This isn’t disruptive innovation,” they warn. ‘It’s devastating innovation.’”  – Jill Lepore quoting Forbes journalists Larry Downes and Paul Nunes

This quote aptly summarizes the volatile environment of entrepreneurial tech. Most of us are sick of hearing the word “disrupt” emanate from the stars of Silicon Valley, and Lepore’s account of how the term became a prominent business strategy with start-ups doesn’t do much to help the reputation of the tech industry’s favorite bloviation.

2. “Sky Burial: Excarnation in Texas” by Alex Mar

The Oxford American – September 9, 2014

“I lay my fingertip there, just inside the socket, where some of the bone is chipped away: it was pecked out, by the beaks of vultures. These are the markings the huge black birds made when they consumed her eyes, with the permission of her family.”  – Alex Mar

The Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) in San Marcos, TX is one of only five American “body farms,” which are used to provide insight into crime scene investigations. Albeit a morbid and at times graphic piece, Mar treats the subject material with respect, giving equal attention to the importance of the facility’s researchers as well as the emotional processes of the deceased’s families. What she finds, though, is that the two parties work under a partnership of mutual support, a poetic duality that provides closure through a continuing legacy of service.

3. “Bonfire of the Inanities” by Jacquie Shine

The Awl – November 12, 2014

Despite its youth, the [Styles] section has a much longer history, one that encompasses the long effort of women in journalism to be taken seriously as reporters and as readers, the development of New Journalism, large-scale social changes that have brought gay culture into the mainstream, shifts in the way news is delivered and consumed, and economic consolidations and disruptions that the section has, sometimes in spite of itself, thoroughly documented and cataloged. The Styles section may well be pretty stupid sometimes. It’s also a richer and more complex entity than any of us would like to believe.” – Jacquie Shine

The New York Times started their Styles section in the early 1990s, but its presence in the paper was a long time coming. In a year that gave us normcore and health goth, Shine’s investigation into why we even pay attention to this stuff is an entertaining and revealing romp through the pages of the Times’ past. Plus, it’s a feature about a feature section in a list of longform reads published by a longform magazine – how’s that for meta?

4. “Inconspicuous Consumption” by Natalie Shure

Buzzfeed – October 16, 2014

“From the 18th century glory days up to the modern rise of MDR, tuberculosis went from being a relatively universal human experience to being a profoundly lonely one.” – Natalie Shure

The viral behemoth that is Buzzfeed received a mixed bag reaction of bafflement and applause last year when they started publishing longform content. The section has since proved itself with quality in-depth reporting on subjects such as the world’s tallest woman, Florida retirement homes, and an investigative report into a woman’s prison sentence. I enjoyed all of these, but repeatedly find myself thinking about Shure’s personal account of her two years in isolation after contracting tuberculosis during a Peace Corps stint. Stories of health-induced quarantine have become a rarity in the age of modern medicine, but as we saw with the Ebola crisis this year, they are still happening. Shure’s story helps to humanize the cases of patients everywhere who are cut off from society because of their health status.

5. “Gravy Boat: My Week on the High Seas with Paula Deen and Friends” by Caity Weaver

Gawker – February 14, 2014

“Everyone on the boat is racist and nice. (including me).” – Caity Weaver

This is the most fun I had reading a feature all year. I read it all the way back in February and can still say that with confidence. I mean, just take a second and stare at that ridiculous top art GIF of Deen rocking back and forth on the cruise liner – mouth open in triumphant battle cry, raised hand wielding its stirring spoon scepter – the GIF establishes the tone of this article. Weaver combines empathy and irreverence in this profile of an entire ship full of Paula Deen fans (if that doesn’t terrify you, it really should). What she comes away with is part character portrait, part food journalism, part bemused travelogue, and entirely entertaining.

6. “Orders of Grief” by Lisa Miller

New York Magazine – November 14, 2013

“To describe the way grief afflicted the town, many people invoke the metaphor of concentric circles, the ripples created by a rock in a lake. At the center are the 26, and then the two and the twelve. Beyond that are all the teachers and children who made it out alive, including the children of Robert Bazuro, who skipped school on the 14th in order to honor their uncle, who had recently died. “I feel that my brother saved the lives of my children,” says Bazuro.” – Lisa Miller

Although this feature was published toward the end of 2013, we felt it appropriate to include in the 2014 list as it was the only female-written finalist for the 2014 National Magazine Award in the feature writing category. Our disappointment in the lack of female representation amongst the finalists withstanding, Miller definitely deserved her spot on the list. Her extensive look into the mourning process of Sandy Hook, CT eleven months after the attack on Sandy Hook Elementary is heart-wrenching. It’s now been two years since that day, and the U.S. still questions how to react to the devastating trauma of school shootings. With any hope, Miller’s report on how this kind of tragedy unraveled the community of Sandy Hook and its residents will provide some guidance in finding an answer.

7. “Showgirls is a Good Movie” by Haley Mlotek

The Awl – March 13, 2014

“While Showgirls flopped theatrically, those ironic viewings have made the film one of MGM’s top 20 all-time bestsellers, with more than $100 million in home sales. Whether people are laughing at the film or laughing with the film might be irrelevant. People are watching the film. People are thinking about the film. And people are still reading about the film.” – Haley Mlotek

Paul Verhoeven, director of Basic Instinct, Total Recall, and RoboCop, solidified his place in the Bad Movie Hall of Fame with Showgirls – the hypersexual story of Las Vegas dancer Nomi Malone (played by Elizabeth Berkley). I love that Mlotek took the time to write an entire feature on this baffling film, and even more, I love that her inspiration to do so was that some guy wrote an entire book on it. In analyzing just what makes Showgirls so bad, Mlotek brings the validity of taste into question, as well as the labels Hollywood is so quick to bestow on its directors (whereas Verhoeven is a “bad” filmmaker in the U.S., Mlotek points out, he’s regarded as an auteur in his home country of Holland). Although you have to have seen Showgirls to appreciate this piece in its entirety, it’s a fun read for fans of the now cult classic.

8. Editor’s Choice: “A Question of Mercy” by Pamela Colloff

Texas Monthly – March 2014

“Years later, long after Cole had boxed up his case files and stowed them in the attic of the Montague County courthouse, he would find himself thinking about Randy. Cole had not lost sight of the horror of Heather’s murder or of Randy’s own culpability; he would never forget the awful details he had recounted to jurors during Randy’s trial. But the prosecutor was moved by the knowledge that the teenager had tried—too late—to make things right. Seventeen was an awfully young age to be given up on, Cole thought, and he wondered sometimes if Randy was not deserving of mercy.”  – Pamela Colloff

Editor-In-Chief Kaylen: Always on point, Colloff delivers a chilling testament to the importance of reasonable doubt in this small Texas town murder mystery.

9. Editor’s Choice: “Breaking the Waves” by Ariel Levy

The New Yorker – February 10, 2014

“But it seemed impossible: you could never do at sixty what you did at thirty, let alone what you couldn’t do at thirty. The body disintegrates every year, every hour. ‘In some parts one grows woody; in others one goes bad,’ the critic Charles Sainte-Beuve wrote. ‘Never does one grow ripe.’ And yet: Cuba. So close you could swim there.” – Ariel Levy

Associate Editor Kinzy: I loved learning about the mental game of long distance open-water swimming through the mind of 64-year-old Diana Nyad, who endured jellyfish, hallucinations and lightning to complete her 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida.

10. Editor’s Choice: “The Murders Before the Marathon” by Susan Zalkind

Boston Magazine – March 2014

“I tried to comfort her, but it’s complicated. We both want to know why Ibragim Todashev was killed. She wants to clear his name. For me, and for the families of the Waltham murder victims, Ibragim’s shooting may have snuffled out the last chance at finding out what really happened that night. In the back of my mind is this question: Did her dead boyfriend kill my friend Erik?” – Susan Zalkind

Features Editor Joanna: I’m a sucker for any good murder story, and Zalkind’s tale of killings that preceded – and, if they had been solved, might have prevented – the Boston Marathon bombings swallowed me whole. Zalkind breaks down the evidence with precision and a lack of both sentimentality and fear.

11. Magazine Choice: “The Cost of Life” by Justine Griffin

Sarasota Herald-Tribune – May 25, 2014

“This began as a way for me to honor a childhood friend who passed away and a hopeful account of my experience with the fertility industry. But it devolved into a tangle of broken promises, scary science and questionable experiences — ending with a ruptured cyst on my ovary and a fear that my future reproductive health may be in jeopardy.” – Justine Griffin

Griffin’s special report for the Herald-Tribune provides some of the most extensive reporting on the process of egg donation to date. Griffin decided to donate by her own volition, but after witnessing the instability of the fertility industry firsthand, she took the opportunity to provide a firsthand narrative of an overlooked arm of healthcare. The result: a 40-page feature printed in the Herald-Tribune, filled with shocking insight into a serious women’s health issue. The Riveter was lucky enough to publish excerpts of “The Cost of Life” last spring, as well as a Q&A with Griffin herself. The report in its entirety is separated into three chapters along with video diaries and additional resources, all of which are worth your time.

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Paige Pritchard is a contributing writer at The Riveter. Follow her on Twitter at @peapodpritchard.