Founder’s Picks: The Best of The Millions

The demise of BuzzFeed News and a new book by BuzzFeed’s founder Ben Smith about the bygone era of viral news have generated nostalgic (and sometimes embittered) pieces revisiting the online media boom in the heady days of free-flowing social media traffic. What I remember about that time—say, 2007 to 2014—was not the sense that The Millions was surfing a cresting wave of clicks and virality but rather that we were participating in a moment of unusual turmoil and excitement. The tech giants were providing the infrastructure (but not yet the crushing monopolistic behavior), social media was additive (not insular), and after an early period of standoffishness, legacy media outlets were going all in and even getting experimental on the internet by launching blogs and dabbling in social media. 

We woke up one day to find that these great big names—leveled by the egalitarian qualities of the internet—had in some ways become our peers. The New Yorker, The Times, The Atlantic! Not peers in the sense that we were anything more than a minnow alongside these whales, but post for post we were there, being read by their readers and, we would learn, their writers and editors as well. 

Many of those posts still resonate with me, dozens and dozens that I had the privilege to edit and publish under our banner by writers that I knew to be among the very best out there. If you look at the staff writers and guests the site has been home to over the years, it’s clear that it has been an incubator of sorts for some incredible talent, while also attracting many special bylines as guests. So your talented editor Sophia Stewart didn’t have to work very hard to persuade me to revisit their work publicly, on the occasion of the site’s twentieth anniversary. What was hard was having to choose among them. I could run a multi-year course in which the reading list was just pieces from my era at The Millions that I believe to be exceptional. 

Failing that, I have chosen just a few of the pieces that I think are most representative of what The Millions was trying to achieve during the era that I ran it. These are not necessarily the pieces that got the most traffic or inspired the most comments and commentary, but, for obvious or idiosyncratic reasons, they are the ones I find most memorable. 

If The Millions was best known for any one type of piece during this era, it was the glimpses our writers provided into their lives as writers. Before she became a household name, Emily St. John Mandel wrote about “Working the Double Shift.” She writes, “At a dinner some months ago, I found myself discussing the problem of earning a living.” Later, Mandel published “The Trojan Horse Problem: Thoughts on Structure,” in which she explored “how many complications of time and viewpoint a novel can stand and remain viable.” And soon after that we get perhaps a hint at where her writing journey was taking her, with her compilation “Five Apocalypses: A Particularly Catastrophic Summer Reading List.” Four years later, Mandel’s fifth book Station Eleven was published.

Mandel was not the only one to take us along with her. Edan Lepucki ushered us behind the curtain as she interviewed her editor and her copyeditor. Edan also wrote the profile of Jennifer Egan that would be a watershed for the site, perhaps the moment that we knew we were being taken seriously. We would go on to publish many exceptional author profiles and interviews, including Garth Risk Hallberg’s profile of Deborah Eisenberg, Paul Morton’s interview with Alan Hollinghurst, and Mark O’Connell’s interview with Don Delillo.

Life as a writer is not easy and many of our pieces explored the low ebbs of struggle and rejection. One that sticks with me is Alex Shakar’s piece “The Year of Wonders”. Success and failure, it reminds us, are so often contingent on things outside of our control. But also? Being a writer is fucking weird, and Rosecrans Baldwin captured that perfectly with his pre-publication diary “Writing is My Peppermint-Flavored Heroin.” Baldwin’s piece still makes me laugh, as does Jacob Lambert’s “The Road: A Comedic Translation” (Parts 1 through 5) and Matt Seidel’s “There Are Two Kinds of Novelists…”

Notwithstanding all of the above, when The Millions got noticed by legacy media it was, more often than not, for the literary criticism we published. Book reviews are in many ways ephemeral, but the criticism I return to manages to be timeless, especially Hallberg’s “How Avant Is It? Zadie Smith, Tom McCarthy, and the Novel’s Way Forward”, “A Physics of the Heart: On Grief, M-Theory, and Skippy Dies” by Kalpana Narayanan, Chigozie Obioma’s “The Audacity of Prose”, and Lydia Kiesling’s Modern Library Revue series (My advice? Read the whole series).

And finally there are the many memorable pieces that were indefinable: voices on the page doing something I’d never seen done before. Pieces like “Working on John Banville: My Awkward Relationship with My Subject” by O’Connell, “Thankful for Such Friends” by Edra Ziesk, and “So That if I Died, It Mattered” by Jon Sands found their ideal audiences at The Millions.

And of course there is the work that is almost certainly our most widely read and emulated, our previews and our Year in Reading series.

The site continues to do great work—I read it every day—but we have an internet that’s different from the one that gave rise to this publication 20 years ago. That internet rewarded serendipity and made it easy to turn an idea into a community. Today, what we express online and the links we think we are sharing instead get swallowed up by algorithms. The Millions might now best be shared in a more analog fashion, from one trusted fellow reader to another, and it is in that spirit that I gift to you the links above. The most reliable ways of communicating are the least complicated—we write, we read.

The idea that I’m still writing and you’re still reading more than 20 years after I started The Millions is astonishing. My sincerest thanks go out to the editors, writers, and staff who have brought The Millions to life, and to the community of readers that has supported us through every stage of our journey.

C. Max Magee
created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.

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