The 2019 Perennial RAPHE Awards for Literary Achievement

This year on Joe Bush dot Net, we’re trying something new to round out the year that was. Instead of thinking about maybe celebrating the best of the year and then halfheartedly tweeting out what I liked, I figured it was time to actually celebrate with a fully developed series of diatribes on my favorite cultural artifacts. Ergo, let’s end 2019 with the first ever Perennial Repeated Annual Prize for Humanities Excellence!

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The Raphies, as we’ll call them, are a prestigious set of awards spanning different types of artistic media. The 2019 Perennial RAPHE categories are, in order:

  • Literary Achievement
  • Audiovisual Effectiveness
  • Musical Artistry
  • Potpurri

Humanity’s greatest artistic medium – the humble video game – will be celebrated on the YouTube page to keep up continuity from year to year. This first entry celebrates the books published in or near enough to 2019. I guess I’ll count down? I don’t know.

THE TOP SIX BOOKS OF 2019:

6. Kristen Roupenian – You Know You Want This

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Roupenian hit the short story monkey’s paw jackpot in 2018 when her story “Cat Person” was not only published in the New Yorker, but actually went viral! This was met with a lot of publicity in the moment, and it led at least one San Diego-based blogsite guy to purchase a copy of the collection she put out this year, but it also inspired some of the worst commentary in the world from a series of people who somehow got jobs writing before they learned to read books like grown-ups do. To me, the response to “Cat Person” on Twitter was the sign that cemented my theory that Twitter as a platform cannot be adequately used to discuss literature.

Anyway, “Cat Person” was a good story. Roupenian’s full collection is quite varied, more supernatural and nudging at horror and mystery tropes moreso than I think a lot of reviewers were looking for given their first experience with her writing. But one aspect of Cat Person grounds the entire collection: a constant underlying feeling of vague but indescribable discomfort. Roupenian is very good at laying the jigsaw pieces around a discomforting hole in the center of a puzzle and often leaves said puzzle unresolved in a way that I consistently enjoyed throughout You Know You Want This.

5. Chuck Klosterman – Raised in Captivity 

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If anything is going to get me vastly disrespected for the rest of my life for reasons I just don’t understand, it’s the fact that Chuck Klosterman is one of my favorite authors. I have not enjoyed an author’s work only to find that most people I respect perform revulsion at his existence since I was a regular reader of Bill Simmons. I’m gonna chalk this up to the fact that he’s not an interesting enough figure outside of his writing (he’s barely on social media, etc) mixed with the fact that you sound profoundly not cool for talking about his work.

Klosterman’s most recent foray into fiction melds probably his best strength in fiction writing (creating highly detailed but very mundane characters) with a jarring use of unsettling detail that leaves the reader and the characters confused. That “Fictional Nonfiction” subtitle is quite effective here, as most of the protagonists in these short stories are familiar in a delicious sort of middle ground – they don’t really reveal the ‘dark side’ of us, they don’t really highlight our inner strengths, they just sort of plainly reflect the mundane side of us in ways that make their forays into the uncanny both engaging and disconcerting.

4. Reyan Ali – NBA Jam

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Now, I know this doesn’t fall under the traditional “Literature” category, but the RAPHE awards are a new experiment and I get to control who goes where. I’m about to make a statement that’s going to mean a lot to some people and won’t mean anything to a lot more:

This should be treated like the modern Masters of Doom. Books on video games are disrespected because a lot of them get names like “GAME OVER: THE STORY OF HOW NINTENDO BUILT AN EMPIRE OF SCRIPT KIDDIES” or “MASTER CHIEFS, DIG-DUGS, AND TIME SWEEPERS: GAMES ARE REAL NOW” and they’re then tasked with describing the whole history of gaming.

Boss fight Books has been doing an excellent job at treating gaming history with the respect and rigor it deserves, kind of following the 33 1/3 model except with games. I’ve read a couple of books from this series, but Ali’s research and voice here really stand out, using the story of NBA Jam to tell the story of how the coin-op gaming business evolved and eventually fell over the course of three decades. This is just a fantastic work of gaming history writing.

3. Hanif Abdurraqib – Go Ahead in the Rain

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Hanif is one of the few music writers whose writing can channel the emotional connection that I feel I get from great music. Hanif’s book is partially a dissection of ATCQ’s five albums musically, partially a history of the group, partially a cultural history of Native Tongues, Jazz Rap, and the rest of New York Hip-Hop’s buildup in the early 90s, and partially a story of Abdurraqib’s experience growing up with these albums as a constant soundtrack. Hanif is one of the best essayists I’ve ever read, he’s able to communicate the delicate nature of adolescent masculine emotions in a way that just knocked me on my back when I first read They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us in 2018.

Oddly enough, it was a Tribe album (Beats, Rhymes, and Life) which really defined my Freshman year of college for me musically, and it was They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us which defined the liminal period immediately after undergrad for me, so this book felt like a perfect melding of subject matter and artist, and Hanif absolutely crushed it here.

2. Wesley Yang – The Souls of Yellow Folk

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I think this was technically published near the end of 2018 but whatever. Yang’s collection of essays reflected a fearlessness in writing that I appreciated when I picked this book up in the late spring of 2019. I spend so much time with my nose in academic writing that it honestly felt refreshing to read someone so unafraid to write with the clarity with which Yang does. Particularly the high point of this collection comes in his essay on the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, in a paragraph discussing the passive survival created and encouraged by American culture. Wesley Yang just does not let you hide, and I needed something like this during this year.

1. Jia Tolentino – Trick Mirror

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The word that I keep coming back around to when I think about Trick Mirror is “Honest”. And honesty on its own is a virtue, but not necessarily something that makes a great work, even in non-fiction writing. Tolentino’s form of honesty is a sort of honesty wrapped in emotion and conveyed with craft. The essays in this collection reflect an understanding of the self that requires a level of courage and self-criticism that most people cannot wield in a way that still creates great, affective writing.

Trick Mirror is gnarly, frustrating, and hilarious in a way that I am not skilled enough to adequately describe in this blog post, and merely by trying to comment on it, I think I’ve done it a disservice. This is one of the best essay collections I’ve ever read, frankly.

WEB ARTICLES I LIKED

Pablo Maurer’s deep dives into MLS Lore

Pablo went further in depth with Major League Soccer’s limited popular cultural presence than anyone else ever has and then last week topped himself with this exploration of the USMNT’s incredible NYT Magazine photoshoot from 2002.

Rosa Lyster’s “Listen up bitches, it’s time to learn incorrect things about someone you’ve never heard of” on The Outline

The Outline did an excellent job in general of cataloging the worst aspects of online discursive trends this year. That site was just pumping out excellent piece after excellent piece over the course of the whole year.

SB Nation’s Soccer Coverage in general

Much of the best American soccer writing this year was concentrated between The Athletic and SB Nation this year. The two-woman team of Kim McCauley and Stephanie Yang provided fantastic commentary on the World Cup this summer. The words in this sentence will be linked to some of their best work.

SHORT STORIES/ESSAYS

Tony Tulathimutte’s “The Feminist

This story floored me the first time that I read it, sort of character study where you uncomfortably find too much of yourself in the main character at points, kind of story that makes you reevaluate some things. That’s what good short fiction does, highly affecting but still as complex as the short form can allow.


Alright, well I guess that’s it, but don’t touch that dial, as the RAPHE awards will continue throughout the week! Look out next for the RAPHE Awards for Audiovisual Effectiveness. I can be found on Twitter, Facebook, Ko-Fi, and if you’d like to get ahead of the curve when I officially announce it in January, Patreon.

About Joe Bush

The guy behind JoeBush.net and a lot of other things
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