In the age of AI, it can feel as if this technology’s march into our lives is inevitable. From taking our jobs to writing our poetry, AI is suddenly everywhere we don’t want it to be.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just ask Madhumita Murgia, the AI editor at The Financial Times and the author of the barn-burning new book Code Dependent: Living in the Shadow of AI. Unlike most reporting about AI, which focuses on Silicon Valley power players or the technology itself, Murgia trains her lens on ordinary people encountering AI in their daily lives.

This “global precariat” of working people is often irrevocably harmed by these dust-ups; as Murgia writes, the implementation and governance of algorithms has become “a human rights issue.” She tells Esquire, “Whether it was health care, criminal justice, or government services, again and again you could see the harms perpetrated on mostly marginalised groups, because that’s how the AI supply chain is built.”

Murgia takes readers around the globe in a series of immersive reported vignettes, each one trained on AI’s damaging effects on the self, from “your livelihood” to “your freedom.” In Amsterdam, she highlights a predictive policing program that stigmatises children as likely criminals; in Kenya, she spotlights data workers lifted out of brutal poverty but still vulnerable to corporate exploitation; in Pittsburgh, she interviews UberEats couriers fighting back against the black-box algorithms that cheat them out of already meagre wages.

Yet there are also bright spots, particularly a chapter set in rural Indian villages, where under-resourced doctors use AI-assisted apps as diagnostic aids in their fight against tuberculosis. Despite the prevalent sense of impending doom, there’s still time to reconfigure our relationship to this technology, Murgia insists. “This is how we should all see AI,” she tells Esquire, “as a way to preserve the world we know and believe in what we bring to it, but then use it to augment us.”

Murgia spoke with Esquire by Zoom from her home in London about data labour, the future of technology regulation, and how to keep AI from reading bedtime stories to our children.

ESQUIRE: What is data colonialism, and how do we see it manifest through the lens of AI?

MADHUMITA MURGIA: Two academics, Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejias, came up with this term to draw parallels between modern colonialism and older forms of colonialism, like the British colonisation of India and other parts of the world. The resource extraction during that period harmed the lives of those who were colonised, much like how corporations today, particularly tech companies, are performing a similar kind of resource extraction. In this case, rather than oil or cotton, the resource is data.

In reporting this book, I saw how big Silicon Valley firms go to various parts of the world I visited, like India, Argentina, Kenya, and Bulgaria, and use the people there as data points to build systems that become trillion-dollar companies. But the people never see the full benefits of those AI systems to which they’ve given their data. Whether it was health care, criminal justice, or government services, again and again you could see the harms perpetrated on mostly marginalised groups, because that’s how the AI supply chain is built.

You write that data workers “are as precarious as factory workers; their labour is largely ghost work and they remain an undervalued bedrock of the AI industry.” What would it take to make their labour more apparent, and what would change if the reality of how AI works was more widely understood?

For me, the first surprise was how invisible these workers really are. When I talk to people, they’re shocked to learn that there are factories of real humans who tag data. Most assume that AI teaches itself somehow. So even just increasing understanding of their existence means that people start thinking, There’s somebody on the other end of this. Beyond that, the way the AI supply chain is set up, we only see the engineers building the final product. We think of them as the creators of the technology, so automatically, all the value is placed there.

Of course, these are brilliant computer scientists, so you can see why they’re paid millions of dollars for their work. But because the workers on the other end of the supply chain are so invisible, we underplay what they’re worth, and that shows up in the wages. Yes, these are workers in developing countries, and this is a standard outsourcing model. But when you look at the huge disparity in their living wage of $2.50 an hour going into the technology inside a Tesla car, and then you see what a Tesla car costs or what Elon Musk is worth or what that company is making, the disparity is huge. There’s just no way these workers benefit from being a part of this business.

If you hear technologists talking about it, they say we all get brought along for the ride—that productivity rises, bottom lines rise, money is flushed into our economy, and all of our lives get better. But what we’re seeing in practise is those who are most in need of these jobs are not seeing the huge upside that AI companies are starting to see, and so we’re failing them in that promise. We have to decide as a society: What is fair pay for somebody who’s part of this pipeline? What labour rights should they have? These workers don’t really have a voice. They’re so precarious economically. And so we need to have an active discussion. If there are going to be more AI systems, there’s going to be more data labour, so now is the time for us to figure out how they can see the upside of this revolution we’re all shouting from the rooftops about.

One of our readers asks: What are your thoughts on publishers like The New York Times suing OpenAI for copyright infringement? Do you think theyll succeed in protecting journalists from seeing their work scraped and/or plagiarised?

This hits hard for me, because I’m both the person reporting on it and the person that it impacts. We’ve seen how previous waves of technological growth, particularly the social media wave, have undermined the press and the publishing industry. There’s been a huge disintermediation of the news through social media platforms and tech platforms; these are now the pipes through which people get information, and we rely on them to do it for us. We’ve come to a similar inflection point where you can see how these companies can scrape the data we’ve all created and generate something that looks a lot like what we do with far less labor, time, and expertise.

It could easily undermine what creative people spend their lives doing. So I think it’s really important that the most respected and venerable institutions take a stand for why human creativity matters. Ultimately, I don’t know what the consequences will be. Maybe it’s a financial deal where we’re compensated for what we’ve produced, rather than it being scraped for free. There are a range of solutions. But for me, it’s important that those who have a voice stand up for creative people in a world where it's easy to automate these tasks to the standard of “good enough.”

Another reader asks: What AI regulations do you foresee governments enacting? Will ethical considerations be addressed primarily through legislation, or will they rely on nonlegal frameworks like ethical codes?

Especially over the last five years, there have been dozens and dozens of codes of conduct, all self-regulating. It’s exactly like what we saw with social media. There has been no Internet regulation, so companies come up with their own terms of service and codes of conduct. I think this time around, with the AI shift, there’s a lot more awareness and participation from regulators and governments.

There’s no way around it; there will be regulation because regulation is required. Even the companies agree with this, because you can’t define what’s ethical when you’re a corporation, particularly a profit-driven corporation. If these things are going to impact people’s health, people’s jobs, people’s mortgages, and whether somebody ends up in jail or gets bail, you need regulation involved. We’ll need lines drawn in the sand, and that will come via the law.

In the book, you note how governments have become dependent on these private tech companies for certain services. What would it look like to change course there, and if we don’t, where does that road lead?

It goes back to that question of colonialism. I spoke to Cori Crider, who used to be a lawyer for Guantanamo Bay prisoners and is now fighting algorithms. She sees them as equally consequential, which is really interesting. She told me about reading a book about the East India Company and the Anglo Iranian Oil Corporation, which played a role in the Iranian coup in the ’70s, and how companies become state-like and the state becomes reliant on them. Now, decades later, the infrastructure of how government runs is all done on cloud services.

There are four or five major cloud providers, so when you want to roll out something quickly at scale, you need these infrastructure companies. It’s amazing that we don’t have the expertise or even the infrastructure owned publicly; these are all privately owned. It’s not new, right? You do have procurement from the private sector, but it’s so much more deeply embedded when it comes to cloud services and AI, because there are so few players who have the knowledge and the expertise that governments don’t. In many cases, these companies are richer and have more users than many countries. The balance of who has the power is really shifting.

When you say there are so few players, do you see any sort of antitrust agitation here?

In the U.S., the FTC is looking at this from an antitrust perspective. They’re exploring this exact question: “If you can’t build AI services without having a cloud infrastructure, then are you in an unfair position of power? If you’re not Microsoft, Google, Amazon, or a handful of others, and you need them to build algorithms, is that fair? Should they be allowed to invest and acquire these companies and sequester that?” That’s an open question here in the UK as well. The CMA, which is our antitrust body, is investigating the relationships between Microsoft, OpenAI, and startups like Mistral, which have received investment from Microsoft.

I think there will be an explosion of innovation, because that’s what Silicon Valley does best. What you’re seeing is a lot of people building on top of these structures and platforms, so there will be more businesses and more competition in that layer. But it’s unclear to me how you would ever compete on building a foundational model like a GPT-4 or a Gemini without the huge investment access to infrastructure and data that these three or four companies have. So I think there will be innovation, but I’m not sure it will be at that layer.

In the final chapter of the book, you turn to science fiction as a lens on this issue. In this moment where the ability to make a living as an artist is threatened by this technology, I thought it was inspired to turn to a great artist like Ted Chiang. How can sci-fi and speculative fiction help us understand this moment?

You know, it’s funny, because I started writing this book well before ChatGPT came out. In fact, I submitted my manuscript two months after ChatGPT came out. When it did come out, I was trying to understand, “What do I want to say about this now that will still ring true in a year from now when this book comes out?” For me, sci-fi felt like the most tangible way to actually explore that question when everything else seemed to be changing. Science fiction has always been a way for us to imagine these futures, to explore ideas, and to take those ideas through to a conclusion that others fear to see.

I love Ted Chiang’s work, so I sat down to ask him about this. Loads of technologists in Silicon Valley will tell you they were inspired by sci-fi stories to build some of the things that we writers see as dystopian, but technologists interpret them as something really cool. We may think they’re missing the point of the stories, but for them, it’s a different perspective. They see it through this optimistic lens, which is something you need to be an entrepreneur and build stuff like the metaverse.

Sci-fi can both inspire and scare, but I think more than anything, we are now suffering from a lack of imagination about what technology could do in shaping humans and our relationships. That’s because most of what we’re hearing is coming from tech companies. They’re putting the products in our hands, so theirs are the visions that we receive and that we are being shaped by. That’s fine; that’s one perspective. But there are so many other perspectives I want to hear, whether that’s educators or public servants or prosecutors. AI has entered those areas already, but I want to hear their visions of what they think it could do in their world. We’re very limited on those perspectives at the moment, so that’s where science fiction comes in. It expands our imagination of the possibilities of this thing, both the good and the bad, and figuring out what we want out of it.

I loved what Chiang had to say about how this technology exposes “how much bullshit we are required to generate and deal with in our daily lives.” When I think about AI, I often think that these companies have gotten it backwards. As a viral tweet so aptly put it: “I want AI to do my laundry and dishes so I can do my art and writing, not for AI to do my art and writing so I can do my laundry and dishes.” That’s a common sentiment—a lot of us would like to see AI take over the bullshit in our lives, but instead it’s threatening our joys. How have we gotten to this point where the push is for AI to do what we love and what makes us human instead of what wed actually like to outsource?

I think about this all the time. When it started off, automation was just supposed to help us do the difficult things that we couldn’t. Way back at the beginning of factory automation, the idea was “We’ll make your job safer, and you can spend more time on the things that you love.” Even with generative AI, it was supposed to be about productivity and email writing. But we’ve slid into this world where it’s undermining the things that, as you say, make us human. The things that make our lives worth living and our jobs worth doing. It’s something I try to push back on; when I hear this assumption that AI is good, I have to ask, “But why? What should it be used for?” Why aren’t we talking about AI doing our taxes—something that we struggle with and don’t want to spend our time doing?

This is why we need other voices and other imaginings. I don’t want AI to tell bedtime stories to my children. I don’t want AI to read all audiobooks, because I love to hear my favourite author read her own memoir. I think that’s why that became a meme and spoke to so many people. We’ve all been gaslighted into believing that AI should be used to write poetry. It’s part of a shift we’ll all experience together from saying, “It’s amazing how we’ve invented something that can write and make music” to “Okay, but what do we actually need it for?” Let’s not accept its march into these spaces where we don’t want it. That’s what my book is about: about having a voice and finding a way to be heard.

I’m reminded of the chapter about a doctor using AI as a diagnostic aid. It could never replace her, but it’s a great example of how this technology can support a talented professional.

She’s such a good personification of how we can preserve the best of our humanity but be open to how AI might help us with what we care about; in her case, that’s her patients. But crucially, her patients want to see her. That’s why I write about her previous job, where people were dying and she didn’t have the equipment to help them. She had to accept that there were limitations to what she could do as a doctor, but she could perform the human side of medicine, which people need and appreciate. This is how we should all see AI: as a way to preserve the world we know and believe in what we bring to it, but then use it to augment us. She was an amazing voice to help me understand that.

With the daily torrent of frightening news about the looming threat of AI, it’s easy to feel hopeless. What gives you hope?

I structured my book to start with the individual and end with wider society. Along the way, I discovered amazing examples of people coming together to fight back, to question, to break down the opacity in automation and AI systems. That’s what gives me hope: that we are all still engaging with this, that we’re bringing to it our humanness, our empathy, our rage. That we’re able to collectivise and find a way through it. The strikes in Hollywood were a bright spot, and there’s been so much change in the unionisation of gig workers across the world, from Africa to Latin America to Asia. It gives me hope that we can find a path and we’re not just going to sleepwalk into this. Even though I write about the concentration of power and influence that these companies have, I think there’s so much power in human collectivism and what we can achieve.

Also, I believe that the technology can do good, particularly in health care and science; that’s an area where we can really break through the barriers of what we can do as people and find out more about the world. But we need to use it for that and not to replace us in doing what we love. My ultimate hopefulness is that humans will figure out a way through this somehow. I’ve seen examples of that and brought those stories to light in my book. They do exist, and we can do this.

Originally published on Esquire US

At least once every year, a debut short-story collection comes along and gets under my skin. Last year, it was Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare, by Megan Kamalei Kakimoto, and the year before that, it was Bliss Montage, by Ling Ma. All these months later, despite reading thousands of pages since, I can still remember plot details from individual stories in those books.

In 2024, that collection is Beautiful Days, by Zach Williams—a subtle and speculative barn-burner that fans of Stephen King and Ling Ma will devour. Like the short fiction of Brian Evenson, the stories in Beautiful Days are about the horrors of encountering something completely unknowable in the course of everyday life, whether it’s the mind-warping experience of parenthood or the echo-chamber effect of the Internet and social media.

It opens with “Trial Run,” in which a Manhattan office drone is trapped in a skyscraper during a snowstorm that may or may not be real, with two coworkers who may or may not mean him harm. In “Neighbors,” which went viral in The New Yorker earlier this year, a San Francisco man tries to perform a wellness check on his next-door neighbor, only to stumble upon a scene he can’t rationally explain.

In “Wood Sorrel House,” new parents find themselves in an Edenic setting to raise their child but can’t remember how they got there. These stories wade into uncanny waters gradually, but others—like “Return to Crashaw,” featuring tourists who visit mysterious megaliths in the desert—embrace their pulp inspirations from line one.

Despite Stephen King’s You Like It Darker sitting on top of the New York Times bestseller list right now, some people in the American publishing industry see short stories as an endangered species—or at least as a genre that’s becoming harder and harder to sell. “I was writing for myself,” Williams tells Esquire. “I wasn’t thinking about the marketability of what I was writing. I was just thinking of what I could write best—and what I could finish.”

Williams grew up in the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, earned his MFA at NYU, and now teaches fiction writing at Stanford University. Over Zoom last month, we spoke about writing short stories in an industry built to sell novels, getting fired from a Hollywood job for reading books under his desk, and why you might be reading more short stories than you realize. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

ESQUIRE: When did reading and writing first come into your life?

ZACH WILLIAMS: Video games were big for me in that regard. Myst and Riven were so immersive that I read the [spin-off] novels. Tim Schafer [game director of Grim Fandango] was also a really important writer for me. But I loved going to the library as a kid and reading Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark—and all those Time Life supernatural mystery books on UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster.

When I tried writing short stories in my early twenties, I think I just fundamentally didn’t have anything to write about, so when I graduated college, I moved out to L.A. and got an internship at Beacon Pictures. I got fired because all the interns showed up at this party one night where we weren’t supposed to be. After that, I worked as an assistant to the post-production coordinator on this Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony movie called El Cantante, and then I was the fifth assistant in Jerry Bruckheimer’s office during the Pirates of the Caribbean shoot—until I got fired for reading books under my desk when there wasn’t anything to do.

I got the sense that I wasn’t in the right place, so I taught middle and high school for twelve years. It was a lot like Mr. Holland’s Opus, where it was supposed to be this brief interlude while I figured out how to be a writer, but I did it for a long time and could only write in fits and starts. Once I got married and we had our first son, I finally felt like I’d been around long enough to write stories with a sense of urgency.

What drew you to short stories as opposed to novels?

In middle school, the only book I would ever reread was The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury. The idea of a novel-in-stories was really fascinating to me. A lot of my undergraduate creative-writing classes were focused on short stories just by virtue of the workshop format. For me, short stories have this very direct relationship with the subconscious. One idea that’s really exciting for a writer is usually enough to get a short story off the ground. Even the stories in this collection that I worked on for years, they all originated with one spark. I wrote two stories in [Beautiful Days], “Red Light” and “Neighbors,” right after these nights of terrible insomnia, where I was just lying in bed for hours and the ideas just erupted from my subconscious. They didn’t need to become sprawling projects.

Publishing a short story in The New Yorker is a holy grail for a lot of writers. What was that like for you?

It was a wild experience to have that be my first time in print. At NYU’s [MFA program], they have this agent meet-and-greet at the end of the year, and mine was virtual because of the pandemic. I wound up having a call with Claudia [Ballard at William Morris Endeavor], and she asked to see one of my stories after I gave her my elevator pitch for the collection. I sent her “Wood Sorrel House,” and she said right away, “I want to send this story to The New Yorker.” I signed with Claudia that summer, and then the editorial process at The New Yorker was unbelievable. Working with Deborah [Treisman] and her fact checkers and copy editors was a real education. They found all of these things in the story that I had lost the ability to see myself.

It must be hard to fact-check a story like “Wood Sorrel House,” which is set in another reality.

My favorite thing that came out of fact-checking “Wood Sorrel House”—I still think about it with such gratitude—is that outside the cottage in that story, there’s one of those turtle-shaped sandboxes. We have so much overlap in our background; is that a familiar thing from your childhood, too?

Yes, we had one in our backyard.

Perfect. So I had written that it was made by Playskool because that’s what I remembered, but no, they were made by Little Tikes. The fact checker discovered this, and I was so thrilled to get that correction.

Which story in this collection was the hardest to write and revise?

“Lucca Castle” was really difficult, and the other two that come to mind are “Ghost Image” and “Return to Crashaw.” I didn’t know what I was doing. I started things without knowing how long they were going to be. Every single story was a learning process for me. There is very little in this book that I did on purpose, because I was trying to write intuitively.

Why open the collection with “Trial Run” and close with “Return to Crashaw”?

There were times when I would try to think of this book like an album. I thought about how the stories sounded together in a musical way. “Return to Crashaw” just felt like an ending in the sound of the sentences and the language—and the way that there’s music on that last page. There’s also a sort of warmth to that story for me, whereas “Trial Run” is the total opposite. It’s dark and scary and claustrophobic and paranoid. I’ve always had “Trial Run” up front because there’s something about walking into that building in the snowstorm that felt like the start of something, in the same way that the music at the end of “Return to Crashaw” felt like an ending to me.

How can the short story make a case for itself in 2024? Big Five publishers have disinvested in short stories as a genre, and it seems like readers prefer novels.

So many of the best books I’ve read recently have been short-story collections or novels-in-stories. Jamil Jan Kochai’s collection from 2022, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories, has one of the all-time great short stories about video games in it. There’s also Out There, by Kate Folk; Bliss Montage, by Ling Ma; After the Sun, by Jonas Eika. Jonathan Escoffery’s book If I Survive You is fascinating to me, because it’s somewhere between a collection of linked stories and a novel. Cuddy, by Benjamin Myers, is told in four sections over the span of many centuries, around the building of this cathedral where St. Cuthbert’s body is buried. Other huge books for me in this regard are Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, and A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Candy House, by Jennifer Egan.

My point is that some of the most exciting work I’ve seen in recent years comes from people who are working in shorter forms to different ends. A lot of them are technically short-story collections, but they don’t really make aesthetic sense without one another. My sense of these books is that the stories were written very intentionally to be part of one work, and I think that makes so much sense in our present moment. I could say something banal about attention spans, but it’s more than that. There’s something about the form of short stories and life on the Internet, scrolling and clicking, and the basic hypertextual experience of navigating the Internet. A book can contain many different worlds, too, without staying too long in one place.

It’s a vital time for the form. It’s equipped to do something that the big novel can’t, and there are a lot of writers doing really good work. But I’m not that smart about the necessities of the marketplace. I don’t know enough about how publishing works.

I think you’ve hit on something really interesting about the marketplace, though, which is that publishers are sometimes packaging (or maybe even disguising) short-story collections as novels-in-stories—and marketing long short stories as short novels!—in the hope that they’ll sell more copies.

I hadn’t quite connected those dots, but yeah, you’re right. There are a lot of books people are reading that contain these other forms.

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is often celebrated as the greatest novel of the century so far, but it’s essentially a collection of very long linked stories.

That’s true. I just read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories for the first time a few years ago. The stories are all really different, but there’s this one repeating character who’s a dark and powerful figure. To me, there’s something really special and unique about the ability of a book that contains disparate things to link them in a way that strikes more than one note. When I was writing this book, I wanted to be aggressive about the variety of ideas that appeared in it. I wanted to just throw ideas out recklessly rather than take one thing and use it as the basis for a longer project just because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do. I wanted it to be a little riotous. A lot of my favorite collections of stories—or as you said, novels that contain a lot of little worlds—are doing that.

Why call this collection Beautiful Days?

The title comes from the story “Wood Sorrel House,” where the last line is “There will be beautiful days.” I had a different experience writing the book than people do reading it, because when I look at that story again, I feel like there’s a lot of prettiness in that story—the pastoral aspect of it with the lake and the forest and the mountains, and then also the bond between parent and child. There’s a lot of darkness in that story, but there’s some beauty in it, too.

I knew that I was writing a book with a lot of darkness in it, and one that was cynical in places. I started writing the stories when I was living in New York, so maybe there’s some of that big-city claustrophobia or paranoia, especially in “Trial Run.” I also think some of it comes from life on the Internet and being constantly glued to our devices, where my phone feels like a portal to a darker reality.

But all of these characters are trying to figure something out. They feel like they desperately need answers to big questions and they can’t get them, but they’re going to try—and in the trying, I think there’s a lot of hopefulness and redemption. These impenetrable mysteries are how the basic conditions of life feel to me. That’s what speculative fiction can do: help you set your sights more clearly on questions that are concrete in your life.

Originally published on Esquire US

Fifty years ago, Stephen King published Carrie, a slim volume about a bullied teenager and the violent revenge she exacts on her high school classmates. Seventy-six books later, King is arguably the most famous writer in America. Through bloodcurdling novels like It, Pet Sematary, and The Shining, the author has carved out his place as the undisputed master of horror fiction. With more than 350 million copies sold and many of his books adapted for the screen (sometimes multiple times over), King’s dark imagination is a dominant force in American culture. Now seventy-six years old, he still writes at a brisk clip from his home in Bangor, Maine. His latest, You Like It Darker, is out now.

Fame is a pain in the ass. The older you get, the more of a pain in the ass it is. But you have to realise that it comes with the territory. It’s just part of what you do.

There’s this old Spanish saying: “God says, ‘Take what you want and pay for it.’  ” That’s the case with being famous.

I knew a lot when I was seventeen. But since then, it’s been a constant process of attrition.

You can’t think of writing as an adult pursuit or anything that’s important. That’s a good way to turn into a gasbag and start to think that you’re really fucking important. You’re not. You just do your work.

I have to work every day because I have to keep it fresh. If you take a few days off, it all starts to look kind of tacky—like an old campaign poster that’s running in the rain.

It doesn’t always work. I’ve got stories that just ram up against a brick wall. They’re in my right desk drawer. I don’t look in there.

If it’s a good review, it can be dismissed. If it’s a bad review, well, then that’s something you obsess over a little bit.

The important thing about failing is that it should always be a learning experience.

When I have a good idea, I just know. It’s like if you have a bunch of cut-glass goblets set up and you’re hitting them with a spoon. Clunk, clunk, clunk. And then one goes ding.

In every marriage, after the shine is off, then you get down to the serious work of building a relationship.

You can’t let the sun go down on your anger. These all sound like fucking platitudes. They become platitudes for a reason.

Be there for your kids. Say yes. Say yes as much as you can.

What would I tell my twenty-year-old self? Stay away from dope and stay away from booze. Because you have a tendency to go too far.

I’ve been in recovery a day at a time for a long time now. All I know is what works for me: staying out of the wine aisle in Publix.

They say that you don’t go to a whorehouse to listen to the piano player, and if you hang around the barbershop, sooner or later you’re going to get your hair cut. So I try to stay away from temptation.

I like to use my imagination. I like to go for walks. I dig the world in general.

Ten per cent of my tweets are political because every now and then, I just get so irritated about something. It doesn’t change anybody’s mind, but it’s good to be able to say it. In the meetings that I go to, we say, “You have to claim your chair.” Sometimes I feel like, yeah, I have to claim my chair.

There’s this saying that if you’re not a liberal in your teens, you don’t have a heart, and if you’re still a liberal in your twenties and thirties, you don’t have a brain.

I think that, actually, if you’re a liberal in your teens, you probably don’t have a brain. And if you’re not a liberal by the time you’re in your thirties and forties, you don’t have a heart.

If you ask what I learned from my accident, it would be: Number one, stay on the sidewalk. I was walking in the country, and the guy came over the hill and hit me.

Other than that, you learn about pain. But it doesn’t do any good, because you forget. The body has a way of forgetting the trauma. I suffered a lot, and the writing helped me because it took me away. That’s probably a healthy thing. You don’t want to live your life in a defensive crouch.

I can cook fish a thousand different ways, but I’m also one hell of a breakfast cook. I make a great cheese omelet.

I’d like to be known as somebody who died merry—who did his work as best as he could and was decent to other people.

I think what people will say is “This is the scary guy—the guy who wrote the horror novels.” But I’d like to be known as somebody who was just a decent human being.

Originally published on Esquire US

There’s a long-standing theory that in times of real-world strife, readers lose their appetite for fictional horrors. That has never been true. The carnage of pulp magazines only gained popularity after the world wars, while Vietnam and the end of the hippie dream led directly to The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and the ascendency of Stephen King. And now our freshly unstable world is proving fertile ground for the growth of new budding nightmares.

So far, 2024 has been brimming with fantastic horror stories. I’ve done my absolute best to curate a list of the must-read titles released up to this point. The most promising element of the list below is in the breadth, depth, and variety of the darkness at play. Unlike previous “golden” eras of horror, there is no dominant trend. Rather, horror writers are digging their own grim tunnels into territory old and new. Retro haunted-house stories sit alongside extreme body horror. Whimsical horror comedies work in tandem with serious political subcurrents. Horror is not just responding to the perma-crisis we’re all living through; it’s providing respite and escape from it. Horror teaches as much as it terrifies. It heals as much as it hurts.

This list contains titles from the whole spectrum of the genre. There are stories to satisfy the most bloodthirsty tastes, and some that will lead the uneasy on their first forays into the shadowy end of the library. Stay with us, because we’ll be updating the list as the year continues.

Enjoy. It’s good to be scared.

The House of Last Resort, by Christopher Golden

Really good haunted houses are few and far between. These days, the spirit-infested home too often falls into high camp or is put to such elevated metaphorical purpose that it forgets to actually be scary. The House of Last Resort has no such problem. When Tommy and Kate relocate from the U.S. to a drowsy Italian village, it’s supposed to be a better life. Of course, their new abode makes a mockery of this well-being kick. The titular house comes complete with hidden rooms, hallucinations, and a historical entanglement in the Catholic Church’s struggle against some very persistent demons. Golden draws on the very best of seventies and eighties pulp-horror influences, with hordes of rats, ambulatory corpses, and a grand diabolic finale. But he makes time for quiet moments of chilling intensity, including a kitchen-table conversation that ranks among the most disquieting scenes of the year. The House of Last Resort is horror that goes hard but never forgets to be fun. It’s the author’s finest novel to date.

This Wretched Valley, by Jenny Kiefer

If you watched the climbing documentary Free Solo and thought, Okay, climbing a nine-hundred-foot cliff face without a rope is scary, but you know what it really needs? Murder ghosts!, then Kiefer’s debut will scratch your itch. This Wretched Valley follows four intrepid fools into the deep Kentucky woods, where they plan to map and climb a brand-new ascent. Of course, like any backcountry worthy of a horror fan’s time, their chosen ground is saturated with bloody history. It doesn’t take kindly to interlopers, either, particularly these vain, self-absorbed numskulls. There are comparisons to be made to Scott Smith’s adventure-horror classic The Ruins, but most crucial is Kiefer’s absolute lack of mercy for her characters. For much of the book, you gleefully anticipate their foreshadowed deaths, but the manner of their end is so brutal and so desolate that you can’t avoid a creeping empathy. Kiefer has stared you down. She has more belly for this than you. She wins.

Among the Living, by Tim Lebbon

Lebbon’s most recent novels serve as a loose thematic trilogy, connected by a focus on high-octane adventure and a backdrop of quickening climate disaster. However, whereas Eden and The Last Storm were genre-splicing affairs, Among the Living goes full-bore on the horror, pitting an uneasy assemblage of climate activists and mineral excavators against a viral threat long buried in the Arctic tundra. This is no mere illness, though. What Lebbon conjures up is an intelligent disease, able to control its hosts’ thoughts and behaviour, creating a paranoiac trap in which the characters cannot even trust their own motivations. It’s easy to think of comparisons—The Thing, The Last of Us—but Lebbon brings a flair for action scenes and his experience with endurance sport, propelling the story with unexpected physical and psychological dimensions. Fast-paced, compulsive, suitably horrifying: Among the Living reads like Michael Crichton having a particularly bad dream.

In the Valley of the Headless Men, by L.P. Hernandez

If you’re familiar with Canada’s Nahanni Valley, you’ll know that wilderness has a history and lore thick enough to fill several novels. Seriously, you should take a Wikipedia dive; thank me later. All that mystery is buried in the substrata of In the Valley of the Headless Men, but Hernandez’s excursion resembles the surrealism of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, though less cold and less austere. Hernandez has a particular gift for the details of grief: the final sip of a dead mother’s lemonade, a lost child’s sock tucked safely in a purse; each is a small totem of heartbreak. And though the flesh of his novella is pared to the bone, somehow he still accommodates a trio of characters—each with their own arc of loss and redemption—on a shared journey to some ineffable, elusive truth. As for what else waits there, I shan’t tell you. it’s best you decide for yourself…and I’m still not sure that I even really know.

The Haunting of Velkwood, by Gwendolyn Kiste

What if an entire neighbourhood became a ghost? Not just the people but the buildings and the street itself? And what if three girls escaped that fate, then returned twenty years later to see what remained of the homes and families they left in that sunlit purgatory? It’s a concept high enough to give you a nosebleed, but Kiste reins it in masterfully, never worrying too much about the mad logic of the situation. Instead, she centres the story on more mundane forms of haunting: the dark gravity of memory, family, and trauma. The Haunting of Velkwood reads like a literary double negative, a brand-new thing emerging from the overlap of Twin Peaks’ suburban uncanny and the melancholy nostalgia of The Virgin Suicides. Kiste doesn’t shy away from these references (David Lynch is everywhere in Velkwood), but she’s still written one of the most original—and downright strange—novels of the year so far.

Mouth, by Joshua Hull

Before turning to fiction, Hull wrote the screenplay for Glorious, a cult horror movie about an eldritch entity invoking apocalypse through a glory hole in a public-bathroom stall. Though not a sequel of any kind, Hull’s debut novella shares much of his movie’s grindhouse DNA. It also has a hole of its own in the titular Mouth: an inexplicable toothed orifice in the ground inherited by Randy, a good ol’ all-American drifter. Randy’s attempt to satisfy Mouth’s hunger forces him into a partnership with Abigail, a young woman with secrets to keep and vengeance to seek. Mouth comes in handy there. The novella is rapid and raw and unburdened by plot complexity, but there’s something so endearing about both the book and its innocent monster that you can’t help but cheer them on. Imagine Roger Corman’s take on Frankenstein and you’re somewhere close to Mouth’s goofy charm.

King Nyx, by Kirsten Bakis

King Nyx is at the softer end of the horror colour chart. There are no ghosts or demons, and there’s barely any blood (though there are life-size marionettes to haunt your dreams). Instead, Bakis has crafted a compelling period mystery centred on the island home of a wealthy tycoon whose wives just keep dying before their time. When a young woman accompanies her husband on a personal writing retreat to the island, everything seems immediately off. The couple are quarantined in a private cabin. She sees strange bearlike figures in the woods and finds mysterious notes aplenty. All the oddity suggests something very wrong is going on in the Big House. It’s all wonderfully bizarre, but buried beneath the novel’s gothic veneer is an interrogation of supposed male genius, balanced so precariously on the shoulders of unremembered women. King Nyx is one of those thrillers that smuggle real substance into their scares without ever taking on a lecturing tone. It’s also a great gateway novel for readers who would usually shy away from horror’s excesses.

The Angel of Indian Lake, by Stephen Graham Jones

Graham Jones made this list in 2022 and again in 2023 with the first two instalments of the Indian Lake Trilogy. Now, with The Angel of Indian Lake, he absolutely sticks the landing. In this third and concluding volume, we return to the bruised and bloodied town of Proofrock, Idaho, for a final confrontation between Jade Daniels and the many monsters in her past, her present, and her head. Just as in the preceding books, Angel begins in the cold chaos of violence and metatextual references, which slowly coalesce into something human, heartfelt, and, by the end, emotionally overwhelming. Unexpected bodies rise and fall, and at no point could even this seasoned horror reader rest easy that the absolute worst would not come to pass. The Angel of Indian Lake is an almost indecent success; Jones should not have been able to guide this freewheeling, snowballing mass of story home. But he does. And like its now-iconic heroine, it remains defiant and unbowed to the end.

The Black Girl Survives in This One, edited by Desiree S. Evans and Saraciea J. Fennell

As I’ve covered elsewhere, horror has not traditionally been kind to characters of colour. Evans and Fennell’s anthology is sure to become a key text in the Black horror renaissance working to correct that injustice. The stories included here share one crucial characteristic: Each features a young Black female protagonist who must survive—but otherwise, it’s a sprawling survey of horror’s various subsections, every one refreshed by the Black female gaze. L.L. McKinney’s “Harvester” is nightmarish Americana about a very unusual cornfield. Zakiya Dalila Harris’s “TMI” is an of-the-moment technophobic satire about privacy and identity, while Evans’s “The Brides of Devil’s Bayou” offers old-school Southern Gothic of the finest stripe. The Black Girl Survives in This One may be billed as young-adult literature, but stories like Monica Brashears’s “The Skittering Thing” are pure adult-grade nightmare fuel. The best of them pose a question that underlies the entire anthology: Is surviving the same thing as having a happy ending?

Bless Your Heart, by Lindy Ryan

This has been a pretty bleak and bloody list of stories so far. Let Ryan pour some sunshine into your TBR. Bless Your Heart is the tale of the Evans women, a matriarchal dynasty who runs the funeral home in their small, quaint corner of Southeast Texas. Unfortunately, the dead in their town don’t always stay dead, forcing generations of Evanses to moonlight as ghoul killers. During a particularly bad infestation of undead, the elderly Ducey (horror’s best octogenarian for a good while), her daughter Lenore, and her adult granddaughter Grace must deal with the problem while indoctrinating young Grace into their clandestine guardianship. The word that immediately springs to mind is charming, as this novel has plenty of local colour and turns of phrase. However, what elevates Bless Your Heart beyond pastiche is Ryan’s willingness to revel in full-on gore and to follow through on some genuine, last-minute emotional stakes. This was announced as the first in a series of novels, and I can’t wait to see—and try to work out—what’s going to happen next.

This Skin Was Once Mine and Other Disturbances, by Eric LaRocca

In the few years since LaRocca burst onto the horror scene with Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, he has steadily grown a reputation for wielding disgust and excess to singular effect. This new collection contains four novelettes, each spinning around twin themes of obsession and harm. In the title story, an estranged daughter goes home for her father’s funeral, only to discover truly hideous secrets in her family home. “All the Parts of You That Won’t Easily Burn” may go off in a batshit-crazy direction toward the end, but the central conceit of a self-harming cult with a penchant for broken glass evokes the very best of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood body horror. It’s the closing story, though—on the surface the smallest and most superficial—that really got under my skin. “Prickle” presents a vicious game of one-upmanship between two elderly friends that takes the book to a gleeful, capering conclusion. It shows that beneath his coat of many nasty colours, LaRocca has a very good (and very dark) sense of humour.

Diavola, by Jennifer Thorne

I talk a lot about “fun” horror—the kind of horror that tries to scare you, for sure, but makes the process entertaining, enjoyable, a romp, rather than a raid on your psyche. This is exactly what Thorne delivers in Diavola. As with Christopher Golden’s The House of Last Resort, Thorne transports the reader to a tiny Italian village for some very dysfunctional family drama, though any loving central relationship is replaced with the hilariously maddening repartee between Anna and her siblings. Their scratchy dynamic is a grounding contrast to the supernatural goings-on, revolving around a tower in their villa that should not be opened. Shocker: It’s opened, and craziness ensues. Diavola is a gothic gem, as full of sharply observed characterisation as it is genre tropes. I read it in two sittings and even now I’m not sure if I was supposed to laugh as much as I did. Pack this for your next holiday and avoid talking to your own family.

The Underhistory, by Kaaron Warren

The Underhistory may be the most intriguing horror novel of the year so far. It’s a blend of ghost story and home-invasion thriller in which a group of criminals descends upon a haunted house in the middle of a guided tour. That’s enough of a concept to set the novel apart, but Warren fully commits to a structural conceit that exposes how the architecture of houses and story are one and the same. Each chapter is titled after the whimsical name that the elderly guide, Pera, has given to the rooms of her home. While she takes her customers through the details of the house—all the while trying to placate and manage the bad men in their midst—she also reveals her own gothic history, embedded in the peculiarities of each room. Gradually, we learn that Pera is far more capable than we (or her assailants) imagine her to be. And her house is a very bad place to invade. The Underhistory reads like Shirley Jackson or Catriona Ward at their most gothically playful. It’s a wholly unique intellectual exercise and a deeply compelling page-turner.

Incidents Around the House, by Josh Malerman

Malerman’s Incidents Around the House is the only book on this list not yet published. But I include it now rather than in later instalments because I want to give you the chance to buy this on the very day it’s released. It’s a deeply discomfiting, imaginatively ripe, yet ruthlessly efficient novel in which eight-year old Bela is targeted by a malign presence in her home. This “Other Mommy" hounds the girl with a request to “go into your heart.” What follows is a chase narrative of claustrophobic terror that almost transcends articulation. Glimpses of Other Mommy are elusive to the point of impressionism (she has long, hairy arms and “ slides across the floor”). What does this mean? What is she? We never know, as we are only ever given the compromised perspective of a frantic child or a terrified adult. It’s as if Malerman has channelled something into the very sentences of this novel, something that is so much greater than the sum of its linguistic parts. Simply put—and I do not say this lightly—Incidents Around the House is the most purely effective horror novel I have ever read.

Originally published on Esquire US


Geoffrey Mak is no stranger to excess. For several years, the Chinese American art critic lived in Berlin on and off, enjoying the city’s rave culture, its queer scene, and a wide variety of drugs. He attended glamorous art fairs and openings, parties thrown by artist collectives and trend forecasters, and worked at becoming a writer. He recognised the fact, though, that within the rarefied social circles he frequented, he and others were all playing types. “I was never sure which side of the counterculture I was expected to perform,” he writes in his new essay collection, Mean Boys: A Personal History, “art critic, ad man from New York, technogoth turning looks at the club, or a foot fetishist with a kink for golden showers. I just knew that once I located my role, my ‘character,’ it was important to deviate as little as possible.”

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mak experienced his second psychotic breakdown in the span of three years, then flew back to his parents’ home in California to get help and try to heal. Yet the psychiatrists he saw couldn’t help much—they weren’t sure how to diagnose him due to his drug use. “As a junkie,” Mak writes, “I was hard for psychiatrists to take seriously, so in turn I didn’t take them seriously.” His life slowed down from the 120-140 beats per minute that characterise techno to a far more sedate pace that felt more like boredom than peace. But when Mak began attending Alcoholics Anonymous, things started to change, and he found in the programme a different kind of intensity—one that helped him. He also began to find his way back to Christianity, which he’d grown up around (his father is a minister) but had abandoned due to the evangelical persecution of LGBTQ+ people. Amid that return, he also took on a frightening project: reading and writing about the manifesto of Elliot Rodger, the perpetrator of the 2014 Isla Vista killings.

Mak Zoomed with Esquire to discuss how he wrote Mean Boys, the complexity of empathy, returning to his faith, and more. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ESQUIRE: In your author’s note, you share that you had an audience in mind when writing these essays—your friends. Friendship and its complexity is also a recurring motif within the book. What did writing for your friends allow you to do or feel as you wrote?

GEOFFREY MAK: I think writing to friends guarantees an intimacy in the very premise of the work. When you’re writing to a friend, you often want to please them, make them laugh, or interest them. Friendship is as difficult as any kind of relationship. Sometimes with the writing, I was trying to comfort; sometimes I was trying to entertain; sometimes I was trying to win back or draw someone closer to me. That’s not always the case; there are so many ways to write.

You might write to be understood or celebrated. Of course I want those things too, but I think what I really hope for is intimacy. There’s a very radical and kinky intimacy that I can have with complete strangers [through the writing]. I started a lot of these essays as Facebook notes, and I never thought they would be in a book. Now there are all these strangers reading these pieces of writing I’ve done over the years. I think it’s really cool.

One of the main threads of the book’s title essay, “Mean Boys,” is the psychology of the mass shooter. You do a close reading of the Isla Vista shooter Elliot Rodger’s manifesto and come to empathise with him—you never condone his actions or claim to understand them, but you empathise with aspects of his frustration, anger, and angst. What was it like, taking on this project?

Difficult. When I started writing “Mean Boys,” I didn’t know where it was going. I started with very simple pattern recognition: I saw a Lacoste logo in radically different places [such as photos of Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik] and I wondered, Why? I thought it was going to be a short essay where I just wrote about that.

And then one thing led to another, and Rodger came into the essay. We were almost the same age, and I remembered the story so intensely. I was like, Well, I can’t write about Rodger if I don’t read the manifesto. But then when I read it, there was a major discovery, which was that Rodger cared about status more than he cared about sex. I realised I needed to drop everything I was doing and follow the thread. He was just obsessed with being popular. The discovery for me was that status is not the same thing as class and identity. Rodger was half white, so he had that privilege; he was also a trust-fund kid with a lot of inherited wealth, so he had class privilege. But it didn’t translate into status. His life’s wound was that it didn’t happen the way he was told it was supposed to happen. When I discovered this, I needed to redo the whole essay.

What was your reasoning for titling the book Mean Boys?

Early on in the “Mean Boys” essay, I was writing about my brother, who’s a little bit shy and has a lot of social anxiety but is always cracking jokes. I write about him and his high school cohort and that wonderfully bitchy line where he was like, The only reason why you got elected to student government is because you’re my brother. It’s probably true! When I showed him the part about him for the first time, he was like, This is so interesting—you’re writing about mean girls except they’re mean boys. From then onward, I knew that needed to be the title. As I was working through the essays, the title took on a life of its own. I was thinking of how “mean boys” codes as queer, and how when Elliot Rodger uses the term, it’s referring to the bullies at school.

I think the “mean boy” is kind of a sexual figure. It’s complicated, and throughout the book, I’m trying to mine these sometimes queer or sadomasochistic forms of desire that are an extension of violence but also protect us from violence. Who the mean boys [of the book] are is kind of up for debate. One of my friends read it and then said to me, “I don’t think there are any mean boys in here.” Another friend said, “I think there’s only one mean boy in the book and it’s you.” What he meant is that the mean boy gets to write about everything, brings out all of these flaws in other people, and gets to have the final say.

You said the term “mean boys” is queer coded, and I agree, but—why, actually? What about it is coded queer?

The surface reading is that I take the title from Mean Girls, this beloved comedy of just bitchy girls at the lunch table, and imagine bitchy boys there instead. That’s a kind of queering. But for queer men—I think when we’re boys, we grow up attracted to something that is also physically dangerous. Maybe this is going to change in upcoming generations. I obviously didn’t go to school during the era of marriage equality, so when I was young, I desired boys, and if that desire was known, I could get beaten up, ridiculed, shoved into a locker. Desire was never divorced from fear and danger, so these were braided intensely together at a young age.

I mean, it’s mysterious how these things work, but that primal memory of wanting something that I’m afraid of.... [In the book] I write about sadomasochistic fantasies and queer intimacy later in life, and these things have a long lineage and a long life in one’s imagination and fantasies, and to restage childhood feelings of desire in the bedroom is a way of confronting it. But yeah, I do think the title “Mean Boys” makes me think of high school and the locker room and watching boys undress before PE and being so terrified that they would catch me looking.

So-called mean boys have the cachet that allows them to be mean without suffering social or status-related consequences. Do mean boys have an outsize effect on culture?

The looming mean boy over all these essays is Trump. Trump was so distressing to me: watching him wield power in this way, exerting and reinforcing power through meanness. The whole world was watching this! When a child sees things, the child repeats it—were we all going to repeat this? Was this going to be a new age of cruelty?

I do think that mean boys—some of whom aren’t even male—do kind of control the culture. With the art-world section in the title essay, I wanted to really counteract that in a way. I looked at people who are in power in this world, such as Wolfgang Tillmans or Anne Imhof or this anonymous artist that I call L, and I drew out moments of generosity in their portrayals, trying to depict a kind of power that didn’t rely on meanness, that brought out and reinforced generosity.

Sometimes we write an ideal that doesn’t yet exist, but once we write it, it does exist, and then it shapes the world. I think capitalism conditions us to think that this is the only reality, that we’re all in competition and we’re all climbing a ladder and we have to kick down the people beneath us. I think human nature is not inherently a scarcity mindset, not inherently competitive, not inherently greedy. I think it’s inherently generous, and I wanted to bring out those moments in some of these portraits.

You mentioned Rodger’s obsession with status, and in “Mean Boys” you articulate the complexity of that idea—how it’s impossible to prove or describe, but it’s nevertheless felt and acknowledged and recognised. You realise that the problem of status is political but has no political solution. How do you think we should deal with it—individually or collectively?

I think we need to talk about [status] as real. It was a painful, irreducible reality in Elliot Rodger’s life that really drove him to go where he went. Some people like to call [status] social capital, but it’s not a resource; there’s no gold standard of status. It’s unlike class and identity. It’s entirely relational, which makes it so chaotic, so slippery. But we need to start talking about it. We need to believe it’s real.

I’m always suspicious of someone who believes in the equitable distribution of identity, privilege, and capital, but they totally don’t believe in the equitable distribution of status. What if we lived our lives a little bit differently, attuned to the more equitable redistribution of status? I don’t know if that means Trump won’t get elected, but it’ll shape our personal lives. That’s all we can do. I present religion and art not as a solution but as a response to status. They don’t make the problem go away but respond to it on its own terms.

Another theme in the book is your slow return to Christianity but from a much more radical mindset than the Christianity you grew up with. Do you consider yourself a Christian now?

I do. I take it quite seriously. I don’t go to a church, but I have close Christian friends, some of whom are among the best theologians in the country. In Calvinism, there’s this concept of irresistible grace, where the grace is so urgent in your life that you just slide into it. It almost overpowers your will. It kind of felt like that [for me].

A couple of things happened. One, my father really just showed me what a Christian was capable of—the capacity for love, the refusal to close the book on what he was, who he was, and what he was capable of. This persistence of inquiry and learning and really radical humility. I mean, my father is so cool; if my father is this kind of person and he credits Christianity, then that’s something I want in my life. Second, I think most leftist radical queer people would like Christianity a lot if they simply found the right stuff. It’s actually out there: liberation theology, queer theology, the wacky stuff that ties together ancient early Christian apathetic theology with queer theory from the eighties and notions of the apocalypse with Lee Edelman’s No Future. I really gravitated to this stuff, and I found that I could find Christian traditions and theologies and histories and thinkers who grappled with the most important topics of my life.

Many of your essays revolve around the various kinds of excesses you took to when you were in Brooklyn and Berlin’s artistic milieus. Later, during your process of going through the AA steps, you come to appreciate the small mundanities—the beauty that can be found in paying attention to the same things over and over again, like the discovery to be found in the minor shifts of a techno loop. You hint at this coming change early in the book when you write that you found out “where the road of excess goes. It leads to nothing.” Clearly, your sensibilities changed over the years. How much of that was sobriety? How much was simply time passing?

Sobriety is a new way of looking at the world and also a reorientation of time. My sponsor, at the end of each day, would tell me to name three things I did that day for others. One of them was I always unloaded the dishes, period, with no expectation of reciprocation. It’s funny; it took Alcoholics Anonymous to teach me how to make my bed. I wasn’t somebody who did that, but my sponsor was like, You need to learn to make your bed every single morning. And I got into the habit, and now I do. These rituals that drove me really insane [at first] were a way of fastening attention onto the daily, the forgettable, the unremarkable.

Where do you feel that you are now in terms of your understanding of excess and mundanity? Do they have to be at odds?

I just finished this great book, With My Back to the World, a poetry collection by Victoria Chang, and it’s all about Agnes Martin’s paintings, which are just grids. I find these paintings devastatingly beautiful, and the collection is about how after the death of [Chang’s] father, she turns to these grids and finds freedom, love, and beauty in them.

I see [the simultaneity of excess and mundanity] in Agnes Martin’s paintings, like Night Sea. It’s this vast expanse of blue, and the grids are laid in gold foil. So you have this total indulgence and then complete austerity. I think this is a visual metaphor of many, many things in all of our lives. I think about the hours before my grandmother died, the hours I spent at her bedside, and I would feel so guilty checking my watch to see how much time had passed, because inadvertently I was asking, So when’s she going to die? I was bored out of my mind. It was excruciating; she wasn’t doing anything. But were those some of the most flagrantly beautiful and treasured hours of my life? Absolutely. No question about it.

Originally published on Esquire US

If books are windows to another world then get ready for a world tour. Embark on a journey around the globe with two new Louis Vuitton books. Offering sensorial experiences (aside from its chocolate shoppe) from different corners of the planet that are depicted through a photographer's lens and an artists’ watercolour works. Synonymous with the art of travelling, the trunk maker continues to capture the essence of new experiences and adventure through documentation.

Fashion Eye United Kingdom by Martin Parr

As 2024 begins, Éditions Louis Vuitton extends another invitation to travel with Martin Parr’s United Kingdom. From shores to villages, the latest addition to the Fashion Eye collection paints a bittersweet portrait of the island nation.

The book records the ordinary life of the working class and the aristocracy. With about a hundred pictures in its contents, some never before published, it documents real life and real people in the four corners of the UK between 1998 and today.

Throughout, Parr maintains the same mischievous tone established in his first cult series and films like Bad Weather (1982); The Last Resort (1982-1985); The Cost of Living (1989); Signs of the Times (1992). Forty years later, he observes his peers the way his father observed birds: tirelessly. 

Altogether, Parr's works transcends boundaries imposed by distance and space, offering an anthropological look at life in the UK to the world. Sharing many mixed emotions he feels towards his homeland, Parr presents his subjects as they are, flaws and all. Instead of imposing a specific perspective, he simply shows them as they truly are. As to its interpretation? Well, the best works are the ones that the viewers have to come up with their own.

Fashion Eye United Kingdom by Martin Parr will be available in Louis Vuitton stores, online and through select booksellers from 5 April 2024.

The atlas comes in three different covers.
The atlas comes in three different covers.
The atlas comes in three different covers.

A Perfume Atlas

With the release of A Perfume Atlas, Louis Vuitton reveals the tedious processes that go into perfume making. Orchestrated by Jacques Cavallier Belletrud, master perfumer of Louis Vuitton, the book invites readers to trail the creator in his search for exceptional ingredients. Opening the door to a sensorial world filled with discoveries through the words of Lionel Paillès—an author renowned for his expertise in perfumery—coupled with paintings of Aurore de la Morinerie and photography by Sébastien Zanella.

A Perfume Atlas offers an extremely rare glimpse inside the savoir-faire of Belletrud. Through 200 watercolour depictions, it unveils the secrets of the house's perfume production process. Each page follows the master perfumer circling the globe in search of materials and his relationships with farmers in remote locales. Readers will be drawn by an evocative energy enhanced by age-old folklore.

A Perfume Atlas is also available in a limited edition set: the Perfume Atlas exclusive set. It includes 45 phials containing extractions of raw materials specially selected and presented by Belletrud.

It is a celebration of High Perfumery that is both poetic and scientific. This publication will delight lovers of nature, travel and beauty.

Available from 2 April 2024, A Perfume Atlas will be on sale at all Louis Vuitton stores. The limited edition box set will be on sale in selected stores.

The sci-fi movie of the year. Like, next year. IMDB

We know the movie is helmed by Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-ho (of Parasite, Snowpiercer, The Host; you know this, we won't elaborate). Which is pretty damn exciting, given its futuristic, off-kilter plot. Unfortunately, we also know its release date has been pushed back to from the end of this month to early 2025. So until we see Robert Pattinson as clones, you now have some time to catch up on the book it was based on (Mickey7, in this case, by Edward Ashton).

For those who have already done that, here are five other science fiction novels to consider putting on your reading list.

Ascension by Nicholas Binge

Stephen King called it “old-school creepy" and "a five-star horror novel”, so what more convincing do you need? More on the thriller side than horror, the book follows a group of scientists recruited to investigate the sudden appearance of a mountain in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It cleverly sets the scene from an outsider's point of view before diving into the heart of the action. And yes, plays with the trope of time.

You'll like it if you like: Arrival, Prometheus

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Okay, we kinda cheated with this one. It already has an upcoming adaptation featuring Ryan Gosling. Not surprising considering Weir's other novel starring Matt Damon. Still, the personable first-person tone makes a breezy read for an otherwise extensive storyline of waking up amnesiac in space and befriending a bizzare alien.

You'll like it if you like: The Martian (duh), Edge of Tomorrow

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

Not to be confused with Demolition Man, this first Hugo Awards winner is vintage sci-fi at its peak. Published well over 70 years ago, the world-building of a society where mind-readers (or peepers) exist effortlessly takes you in with easy pacing. And its demonstration of telepathy on a text medium is surely experimental for its day.

You'll like it if you like: In the Shadow of the Moon, Minority Report

The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn

The book rolls out in proses translated from Danish. The witness accounts come from a crew of six-thousand, human and otherwise, written as part of workplace commission of sorts. As they find themselves attached to the strange objects the ship takes on, it's a simultaneously peculiar yet haunting way to experience a distant memory of earth.

You'll like it if you like: Solaris, Moon

Foe by Iain Reid

Laying thick on the suspense, this plot (also adapted in a film with Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal) by author of I'm Thinking of Ending Things has a similar deeper exploration of human psyche and relationships. Great if you prefer a quietly unnerving read than loud action and adventure.

You'll like it if you like: Annihilation, Under the Skin


A thousand miles west of Shanghai, on a vast plain between two mountain ranges teeming with giant pandas, it looks like an alien spacecraft has landed in the fourth-largest city in China. Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects to resemble a star nebula, this is the 59,000-square-foot Chengdu Science Fiction Museum, constructed at lightspeed over the course of a single year to host the 81st World Science Fiction Convention, also known as WorldCon. For writers and readers of science fiction and fantasy, it's like the National Book Awards, the Academy Awards, and San Diego Comic-Con all rolled into one.

On Saturday, October 21st, 2023, thousands of people gathered here for panels, parties, and the annual Hugo Awards ceremony, which celebrates the best works of science fiction and fantasy published or released during the previous calendar year.

In Hollywood, a Hugo Award for best film or TV series may not carry the same cachet as an Oscar or an Emmy, but in bookstores from New York to Moscow, a bright Hugo Award badge on the cover of a novel can help it stand out. “We usually make a display in the store for the nominees and winners,” says Matthew Berger, co-owner of the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego. In their early days, the Hugo Awards recognised writers who have since become genre legends, like Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Frank Herbert; more recently, honorees have included modern masters like George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, and N.K. Jemisin.

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An aerial view of Chengdu Science Fiction Museum, the main venue for the 81st World Science Fiction Convention, on October 15, 2023 in Chengdu, Sichuan Province of China.

That evening in Chengdu, in a massive auditorium shaped like the belly of a whale, Dave McCarty—a middle-aged software engineer for an Illinois trucking company and lifelong sci-fi fan who was chosen by the convention’s leaders to oversee last year’s Hugo Awards—walked onstage to thundering applause. Within the WorldCon community, he’s nicknamed the “Hugo Pope” for serving on so many awards committees over the years.

“With the help of fans from all over the world, including many fans here in China participating for the very first time, we identified a ballot of 114 deserving finalists,” McCarty said behind a podium, wearing a black tux over a white waistcoat and bow tie. “We then asked the community to rank those choices as they saw fit.”

But that’s not what happened. Something had gone horribly wrong.

Three months later, the truth came out when McCarty shared the Hugo nominating statistics on Facebook: Someone had stolen nominations from The Sandman legend Neil Gaiman, Babel author R. F. Kuang, Iron Widow novelist Xiran Jay Zhao, and fan writer Paul Weimer. All four of them earned enough votes to be finalists—and therefore eventually winners—but for unknown reasons, someone had secretly marked their works as “ineligible” after the first rounds of voting.

Among sci-fi and fantasy fans, the uproar was immediate and intense. Had government officials in the host country censored the finalists? Did the awards committee make a colossal mistake when tallying the votes, then try to cover it up? Or did something even stranger occur?

To get to the bottom of the mystery, I spoke with more than a dozen past Hugo winners, finalists, and committee members, some of whom requested anonymity. But to understand what these insiders believe really happened —and what it means for the future of the Hugos and other literary awards—we have to utilise a science fiction trope and go back in time.

The Hugo Awards have courted controversy before. In 2015, a right-wing voting bloc led by Brad R. Torgersen dominated the ballot after he complained that the Hugos had become “an affirmative action award” for “underrepresented minority or victim group” authors and characters. In 2021, the voting process to select the host city for the 2023 convention became a lightning rod for conspiracy theories.

Each year, anyone who purchases a membership in the World Science Fiction Society can vote on where WorldCon will be held two years later. In 2021, voters could choose between Chengdu and Winnipeg, Canada for the 2023 convention. “There were concerns that a couple thousand people from China purchased memberships [in the World Science Fiction Society] that year to vote for Chengdu,” says Jason Sanford, a three-time Hugo finalist. “It was unusual, but it was done under the rules.”

While Sanford welcomed the participation of new Chinese fans, other people were alarmed that many of the Chinese votes for Chengdu were written in the same handwriting and posted from the same mailing address. The chair of the convention that year, Mary Robinette Kowal, says some members of the awards committee wanted to mark those votes as invalid. “But if you’re filling out a ballot in English and you don’t speak English, you hand it to a friend who does,” she says. “And the translation we’d put in could be read as ‘where are you from,’ not ‘what is your address.’”

Eventually, a few votes were invalidated by the committee, but most were allowed to stand. “China has the largest science fiction reading audience on the planet by several magnitudes, and they are extremely passionate,” Kowal says.

Later, when Chengdu was announced as the winning site for the 2023 convention, more than 100 authors—including N. K. Jemisin, G. Willow Wilson, S. A. Chakraborty, and Tochi Onyebuchi—signed an open letter “in protest of serious and ongoing human rights violations taking place in the Uyghur region of China.” Other authors were concerned about the Chinese Communist Party’s history of censoring LGBTQ content, as well as material that criticises the party’s government.

These concerns planted the seeds for this year’s crisis, which reached a boiling point on January 20, 2024.

China News Service//Getty Images
Dave McCarty, Division Head of The Hugo Awards Selection Executive Department, unveiled the trophy base of the Hugo Award during the opening ceremony of the 81st World Science Fiction Convention.

Compared with other literary awards, the Hugos are usually remarkably transparent and democratic. While the National Book Awards and the Booker Prizes are selected behind closed doors by a panel of judges, anyone can vote for the Hugos by purchasing a supporting membership in the World Science Fiction Society for each year’s convention.

Most years, the Hugo committee shares the nominating statistics later the same evening after the winners are announced, or a few days later, at most. This year, Dave McCarty didn’t share the statistics until January 20—91 days after the awards ceremony, with no explanation for the delay. “The World Science Fiction Society’s constitution says the statistics have to be released within three months, but it’s never taken that long before now,” says Sanford.

When McCarty finally shared last year’s nominating statistics on his Facebook page, authors, fans, and finalists were shocked. In the history of the awards, no works had ever been deemed ineligible like this. Many people who had expected Kuang to win for Babel were now stunned to see she very well could have, and McCarty’s refusal to explain what happened made everything worse. (McCarty did not respond to interview requests for this story.)

“Fandom doesn't like people fucking with their awards, no matter who does it or why,” says John Scalzi, a three-time Hugo Award winner who was a finalist last year in the Best Novel category: the very same category in which R.F. Kuang should have been nominated for Babel, according to the nomination count on page 20 of McCarty’s document. “The reason people are outraged right now is because they care about the award, in one fashion or another, and this lack of transparency feels like a slap,” Scalzi says.

Brandon Sanderson, another past Hugo winner, says this incident damages the reputation of the award: “To find out that the committee behind the scenes [overrode] the voter base without saying anything AND with possible political motivations is extremely unsettling.”

Neil Gaiman didn’t respond to my interview request, but he did comment directly on McCarty’s Facebook post: “Is there anyone who could actually explain WHY Sandman episode 6 was ineligible?”

McCarty responded: “The only statement from the administration team that I can share is the one that I already have, after we reviewed the constitution and the rules we must follow, we determined the work was not eligible.”

Since then, hundreds of people have asked McCarty to explain what exactly in the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) constitution or rules made these works ineligible, but his responses quickly deteriorated into insults, such as “Are you slow?” and, “Clearly you can't understand plain English in our constitution.” However, there isn’t a single rule in the WSFS constitution that could possibly explain why any of these writers were deemed ineligible.

“When I started seeing Dave McCarty’s responses, I was utterly unsurprised,” a former WorldCon committee member who asked to remain anonymous tells me. “That is very consistent with who he is, and how he’s treated other people. It’s incredibly disrespectful on every level.”

Xinhua News Agency//Getty Images
Visitors browsed science fiction books during the 81st World Science Fiction Convention in Chengdu.

A few days later, McCarty apologised for his “inappropriate, unprofessional, condescending” responses, but still refused to explain the ineligibles. Without answers from McCarty, many Hugo enthusiasts have coalesced around two theories: either the awards committee miscounted early-round votes and realised their mistake too late, or the ineligible writers were censored under pressure from the Chinese Communist Party.

“If they had issued a statement saying there was a miscount and we’re deeply sorry about it, people would have been mad, but it would have been understandable,” Kowal says. Some fans have pointed to mathematical irregularities in the voting statistics compared to past years, and an additional former WorldCon committee member tells me, “I’m guessing someone made a mistake—probably more than one.”

Meanwhile, allegations of censorship have spread like Star Trek tribbles, especially because the protagonist of R. F. Kuang’s Babel is queer, Zhao is non-binary, and all four “ineligible” writers have criticised the Chinese Communist Party or its policies at some point in the past.

Gaiman, Kuang, and Zhao declined to comment on this story, but confirmed on social media that they were just as shocked as everyone else. Weimer says one of his Patreon posts from 2021, where he expressed concerns about holding the Hugos in China, may have marked him for censorship. “It's possible that the [Chinese Communist Party] took umbrage at my piece, or the [convention] felt that they might, and so I was rendered ineligible,” he says.

However, multiple former WorldCon committee members who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity do not believe the Chinese government—nor the Chinese members of last year’s Hugo Awards administration—directly or indirectly censored the awards. Rather, they believe that one or more members of the executive committee mismanaged this year’s awards—and failed to explain why four popular works were deemed ineligible.

On January 31, less than two weeks after McCarty revealed the voting statistics that kicked off the controversy, the California nonprofit that owns the Hugo Awards trademarks released a bombshell statement: McCarty resigned from the organisation, alongside the chair of its board of directors, Kevin Standlee.

Additionally, the nonprofit censured McCarty “for his public comments that have led to harm of the goodwill and value of our marks and for actions of the Hugo Administration Committee of the Chengdu Worldcon that he presided over.” Two other members of the Chengdu awards committee, Ben Yalow and Shi Chen, were censured as well, “for actions of the Hugo Administration Committee of the Chengdu Worldcon that [they] presided over.”

Yalow and the rest of the 2023 awards committee did not respond to my interview requests for this story. None of my sources know why Yalow or Chen were censured, though as co-division heads of the convention, they would have been McCarty’s superiors.

Meanwhile, organisers of the upcoming 2024 Hugo Awards in Glasgow, Scotland, released a statement of their own to calm the waters: “We will also publish the reasons for any disqualifications of potential finalists, and any withdrawals of potential finalists from the ballot.”

Xinhua News Agency//Getty Images
Fans bought sci-fi themed merchandise during the 81st World Science Fiction Convention.

While this may be the last we hear about the Chengdu crisis, each year’s WorldCon and Hugo Awards are run by a different crop of volunteers, leaving many authors, fans, and finalists hopeful about the future, albeit insistent that permanent changes need to be made to the WSFS constitution that can’t be ignored by individual committees.

“At the very least, I think those [writers] who were removed should have their eligibility extended by a year, and perhaps it's time for a long hard look at the Hugo committee and overhaul how the award is managed,” Sanderson says.

Scalzi agrees. “The thing I would like to stress here is that the Hugos have been to this point pretty resilient: there have been major crises involving them before… and the [community] moved to address them,” he says. “So while this is a problem and needs to be addressed, quickly and comprehensively, I feel pretty confident the community will address it and the Hugos will come out the other side a better award.”

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that the transparent voting process makes the Hugo Awards special. “I love the Hugo for its unique method of walking the line between being a juried award and an open-voting, ‘who has the most fans’ award,” Sanderson says. “It's like an Academy Award, except if any person dedicated enough to the genre were able to join the Academy and participate.”

Perhaps in the future, other literary awards will be inspired by the transparency of the Hugos, if not the controversies that have occasionally accompanied them. Imagine the thrill and tragedy of finding out a book was one vote away from winning or becoming a finalist for the National Book Awards or the National Book Critics Circle Awards. Imagine the drama!

But when I reached out to those award organisations, they didn’t sound too wild about the idea. “The National Book Awards judges make their decisions independently of the National Book Foundation staff and Board of Directors, and deliberations are strictly confidential,” says Ale Romero, communications and marketing manager at the National Book Foundation, which presents the National Book Awards.

A rep for the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) says that privacy is part of what gives the award its personality. “Much like the Quakers, nearly every decision made at the NBCC is one undertaken by the entire group, [and] I believe it would be very difficult to persuade a majority of our board to vote for such a change,” says Keetje Kuipers, vice president of awards and diversity, equity, and inclusion for the NBCC. “Releasing a voting statistics tally would not be in keeping with the tenor of our traditional deliberation style, which favours passionate critical argument over all else.”

At the end of my Zoom call with Sanford, I see some emotion in his face around the eyes. “When I was young, science fiction and fantasy books literally saved my life,” he says. “I looked for books that were Hugo finalists or winners, and they showed me a way forward. They showed me there are other people out there who think like me.”

Whatever happens to the Hugos moving forward, one thing is clear: No one should have the power to erase books from the reading lists of future Jason Sanfords.

Originally published on Esquire US

Something’s off, but you can’t quite name it. It’s the moment you get home after staying with friends and an influencer using their exact coffeemaker pops up on your Instagram feed. There's the split-second after an actor delivers a quippy line on a streaming series and you try to parse whether this scene has already become a meme or if it’s just written to court them. It’s the new song you’ve been hearing everywhere, only to discover it’s an ‘80s deep cut, inexplicably trending on TikTok.

There is a name for this uneasiness. It’s called “algorithmic anxiety,” and it’s one of the main subjects of Kyle Chayka’s new book, Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture. A staff writer for The New Yorker, Chayka charts the rise of algorithmic recommendations and decision-making. He shows how culture has slowly started effacing itself to fit more neatly within our social media platforms' parameters

Algorithms, Chayka reminds us, don’t spring from the machine fully-formed. They’re written by humans—in this case, humans employed by the world's biggest tech conglomerates—and their goal is simple: to prioritise content that keeps us scrolling, keeps us tapping and does not, under any circumstances, divert us from the feed.

Filterworld shows us all the ways this can manifest, both online and IRL, into a kind of contentless content. Songs are getting shorter, because it only takes 30 seconds to rack up a listen on Spotify. Poetry has enjoyed an unexpected revival on Instagram. But mostly when it is universal, aphoristic and neatly formatted to work as image as well as text.

There’s the phenomenon of the “fake movie” on streaming services like Netflix. These cultural artefacts have actors, plots, settings—all the makings of a real film. But it still seem slickly artificial, crowd-sourced and focus-grouped down to nothing.

If our old tech anxiety amounted to well-founded paranoia (“Are they tracking me? Of course they are.”), the new fear in Filterworld is more existential: “Do I really like this? Am I really like this?” Is the algorithm feeding us the next video, the next song, tailored to our unique taste? Or is it serving us the agglomerated preferences of a billion other users? Users who, like us, may just want something facile and forgettable to help us wind down at the end of the day.

Chayka doesn’t give us easy answers at the end of Filterworld. He does, however, offer an alternative to the numbing flow of the feed: taste! Remember taste? We still have it. Although the muscles may have atrophied after so many of us have ceded our decision-making abilities to the machines.

Rediscovering our personal taste doesn’t have to be an exercise in high culture or indie elitism. But it does require what Chayka calls the conscientious consumption of culture. In seeking out trusted curators, seeking out culture that challenges us and taking the time to share with others what we love.

To go deeper, Esquire sat down with Chayka to talk about the cultural equivalent of junk food, the difference between human and algorithmic gatekeepers, and why “tastemaker” doesn’t need to be a dirty word. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ESQUIRE: Let me start with a slightly provocative question. Is there anyone with a bigger grudge against algorithms than journalists?

KYLE CHAYKA: Well, journalists are known to have a grudge against algorithms. I can speak to my own dislike of them. Just because they’ve taken away this filtering, tastemaking function that journalists have had for so long. But through the course of the book, I talk to all sorts of creators who hate algorithms just as much.

It’s the illustrator who got trapped into doing one bit on Instagram because it succeeded all the time. Or the influencer whose hot selfies get tons of likes but their actually earnest, artistic posts don’t get any attention. In the book, I interview coffee shop founders around the world, and even they are like, “I hate the algorithm because I have to engage with all these peoples’ photos of my cappuccinos.” Everyone feels kind of terrorised.

Maybe journalists were just part of the first wave to realise this?

I think journalists are often canaries in the coal mine, partly because we complain the loudest about everything. But you could see the impact of algorithmic feeds in the media really early on. We moved from consuming news on cable TV or in a newspaper or even on a website homepage to consuming stories the majority of the time through social media feeds. And that just takes away so much control.

A newspaper front page or a website homepage is a human-curated, thought-through intentional thing that highlights important stuff, along with fun stuff, along with goofy stuff. There was an intention and a knowledge to that, which algorithmic feeds have just totally automated away.

Let’s take it from news to culture, which is really the focus of your book. Filterworld explains that the algorithms driving social media exist to keep us engaged as long as possible.The result is a kind of flattening of culture. Our social feeds privilege content that’s easily digestible so we can keep on grazing. What happens to us when all the culture we consume is flattened like that? And we’re not pushed to seek out new things, or to just try something that makes us uncomfortable? What happens to us when we aren’t getting any nutrients, you could say, from the feed?

It makes me think of the cultural equivalent of junk food. It’s engineered to appeal to you. To engage your senses in ways you might not even like, per se, but it’s just so chemically perfect. I talk a lot about how creators feel pressure to conform in certain ways to the feed. Consumers also have to conform in a way. Algorithmic feeds push us to become more passive consumers. That we don't really think about what we’re consuming. We float along on the feed and not think about our own taste too much. I feel like that makes us into more boring people. It makes the cultural landscape less interesting. But it also takes away this opportunity for us to encounter art that is really shocking or surprising or ambiguous.

Take the example of a Spotify playlist. You start by listening to something that you choose. Then Spotify pushes you along on this lazy river of music that is similar to what you put on and is not going to disrupt your experience but it’s also not going to push you anywhere new. It’s not going to try to disrupt you; it’s not going to try to challenge your taste. In the book I contrast that with an indie radio DJ who is making these intentional choices to put songs next to each other that don’t really fit but have some kind of implied meaning based on their proximity. Algorithmic feeds fundamentally can’t create meaning by putting things next to each other. There’s no meaning inherent in that choice because it’s purely automated, machine choice. There’s no consciousness behind it.

You talk a lot about curators in Filterworld. What else can a curator do for us that an algorithm cannot do? Why should we trust them more than an algorithm?

Curating as a word has this very long history dating back to Ancient Rome to the Catholic priesthood. It always had this meaning of taking responsibility for something. I feel like curators now take responsibility for culture. They take responsibility for providing the background to something, providing a context, telling you about the creator of something, putting one object next to others that build more meaning for it. So curating isn’t just about putting one thing next to another, it's all this background research and labour and thought that goes into presenting something in the right way.

That’s true of a museum curator who puts together an art exhibition. It’s true for a radio DJ who assembles a complicated playlist. It’s true for a librarian who chooses which books to buy for a library. But it’s not true for a Spotify algorithmic playlist. The Twitter feed is not trying to contextualise things for you with what it feeds to you. It’s just trying to spark your engagement. TikTok is maybe the worst offender because it’s constantly trying to engage your attention in a shallow way. But it’s absolutely not pushing you to find out anything more about something. There’s no depth there, there’s no context. It actively erases context, actually. It makes it even harder to find.

But we know curators can have their own agendas. What’s the difference between, say, a magazine editor who needs to please their advertisers and a tech company looking after their bottom line? Is there a difference?

There’s this transition that I write about in the book from human gatekeepers to algorithmic gatekeepers, so moving from the magazine editors and the record label executives to the kind of brute mathematics of the TikTok ‘For You’ feed. I think they both have their flaws. The human gatekeepers were biased. They were also beholden to advertisers; they had their own preferences and probably prioritised the people that they knew in their social circles. Whereas the flaw of the algorithmic feed is that while anyone can get their stuff out there, the only metric by which they’re judged is: How much engagement does it get? How much promotion does it merit based on the algorithmic feed?

So they’re both flawed. The question is: which flaws do we prefer? Or which flaws do we want to take with their benefits? The ability of the human gatekeeper was to highlight some voice that would be totally surprising or shocking—to highlight some new and strange thing that totally doesn’t fit with your preconceived notions of what art or music or writing is. The algorithmic feed can’t really do that because it’s only able to measure how much other people already consider it popular.

The advertiser thing—another hobbyhorse of mine is Monocle magazine, which has existed for a decade or two now. It’s a print magazine with a very nice mix of shopping and international news and culture and profiles. That magazine does really well selling print ads because they put print advertising in a good context with good articles. The advertisers appreciate the quality of the content that surrounds it. So that’s a net positive for everyone. Whereas with the internet now, the advertisers are almost in a war with the platforms just as much as the users are. Advertisers don’t want their content appearing willy-nilly, messily next to the crappy content the algorithmic feeds promote, which at this point might be snuff videos or videos of bombings in Gaza. That’s not serving either users or advertisers.

The other night, I was scrolling through this beautiful, curated interiors account and then there was an ad for Ex-Lax, just dropped in the middle of this very aspirational stuff.

That collision to me is the case and point. It’s so useless, and so not productive for either party, that it just feels like a glitch, you know? And that’s because of algorithmic targeting. It’s because these feeds don’t prioritise anything besides engagement.

Places like Monocle, for instance, cater to a relatively small readership. It’s not for everybody; it’s for this smaller subset of people who consider themselves clued-in. We’re getting into a sticky discussion about taste and tastemaking here, but: how do these more niche platforms react against the algorithm?

Tastemaking is a really complicated topic. I think it strikes a lot of people as elitist because you're talking about what people should like and why they should like it, and why I know something that you don’t. “I’m going to tell you something, and it's going to heighten your sensibilities or lead you somewhere different.” That can be intimidating, it can be pretentious, it can be alienating, it can be very biased in class ways, identity ways, all sorts of ways.

But I almost feel like it has to be defended at this point, just because we’re all so immersed in automated feeds. We’re consuming so much through different platforms that we’ve kind of lost touch with the human tastemaker. We all have voices we love following on Twitter or Instagram or TikTok but those voices get lost in the feed. We sometimes lose track of them and we sometimes don’t see their content. Those feeds are also not serving those creators particularly well because the business models are all based on advertising and the creators don’t get access to the bulk of that revenue. Through the book, I propose that one answer to Filterworld, to the dominance of these algorithmic feeds, is to find those human voices. Find tastemakers who you like and really follow them and support them and build a connection with those people.

Thinking about your own taste doesn’t have to be elitist. Fundamentally it’s just about creating a human connection around a piece of culture that you enjoy, and that should be open to anyone. It’s literally telling a friend why you like this specific song, or saying, “We should go see this movie, because I like the director because of XYZ reasons.”

Tastemaking is almost just being more conscientious about cultural consumption, being more intentional in the way that we’ve become totally intentional about food, right? Food is such a source of identity and community, and we take pride in what we eat, what restaurants we go to, what we cook. I would love it if people took more pride in going to a gallery, going to a library, going to a concert series at a concert hall. I think those are all acts of human tastemaking that can be really positive.

And all the things you mentioned are also things outside the house.

Yes. You’re coming together with other people in appreciation of the kind of culture you like to consume. And that’s really good. That helps everyone.

I want to finish by talking about the idea of ambient culture. You clearly appreciate ambient music, and in Filterworld you describe genres like lofi hiphop and Japanese City Pop as music that feels almost designed for the algorithm. Our feeds seem to push us toward ambient content: stuff that’s frictionless and easy to ignore. So I’m wondering, is that always a bad thing? When is ambience necessary and when is it detrimental?

I do really enjoy ambient content. My first book was about minimalism, which has a kind of ambient quality. I wrote an essay about Emily in Paris and ambient TV. I've written about Brian Eno a lot, the musician who coined the term ambient music. That kind of art fulfills a function: to put your brain at rest. It provides a pleasant background at a technological moment when we have a lot of distractions. Ambient TV is maybe the perfect TV to look at your phone in front of. It relies on the presence of that second screen to complement it. The TV show doesn’t have to be that interesting because your phone is interesting.

The problem becomes that through algorithmic recommendations, so much content is pushed towards ambience, and you never want all of your stuff to be ambient. You don’t only want to consume ambient art because then what are you actually paying attention to? If everything exists as a soothing background, what’s actually provoking you? What’s leading you somewhere new?

I think the critique goes back to Brian Eno’s definition of ambient music, which was that the music has to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” You have to be able to ignore it. It can be in the background, but you should also be able to pay attention to it and be rewarded by your attention to it. I feel like a lot of culture now only falls into that former category. You’re only able to ignore it. Once you start paying attention, there’s nothing really gripping there. Certainly with TikTok and Spotify playlists, there’s this prioritisation of the soothing, numbing quality of ambient content. Functional stimulus in the form of culture is so big these days, whether it’s ambient music or ASMR videos.

Sleep sounds…

So now sometimes, culture exists in a functional context rather than an artistic context. You’re like, “Oh I watch The Office to fall asleep,” or, “I listen to this track while I run because it sustains my exercise.” I personally always want to make an argument for culture for its own sake and for thinking deeply about artistic process and ideas.

Originally published on Esquire US

When Lexi Freiman sat down to write her second novel, she discovered an irresistible subject in Ayn Rand, the polarising (albeit influential) Russian-American writer. “I'm always drawn to people who are sort of persona non grata, and she’s so despised,” Freiman tells Esquire. “I just published a satire of identity politics, so I wanted to see how much more unpopular I could make myself, and she seemed like a good choice.”

The Book of Ayn builds off the themes of Freiman’s irreverent debut, Inappropriation, in which a high school girl naively tries to model her life after Donna J. Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto. This time around, the protagonist, Anna, a self-described contrarian, takes a liking to Rand’s fiercely libertarian philosophy after falling victim to the cancel culture mob—a spectre that now haunts any artist. Her infraction? Publishing an opioid epidemic novel lampooned by The New York Times. “The review claimed that I was economically insensitive and had exploited the working class for my own selfish ends,” Anna recounts.

Feeling down on her luck, she ventures to sunny Los Angeles so she can churn out content about Rand that’s designed to garner outrage. After her Hollywood plan sputters, she heads to a meditation commune on a Greek island to absolve herself of all her woes—success, identity, reputation, and most notably, her ego. Through presenting the attention economy as a Randian hellscape where everyone, regardless of pedigree, has to fend for likes and exposure, Freiman spares no one—not Peter Thiel-funded edgelord hipsters, not fitness influencers uploading their vapidity into the algorithmic abyss, and certainly not the curators of a dying culture who have to keep up a pretense that any of it matters.

Yes, this is all very, very absurd. But thanks to Freiman’s unique ability to meld ferocious irony with heartfelt contemplation, The Book of Ayn goes beyond just another indictment of millennials as narcissists and offers a fresh glimpse into how 21st century artists have to negotiate their sense of selfhood. A few weeks prior to the release of The Book of Ayn, Freiman Zoomed with Esquire from Nicosia, Crete, where she was staying at a friend’s home, to discuss why she turned to Rand as a source for inspiration, Jewishness in writing, her lunch with comedian Louis C.K., ego death, and why the novel is still a valuable medium for exploring fiercely debated issues.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ESQUIRE: In your debut novel Inappropriation, Ziggy, the fifteen-year-old protagonist, devotes herself to Donna Haraway’s feminist text A Cyborg Manifesto. Anna in The Book of Ayn is older and more cynical. But, analogously, she becomes obsessed with jamming her own life into Ayn Rand’s framework of individuality. Can you speak to this tendency of using public intellectuals as a roadmap for the complexities of life? Does this stem from a personal experience that you've had?

LEXI FREIMAN: The spark of interest always comes from someone else’s text. With Donna Haraway, there were ideas about transhumanism that felt really interesting to me within the context of identity politics. That was the kernel of an idea for that book. In a way, you’re finding or creating a character that doesn't just serve the ideas, but you find the character's qualities, flaws, and tendencies almost as a product of the ideas that you want to explore. I had the same thing with Ayn Rand. I started reading her books, and the thing that I found interesting about her was that she was a public intellectual and also a novelist and artist. Her books are unbearable. She wrote novels and a lot of people love them.

That was another thing that felt interesting to me for the character of Anna: she is exploring these ideas of freedom and individuality and the collective. I feel like there’s always that tension at the heart of the artist’s psyche. We want to be unique and original individuals who are creating great works. We also have a sense of wanting to belong and a desire to transcend the ego. That also means transcending the self and touching the sublime if you’re going to write something great. The idea of wanting to be part of something larger than oneself is a big part of every human experience. But there’s a special tension there with an artist that I thought would be interesting [to explore in a novel].

I learned so much about Rand from your book. For instance, I didn’t know that she changed her name from Alisa Rosenbaum at Ellis Island after leaving the U.S.S.R. Anna muses how “Ayn’s Jewishness has shaped her thinking” and reflects on how “there was a strong sense of individualism and collectivism within Jewish culture.” What was Rand’s relationship to Judaism?

With Ayn Rand, it’s hard to separate her Jewishness from her biography and her historical trajectory as someone who was born in 1905, came of age during World War I, and then emigrated in the late 1920s. She witnessed how her father had his pharmacy taken away [by the communists]. She was literally there the day that they [the communists] came in and beat him and he fell to his knees. She watched her father have everything he worked for taken away from him, and that was a huge seminal moment for her hatred of socialism. She came to the U.S. and didn’t want any of her background to affect her freedom—being raceless, without a religion, and without a gender; she didn’t really use her feminine charm. I read a few biographies and there was nowhere I saw her speak of or encounter antisemitism. She never really acknowledged her Jewishness publicly. She was very against this idea of identifying oneself through any groups or affiliations because she felt that took away a person’s freedom.

As a Jewish writer, this question of what it actually means for a work of art or ideology to be shaped by Judaism was interesting to me. Can you elaborate on that idea of Jewishness in writing?

For me, it’s about having a really acute awareness both of privilege and power, and then a sense of responsibility or accountability. I don't want to talk about Israel. I feel like a huge problem with that is that we're doing too much talking and not enough listening, so I don't want to add to the noise. But it’s like having a sort of awareness of oneself both as victim and perpetrator. That's very strong. I don't even like that language. But in a sense, I think that's really useful because there's an opportunity for enormous humaneness when you don’t see yourself as a pure victim and you don’t see yourself as a guilty perpetrator. I think it’s important to be able to see yourself as both in different contexts, and most importantly, to not punish yourself and to be merciful. That's a big part of what I got out of all my Ayn Rand reading: this idea that in order to actually be generous in an authentic way, you have to be self-serving. To be loving or merciful to others, you have to be that for yourself first. In Jewishness, there is an opportunity to be very self-aware and have compassion for the pain of the past, and to try to imagine good ways of working through that in the future.

To be loving or merciful to others, you have to be that for yourself first.

Towards the end of the book, after Anna’s partner declines her request to strangle her, she reflects, “Sexual strangulation was one of the individual’s great freedoms. You had to reclaim this right from all the boring feminists who said it was just misogyny. But now I wondered, was it really freewill when being choked was the only way you can come? Was that really a choice you had made for yourself?” You do a fantastic job exploring how kinky sex may or may not be predetermined by cultural conditioning via pornography. Anna is a compelling character because she sees all sides of an issue. What’s the relationship between kink and free will?

Thanks, I think that comes with my mild OCD. There’s a [constant] sense of, “Have I covered all my arguments and counterarguments?” That was a part of writing this character who’s pretty paranoid that she has been cancelled, and so there’s always a sense of, “Oh fuck, am I being narcissistic again? How will this be perceived? Have I said the wrong thing?”

But yes, back to kinky sex. I was interested in what is a choice and what is not a choice, and how much does that matter. I go back and forth on this. It's easy to moralise and say that this is trauma and you have to overcome this proclivity because it's destructive. But there are ways of reframing that, once you have awareness of a thing. With that comes a choice that may not be about not doing the thing anymore, but thinking about it differently. Going into the thing with awareness just sucks some of the negative energy out of it. In terms of violent porn, I feel that stuff is a problem because it's so ubiquitous and accessible, and there’s so much addiction. The bigger problem is that people have very little control over their impulses, and that has come with the internet age. We have totally given up our willpower to these devices. This all ties back into ideas of self-responsibility. Now I sound like Jordan Peterson or something, and I am sorry.

That’s an interesting point that you touched on with getting OCD about whether or not you’re cancelled. It’s as if this thing we call “cancel culture” serves as surveillance. For instance, at the end of the book, Anna is on a secluded island, but she still feels haunted by the possibility of backlash, think pieces, and discourse. What does it actually mean to be cancelled?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m about to find out. Being cancelled is maybe an opportunity for ego death, and that’s really the most idealistic and positive way of thinking about it. That’s what I was exploring in this book, and I was thinking about it in an essay that I wrote about Louis C.K. At our lunch last year, [C.K. and I] ended up discussing this idea of ego death. In the end, even though we both agreed it would be a nice thing to be enlightened, I was really struck by something he said that as painful it is to have an ego, especially when it’s been trampled on, he wouldn’t give it up, because it’s part of what you need as an artist to make great work. It keeps you alive.

I personally struggle with the idea of ego death because I want to write books and I don’t think the two things are possible. If you were really enlightened, you wouldn’t even want to write books. So, yes, being cancelled just sucks. You think about how some artists get to a point where the whole thing is empty and meaningless and they start looking for a spiritual out. It makes you sort of think, “What’s the point of all of this if Jim Carrey is seeking enlightenment now?” Getting cancelled could be an opportunity to get enlightened.

Getting cancelled could be an opportunity to get enlightened.

That reminds me of how Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, got super religious and then he got super super cancelled. It was almost as if he was trying to get cancelled on purpose.

There’s something interesting about an artist like Kanye who is so transgressive, and that’s part of his genius. It’s a blurry line with Kanye—the antisemitism stuff wasn’t a blurry line—but with him, there’s always this sense of whether or not he’s fucking with us and blowing our minds open. Or does he have no idea what he’s doing? Madness is the ultimate transgression. In the book, I talk a little bit about how we’re really hard on our big superstars in terms of their behaviour, but we have to separate the artist from the art as much as possible and just acknowledge that these are not normal people. These people are living very strange lives. Part of my issue with the left is that it’s very punitive and at the same time, there’s an openness for some people for rehabilitation.

There’s a contradiction—some people get rehabilitated based on their circumstances and other people need to be destroyed. I don’t really believe in anyone who is trying to destroy anyone else, because this isn’t part of an ideology that comes from an integrated, synthesised worldview and a solid, compassionate, generous place. I don’t have the answers. I don’t know how you have an effective movement like #MeToo without some consequences. There’s obviously a spectrum of crimes and bad behaviour. [But] there’s an impulse there that I think is unhealthy for everyone.

It seems to me that the throughline here is fluidity and grappling with the contradictions of being an individual. Do you expect yourself to one day disavow The Book of Ayn altogether?

Maybe. I don’t want to disavow anything or embrace anything. I don’t want to ever think that I have the answer. In this book, mostly, I don’t think this character has the answer because I don’t have the answer. I may disavow the whole project of writing books. I still think that the better project is trying to get enlightened. I do go to a spiritual commune that isn’t dissimilar to the place in the book. If I have ever disavowed something, I have probably embraced something that’s just as limiting, so hopefully not.

We are all too quick to want to have the right philosophy and ideology. That’s why I like writing novels, because there’s room in there for everything. Room to work through the ideas and work through the problems. Maybe through this process that’s a little bit OCD, you get to this point where you're like, “Oh, none of those ideas are good.”

I guess there's still more to come, hopefully.

Originally published on Esquire US


One of the nice things about books is they take a while to write. And so, while it can feel impossible to keep up with culture thanks to the constant barrage of television shows and movies and opinions that modern life throws our way, you will often find some more contemplative thoughts in literature.

The year ahead in reading looks all around: way back to landmark literary events, a dip into the more recent past (hello to the pandemic and London heatwave!), and forward to fictional future worlds reckoning with AI. And, of course, there is the here and now: an exciting crop of novelists dealing with identity and class and relationships. All the stuff that makes life interesting. Whether it is the debut you will see everywhere on the morning commute or a literary crime thriller, there’s a pick below for you.

Day, Michael Cunningham


Michael Cunningham’s first novel in nine years gets its UK release this January: a suitably contemplative way to start the year. Day follows a Brooklyn-based family—centring on brother and sister Robbie and Isabel—on the same April date across three years, from 2019 to 2021. You may recall there was a worldwide event taking place in those years. The novel wisely doesn’t go too deep on any pandemic logistics (in fact, the word is never mentioned), but it does attempt to show the consequences of that extraordinary event on this family, as they grapple with the more regular facets of life: heartbreak, stagnant marriages, awkward adolescences. Cunningham deploys his trademark spare prose and wry humour to great effect here.

Wild Houses, Colin Barrett


The small-town crime novel is a very well-represented genre, but Collin Barrett’s debut has an enviable prestige: the author’s short stories have been published to great acclaim in the New Yorker and Irish literary magazine The Stinging FlyWild Houses is set in Ballina, County Mayo, where a feud between small-time dealer, Cillian, and local law enforcers, Gabe and Sketch is causing problems (as criminal feuds usually do). But when Cillian’s brother turns up, battered and bruised, on Dev’s doorstep, the isolated Dev is dragged headlong into a family’s revenge quest.

Come and Get It, Kiley Reid


Kiley Reid’s 2019 debut Such a Fun Age was a—sorry, no other word for it—fun take on race and class, a refreshing outlier in a typically dour genre. Her follow-up, Come and Get It, heads to campus for some lessons in relationships and finance. Millie is about to graduate when a professor offers an unusual way to earn some much-needed money. Where will that newfound side-hustle lead? In Reid’s hands, expect high-wire tension, side-eyeing satire and a heap of jokes.

Change: A Novel, Édouard Louis


Édouard Louis’s latest, an autobiographical novel explores some familiar themes to the French author’s work: class, sexuality, society’s inequality. In this, Édouard heads to Amiens for school and university in Paris, taking on a new name and a life. He indulges in activities both aristocratic and seedy in an attempt to rebrand himself. But can you ever truly escape your past? Hm, we’d wager that it’s probably not that simple.

Blessings, Chukwuebuka Ibeh


As engaging as doorstoppers can be, there is an unparalleled pleasure in something short and searing. Chukwuebuka Ibeh’s debut is set in modern-day Nigeria, where the country’s criminalisation of same-sex marriage has created a hostile atmosphere for the LGBTQ+ population. After an intimate moment with the family apprentice, Obiefuna is sent to a Christian boarding school by his father. So begins a process of self-discovery. Blessings is told from Obiefuna and his mother’s perspective, a dynamic which has plenty of potential for the profound.

The Fetishist, Katherine Min


After author Katherine Min’s death, her daughter, Kayla, found a manuscript in her late mother’s drawer. Katherine had been working on a project, and that book turns The Fetishist, her first posthumous publication, a revenge story about musicians. Young and angry punk singer Kyoko blames violinist Daniel for her mother’s death. Daniel and Kyoko’s mother, Emi, had been part of the same orchestra. If we learned anything from Tar, it’s that we need more stories dedicated to obsession and revenge in the music world.

Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, Salman Rushdie


This is the first book Salman Rushdie has written since he was stabbed onstage at an event in New York state (his novel Victory City was published after the attack, but written beforehand). In Knife, Rushdie writes about the attempt on his life and what happened afterwards: a testament to endurance and the power of writing.

How to Leave the House, Nathan Newman


Nathan Newman’s debut brings together a pleasingly weird bunch of people: a dentist who longs to be an artist (he cannot stop creating pictures of mouths!), a romantically-troubled Imam, a teenager whose nudes have leaked. And then there is 23-year-old Natwest, who is waiting for an embarrassing package to arrive before heading off for university. An ambitious title.

Evenings and Weekends, Oisín McKenna


Every few years, we must read a novel about London during an unbearably hot summer. This time, it’s Oisín McKenna’s turn. It’s 2019, the hottest June on record, and we’re about to head into a highly-charged weekend between four characters. There’s Maggie, pregnant and down-on-her-luck, and Ed, the bike courier who hopes to make a life with her. Then there’s Ed’s best friend, Phil, who has a secret past with Maggie. Meanwhile, Phil’s mother is travelling to London to tell her son about her cancer diagnosis.

A Cage Went in Search of a Bird: Ten Kafkaesque Stories


June marks a hundred years since Franz Kafka’s death (the author died from starvation as a result of tuberculosis at the age of 40). To mark that century, ten authors—including Ali Smith, Elif Batuman and Charlie Kaufman—have penned ten short stories which are deemed Kafaesque. If anything will speak to the general weirdness of our times, this collection, with its AI architects to bureaucratic nightmares, will be it. Though, perhaps, what we shall learn is that all times are a little weird.

Originally published on Esquire UK

Our favourite books of the year delve into everything from prisons to utopias, slashers to ghost stories, and American dreaming to American failures.

As we approach the halfway point of the year, 2023 has yielded a massive bounty of extraordinary new reads—in fact, the stacks are towering over us here in the Esquire books department.

If you're looking to read more as the days grow longer and brighter, then you’ve come to the right place. We’ve rounded up our favorite books of the year thus far, which range from debut works by emerging voices to new outings for canonical writers. Our favorite titles delve into everything from prisons to utopias, slashers to ghost stories, and American dreaming to American failures.

Whether you’re into novels, short stories, memoirs, or nonfiction, there’s something here for every type of reader. Not all of these books have hit shelves yet, but if you see something you like, pre-order it now and thank yourself later. When it arrives in your mailbox weeks from now, after you’ve long forgotten about it, it’ll be like a gift from Past You.

1) The Wager, by David Grann

One of our finest nonfiction storytellers returns with a swashbuckling epic about shipwreck, scandal, mutiny, and murder. In 1741, when a British naval vessel was shipwrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia, its crew divided into factions and descended into violence. After five months marooned, some seamen sailed away in makeshift boats, abandoning their captain and his few remaining loyalists. Survivors of this perilous journey back to England were hailed as heroes—until the captain made a miraculous return, accusing his officers of mutiny. What followed was a court martial and a vicious war of words, with each side spinning a narrative to avoid death by hanging. Masterfully structured from a wealth of firsthand accounts, like logbooks, correspondence, and court martial testimony, The Wager is a thrilling voyage about tall tales, at sea and on land. Read an interview with the author here at Esquire.

2) A Living Remedy, by Nicole Chung

In this gutting memoir, an adopted daughter wrestles with grief, loss, and regret. Growing up in rural Oregon, Chung often felt “racial isolation” as the Korean-American daughter of white parents, who lived paycheck to paycheck. Many years later, after finding a community and a home on the East Coast, Chung suffered two devastating blows: within the span of two years, she lost her father to kidney disease and her mother to cancer. A Living Remedy recounts the agony of watching them grapple with their health amid financial instability and a dysfunctional healthcare system. Chung describes her father’s death as “negligent homicide, facilitated and sped by the state’s failure to fulfill its most basic responsibilities to him and others like him.” Keep the tissues close for this visceral and wrenching memoir—you’ll need them. Read an essay by the author here at Esquire.

3) The Guest, by Emma Cline

With her propulsive third book, Cline confirms her reputation as the literary prophet of women on the brink. Her latest outing stars Alex, a 22-year-old grifter who makes ends meet by ingratiating herself with wealthy older men. When Alex miscalculates and runs afoul of her latest beau, she’s sent packing just one week before his annual Labor Day party, leaving her homeless. Rather than face the truth, Alex determines that if she can just make it through the week, she’ll be welcomed back at the party. Drifting through a languid summer week in the Hamptons, Alex folds into rarefied enclaves where she pretends to belong, and with each passing day, her perspective becomes even more dangerously warped. Dreamlike and disaffected, this charged study of class and gender lingers like a bad sunburn.

4) Chain-Gang All-Stars, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Ever since his breakout debut, Friday Black, we’ve been eagerly awaiting Adjei-Brenyah’s sophomore outing. Nearly five years later, it’s finally here, and it surpasses all expectations. In a dystopian United States, the prison-industrial complex has gone private, leaving incarcerated people with no choice but to compete for their freedom in the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment system. Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker have traveled together for years as Links in the same Chain-Gang, but as Thurwar nears her freedom, she contemplates how to bring dignity to her multi-racial and multi-gendered coalition of fellow gladiators. Reading Chain-Gang All-Stars in a nation addicted to violent sports that brutalize athletes of color, Adjei-Brenyah’s acerbic vision lands like a lightning bolt of truth. Read an exclusive excerpt here at Esquire.

5) Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma, by Claire Dederer

What should we do when we love the art, but hate the artist? In Monsters, one of our sharpest critics delivers a bracing meditation on the thorniest questions of the #MeToo era. Can we ethically consume the art of monstrous artists? Do we hold monstrous women to different standards than monstrous men? In the age of parasocial relationships, how much does fandom define us, and what’s a fan to do when our favorite artist betrays us? Dederer contends that these contradictions are baked into the endeavor of making and loving art. Lucid and fierce, generous and unflinching, Monsters is the most exhilarating study on this topic to date. Read an interview with the author here at Esquire.

6) The Sense of Wonder, by Matthew Salesses

In his kinetic fourth novelMatthew Salesses introduces two unforgettable protagonists striving to expand what’s possible for Asian Americans. First, we meet New York Knicks player Won Lee, an under-appreciated point guard living in the shadow of the team’s star player. When Won steps into the spotlight, he leads the team to a stunning victory streak, but newfound celebrity doesn’t make Won’s life any easier—in fact, he continues to face racism both cutting and coded from his coaches, fans, and teammates. Salesses also introduces Won’s girlfriend, Carrie Kang, an ambitious producer of Korean dramas fighting to bring the beloved form to an American market. At once a heart-pumping sports thriller, a winsome romcom, and a metafictional meditation on love, The Sense of Wonder lands like a triumphant half-court shot. Read an interview with the author here at Esquire.

7) The Shards, by Bret Easton Ellis

In his first novel in thirteen years, Ellis plays the hits, delivering everything that superfans want from him and more: sex, drugs, violence, crime, privilege, secrets, you name it. Here, the author weaves a sleek metafictional tale set in 1980s Los Angeles, where a teenager (also named Bret Easton Ellis) spins out as his life of privilege and debauchery collides with a series of grisly murders. The coke-addled prep school backdrop of Less Than Zero fuses with the stylized ultraviolence of American Psycho as young Bret and his classmates become obsessed with—and then victimized by—the Trawler, a serial killer terrorizing the Valley. Seductive and spooky, this noirish slasher marks a welcome return for the author. Read an exclusive excerpt here at Esquire.

8) The Faraway World, by Patricia Engel

Fresh off the triumph of Infinite Country, one of our most essential writers returns with ten big-hearted tales of love, struggle, and regret set in the Colombian diaspora. In one standout, “Libélula,” a Colombian housekeeper takes a fateful job with a wealthy Colombian family in Manhattan, orbiting the lady of the house and her secret infidelities. Elsewhere in the collection, “The Book of Saints,” a punchy and surprising modern love story, volleys between the perspectives of a Home Depot manager and his mail-order Colombian bride. Engel’s gift for dialogue and her lyrical powers of description make these stories crackle, but it’s her bittersweet insight into the costs of leaving—and staying!—home that will lodge The Faraway World in your heart.

9) What Napoleon Could Not Do, by DK Nnuro

In this spellbinding debut novel, two Ghanaian siblings chase the same dream of making a new life in America. Belinda, the younger and brighter child, achieves “what Napoleon could not do”: she moves to the United States for college, becomes a lawyer, and marries a wealthy Black businessman. Meanwhile, back in Ghana, her older brother Jacob seethes with jealousy, repeatedly petitioning the American government for a green card. But as Belinda soon learns, hers and Jacob’s dreams of the promised land don’t square with the lived experience of African Americans like her husband, who face relentless racism and marginalization. In this compelling and insightful debut, Nnuro delivers a nuanced exploration of the American Dream's broken promises.

10) Don't Fear the Reaper, by Stephen Graham Jones

Jones’s chilling Indian Lake trilogy continues with Don’t Fear the Reaper, a bravura sequel to 2021’s My Heart is a Chainsaw. Four years after the carnage that concluded My Heart is a Chainsaw, Jade Daniels returns to Proofrock, Idaho just as legendary serial killer Dark Mill South escapes from prison. Jade has tried to put her horror-loving persona behind her, but when bodies pile up as Dark Mill South makes a bloody stab at avenging 38 Dakota men hanged in 1862 (the largest mass execution in American history), she’ll have to embrace her final girl status once and for all. Gory and thrilling, Don’t Fear the Reaper is a palm-sweating slasher that both satisfies and subverts its genre conventions. Now when is Book Three coming?

11) Victory City, by Salman Rushdie

Fifteen novels into a legendary life in letters, Rushdie’s formidable powers of imagination remain unrivaled. In his latest, an epic tale set in fourteenth-century India, a young woman becomes instrumental to the centuries-long rise and fall of a fantastical empire. Vijayanagara, or Victory City, was a real place—the seat of a Hindu empire, said to be one of the biggest and most splendid cities of the medieval world. In Rushdie’s telling, we see the city (called “Bisnaga” here) through the eyes of Pampa Kampana, a girl who becomes the vessel of a goddess and devotes her 247 years of life to building, populating, and later saving this fantastical place. Rich in shifting allegiances, palace intrigue, and divine myth, Victory City unspools like an ancient epic. It's a breathtaking adventure, told as only Rushdie could tell it.

12) Palo Alto, by Malcolm Harris

Billed as “the first comprehensive, global history of Silicon Valley,” Palo Alto lives up to its description, but it’s also so much more—in these whopping 720 pages, you’ll find nothing short of a history of capitalism. Harris deftly charts the long shadow of extraction in Northern California, from settler colonialism to robber barons to counterculture capitalists. The rapacious greed of today’s Silicon Valley, he argues, is the product of 150 years of damning local history. A monumental work of research and imagination, Palo Alto is destined to sit on a high shelf next to other unforgettable works of national history.

13) I Have Some Questions for You, by Rebecca Makkai

Makkai's first novel since the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Great Believers centers on the long shadow of a boarding school murder during the 1990s. Decades later, when a successful podcaster returns to her alma mater as a teacher, she meets two students producing a podcast about her late roommate’s murder, causing her to re-examine her own understanding of what happened, and the role gender and race played in the case. Could the man in prison be innocent? Juicy and propulsive, I Have Some Questions For You is a clever pageturner about the repercussions of how stories are crafted, in courtrooms and podcasts alike.

14) The Big Myth, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

Two historians strike at the heart of our contemporary crisis in this scorching indictment of free market fundamentalism. In The Big Myth, Conway and Oreskes ask, “How did so many Americans come to have so much faith in markets and so little faith in government?” To answer that question, we have to roll the clock back to the early 20th century, when business leaders defended child labor, suppressed unions, and began to advance a free market doctrine that would shape the next century of American life. At once radical and radicalizing, The Big Myth paints a damning picture of how capitalism has destroyed democracy—and how we can change, before it’s too late.

15) Users, by Colin Winnette

In this claustrophobic tech thriller, the inventor of a cutting edge virtual reality game descends into alienation when he begins to receive anonymous death threats. Panic jeopardizes his career, his marriage, and his bond with his children, forcing him to make a hail Mary pitch for a revolutionary VR device—but the technology has devastating consequences. Lived reality and virtual reality blur in this gripping cautionary tale about technology’s ability to isolate us from what's real and important. Gripping, clever, and terrifying, Users sucks you in just like a video game.

16) Saving Time, by Jenny Odell

The visionary author of How to Do Nothing returns to challenge the notion that “time is money.” In this hopeful and subversive cultural history, Odell traces the origins of our market-based understanding of time, arguing that how we organize our days has always been “a history of extraction, whether of resources from the earth or of labor time from people.” Odell’s research is rigorous, but Saving Time’s real triumph lies in her road map for experiencing time outside the capitalist clock. Instead of “hoarding” time, we should “garden” it, attuning ourselves to the natural world and prioritizing meaningful human connections. Expect to feel changed by this radical way of seeing.

17) Poverty, by America, by Matthew Desmond

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted returns with another paradigm-shifting inquiry into America’s dark heart. This time, Desmond asks: how does the United States, the world’s richest nation, have more poverty than any other advanced democracy? Poverty, by America argues that poverty persists because the financially secure benefit from it, with landlords, banks, corporations, and politicians all reaping staggering gains from overcharging and under-serving Americans in need. Desmond advances a fierce argument: that alongside “aggressive, uncompromising antipoverty reforms,” it would take just $177 billion to end hunger and homelessness in America. As always, Desmond delivers a radical vision: a book that urges us to abandon old ways of thinking and dream a new path forward.

18) Lone Women, by Victor LaValle

Violent delights abound in this historical horror tale from one of the genre’s most exciting voices. In 1914, Adelaide Henry sets fire to her childhood home and flees eastward, carrying only a locked steamer trunk containing a mysterious secret. She hopes to outrun her past and start a new life in Montana, where “lone women” can stand on their own two feet as homesteaders. But as the sole Black woman in a too-white town, Adelaide isn’t welcomed with open arms—and when the lock on her steamer trunk is broken, all hell breaks loose. Rich in secrets, suspense, and dread, LaValle’s latest is a gripping and heartfelt thriller about how lone women survive a harsh world.

19) Y/N, by Esther Yi

As chatter about parasocial relationships burns up social media, this debut novel, a Kafkaesque fever dream about fandom and obsession, arrives right on time. For a Korean-American copywriter living in Berlin, life begins anew when she first discovers Moon, a dreamy K-pop superstar. Soon enough, she’s overpowered by fervent devotion, penning fanfiction in which “Y/N” (your name) imagines her way into romantic encounters with her boy band hero. When Moon abruptly retires, our narrator travels to Seoul to find him, making for a madcap journey of self-destruction and self-discovery. Haunting yet playful, immersive yet unreal, Y/N is a brilliant dissection of consumption in all its forms—how we consume art, and how it consumes us.

20) Biography of X, by Catherine Lacey

If Pew, Lacey’s visionary 2020 novel, seemed like the height of her ambition, think again. Now, she’s back with an even more staggering achievement: Biography of X, an alternate history of the United States told through the eyes of a grieving widow unraveling her late wife’s secrets. Determined to write an accurate biography of her wife, the famous performance artist X, crime reporter C.M. Lucca goes in search of X’s mysterious past. The quest sends her into the dark heart of a post-war America split into two territories, and deep into the inconsistencies of X’s shapeshifting past. All roads lead to one final destination: the truth about their marriage, which isn’t what it seems. In this masterpiece about the slippery nature of art, identity, and truth, Lacey contemplates a question that haunts us all: can we ever truly know the people we love?

Originally published on Esquire US