The List and the Story: Further Reading
"Let Us Now Raze Famous Men," Steve Almond - This piece bit right through me when The Rumpus published it September 2010. A loosely configured list of 33 items that starts with the suicide of Virginia Quarterly editor Kevin Morrissey and continues into the loneliness of the writer, the harsh state of the publishing industry, our need as humans for empathy, and many other things, each piece builds more intuitively than logically upon the other.
"Community College," Tim Bascom - In this quietly heartbreaking essay, Bascom uses his own perspective as a teacher to frame his narrative in time and space, logging his students’ actions strictly from their interactions with him as their writing teacher in 16 concise, weekly sections. By Week 16 – Finals Week – he knows probably more about the students’ personal lives than he wants to, and the week-by-week log of their failures, excuses, and minor triumphs shows as well as any essay I’ve read the unique relationship a college professor has with his or her students.
"The Grimm Brothers: A List Essay," Meriwether Clarke - This was the first thing I found when I did my initial Google search for list-essays, and it's a fun one. In the brief piece - divided into three parts: Beginning, Middle, and End - Clarke summarizes in short, mostly one-sentence paragraphs some of the major themes and events of the Grimm Brothers' lives and work, to epic effect.
"Forty-One False Starts," Janet Malcolm - This essay consists of forty-one "introductions" to her subject, the once-lionized Eighties visual artist David Salle, based on two years of interviews between him and Malcolm and published in 1994, when Salle was forty-one years old. In the eighteenth "false start," Malcolm says, "Nothing is ever resolved by Salle, nothing adds up, nothing goes anywhere, everything stops and peters out." Besides commenting on her subject both as an artist and as a personality, Malcolm also clues the reader into how her formal choices structure the essay's meaning: in attempting to know and to report on this conflicted, perhaps disingenuous artist, the only way to approach intellectual honesty is to present him in fragments. These fragments, presumably like Salle's work (I have to confess I'd never heard of Salle before I read this essay), are the only way to accurately and engagingly present him. Or, in the words of New Yorker staff writer Rachel Aviv, "it will make you attuned to how impossible it is to ever really know someone."
"My 80s," Wayne Koestenbaum & "In the Fifties," Leonard Michaels - These two essays were the seed of this entire project. Using a decade as a (false) unifier to frame events in their own comings of age, both relate literary and cultural touchstones associated with the respective decades – Michaels using Dylan Thomas, McCarthyism and Greenwich Village bohemians and Koestenbaum using Tama Janowitz, AIDS, and the Greenwich Village gay subculture – to private events in their own lives. This juxtaposition gives these private events an epic scope, and also allows audiences an entrance through shared cultural images and icons. And big news - Koestenbaum has just released his essay collection My 1980s and Other Essays (which is probably why it's no longer available online)! Purely coincidental, I promise. Perhaps a bit strangely, you can find "In the Fifties" in Michaels' fiction collection I Would Have Saved Them if I Could .
"13, 1977, 21," Jonathan Lethem - Further confirming that Jonathan is at least as good at nonfiction as he is a novelist, this essay uses concentric numerologies – 13 years old, the year 1977, watching Star Wars 21 times – in 21 short, concentric sections to attempt, through the prism of the systematic retelling of his pre-teen obsession with Star Wars, to come to grips with his mother’s death at the time and his own budding sexuality. Each section expands and contracts around these three numbers, jumping through time and space, splicing wildly disparate popular culture references with his own experience to create a piece that has a logic that is easy to feel but hard to explain. It's included in his collection The Disappointment Artist and Other Essays.
"Some Things About That Day," Debra Marquart - A shellshocked rendering of post-abortion trauma, the essay is only two pages long, with eleven paragraphs of 4-6 lines each. Making no pretense to a unifying sequence, Marquart intimates finding it “difficult to remember the order in which things happened.” The reader, then, is allowed a glimpse into the actual sorting out of events, the making sense of them.
"Table of Figures," Brenda Miller - In her own introduction to this essay in The Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume 3, Miller calls it a “‘ hermit crab essay’: an essay that ‘inhabits’ an alien form in order to deal with difficult material.” She gives sequential form to her difficult material – the stark rendering of her own maturation, from the shame of her childhood realization of her own body, to sharing that body, to an adult observation of the withering of that body – through a “table of figures” describing photographs of herself at different stages of her life.
"A Few Things I Know About Softball," Carol Paik - Telling a sequential narrative of the teacher-student relationship of a young girl learning to play softball from her male coach through the thematic lens of a series of five basic lessons she learned about softball (“Put your body in front of the ball,” “Run and look over your shoulder,” and so forth), Paik juxtaposes her own adolescence with the dissolution of her coach’s marriage, avoiding histrionics by grounding the narrative in the physical act of playing softball. These “rules of the game” that head each section drive the thematic concerns of the analog narratives within each of them.
"For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry," from Jubilate Agno , Christopher Smart - OK, technically a poem, but nonetheless. Written in the time of Wordsworth during Smart's well-documented stay in a mental institution, this ode to Smart's cat, composed of 74 lines all beginning with "For.." is the only thing I remember reading from my Romantic Lit class in college. My favorite line: "For he can creep."
"Elements of the Wind," Donna Steiner - This one, with lists upon lists interwoven with history, meteorology, and personal narrative, has positively blown my mind since I first read it in 2010 in Fourth Genre . I've taught it to my young writers for the last three years, and wrote a review of Steiner's essay chapbook, which includes it, for Brevity's nonfiction blog. You can buy the chapbook here.
"Going to the Movies," Susan Allen Toth - Toth uses three brief numbered sections to tell of three different men she goes to the movies with: how they watch movies, and how she watches movies with them. The point of view of each of these sections is reactive, starting with the men’s names (“Aaron takes me only to art films.” “Bob takes me only to movies that he thinks have a redeeming social conscience.” “Sam likes movies that are entertaining.”) and with Toth portraying herself only within her semi-romantic relationships to them. Then, in the fourth and final section, she tells of going to the movies alone, putting her feet up, and singing along to musicals with happy endings, where “the men and women always like each other.” A lovely ode to solitude.
"What Comes Out," Dawnelle Wilkie - Wilkie, a health care worker who assists in abortion procedures, starts the essay by telling the reader, “We do not talk about What Comes Out,” then clinically and unsparingly takes the reader through the process they go through in removing and disposing of it. So, for both, perhaps the United States’ most heated contemporary political debate becomes simply a procedure to get something out. The human narrative is embedded in the systematic procedure, just as the thematic concerns are intertwined with the sequences of events. The essay is collected in The Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume 3 .
The Balloonists , Eula Biss - I came upon Biss's work relatively late, but I'm finding that she's already doing much of what I'm attempting here, in a way that makes me very jealous. This book-length list-essay, which I just read this spring on the suggestion of my friend Sophia Starmack, is staggering in its beauty, spare in its brushstrokes, and rich in empathy.
I Remember, Joe Brainard - If "My 80s" and In the Fifties" were seeds of my list obsession, Brainard's "list-memoir" brought it fully into flower. Not just a book but a compilation – he published many of the entries in smaller, chapbook-like editions through the Seventies, including I Remember, I Remember More, and More I Remember More - I Remember is a pastiche of over a thousand descriptive images, short narratives, inversions, fantasies, revelations, and name checks, tied together only by the fact that all begin with the words “I remember.” Brainard arranges them rarely with any apparent care for sequential narrative – rather, he piles image upon image, memory upon memory, until they, almost by sheer weight, combine and condense into a vibrant, sometimes hilarious, sometimes gross, sometimes heartrending portrait of a gay youth in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the Fifties who moves to New York City and becomes part of a major arts movement.
Invisible Cities , Italo Calvino - I’m tempted to call this thoroughly unique work a list-novel, but then I think it’s better to call it a collection of OCD urban folktales. Gore Vidal said of it, “Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.” Bearing in mind my Sisyphean task, I’ll simply say two things: 1) the basic premise is that the explorer Marco Polo is describing the cities he’s ostensibly visited to the Kublai Khan in the waning days of the latter’s empire, a total of 55 allegorical tales of cities that exist mostly in Polo’s mind, and in all of ours, fragmentary glimpses of cities that any urbanite will recognize in their own; and 2) Calvino arranges the stories with perfect symmetry: 9 sections, each beginning and ending with a conversation between Polo and the Khan and containing either 5 or 10 descriptions of individual cities, and the cities are categorized by topic (Cities and Memory, Cities and Desire, Cities and Signs, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Cities and Eyes, Cities and Names, Cities and the Dead, Cities and the Sky, Continuous Cities, Hidden Cities), five named cities per topic, and arranged in each section in descending order, e.g., Cities and Memory 5 (Maurilia), Cities and Desire 4 (Fedora), Cities and Signs 3 (Zoe), Thin Cities 2 (Zenoba), Trading Cities 1 (Euphemia). The combination of the individual power of each mythic city and the rhythmic presentation of each in the fabric of the book leads the reader (me, at least) into a dream-like openness to the imagined experience of not only traveling to each city, but seeing each city as merely one facet of a larger City. Polo ostensibly saw his own Venice in each, I see my own New York. At one point in their conversations, the Khan tells Polo, “Your cities do not exist. Perhaps they have never existed. It is sure they will never exist again. Why do you amuse yourself with consolatory fables?” And Polo replies, “This is the aim of my explorations: examining the traces of happiness still to be glimpse, I gauge its short supply. If you want to know how much darkness there is around you, you must sharpen your eyes, peering at the faint lights in the distance.”
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon - Written circa 1000 A.D. by a Japanese court lady, this is the oldest example of listing in nonfiction I've yet found. Surprisingly (at least to me) naughty, the pillow book (which it seems became somewhat of a fad in her contemporary Heian Japan) collects “facts, stories,” “poems and observations on trees and plants,” “the most trivial material,” and “all sorts of other things,” and “mak(es) them into a pillow.” Of the 185 entries in her Pillow Book that have been translated into English, 164 are lists. My favorite entry: "Hateful Things," in which (surprise!) she lists things she hates, concluding with characteristic wit, "Sometimes one greatly dislikes a person for no particular reason – and then that person goes and does something hateful.”
Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, David Shields - Hard to overstate the importance of this one, a list-manifesto. Shields perhaps overplays his hand at times, but the book is a compelling argument that I of course tend to agree with.
Some Critical Background on Listing and Storytelling
"Art as Device" and "Essay as Anecdote" from Theory of Prose, Viktor Shklovsky - Most of the book is fiction criticism, but both of these short essays are important early touchstones of nonfiction theory, especially "Art as Device" for coining the term "systemic defamiliarization," the artistic effect of removing an object from its normal, familiar context, rendering it strange, funny, and/or beautiful in a way it wouldn't be in its natural context. This, to me at least, is an major artistic function of listing.
Reorienting Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story, John D. O'Banion
- Published in the early Nineties and relying heavily on the work of Kenneth Burke, O'Banion's argument against separating systematic (or "List") and narrative ("Story") thought was a founding text for my obsession, and is the inspiration for the title of this project.
Reality Hunger: David Shields Interview on the Leonard Lopate Show , April 13, 2010 - Promoting Reality Hunger after it was published, Shields is his typical contentious self, spending the lion's share of the interview arguing the relatively boring point of whether the novel is dead. More relevant here is his justification for fractured narrative in nonfiction as representation of modern mediated life.
The List and the Story and Me
"Exploring the List Essay," Patrick Madden, Brevity Magazine, October 11, 2013 - Nice little review of the project-in-progress by one of the modern masters of the personal essay.