May 132010



This past  month I’ve read and re-read fifteen short pieces, each of which  might be called a list essay. I say this with the confession that before last month I didn’t even know such a form existed. I did, though, find myself writing in it and blindly starting to lay out some basic precepts as I wrote, then trying to identify them in other essays. I can’t precisely identify  the methods I used in finding the essays I chose, except to say that I searched through my non-fiction anthologies for essays that looked like the ones I was writing (and I mean “looked” in the most physical sense – I tried to find essays that resembled lists), googled the term “list essay,” and asked everyone I knew if they could think of possible examples. Perhaps rather haphazardly, I found and read the following “list essays”:

  • Leonard Michaels, “In the Fifties
  • Wayne Koestenbaum, “My ’80s
  • Jonathan Lethem, “13, 1977, 21” [from Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist; also the anthology The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction]
  • Susan Allen Toth, “Going to the Movies” [from Harper’s Magazine, May 1980; also The Fourth Genre anthology]
  • Carol Paik, “A Few Things I Know About Softball” [from Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Volume 9, Number 2, Fall 2007, also The Fourth Genre anthology]
  • Debra Marquart, “Some Things I Know About That Day”
  • Wendy Rawlings, “Virtually Romance: A Discourse on Love in the Information Age”
  • Nancy Lord, “I Met a Man Who Has Seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and This Is What He Told Me” [from Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Volume 9, Number 1, Spring 2007, also The Fourth Genre anthology]
  • Michele Morano, “Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood” [from Morano’s Grammar Lessons, also The Fourth Genre anthology]
  • Meriwether Clarke, “The Grimm Brothers: A List Essay
  • Sei Shonagon, “Hateful Things” [from Shonagon’s Pillow Book, also The Art of the Personal Essay anthology]
  • Christopher Smart, “My Cat Jeoffry” [from Smart’s Jubilate Agno]
  • Brenda Miller, “Table of Figures” [from Miller’s Blessing of the Animals, also The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol.3]
  • Anonymous, “(names have been changed)” [from The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol.3]
  • Dawnelle Wilkie, “What Comes Out” [from The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol.3]
  • Tim Bascom, “Community College”

In reading at these essays I tried to establish certain “rules” that the pieces seemed to share, and found that in fact this motley crew did have some common characteristics.  I also should note that I’m looking at the pieces in terms of their connections to this form, not as individual pieces, so all references to them will be in terms of how they illustrate the precepts of the form. So here’s what I learned:


That the term “List Essay” might not be precisely correct. David Blakesley wrote a review of Reinventing Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story by John D. O’Banion, in which he sums up O’Banion’s admixture of the list story like this:

List is the form of discourse utilized by logic or systematic thought; story is the form utilized by narratival thought… In their application, “List records scientific truth, with logic providing tests of a List’s accuracy and universality. Story embodies aesthetic ‘truth’ (meaning), with narration providing guidance in revealing and discovering such situationally bound meaning.”

It’s important to point out here that the list essay is a different entity than the list story, since technically the essay is a non-fiction form that usually contains elements of both systematic and narrative style. So by this reasoning, almost every essay is to some degree  a systematic-narratival or list-story essay – the only “list essays” would be the ones that don’t employ any narrative. With this in mind, I’d propose the title systematic narrative essay. Aesthetically it’s not as concise as “list essay,” but I think it actually rolls off the tongue quite nicely. And the process itself of reading a bunch of unrelated essays and attempting to delineate precepts that they all follow is itself an example of the tightrope walk between narrative thought and systematic application, as each of these essays does tell a story, most of them intensely personal, and my attempt here is to figure out some analogous connections between their systematic methods of telling those narratives.


That the force that drives the essay is at least as much concept as plot. The list essay could be called a non-fiction concept story. In eleven of the 15 essays I read, the concept was even stated in the title:

“Community College”

“Table of Figures”

“Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood”

“A Few Things I Know About Softball”

“I Met a Man Who Has Seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and This Is What He Told Me”

“Going to the Movies”

“My ‘80s”

“In the Fifties”

“The Search for Marvin Gardens”

“The Grimm Brothers: A List Essay”

“Virtually Romance: A Discourse on Love in the Information Age”

And in the other three the concept was subtly, almost secretly  implicit:

“A Few Things About That Day” [about an abortion]

“What Comes Out” [about an abortion clinic]

“(names have been changed)” [about an 11-year-old girl with HIV, presumably from her stepfather or uncle)

The importance of this is that not just the action, but the structure itself of each essay revolves around the concept. And “revolve” is a good word for it, as very few of the list essays I’ve read follow a linear narrative, and even the ones that generally do, like “A Few Things I Know About Softball,” “Community College,” and “The Grimm Brothers: A List Essay,” break up the narrative with systematic stylistic devices. In “…About Softball” Paik breaks up the sections with headings like “Lesson1: Put your body in front of the ball,” “Lesson 2: Catch with both hands,” and so forth. “Community College” reads like a log book of a college lecturer, with headings for each of the 16 weeks of the semester. “The Grimm Brothers” injects social, literary, and historical critique into a skeletal summary of the brothers’ lives, attempting to draw conclusions as to how they wrote the fairy tales that have become part of Western culture’s collective unconscious.. In Jonathan Lethem’s “13, 1997, 21” he tells the story of watching Star Wars twenty-one times at the age of thirteen when it came out in the summer of 1977, and even the form serves the content – it’s told in twenty-one short, concentric sections.


That they can be panoramic in scope or ultra zoomed in, sometimes both at the same time. The panoramic view  allows essayists to think of their subjects  on a macro level. In Michaels’s “In the Fifties” and Wayne Koestenbaum’s “My ‘80s,” both writers use the decade to frame events in their own coming-of-age stories. 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. Conversely, in “The Grimm Brothers: A List Essay,” Meriwether Clarke uses 53 ultra-short paragraphs (1-3 lines each) seemingly to remove the epic-ness of the Grimm Brothers’ legend, simply relaying fact after fact about their lives and work. I’ve found the zoomed-in approach less common in list essays. But, like on Debra Marquart’s “Some Things About That Day” in which she lists everything she remembers about the day she had an abortion, the process of listing everything one remembers about one event can reveal to the writer and the reader why this event has defined the writer. The essay is only two pages, eleven paragraphs of 4-6 lines each. In the third paragraph, she finds it “difficult to remember the order in which things happened.” In the seventh paragraph she recounts telling her husband she was pregnant and him asking, “Is it mine?” And in the last paragraph she arrives home from the procedure to find him watching the NBA playoffs and telling her how brave she is. This isn’t the only action of the short essay, but I point it out because it reveals the importance of this day as a reflection of the days before and after it. Also, in “13, 1977, 21” Lethem attempts, 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. Which brings me to the next thing I’ve learned:


That the form is a great way for the writer to get grip on material, how it fits together. So many of the essays I read seem to be working themselves out either implicitly or explicitly in the process of listing and arranging all the individual parts. In “Going to the Movies,” Toth, in three brief numbered sections, tells of three different men she goes to the movies with, how they watch movies, and how she watches movies with them. Each of these 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 portraying herself only in 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.” It is through the systematic, quantified analysis of the men she goes to the movies with that she finds her own place in the narrative. In “The Subjunctive Mood” Morano employs a 2nd-person perspective to simulate a Spanish language lesson, which she beautifully interweaves with her on-and-off relationship with a suicidal man while living in Spain: “This is the when, the while, the until. The before and after.The real and the unreal in a precarious balance…But at least the final rule of usage is simple, self-contained, one you can commit to memory: Certain independent clauses exist only in the subjunctive mood, lacing optimism with resignation, hope with heartache.” “Community College” also uses this teacher’s perspective to frame his narrative in time and space, logging his students’ actions strictly from their interactions with him as their writing teacher. 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.


That they’re generally pretty short. The title of one, “I Met a Man Who Has Seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and This Is What He Told Me,” is nearly as long as any of the nine sections. The longest essay here by far, “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” clocks in at a whopping eight pages, and is by far the shortest piece by John McPhee I’ve read. I’m going to test this precept this summer in reading what seems like a book-length systematic narrative, The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs, in which he writes about reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica for a year and arranges the book as A-Z mock entries.


That the language of the form is generally spare, implying connections that the reader must infer from the systematic framework the essay sets up.  A good example of this is the pair of essays, “What Comes Out” and “Some Things About That Day.” As stated earlier, both center conceptually on abortion. But they deal from opposite sides of the plate glass window, Marquart recounting her own experience getting an abortion and Wilkie recounting the life of the health care worker assisting with the abortions. Both are short, unassuming, and quietly heartbreaking, and neither says what is implied. Wilkie even 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 the health care workers go through in removing and disposing of it. Marquart, in two brief pages, reconstructs from hazy memory the same process , stating that “My friend tried to soften it for me afterwards. Just say you had a procedure, dear.” 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.


That the form, while contemporary, is not without antecedents. I recently discovered “Hateful Things” from the “pillow book” of 10-Century Japanese matron and snob Sei Shonagon, which as advertised is a list of things she hates, including pretentious people, inkstones that malfunction, and men who leave after overnight trysts without saying goodbye. She even states, “Sometimes one greatly dislikes a person for no particular reason – and then that person goes and does something hateful.”

“My Cat Jeoffry,” a poem, is perhaps the piece I remember most from my undergraduate early English literature survey course.  Its systematic structure is rigid – 74 lines, every one starting with “For,” all praising his beloved cat. Smart was obviously insane and did in fact spend a good portion of his life in an asylum, but the 74 lines of “My Cat Jeoffrey” do give a loose, loving, altogether unique narrative portrait.


I went out to lunch this week at Hunan Delight, my new favorite place in Park Slope for cheap Chinese, and when I opened my fortune cookie at the end of lunch it read:

Digital circuits are made from analog parts.

I’m not usually one to assume meaning in mass-produced slips of paper, but this one spoke to me. I come from a family of electricians and mechanics, and though I can barely keep the oil changed in my car and frequently need my wife to help me operate my Macbook, I know this much: Digital circuits work in bits of information, each bit working into the systematic logic of the circuit; if any bit doesn’t logically fit, the circuit will malfunction. Each bit, though, works in a continuous  strain, and thus has its own infinitely variable narrative order. I teach a class on convergent media, and one of the things we talk about is how digital (online) media have changed the way we read, and think. With the rise of non-fiction as a predominant form in publishing market, perhaps the systematic-narrative, or list essay, is both a response and a reflection of this change.

—John Proctor


  8 Responses to “7 Things I Learned from Reading 15 List Essays — John Proctor”

  1. Interesting that you considered “In the Fifties” in this list. I used it in my critical thesis as an example of an ‘outlier’ in short fiction. I certainly could see it as an autobiographical story, especially since much of the ‘action’ in the story follows LM’s life. Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Good luck with the last packet. Glover was a pussycat wasn’t he? 🙂 Oh, wait, he can read these comments! Damn.

  2. John,

    Thanks, and this is interesting. The Next American Essay (John D’Agata ed/Graywolf) has several essays that might come close (and includes the McPhee). D’Agata looks at less conventional essays elsewhere and might be a source.

    “Digital circuits are made from analog parts.” What happened to “Today is your lucky day” or “Love is around the corner” fortunes? What does this mean figuratively? The statement and placement haunt me.

  3. I’m fascinated by lists in general and also by the relationship between structure and content. So I appreciate having this list of list essays. Thanks for sharing, John.

  4. I have to say, the fortune cookie was pretty unsettling for me as well, Gary. Those things are never relevant practically, much less figuratively!

    Also I’m finding myself more and more, as I let some of these ideas settle on me, that perhaps my whole attempt at the “list essay” structure (if, again, it even is one) was really just an attempt on my part to get to a better paradigm for myself in relating formal (or systematic) structures with the stories I’m trying to tell (or narratives).

  5. Well, I got curious. This is an excerpt from a New Yorker article about a guy who wrote fortunes for a fortune cookie manufacturer:

    At first, the writing came easily. Finding inspiration in sources ranging from the I Ching to the Post, Lau cranked out three or four maxims a day, between scrutinizing spreadsheets and monitoring the company’s inventory of chow mein. “I’d be on the subway and look up at the signs and think, Hey, that would make a great fortune,” he said. (One such adage: “Beware of odors from unfamiliar sources.”) “I’d keep a small notebook and jot down whatever came to me. I don’t think I ever sat in front of the computer and said, ‘I am going to write ten fortunes right now.’ It has to come naturally.”

    Love, riches, power: there is a limited range of experience that can be expressed in one sentence, and, about eleven years into his tenure, Lau began to run out of ideas. He leaned increasingly on traditional Chinese sayings, which offer insight (along the lines of “True gold fears no fire”) but not foresight (“Your income will increase”), and in 1995 he gave up altogether. “I’ve written thousands of fortunes, but the inspiration is gone,” Lau said. “Have you heard of writer’s block? That is what happened to me.”

    These days, he cycles selections from his vast oeuvre in and out of circulation. He is worried that readers will notice that the cookies are in reruns, which might result in Wonton’s losing its edge on the competition. (This is unlikely. Although there are about forty fortune-cookie companies in the United States, few have Wonton’s manufacturing capabilities.) So Lau has decided to bring in new blood. The company will soon advertise for a new fortune writer, and Lau will make the transition to editor. “Maybe when I retire I’ll write again—perhaps a book about writing fortunes,” he said. Returning to form, he summarized the thrust of the book with two simple axioms. “Don’t have too complicated a mind,” he said. “Think in ten-word sentences.”

    Perhaps a job for recent MFA grads. Or a candidate for a NC contest.

    My favorite fortune: “May the luck of the Irish be with you.” (Again, this was at a Chinese restaurant.)

    Read more:

  6. I have a fortune cookie that says “Digital circuits are made from analog parts”, I knew my fortune cookie fortune collection would take on some sort of significance some day!

    And thank you for this helpful and informative post, I’m writing a rhetorical analysis of Jubilate Agno and found this to be very thought provoking 🙂

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