Penman No. 60: Enter the Listicle


Penman for Monday, Aug. 19, 2013


I WAS online last week looking up the rumors about the impending release of the iPhone 6 on September 10 when I glanced at the sidebar of the page I was reading and spotted a new word out of the corner of my eye. The word was “listicle”, and immediately I wondered if it was something cold, sweet, and edible, or some sinister medical malady, some unnerving imbalance afflicting grown men.

I clicked the link, and learned something new, thanks to Anna Lawlor of The Guardian: “The journalistic lexicon has a new entry; the ‘listicle’, describing a list-based article. From The Sunday Times’ ‘100 Best Companies’ to Buzzfeed’s ’31 Things You Can Make Out of Cereal Boxes’, listicles are equally beloved for their condensed information format and online virility and decried as lazy journalism for the perennial lunchtime ‘news snacker’.”

News snacker? What the heck was a news snacker? Farther down the piece was the definition: someone who engages in “checking news content far more frequently, for short, sharp bursts of attention.” In other words, that’s someone who checks out the headlines on his or her mobile phone or tablet five to six times a day.

I suppose that’s me—I’m online all the time, and can’t help peeking into the news, my eBay bids, and the chatter on my favorite fountain-pen and Apple websites every few hours—but I’m also old enough to still be reading the newspaper from the front page to the back page with my morning coffee, and to watch one or two TV newscasts before bedtime. So rather than a news snacker, call me a news glutton, which I almost had to be to pick up a new word and concept like “listicle.”

Come to think of it, we are in the full-blown age of the listicle, and you don’t have to look much farther than the STAR to realize that. Toward the end of every July, the STAR celebrates its anniversary by coming out with lists of anything and everything its inspired Lifestyle writers can put together (in my case, this year, I offered “27 bits of advice I give to young writers”).

If lists float your boat, then you have to be a regular on, which serves up lists of such engrossing subjects as “10 strange non-sexual ways people have orgasms,” “10 creepy historical vampires you’ve never heard of,” and “10 unconfirmed victims of famous murderers.” (Talk about learning something new: from a list of “10 earliest versions of everyday technologies,” we learn that the first smartphone—with email, predictive typing, and some basic “apps”—was an IBM phone named Simon, which weighed a pound, was the size of a brick, and sold for nearly $1,000 back in 1994.)

But there were lists, of course, long before the Internet. In 1977, David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace compiled the first Book of Lists. Featuring such irresistible morsels as “famous people who died during sexual intercourse,” the book became a hit, and was periodically updated and reissued.

As you can see, some lists are more serious and some more ridiculous than others, although we should probably admit that silly lists are usually more fun to read. No one really talks much about lists like “10 things we need to do as a nation to move forward,” although we should. By their very nature, lists draw attention and achieve popularity because they seem to create patterns we’ve never seen before in the raw, undigested mess of our daily lives; patterns are intriguing if not mesmerizing, a kind of eye candy of the mind, but also reassuring at the same time, in that they bear the promise of an underlying logic to everything. Lists create mass, and mass creates credibility if not consequence.

To get on the serious side of lists, the first “listicle”—certainly the best known to lit geeks like me—has to be the “catalog of ships” in Book II of Homer’s Iliad, where every Greek and Trojan chieftain who took part in the Trojan War is listed along with a description of his home city and the ships he brought with him. There’s a lot of debate among scholars about the historical veracity of this catalog, there being a 500-year gap between the war and Homer’s own time, but some scholars have come to the all-too-human conclusion that, well, lists change and grow with time. As a website devoted to Greek studies puts it:

“An intermediate theory is that the catalogue developed through a process of accretion during the poem’s oral transmission and reflects gradual inclusion of the homelands of local sponsors by individual singers… In the most recent extended study of the Catalogue, Edzard Visser, of the University of Basel, concludes that the Catalogue is compatible with the rest of the Iliad in its techniques of verse improvisation, that the order of the names is meaningful and that the geographical epithets evince concrete geographical knowledge. Visser argues that this knowledge was transmitted by the heroic myth, elements of which introduce each geographical section… W. W. Minton places the catalogue within similar ‘enumerations’ in Homer and Hesiod, and suggests that part of their purpose was to impress the audience with a display of the performer’s memory.”

(Note to self: add “Edzard Visser” and “W. W. Minton” to a list of “names that sound like heavyweight professors’ names.”)

The sidestep to Homer and the literary catalog reminded me of another famous employer of the catalog, the American poet Walt Whitman (known to many of us as the author of that perennial declamation favorite, “O Captain, My Captain!”), whose epic Leaves of Grass surveyed the broad American landscape and used poetry to do what Instagram might have achieved in another time, taking snapshots of the passing scene, creating quick portraits of “newly-come immigrants,” “the squaw,” “the connoisseur,” “the one-year-wife,” “the paving man,” “the canal boy,” and so on.

At its best—and Whitman shows how—the listicle, or at least its literary form, can achieve a transcendent significance, a more-than-the-sum-of-the-parts meaningfulness that ordinary lists such as “the 10 best-selling burgers in America” can’t convey. Whitman scholar Betsy Eikkila explains it thus:

“Whitman’s catalog technique serves as a democratizing device, inscribing the pattern of many and one. By basing his verse in the single, end-stopped line at the same time that he fuses this line—through various linking devices—with the larger structure of the whole, Whitman weaves an overall pattern of unity in diversity. This pattern of many and one—the e pluribus unum that was the revolutionary seal of the American republic—is the overarching figure of Leaves of Grass.”

If that was a bit much for you, no problem. There’s always and its promise of a yummy news snack to get you through another day of tedium at the office, and you don’t even have to choose between “10 of the slowest plants to ever bloom” and “11 cool facts about polar bears”—you can have them both, and more. They may be low on fiber, but hey, they’re high on sugar.

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