Listing Explanations for the List of Literary Lists

Did you ever wonder why there are so many lists in contemporary literature?

Yeah, probably not.

But here’s a catalog of some of the more delightful ones anyway, in case you’re list-curious.

Did you notice that most of the lists are from 20th century works? (Except Dickens: the exception to every rule. Amiright?)

What is it about the 20th/21st centuries that compel writers to use so many dang lists?

These and other burning questions I attempt to answer in my new blog segment called

“Ask a Certified Professional Reader.”

Today’s edition: the literary list.

It shows up a lot in 20th and 21st century books. A lot. But why?

1. Lazy writers don’t feel like putting together real sentences.


2. It’s a way to deal with information overload

Even in the dark, dark times of pre-social networking and interactive webbinating, the 20th century featured more information than people knew what to do with. From new tech like photography, radio, and cars to new industrial processes for manufacturing (woah! look at my list!), people were dealing with a big wave of new that they needed to sort out. Lists, especially the numbered ones, can seem like calming, organized ways to accommodate too much information.

This may not be precisely true for individual list examples, like Dickens. Hah. Or like the list of Irish heroes in Ulysses. Lists that don’t directly address what we now call information culture.But they don’t need to if they were written during that time. That’s the magic voodoo of literary criticism!

And then you get the ironic version of this: lists that confound the notion of controlling information overload. Like the David Foster Wallace list of a character’s movies in Infinite Jest. That list uses a list form to attempt—and totally fail—to gain control over this mysterious character’s complex opus.


3. It’s a way to deal with a new commodity culture

Around the time that industrial manufacturing really starts to take over, Anglo/American culture starts fixating on the objects it produces. Capitalism becomes more about these objects that we can purchase rather than about, say, agricultural production. Food becomes a manufactured product. Clothing becomes manufactured. Etc. And then, of course, in the late 20th and 21st centuries it’s all about the objects we can buy. You saw Fight Club, right?

The objects we buy to express who we are.

So a list in a book about these times may put its narrative into little object forms, like list items. Because that’s how we see the world.

You can turn your focus inward and get the stream of consciousness that y’all remember from high school. Or you can turn it outward and focus on all the little objects that are suddenly circulating everywhere as symbols of your class, gender, status, race. And then literature itself starts to seem like one of those objects. One of those commodities. So it can start acting like it. Lists, bullet points, jargon, and ironic inversions of all of the above.


4. It’s just a list. It doesn’t have to mean anything.


5. It’s part of the new narrative forms developed in the modernist/pomo-splosion of formal innovation.

New technologies and theories of culture (Darwinism, Freudian theory, media tech in the modernist period, nuclear and digital technologies during and after WWII) inspired new literary forms. Take your pick! If you’re bookish, which you probably are if you’re reading this far, you already know what I’m talking about.

Listing is one way to confound narrative coherence. It fragments the narrative, stalls the plot, removes accessory language like descriptions. You have to slow down and get through it and figure out what it’s there for. Does it add to characterization? (Sometimes!) Does it advance any kind of plot or theme? (Sometimes!)


Can you guys think of other reasons that lists might be so prominent in 20th/21st C literature? Any favorite lists you want to share?

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3 thoughts on “Listing Explanations for the List of Literary Lists

  1. Inder says:

    Could the concept of a list be a sort of modern/postmodern thing? I mean, people surely had lists before, but the “bullet point” format is kind of a modern animal, right? Well, except in Dickens! This is a combination of items 4 & 5, I guess … Wait, what about 6. Dickens invented it, and it took 40-50 years to really catch on? (I just made that up, but it sounds good.)

  2. Inder says:

    P.S. That website is awesome. Thanks!

  3. Elizabeth says:

    YUP! That was part of my reason #5: formal innovation of postmodernism. The influence of business culture on post-WWII lit. It’s all of that and more. Plus, Dickens.

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