The War on Lists

Chances are that if you start reading any quasi-postmodern title, you’ll eventually find yourself at what I call “the list moment.” No, I’m not referring to that inevitable moment in which the book shifts sideways in your hand as the subway descends into the underworld. What I’m talking about here is a grandiose stream of names or locales, often explicitly invented, that enters midway through the text and stands out like a knee-shifting greenhorn at a cotillion. The finest example of this in the literary vein might be the semicolonic semis rolling through the mighty intertext highways of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew. And let us not forget that it was, after all, the lists in High Fidelity which jump-started Nick Hornby’s career, leading him from a novelist adeptly chronicling a particular type of cultural geek to the dull and unoffensive writer he is today.

Lists were one of the charges leveled against Don DeLillo in B.R. Myers’ “A Reader’s Manifesto” (The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2001, later expanded into a Melville House book and available in its original form to subscribers and microfiche enthusiasts only!). Myers specifically singled out the opening passage of White Noise, an array of nouns and pre-modifiers that spells out the manifest of items during the moving process. He called it “the sort of writing, full of brand names and wardrobe inventories, that critics like to praise as an ‘edgy’ take on the insanity of modern American life.” Of course, Myers, much like that other generalization-happy, literary attack dog Dale Peck, doesn’t cite a single example of how book critics have parsed DeLillo’s list here as “edgy writing.” Myers is correct to note that DeLillo’s list is hardly “edgy” as all. It is, rather, a faithful grouping of items which reminds us of the seemingly limitless crap accumulated by human beings. There is nothing “left-leaning,” as Myers suggests, in observing this. Indeed, DeLillo has left the political ramifications up to the individual reader. His list is an observational response to a society which hordes a colossal percentage of the world’s resources and often fails to consider the state of contemporary landfills. Perhaps because this list has been perused by a reactionary critic, Myers has interpreted this as a political act, in that the details, entirely devoid of politics and with the aftermath of where these items end up unreported, have troubled his conscience.

I have a problem with Myers’ suggestion that DeLillo’s list is “just dull” or that DeLillo here is “just trying to be funny” or that his list should be immediately dismissed simply because Myers himself doesn’t enjoy it. In fact, I think that the list here is pretty effective precisely because it has provoked Myers’ irrational ire. Taken on its own terms, a Dum-Dum pop or a rucksack is pretty innocuous. But together, along with countless other items, they have been interpreted by Myers as a threat to contemporary literature! And this clearly demonstrates what makes a list so valuable and advantageous in fiction. Where a narrative guided by your garden variety subject-verb might merely advance the plot, a list, constructed largely of noun phrases, becomes something which doesn’t induce nearly as consistent a response among its readership. One reader, objecting to Dum-Dum pops on principle, might find the list objectionable in toto because the Dum-Dum pop has unearthed a scarring memory. Another reader might be offended by any list which dares to chronicle more than fifteen items. The context’s the thing. In a strange way, lists may in fact be more subjectively interpreted by readers. Because people often take lists so personally (witness the extreme reactions over the many top ten lists unleashed in the past few weeks, despite the fact that the lists in question are only the reflection of an individual or a small group), and because there seems to be a strange obsession with lists in American culture (whether Nixon’s enemies list, McCarthy’s list, inter alia), it is quite likely that the list’s very subjective quality is what causes it to be misperceived as political. (An out-there rhetorical question: Is it possible that the list is objected to because contemporary society, and thus reactionary critics of the literature which reflects it, doesn’t value this kind of free association?)

I suspect what contemporary literature needs is more lists. Shopping lists gone horribly awry. Lists that are entirely gratuitous. Lists that go on for sixty pages. Lists that in simply existing might cause us to examine why some people find them so offensive and irritating.


  1. If I may say so, Ed Park of the Village Voice ad The Believer does and wonderful and subtle exploration of precisely this phenomenon (in the two links below), all the more interesting I think for being a discussion of a book that appears to be a conventional dysfunctional-family-in-dystopic-suburbia novel but is simultaneously accomplishing many of the linguistic goals of postmodern fiction.,park2,51487,10.html,park,51485,10.html

  2. From Deborah Solomon’s interview with Julian Barnes:

    Are you one of those writers who thinks even your grocery list has literary value?

    Oh, it does! My grocery list has tremendous literary value. I sharpen several pencils in the course of writing it. You have to put the words in the right order, even when it’s a grocery list. Especially when it’s a grocery list. You have to make sure you go to the right shops in the right order.

    I think he’s in agreement with you Ed. It’s slightly off topic, but I’d love to see a book of random lists from authors. Like they’re to do lists and grocery lists. Of course, we could just make them up.

  3. I LOVE lists and am delighted to see your call for MORE LISTS in contemporary literature. Yep. Another good one: the passage in Trainspotting that begins “Choose life.”

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