1.  It’s easy to disparage the listicle, that pseudo-article in the form of a list, that caterer to our tweeting, text-messaging, sound-biting, multitasking culture.  Listicles can’t develop an argument, complicate it, revise and refine it.  It’s the mode not of cause-and-effect but of oh-and-another-thing. It flouts consequences and elects slogans for presidents.

2.  I’m part of the problem.  A (self-diagnosed) sufferer of ADD in a culture of ADD, I read in pre-cut, fast-food bites, easily digestible if not pre-digested, no chewing required.  I love the list too much.  I think in lists.  (“Listing is not thinking,” a friend says.  He still has the concentration to read Proust for hours on end.  I do not.)

3.  Or perhaps my propensity toward lists leans more toward my impending senility than my juvenile ADD.  They tell people with memory loss to make lists.  I make shopping lists, packing lists, to-do lists, wish lists, bucket lists.  Lists simulate control.

4.  Can a listicle be an essay?  A real essay?  The hybrid name implies more than a list but less than an article.  It implies an unnaturalness, like a Labradoodle or a Tweeter in Chief.

5.  Then again, maybe the listicle is the low-brow version of the (high-brow) fragmented or collage essay, a form not disparaged but lauded as the appropriate one for a time when the center cannot hold because there is no center and probably never was.  We can’t find coherence any more, we can only list, accumulate, collect, and curate. Naturally, then, our essays list more than link. It’s why Barthes wrote A Lover’s Discourse in fragments and theorized Mythologies in a compendium of two-page essays. Why Maggie Nelson’s Bluets need to be “-ets.” It’s why Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric demands so much white space surrounding spare slivers of prose and illustrations, and why Roxane Gay’s Hunger, a testament to the complexity of intersectionality, finds its form as a collection of eighty-eight vignette-like chapters. 

6.  Or if there’s cohesion, it’s more conglomerative than sequential.  Linearity is long gone.  Modernism replaced it with discontinuity.  Today we have the network, the feedback loop, and the panoptic prison-house of language-games of chance.  The list acknowledges multiplicity without linearity.

7. Or maybe listicles aren’t new at all.  We’ve always loved lists. The Four Noble Truths; the Five Stages of Mourning; the Six Days of Creation; the Seven Deadly Sins.

8.  Those lists, though, seem to claim a naturalness, an inevitability, as if their numbers came from Nature or God or a Truth long predating us.  God chose seven, nothing arbitrary about it.

9.  Modern lists, by contrast, boast their own arbitrariness.  “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Why thirteen?  “Eight Great Ideas…”; “Nine Reasons Why…”; “Top Ten” anything. We cut ideas into bite sizes, flaunting the heavy hands making the cuts.  We turn thoughts into countables and deliverables. Lists are the essays of a culture of metrics.

10.  They most often come in tens, don’t they? Almost as if the number ten is a Commandment. Ten, so right and so final, signifies closure.

11. I feel sorry for the number eleven, so awkward and unnatural, sitting forlornly behind the desk at the book signing no one attends. I wish I could tell the number, Some day, your time will come.  Things will change. Some day you will not only count, you will matter.  For now, though, there is no place for eleven in a list of ten, and the most important thing you need to know about listicles is that even if they can’t reach a conclusion, they end.

Deborah Thompson is a Professor of English at Colorado State University, where she teaches literature and creative nonfiction. She has published both creative and critical essays, and has won the Missouri Review and Iowa Review awards in creative nonfiction, as well as a Pushcart prize. After over a decade of writing about things that begin with the letter D (dogs, disease, death, diet, and, of course, Debby), she has decided to branch out. “Listicles” emerged from an exercise she gave herself to write an essay a day on a topic starting with each of the other letters of the alphabet.

Photo by Elizabeth Fackler