Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

List Stories:
Lists of the Literary Kind

From Casto’s recent chapbook Flash Fiction: A Primer
now in release by O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press.
(Download the free PDF version.)

Lists are important to human culture. Take a look around and you will find lists for almost everything—best-dressed lists, ten most wanted lists, to-do lists, grocery lists, guest lists, and plenty more. According to Umberto Eco, a noted literary critic, philosopher, and novelist, lists create culture. If that is so then it is a safe bet they can, and certainly do, create effective and memorable literature as well.

…with the letter M by Mirta Toledo

Lists in Literary History

A brief look at literary history shows lists play a large part in that history. Some famous ancient lists, which are still explored today, include the Bible’s list of ten commandments and its genealogical lists, the list of the heroes of the Trojan War in Homer’s The Iliad, the description of the genealogy and origin of the gods in Hesiod’s Theogony, and in his Catalogues of Women (of which only fragments still exist). There are also the lists compiled by Sei Shônagon in her Pillow Book (Makura no Soshi), the classic tenth century portrayal of Japanese court life.

Poetry Done in List Form

Lists play an important role in the world of poetry too. Some famous poems written as lists include the catalogue of Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno” about what his cat Jeoffrey did each morning, and both Walt Whitman in his “Song of Myself” and Allen Ginsberg in his “Howl” make extensive use of lists.

Raymond Carver, renowned for his short-short fiction, also wrote poetry and his list poems frequently tell a story. “The Car” is most often classified as a poem but it can also be viewed as a prose poem or a short-short fiction monologue of forty-nine lines done in list form. Notice the surprise ending Carver gives his poem. Read it here.

Another Raymond Carver list poem is titled “Fear.” Each of the twenty-seven lines, except for the last line, begins “Fear of . . .” Notice that it too has an unexpected ending. Read it here.

Shel Silverstein wrote wonderful children’s poetry and two favorite list poems from his Where The Sidewalk Ends are “Sick” (here) and “Mr. Gumpledump’s Song” (here).

Artist and writer Joe Brainard, part of the New York School of poetry, wrote his cult classic lyrical prose poem, an autobiography titled I Remember, in the form of one long list. Each item listed begins with “I remember.” See excerpts here and here.

Another poem that makes use of a list in a powerful way is Kim Addonizio’s “What Do Women Want?” from Tell Me. See it here.

Fiction Done in List Form

Ryan O’Neill composed a series of touching and funny stories in his “The Lists: A Story” which is literally composed of several lists. O’Neill’s work can be read here.

Blake Butler’s “Hair Loop” is a list of fifty statements about hair. The statements also manage to tell an interesting story. See that story here.

Gregory Burnham’s “Subtotals” is a list of all sorts of items by a narrator who most certainly keeps track of things. The catalogue provides an interesting character study. See it here.

Donald Barthelme’s “The Glass Mountain” is a numbered list of 100 segments. It tells quite an ironic and humorous story. See it here.

Jamie Thunder’s “The Central Line Has Severe Delays” originally appeared in Spelk and then was reprinted in Best Micro Fiction 2019. See that story here.

Andy Brown’s “Audubon Becomes Obsessed with Birds” begins each list segment with “because.” See that piece here.

Opal Palmer Adisa’s “Fruit Series” tells nine micro stories using a list of nine different fruits. Each fruit presents a different single-paragraph micro story. See that unusual list piece here.

Jennifer Egan’s “To Do” piece is just that, a To Do list. The story was part of The Guardian’s summer 2011 short story special which featured four established writers (including Egan) and the winner and runners up of their short story competition. See Egan’s story here.

Gwen E. Kirby’s “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at that Point Fuck Them Anyway” makes great use of a list. Cassandra accepted the ability to see the future from Apollo. However, in revenge for spurning his amorous advances, Apollo made sure she would not be believed when she told what she saw. A few of the many things she foresaw (in Kirby’s story) and withheld from the Trojans include lightbulbs, Twizzlers, Bud Lite, penguins, Chekhov, Tampons, mace, and more. See the story here.

Another use of a list to structure a story is Shoshana Akabas’ story “The Forgetting Diary.” (see it here.) The story is composed of thirty-three segments that begin with “I forget.” Some of the things forgotten are “I forget my best friend’s birthday,” “I forget to write down all the times I forget,” “I forget who I was talking to on the phone.” Some segments are just a sentence long and some are much longer and put together they tell the disturbing story of a battle with Lyme disease.

Works Which at First Don’t Appear to be Lists

A flash fiction piece that is less clearly a list (in that it doesn’t use numbered sentences or fragments as most of the above stories do) but which is a list nonetheless is Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” This story is told through a series of imperatives and instructions given by a mother to her daughter. The piece, originally published in the June 26, 1978 issue of The New Yorker, is done as one large paragraph. Read Kincaid’s story here.

Another story which at first doesn’t come across as a list is Gordon Lish’s “The Merry Chase.” New writers are often instructed to avoid using clichés, told to use fresh language to tell effective stories. But Lish’s “The Merry Chase” uses nothing but clichés—from beginning to end and it tells a powerful story in monologue form. The clichés in Lish’s piece are so thick that whoever the speaker is addressing (including the reader) would likely not be able to understand what the complaint might be in spite of the all-too-familiar words used to express the complaint. This story is from Lish’s Mourner at The Door: Stories. See it here (it’s the second story featured at the site)

Long Lists

Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is more clearly a long list and is an unusual way of telling a story of love, loss, and grief. While it can and is viewed by many as a short book or lengthy essay, it is composed of 240 brief prose poems, or, as Nelson calls them, propositions. They are done in list form, a list of 240 propositions. For this work Nelson was inspired by some pre-Socratic philosophical fragments and by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color. See an excerpt of Nelson’s story here.

Wittgenstein was not the only philosopher who made an interesting use of a list format. Susan Sontag is another. In 1964 she published “Notes on ‘Camp'” in the Partisan Review, a renowned literary and political quarterly, and the essay that drew much outrage also made her famous. Sontag wrote, “Many things in the world have not been named, and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described.” In her list of 58 items, she names and describes the concept of “camp.” See that essay here.

Works done in list format can arrest readers’ attention by defamiliarizing their habitual ways of perceiving a story. When a story is presented in an uncommon manner, it can push readers to overcome their usual perceptions and lead them to activate their imaginations. From short to long, from simple to complex, it is clear that lists have an important role to play in both culture and in the literary world.


About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

Image: …with the letter M by Mirta Toledo (1952-). From the series Track of Feelings. Mixed media on cotton paper. No size specified. 2005. By free license.