August 30, 2012 | by Joseph Bernstein
You will likely have noticed by now the writerly fashion of building an essay by numbered sections. These sections can vary from just a single sentence to many pages. Sometimes a section will bear one or more indentations or line breaks and will stretch into a mini-essay. Sometimes there will be as few as three sections and sometimes there will be more than a hundred.
Writers, such as God, have been numbering sections for a very long time indeed, and I do not wish to suggest that this technique is new, rather that it is increasingly used. My proof is a general sense that this is happening, nursed into conviction by a robust confirmation bias.
Quite often these sections comprise a series of declarative sentences, near aphorisms, sayings that, breathed from the lips of drunks, would by most of us be taken in, swished around and then spat out.
These sections comprise wild declarative sentences, aphorisms, sayings that, belched from the throats of drunks, would be swished around and then spat out.
To take one example, “The only picture that it seems appropriate to paint in 2012 is a painting of people having their picture taken by famous paintings.”
It is time for someone to consider the effect given, and the effect intended, by this numbering.
Permit me to begin with some back-of-the-envelope analysis. Ascending numbers connote progress and growth. A list suggests a closed set. The numbered essay builds a case.
The rhythm of the numbered essay is staccato, attention-deficit-disordered. Here is what is important, says the little numbered essay, we don’t have time for the rest. Now this, now that, now this, now that.
Reading a numbered essay can feel a little like being accosted in the panhandle of Golden Gate Park by the theories of a conspiratorial and articulate hobo. If you ignore everything you’ve ever learned and just go by his hobo logic, you can really work yourself up into a panic. What DO they put in the water, anyway? Some advice I wish I’d read: Don’t read a numbered essay, or perambulate in the panhandle, when you are too stoned, or you risk profundity.
A numbered list of declarative sentences is a hell of a way to produce a feeling among the children of Abraham. Thou shalt, thou shalt not, and so on, and so forth. Do you find yourself paying obeisance to the numbered essayists? Might this be why? Time is up for this week, but I think you are close to a breakthrough.
The style reached its apotheosis in David Shields’ Reality Hunger, I hope. To be fair, this book used the technique appropriately, which is to say infuriatingly, and by its own snotty logic it had every right to do so. It was like a schoolyard magic trick so annoyingly successful that you don’t know whether to applaud the perpetrator or give him a wedgie.
The book suggests that the solution to how tired David Shields is of stodgy old forms like “fiction” and “nonfiction” is something called a lyric essay, best enacted thus far by people like Nietzsche, Nabokov, and, er, George Trow and David Shields, and maybe rappers. I seem to remember Nietzsche saying something in Ecce Homo about not taking seriously any idea that comes to you while you are sitting down. Regardless, he was probably sitting down when he wrote that.
What comes after six and before eight and is a prime number and rhymes with ‘leaven’
Transitions are hard and sometimes look sweaty and pathetic, like an obvious pass in a bar. The thing is to not show strain and then all of a sudden you are getting laid, or on to the next paragraph. Like many things in life, learning how to look effortless takes effort. But once you can do it, voila!
H, or, Splendide-Hôtel
Here is a generous interpretation, and as you read it I ask that you picture me as an oracular bald white man with glasses, the better for seeing into the future with:
The numbered essay is a formal reflection of the cultural moment that it takes as its subject. The western world is confusing, confused, random, atomized, unsourced, diverse, unequal, ironic, relative, scary, disconnected, tedious, and full of Michael Bay-style fast cuts. Our writers have an obligation to discard forms that lack the capacity to explain it.
Here is a cranky interpretation, and as you read it I ask that you picture me as someone akin to Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, chins a-quiver:
The numbered essay is a tic. It’s a way for a lazy writer to string together ideas without attempting to chart the myelin that connects them. The western world is confusing, confused, random, atomized, unsourced, diverse, unequal, ironic, relative, scary, disconnected, tedious, and full of Michael Bay–style fast cuts. More than ever we need writers who have the courage to take the time to explain it with humility and not quarter-clever posturing.
The list is the definitive mode of writing on the Internet. There are over ten million discrete lists on the Internet, according to prominent interdisciplinary internet scientists everywhere. Four out of five graduate students prefer to consume their written information in list form. The fifth graduate student is working on a special project to be able to consume written information with his mouth, but otherwise he prefers audiobooks. His cohort fears this diet has left him anomic.
You are a prophet, coming down the mountain with tablets of your own.
Joseph Bernstein is a writer and the editor of Kill Screen.