Literary Clickbait

by Benjamin Anastas

I’ll admit it: I have a clickbait problem. When I go online—should I admit how often that is on any given day? No, let’s maintain the illusion that I’m not addled, that I still have plenty of cubic footage left in the reservoir of willpower I built up before I ever opened a web browser—I can resist most clickbait for 80% of the time that I squander there, maybe even 90% or 95% on a good day of voluntary brain stupefaction and compulsive email checking. But then, like one of the demons yanking on St. Anthony’s cloak in Michelangelo’s painting “The Torment of St. Anthony,” the link “Emotional Toddler Loses it Over Her Parents’ Wedding Song” will scroll onto my screen, or a favorite from just yesterday, “Female Penguin Falls in Love with a Man”—and I’m sunk. I’m clickbait fodder. I’m bought and sold in an instant. I’m wretched with the need to click on the headline and feel the admixture of pleasure and revulsion that always follows. Clickbait plays on fears and anxieties (“3 Signs You’re Close to a Heart Attack”), provokes idle curiosity (“10 Crazy Facts About Sperm”), feeds our prurient appetites (“Jaw Dropping Shots of the First Transgender Supermodel”), and excites all the communal weaknesses that make us human (“What Liam Neeson Told His Dying Wife”). Clickbait is profit-seeking, pure and simple. It plays on the lowest in us to draw eyes and earn revenue. It generates lucre. And you know what? Writers, the smart ones, anyway, have been employing clickbait for as long we’ve had stories. There is no better way to snare your reader from your very first gesture—this holds true for all the genres of writing—than by resorting to literary clickbait.

What follows is a highly subjective and very partial list of the best literary clickbaiting on the shelf. You will no doubt have your own favorites. (If you do, go ahead and leave them in the comments section.)

We treasure our image of Franz Kafka as a neurotic, tensile genius too good for the world: oppressed by his overbearing family; trapped in his “bread job” at the Workers Accident Insurance Institute in Prague; attracted and repelled by Felice Bauer, Milena Jesenská and all the other passing loves in his life. Then how is it that our jittery angel of letters (“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”) wrote perhaps the purest example of literary clickbait in the canon when he opened his story “The Metamorphosis” this way?

When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect.

This new translation from Susan Bernofsky strips away the patina of the decades from Kafka’s language and reveals the casual  tone underneath that helps make this opening line such an effective use of literary clickbait. “Man Turns Into Insect While he Sleeps. See What Kind.” You’d click on that if you saw it on the Huffington Post, wouldn’t you?

The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking out over the footlights of an empty auditorium.

I’ve long been a fan of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, a small miracle of a first novel that would make you hang it up and enroll in an EMT training program if you thought too much about that fact that it’s a first novel. But recently I picked it up again after a fairly long absence and I was struck anew by the novel’s opening—the phrase “final dying sounds” leading to the unexpected “dress rehearsal,” the use of omniscience to introduce the Laurel Players, the foreboding sense that the cast is in over their heads and the production is headed for certain disaster. Revolutionary Road was up against some heavy hitters for the National Book Award in 1962—the other finalists included Joseph Heller, J.D. Salinger, Bernard Malamud, Walker Percy and I.B. Singer—and the eventual winner, Percy’s The Moviegoer, opens pretty well too:

This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come for lunch. I know what this means.

But Yates’s opening is an even purer expression of literary clickbait, I would argue—as much as I love The Moviegoer (and it might be an even better first novel than Revolutionary Road). Yates’s opening gambit contains the whole of the book in miniature and does it with an aching style that’s almost impossible to resist.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the Consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which.

These opening lines from Joan Didion’s The White Album (1979) are so well- known and so often cited that I hardly need to identify them or talk about why they qualify as an example of literary clickbait. The lines just seem God-given somehow, don’t they? This opening is like a burning bush. We click on it without thinking. But Didion, over and over in her work, uses clickbait to her advantage—look at any one of her essay collections and you’ll see a master of instantaneous persuasion at work.

I’ll look forward to seeing what other examples of literary clickbait readers of this blog will come up with. Poetry in particular.

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23 thoughts on “Literary Clickbait

  1. WM Robinson says:

    News is my clickbait.

    I read the newspaper too many times a day, trying to figure out where the danger is in the world. The expectation of endless updates in the electronic press puts me in mind of the infinite possible changes that might have been made by the last twenty minutes, the treaties that might have been signed, the bridges that might have been bombed, the buildings that might have collapsed, the children who might have died. But also there might be news about why these things had happened, words and pictures that explain the need for the treaties and buildings and bombs, the fear. There might be a story that makes some sense of the seeming collapse of the world; not a reason why it rains in some places and is dry in others, but a reason why we do this to each other, a reason that settles things, puts a full story to the story.

    My skin aches to be scratched with the news from places I have never been, cities I might not visit because of the crush of people and dust and guns. I used to think of the allure of the news–just what is going on right now in Kiev or Bangkok or Atlantic City?—as an effect of the endlessly updated internet, something that did not afflict me in the long ago age of a daily-paper daily read. But then I read Addison’s account of the upholster on March 31, 1710, in The Tatler:

    “There lived some years since within my neighbourhood a very grave person, an upholsterer, who seemed a man of more than ordinary application to business. He was a very early riser, and was often abroad two or three hours before any of his neighbours. He had a particular carefulness in the knitting of his brows, and a kind of impatience in all his motions, that plainly discovered he was always intent on matters of importance. Upon my inquiry into his life and conversation, I found him to be the greatest newsmonger in our quarter; that he rose before day to read the Postman; and that he would take two or three turns to the other end of the town before his neighbours were up, to see if there were any Dutch mails come in. He had a wife and several children; but was much more inquisitive to know what passed in Poland than in his own family, and was in greater pain and anxiety of mind for King Augustus’ welfare than that of his nearest relations. He looked extremely thin in a dearth of news, and never enjoyed himself in a westerly wind. This indefatigable kind of life was the ruin of his shop; for about the time that his favourite prince left the crown of Poland, he broke and disappeared.” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31645/31645-h/31645-h.htm#No_154)

    I am but the latest in a long pedigree of brow-knitted newsmongers, but knowing that has not made the bait less tasty or the hook less sharp.

    • Benjamin Anastas says:

      This reminds me of waking up early on Saturdays during my first January residency at Bennington to drive Phillip Lopate down to the Hannaford to get his New York Times. A newsmonger for sure.

  2. Benjamin Anastas says:

    I just read another great one today, from the short story “Me and Miss Mandible” by Donald Barthelme: “Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child; I am, according to the records, according to the gradebook on her desk, according to the card file in the principal’s office, eleven years old.”

  3. Leslie Maslow says:

    “She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.”
    -Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint

    • Benjamin Anastas says:

      That’s clickbait for sure. I love the whole opening passage of Portnoy–wait, I love all of Portnoy.

  4. awax1217 says:

    The newspaper is a product that is sold for the news it contains. It is therefore prioritized based on what does sells and what does not. Therefore what agenda a paper has can relegate a news item to the back pages and the editorials can be manipulative.

  5. The opening lines of Canada by Richard Ford: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”

  6. Opposite of clickbate: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on nothing new.” -Samuel Beckett, Murphy

    A little sunnier: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.” -James Joyce, A Portrait

    Ultimate clickbate: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” -Saint John, The Gospel

    • Benjamin Anastas says:

      The Beckett reminds me of Martin Amis’s imitations in “Experience”: ‘Nor it the nothing never is.’ ‘Neither nowhere the nothing is not.’ ‘Non-nothing the never …’ “All you need is maximum ugliness,” Amis writes, “and lots of negatives.”

      • And I thought Beckett was negative! He’s actually paraphrasing Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun.”—arguably the saddest book in the Bible.

  7. Jean says:

    I hope my blog’s name is clickbait. Ok, I know I like to dream. :)

  8. Read on says:

    “It was the nurse fault. In vain Frau Consul Friedmann, when the matter was first suspected , had solemnly urged her to relinquish so heinous a vice; in in vain she had dispensed to her daily glass of wine, in addition to her nursing stout.” Thomas Mann, Little Herr Friedemann”
    Everytime and every time again.

  9. marycheshier says:

    Oh man. I am guilty.. TY for the great read!

  10. marycheshier says:

    Reblogged this on How 2 Be Green and commented:
    A great read!

  11. I’m going to get back to work now.

  12. City Girl at the Edge says:

    “IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
    A Tale of Two Cities

  13. City Girl at the Edge says:

    Best clickbait ever.

  14. Benjamin, loved your post with its perfect examples. Is there a name we can coin for this low area within each of us? Dyslitclickia ?

  15. kenharveyken says:

    From one of my favorite novels, A Summons to Memphis, by Peter Taylor:
    “During the twilight of a Sunday afternoon in March, New York book editor Phillip Carver receives an urgent phone call from each of his older, unmarried sisters. They plead with Phillip to help avert their widower father’s impending remarriage to a younger woman”.

  16. kenharveyken says:

    From one of my favorite novels, A Summons to Memphis, but Peter Taylor:

    During the twilight of a Sunday afternoon in March, New York book editor Phillip Carver receives an urgent phone call from each of his older, unmarried sisters. They plead with Phillip to help avert their widower father’s impending remarriage to a younger woman.

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