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.