Monday, July 27, 2009

Postmodern Literature

LA Times has published a list of 61 essential postmodern list here. I have always been unclear as to what constitutes as post-modern, and this list makes the task easier by using specific criteria. Some of the key yardsticks used are: author as a character, blur between fiction and reality (duh!), comments on its own bookishness, self contradicting plots, etc. Now I don't know if these are sufficient criteria, but to me they do give pointers. You may argue that they should add the century of writing as another criterion. After all how can something written in the 19th century be post-modern? That it matches the meta-fictional or semi-fictional trend of post modern writers is purely accidental.
For those who can't access the links, here is the list. Though I must warn that this does not specify how each book fits into the criteria, and for that it is useful to visit the original link:
Kathy Acker's "In Memorium to Identity"
Donald Antrim's "The Hundred Brothers"
Margaret Atwood's "The Blind Assassin"
Paul Auster's New York Trilogy
Nicholson Baker's "The Mezzanine"
J.G. Ballard's "The Atrocity Exhibition"
John Barth's "Giles Goat-Boy"
Donald Barthelme's "60 Stories"
John Berger's "G"
Thomas Bernhard's "The Loser"
Roberto Bolaño's "2666"
Jorge Luis Borges' "Labyrinths"
William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch"
Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy"
Italo Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler"
Julio Cortazar's "Hopscotch"
Robert Coover's "The Universal Baseball Association, Henry J. Waugh, Proprietor"
Stanley Crawford's "Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine"
Mark Danielewski's "House of Leaves"
Don Delillo's "Great Jones Street"
Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle"
E.L. Doctorow's "City of God"
Geoff Dyer's "Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D. H. Lawrence"
Umberto Eco's "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana"
Dave Eggers' "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"
Steve Erickson's "Tours of the Black Clock"
Percival Everett's "I Am Not Sidney Poitier"
William Faulkner's "Absalom! Absalom!"
Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything Is Illuminated"
William Gaddis' "JR"
William Gass' "The Tunnel"
John Hawkes' "The Lime Twig"
Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"
Aleksandar Hemon's "The Lazarus Project"
Michael Herr's "Dispatches"
Shelley Jackson's "Skin"
Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis"
Milan Kundera's "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting"
Jonathan Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn"
Ben Marcus' "Notable American Women"
David Markson's "Wittgenstein's Mistress"
Tom McCarthy's "Remainder"
Joseph McElroy's "Women and Men"
Steven Millhauser's "Edwin Mullhouse"
Haruki Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle"
Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire"
Flann O'Brien's "At Swim-Two-Birds"
Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried"
Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor"
Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow"
Philip Roth's "The Counterlife"
W.G. Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn"
William Shakespeare's "Hamlet"
Gilbert Sorrentino's "Mulligan Stew"
Christopher Sorrentino's "Trance"
Art Spiegelman's Maus I & II
Laurence Stern's "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy"
Scarlett Thomas' "PopCo"
Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five"
David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest"
Colson Whitehead's "John Henry Days"
I have read only a few from this list: Atwood, Auster, Sebald (my favorite), Calvino, 2666 (still on it), Labyrinths, Kundera, Murakami (I don't know how this book comes here!). Except for Murakami, I think every read has been a delight. Particularly Sebald and now 2666, which despite its length, is quite an interesting work.


Gyaneshwar said...

Postmodernity is nothing but a fiction of being distinguished from the modernity, this is why, a person like you too, is compelled to put efforts to find out a clear distinction.

Sunil said...

Ha ! Ha ! Ha! I am on the floor and belly's aching. But Seriously, seriously, ha ha what an utterly preposterous article? This is EXACTLY what happens when LOS ANGELES Times drifts in literature.

Ha! God. I cant believe they really published that? Im thinking of the content team or who ever who came up with the idea to do a post modern book list? Cant they stick reporting fresh gossip from Hollywood or some such things they are good at and leave it for the east coast?

The list! The Absurd list!

Metamorphosis is existential not post modern, then if you ask 8/10 cats in La they would say Camus is romantic.

Someone's mentioning Joyce. Really now? No Perec? And there is no ZADIE SMITH. Queen of the postmodern lit charts.

The list is fairly representative but I dont think they know what they are talking. The general understanding is if you write haphazard and slice your novel into weird pieces your postmodern.They should read ...Derrida and Lyotard.

Jigar said...


True, no list can fully capture all the finely written po-mo books (like you said Perec is are the likes of Angela Carter and Fuestes, and many others), but I think that the list in question is a good intro to people who are curious about exploring a genere that is really difficult to define!

In fact, Kafka is not only exsitenlialist. He is wonderfully postmodern. Po-mo, as far as i have understood, is about the de-centering of meaning. I read that in Lyotard's 'postmodern condition'. And kafka is the one who pioneered that way of writing. Read him, and you are distrued, coz nothing makes sense :)

You'd be surprised to know that after Lacan's seminar on Poe's purloined letter, later critics are re-considering Poe as an early postmodernist writer!

Echo/Lavanya said...

Oh well, I am still not clear what postmodern is. This list is helpful I think because you can at least pick out a few you've been wanting to read.

Sunil said...


No I did not mean the list wasnt comprehensive. My gripe was at the fact that one really thought of having a list of post-modern literature? thats was is absurd. It reflects a poor understanding of post-modernism.

I really dont know what it means by decentering of meaning. But I do often hear people throw such fancy phrases out of context. Post-modernism for all practical purposes can be assumed as movement that conclude modernist movement. one has to understand the whole of what it means - thats why I had mentioned Derrida and Lyotard. ( btw he said a lot more in PM condition)

For the purpose of tis comment I can give you three examples:

1. PM in form: house of leaves, Life users manual
2. PM in content : where actually the content reflects post-modern world : Sat White teeth where all the story moves to/from- Bangladesh, Turkey, Jamaica, Germany. etc. It is pm coz Virginia Woolf wouldnt /couldnt have written it. She wud have found the idea abhorring.
So lets say On Chesil beach even though written in post modern world does not belong to post modern lit either in form or content.

conversely there wud have been writers in the past who would have occasionally stumbled on to post modern forms, but its not conscious, not a part of movement and definitely nothing more than one person writing. Your Kafka and Poe examples. K is hard core neurotic existentialist. Kafka did not pioneer anything. A few hundred miles away in Trieste and Paris Joyce was breaking down every rule writing his ulysses, but he is not postmodern but modern. If you deny that then one can argue anything is anything- like free verse in late 19th century was post modern or Dali is post modern painter.thats not how it works my friend, you have been mistold.

just watch the adjectives:

essential. The list said essential. Even if one wants a pm lit list - its absurd to think slaughter house 5 is more essential than user manual or White teeth.

Jigar said...

"I really dont know what it means by decentering of meaning. But I do often hear people throw such fancy phrases out of context."

-- Alright, it is not a fancy phrase. It is obvious to anyone who understands why po-mo was needed. po-mo "rejects" modernist persuit for order, ultimate meaning et al. A society that believes in order is "centered" on certain values, beliefs (with the help of those belief systems, those in power exploit the masses...blah blah); pomo de-centers such belief-systems. Lyotard's regection of 'grand narratives'. I am surprised you consider this out of context.

I understand that authors who either write consiously in the genere, or belong to the pomo world are postmodernist. I cannot deny that. I know kafka is tagged as a modernist writer, but read metamorphosis and you find the early ingridents of a perfect pomo novel (magic realism, existenltialism et al). I mean, read the text alone without presupposing anything, and see what you find.

you wrote: "conversely there wud have been writers in the past who would have occasionally stumbled on to post modern forms, but its not conscious"

---- so when we call kafka an existentialist, does it mean that he was consciously aware that he was writing in existentialism? I don't think so! He had in him certain gestures/emotions and he expressed them. That's it. Thats what most of the writers do. They present us a text, and we provide it a tag. Yes kafka is called existentialist, but so is sartre ....I don't read nausea and go "it is a pomo novel"....I cannot, coz it is a highly conscious existentialist novel. But with metamorphosis, i am tempted to. My argument is that in certain situations we can consider pomo as a way of looking at things, rather than considering the timeline of the author on the first hand.(that is why I gave the Poe example). So if kafka is in the list, I am cool with it. I would not like kleist in the list though - it is not like anything is anything.

Having said that, please don't think that I am defending the list. i really don't care enough for this list to start a war of wits with a fellow blogger! It is certainly not an essential list, as you have pointed out (there cannot be any). It is helpful anyway, and kafka can be allowed in it :)

Sunil said...

Jigar, Well, without implying any impertinence, this is rather silly.

So however patronizing it is, Im going to bullet point the summary.

1. Look, Im not deriding the list or Im not thinking you are defending it. So please do not bring things I have not implied. Okay?

2. I *LAUGHED* at the list. I have explained why. Madhuri and Lavanya dont know what post-modernist lit is, I believe in one thing and you believe in another. I say No Kafka and you insist Kafka Kafka!! I guess you woudl ahve relaised why there oughnt be a list of post modern works? yes?

3. If you have gotten 2, then there is no point explaining anything else. But I will because I believe you havent got an idea of Post modernism. This is inferred from your comments.

4. I am not going to give a lecture here on post modernism and post modern literature and the differences. Not unless you pay me. You can try wiki for free.

5. Lets regard what you said:

My argument is that in certain situations we can consider pomo as a way of looking at things, rather than considering the timeline of the author on the first hand

1. In what situations? when it makes no sense to you? or when it is fragmented? or when it is subversive?

I am sure there is no defnite answer. So there is no point arguing about it because no two people can agree when the measure for agreement is not definitive.
Further your believe post modernist work is which
"rejects" modernist persuit for order, ultimate meaning et al. A society that believes in order is "centered" on certain values, beliefs (with the help of those belief systems, those in power exploit the masses...blah blah); pomo de-centers such belief-systems.

Simple questions for which I am not looking answers from you but want tot hink for yourself?

1. Then why isnt surrealism post modern?
2. Why isnt madness post modern - there were enough mad people in history who would want to subverse the society and its order?

You believe Kafka is post mdoern because certain aspects he wrote fall into what we now know as post modern , it is a very poor understanding of Kafka and Post modern.

Have you really read him - all his sentences are slow motion of modernist victorian values -eg how he hadnt wore enough layers of clothes for the yiddish play during winter. How the tablecloth didnt match with the old oak table. etc . Agreed, in all it might not make sense. But you can hand him over post modernist label when he espouses 19th century values in every other sentence.

5.Finally, if you believe he ought to be there in the list then thats fine by me. Il laugh at it because you havent explained why, but are saying why not?. Thats post-modernism.

Sunil said...

Addendum: I say I laugh at it because you continue to argue metamorphosis is NOT existential or LESS existential than how POSTMODERN it is. My line of thought is one can argue anything by that measure - anything. Well, why isnt Metamorphosis sci fi thriller or children fiction. Why Not? Yes, because Gregor samsa could might as well been be one of JK Rowlings creation no?

Jigar said...

I never said kafka is LESS existential, but I just said that he can be refered to as pomo too. And i guess, however poorly I have understood pomo or kafka, I wouldn't call Metamorphosis sci-fi thriller or children fiction!

When I said pomo rejects modernist persuit for ultimate meaning, or was calling kafka's metamorphosis a pomo book based on that understanding, I was assured that that is one of the surest way to go about. But now I am confused. If a madman also thought of rejecting social order, all i had in arguing against you has crumpled down. True I haven't read enough pomo to argue further.

I better rush to some library and read more. I mean it!

Sunil said...

Right- We will drop one more level of debate:


1.I never said kafka is LESS existential, but I just said that he can be refered to as pomo too.

Close your eyes and Think of Kafka. Does he tend to be fall into existential or post-modern? Ive been saying Existential, hard core one at that. You are saying...He CAN be post modern.

By that measure anyone can be anything. If you agree with the previous sentence, then there is no further debate. Hence the absurdity of making such lists. If ten people in LA think Kafka is Post modern then he becomes postmodern.

2.I wouldn't call Metamorphosis sci-fi thriller or children fiction!

Why not? You wave a wand and you become a vermin, yeah? Isnt thats what popular child lit is?

3.I better rush to some library and read more. I mean it!
Well, Im not an expert on postmodern post structural world. But often I find appalling arguments and misconceptions rallied across on online and offline world.

If you ask me we dont have to read anymore, we just have to sit and think. Any of those questions that we came across during our discussion would the purpose of starting you up.

Madhuri said...

Sunil, why do you think the idea of a list is absurd. Is it because there is no agreement on what post-modern is? It is a stretch to call a list 'essential', but a representative list is helpful for people getting introduced to the genre, especially so if there are a lot of conflicts in the definition.

As I said in the post, I do not know what post-modernism means. I have often read conflicting thoughts on some of the online magazines, and that has been more confusing than illuminating. I found the list useful because of their attempt to pinpoint some elements of post-modernism. They do it a bit more objectively (and simplistically) than the wikipedia article. So, it is a little puzzling that you find the list laughable. Other than a few mis-classifications like Kafka's Metamorphosis and some conspicuous absences (Zadie Smith, or Marquez), what is it that makes the list so utterly preposterous?

Sunil said...

Dear Oh Dear!

I am frankly unable where your defense of the list is stemming from? At the moment the only thing I can think of is your lack of awareness of what postmodernism is; Mind you, I am not stating it as criticism. I simply believe if you had understood postmodernism better you wouldnt have asked me the question you did.

I would be an utter fool if I attempt to explain Post modernism as a blog comment. Lets try the other way round :

Do a google search on postmodern+ book + list. I just did. Your blog is ranked fifth with two above on the list dealing with the same article. There are reasons why that is so.. ie why people havent drifted into making essential lists of post modern lit.

Thats one of the main reasons for my deridement, that they dont know what or why they have published it.

Secondly you dont have to be an expert in postmodernism to question if - a book >1000 pages is postmodernism, or phrases like plays with words. The attributes they have come up with is a joke. I laugh at jokes.

Lastly - you say it (the list) helped you to pinpoint aspects of postmodernism ( or pm lit) a. objectively b. simplistically.

Both are wrong adverbs in postmodernism. This is what Ive been screaming over and over. If you want to learn about postmodernism then you have to study and deduce for yourself ( refer to comment above to jigar). You cant say the list serves the purpose of introducing postmodernism. It might to you, but thats not the purpose of the list. Thats not what it claims.

Gripes on Zadie Smith or Perec is only to emphasise the foolishness of making such a list. It doesnt say if it's a survey or a whim. Its just pop journalism. Its like one of those things Times of India used to do when I was in India - just print out an article written by one 20 something journalist- 10 ways to have more pleasurable sex this summer! etc. Some people may find it useful, doesnt mean the article is valid.

In simple terms its like saying here's the essential list of 61 favourite books- based on - does it make the reader cry, can it be made into a movie, is it printed in colour pictures, or does the character die in the end etc. Postmodern is as much as favourite there, but that doesnt mean your favourite is postmodern like the LA times publishers believe. Thats why they are called dishrags.

Gyaneshwar said...

Dear ones,

It is always an easy task (comaparatively), to criticize any work done. But while doing so, we must not oblivion the obstacles and hardships. Do admit, that the list does not exactly meet to the object, but yet the effort can't be just smoked and I don't think, there is something to make a jest of a sincere effort.

Sunil said...

I love this. Eastern mysticism qualifying sincerity.