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61 essential postmodern reads: an annotated list

listpostmodern literature

The thing about postmodernism is it's impossible to pin down exactly what might make a book postmodern. In looking at the attributes of the essential postmodern reads, we found some were downright contradictory. Postmodern books have a reputation for being massive tomes, like David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" -- but then there's "The Mezzanine" by Nicholson Baker, which has just 144 pages. And while postmodern books would, you'd think, have to be published after the modern period -- in the 20th or 21st centuries -- could postmodernism exist without "Tristram Shandy"? We think not.

Below is our list of the 61 essential reads of postmodern literature. It's annotated with the attributes below -- the author is a character, fiction and reality are blurred, the text includes fictional artifacts, such as letters, lyrics, even whole other books, and so on. And while this list owes much to George Ducker and David L. Ulin, you can address all complaints to me.

And now: The 61 essential postmodern reads!

Kathy Acker's "In Memorium to Identity" Icons_3459
Donald Antrim's "The Hundred Brothers" Icons_567
Margaret Atwood's "The Blind Assassin"Icons_2346
Paul Auster's New York TrilogyIcons_12347
Nicholson Baker's "The Mezzanine"Icons_3411
J.G. Ballard's "The Atrocity Exhibition"Icons_123457
John Barth's "Giles Goat-Boy"Icons_578
Donald Barthelme's "60 Stories"Icons_23479
John Berger's "G"Icons_3457
Thomas Bernhard's "The Loser"Icons_12
Roberto Bolaño's "2666"Icons_3456710
Jorge Luis Borges' "Labyrinths"Icons_234569
William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch"Icons_345712
Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy"Icons_3412
Italo Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler"Icons_467
Julio Cortazar's "Hopscotch"Icons_34
Robert Coover's "The Universal Baseball Association, Henry J. Waugh, Proprietor" Icons_23456
Stanley Crawford's "Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine"Icons_34511
Mark Danielewski's "House of Leaves"Icons_2345679
Don Delillo's "Great Jones Street"Icons_56
Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle"Icons_246
E.L. Doctorow's "City of God"Icons_23456
Geoff Dyer's "Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D. H. Lawrence"Icons_1469
Umberto Eco's "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana"Icons_469
Dave Eggers' "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"Icons_134579
Steve Erickson's "Tours of the Black Clock"Icons_2345678
Percival Everett's "I Am Not Sidney Poitier"Icons_1457
William Faulkner's "Absalom! Absalom!"Icons_3512
Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything Is Illuminated"Icons_134567
William Gaddis' "JR"Icons_356
William Gass' "The Tunnel"Icons_34567
John Hawkes' "The Lime Twig"Icons_345611
Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"Icons_4512
Aleksandar Hemon's "The Lazarus Project"Icons_134567
Michael Herr's "Dispatches"Icons_13
Shelley Jackson's "Skin"Icons_34511
Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis"Icons_351112
Milan Kundera's "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting"Icons_12367
Jonathan Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn"Icons_356
Ben Marcus' "Notable American Women"Icons_1357
David Markson's "Wittgenstein's Mistress"Icons_2345
Tom McCarthy's "Remainder"Icons_45
Joseph McElroy's "Women and Men"Icons_345610
Steven Millhauser's "Edwin Mullhouse"Icons_3467jpg
Haruki Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle"Icons_345
Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire"Icons_23456
Flann O'Brien's "At Swim-Two-Birds"Icons_234567
Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried"Icons_1347
Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor"Icons_1367
Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow"Icons_345678
Philip Roth's "The Counterlife"Icons_234
W.G. Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn"Icons_13479
William Shakespeare's "Hamlet"Icons_34561112
Gilbert Sorrentino's "Mulligan Stew"Icons_234569
Christopher Sorrentino's "Trance"Icons_2345
Art Spiegelman's Maus I & IIIcons_1347911
Laurence Stern's "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy"Icons_3456712
Scarlett Thomas' "PopCo"Icons_356
Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five"Icons_345711
David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest"Icons_345610
Colson Whitehead's "John Henry Days"Icons_345679 

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Comments () | Archives (108)

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Let me be the first to say, "What, no Becket?" "What, no Joyce?"

I'd add: 'Lake Wobegon Days': Author is a character, disrupts form (footnotes), includes fictional artifacts (the 95 theses against the Lutheran church), blurs reality and fiction (quasi-autobiograpical fic), includes historical falsehoods (extensive fake history of the town, put together from fictional artifacts. My memory's unclear, but pretty sure it overtly references other fictional works, too.

And a lot of the above elements are done as parody, which only adds to its postmodernism.

I'd like to nominate Tristram Shandy (1759) and Orlando (1928) as the grandparents of this list. It'd be even better if there were a female contemporary of Sterne to nominate.

i agree with both comments, especially chris's!

Various of William Vollmann's novels would fit happily into this list -- My nomination would be for Fathers and Crows, second in his Seven Dreams sequence. It meets most of the criteria above, excepting "thin."

A good list -- but missing two spectacular works:

1. Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Unconsoled."
2. Charles Palliser's "Betrayals."

Tristram Shandy is probably the second post-modern of all time, but Don Quixote is almost certainly the first.

Don Quixote. DQ was Post-Modern before there was a modern to be post.

Lucian of Samosata's True History is a proto-post-modern work, in that the author is a character, it comments on its own bookishness, blurs reality and fiction, references other works, and contains historical falsehoods. And it's a lot of fun to read, too.

Wow. People may bicker, but nice list.
And as a Vollmann fan: "Wot? No Vollmann?"

I don't really see the point of this random list. Also, where are Angela Carter, Ishmael Reed, Gunter Grass, Salman Rushdie, William Gibson and Samuel Delaney, amongst others?

That which consciously attempts to be pomo can't be pomo, as in the case of Eggers and Foer. That's simply called derivative. Your first 9 (out of 12) attributes merely define "metafictional" which is one frequent element of pomo, but not a necessary one. The last three are too broad to provide any sort of definition. And pomo is an approach, not a historical distinction.

Kudos for including "The Loser" and "Hamlet!"

But these progenitors should be added:

Herman Melville, "Moby Dick"
Boris Pasternak, "Dr. Zhivago"
John Fowles, "The French Lieutenant's Woman"

What about: Toni Morrison, Gunter Grass, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson... of all of the authors I read in a postmodern fiction course, the only ones here are Borges and Calvino.

Rivka Galchen's "Atmospheric Disturbances"

I second the inclusion of William Vollmann. I would add his "You Bright And Risen Angels".

the fact that so many people can cite so many examples of "pre-modern postmodern" reads begs a few questions about the popular use of the term "postmodern."

JR over The Recognitions and Motherless Brooklyn over The Fortress of Solitude--seriously?

No Joyce?

No one's mentioned Naipaul yet: The Enigma of Arrival?

I agree with the mendoza line; overall this is a perfectly fine list of good books to read, but hardly makes progress in defining "post-modern"; at best this is a random list of mostly famous books. Influenced by Giddens, I think "post-modernism" is best defined as a reaction to the modern. Can an author write a book in reaction to something that hasn't happened yet? Of course not, each author is telling a story using devices that they thought best and in doing so occasionally breaking out of the conventions of literature in their time. But then, now, in the "post-modern" period, if there is such a thing, an author like Eggers is working completely, and pretty unimaginatively, *within* convention. Better then to either have a list of contemporary fiction that defines "post modern" or a list of classical fiction that set the bar for rule-breaking; but this mish-mash is not particularly helpful

Typo corrections in #1: In Memoriam with an a; and Laurence Strene has an e at the end.

I'm a Spanish/Comp Lit professor who covers much of this beat, and the list seems fine to me, with many of the additions of those who commented, and with one small beef: I'd like to hold the line between "modernism" and "post-modernism" with Joyce and Beckett (and Faulkner, and Morrison is not using post-modernist tricks in her more famous fiction). Having said that, Woolf's Orlando and the second half or so of Ulysses certainly do belong..

Wikipedia has decent definitions of these things. John Barth tried in the 60s to define postmodernism in literature in two essays, and basically called in metafiction and magical realism. The metafiction part stuck, in part because Fredric Jameson uses it in his baggy book on postmodernism. I thought Lyotard's idea of post-modern literature (I like his definition of postmodernity) was unhelpful, just "even more difficult than the modernists," and that doesn't work for me.

Wow! I better stick to Sci-Fi!

The other great precursor is surely Jan Potocki's "The Saragossa Manuscript."

Weird shortage of non-English/American authors in this list, not to mention women. No Virginia Woolf?

I would add:

Christine Brooke-Rose, "Amalgamemnon"
Anne Carson, "Autobiography of Red"
Georges Perec, "A Void"
Eduardo Galeano, "Memory of Fire" trilogy
Luther Blissett, "Q"
Wu Ming, "54"
Richard Flanagan, "Gould's Book of Fish"
Milorad Pavic, "Dictionary of the Khazars" (which comes in male and female editions)
Witold Gombrowicz, "Ferdydurke"

Erica Jong, "Fear of Flying" (maybe)

Instead of Maus or American Splendor, which are very straightforward narratives, I'd suggest Tom Phillips's "A Humument," which is a truly deconstructive postmodern visual intervention of a novel in a novel. Most graphic novels aren't very postmodern at all.

And if Kafka counts then add Bruno Schulz's "Street of Crocodiles" and Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Maragarita."

I agree re including Joyce, Fowles, and maybe Melville and Faulkner, but probably not Beckett, who is a pure modernist, not violating the 4th wall, not critiquing the theatrical form, etc. (I'd add Peter Weiss instead, if a playwright is wanted, or Caryl Churchill.) Nor Hawthorne. Hawthorne?? If he's postmodern, then what's a classical novel? Only Dickens and Trollope, I guess.

I would not call Toni Morrison, Gunter Grass, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson, or VS Naipaul postmodern. All of them are fine modernists, skilled novelists with a strong sense of style and a balance between realism and stylization. Ditto Garcia-Marquez, who is sometimes called a postmodernist. I don't see any justification for including Hamlet in this list, though I might think of Twelfth Night or maybe the Tempest in this way, given the way they mess with time, space, and gender and have unreliable protagonists.

Henry Miller?

Fine list! But really, not many non-English books in here... three Bs, a couple Cs, a couple Ks, Murakami, and Sebald? All great but it's mostly a U.S.Po.Mo. list, which is fine, if you call it that.

May I offer Dubravka Ugresic's "Steffie Cvek", a "patchwork novel" about a lovelorn secretary, as the world's greatest feminine and feminist pomo novel? It rips apart chicklit in the 80s before the term existed and sews it back together again, and it's hilarious. (Yellow star, Green puzzle piece, Brown book, Sideways a, Purple envelope, Pink waves, Cyan stack, Skinny "thin") Also the rewritten short stories in Ugresic's "Life Is a Fairy Tale." Full disclosure: both are in her book "Lend Me Your Character," co-translated by me (except for two stories entirely translated by M.H. Heim).

Also great: Dodie Bellamy's "Letters of Mina Harker" as in the character in Dracula. And I'd say the criminally underrated "The Winners" by Cortazar over "Hopscotch." Anyway, a very thought-provoking list, thanks!

Muriel Spark is the great unsung postmodernist - her novels play with author/character identity, reality/unreality and hilariious narrative hijinx. Try The Comforters or Memento Mori and see what she does better than many of the postmodernists on this list!

it seems as much a list of books written in the post modern period, as a list of postmodern novels. and as this list does not include finnegans wake, what is the point? disregarding the silly icons around the size of the books, we can see that the fine sank agnew has all the 'elements' required for this post modern lit list. plus it has a larf on very page.

Clearly James Joyce has been excluded from this list because its authors failed to read Finnegans Wake (and probably didn't finish Ulysses). That's OK though. As a Joycean, I would like to see Joyce banished from all lists of essential/canonical/influential books, as it seems he is only placed on these lists so that people can pretend they are being somehow rebellious when they say they haven't read him.

Simply not complete without Alasdair Gray's Lanark (1982). But then, incompleteness is a nicely postmodern trope.

I've often wondered whether a stylistic or rhetorical postmodernism (as distinct from a 'postmodern' period in cultural production) can be applied to literary texts in the same way as it's applied to, say, architecture, painting and the other plastic arts. Much of what we talk about when we talk about PoMo -- as those who've referenced Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote suggest -- has been part of fiction for as long as there has been fiction: self-referentiality, reflexivity, formal innovation, the deferral of signification, and so on.

It seems to me that, since language is always a potentially reflexive medium, the very means by which we comment on it - and on our deployment of it - that's not surprising. But it means the best we can do in defining postmodernism as a 'movement' (if it is one) is to offer this kind of taxonomies of family resemblance.

Interesting to see "Great Jones Street" listed. When published it received almost unanimously negative reviews, began generally regarded as a letdown after "End Zone." But in the last decade it's probably been the most written-about of DeLillo's pre-1980 books. (Amusing sidenote: several of the original reviewers thought that Bucky Wunderlick was based on Alice Cooper rather than Dylan.)

Great job. Some excellent books on your list, but you can never get everybody's favorites, so you have created a good debate/dialogue.

Although spending too much time debating over something as murky and ambiguous over what is post-modern can be bad for your health. Just ask a literature grad student!

The author is a character in Slaughterhouse Five, though a minor one.

Monica's Gang!

Kurt Vonnegut is a character in Slaughterhouse Five.

Only four out of the 61 authors listed are women. What's with that?

'Possession' by AS Byatt is a wonderful pomo novel.

Do you hate women writers? No Toni Morrison?

The entry from Tim O'brien should be In the Lake of the Woods.

David Mitchell -- Cloud Atlas

only three female authors? ridiculous.

Actually, if one includes "Maus" and "American Splendor", then "Watchmen" must surely be included in the list as well, as it meets more of the listed "requirements" than either of these. However, I would also note that this list is also westocentric and somewhat arbitrary in its assertion of "essentials," especially since you do not assert that this is a list of "novels" but "reads" - so where is the pomopoetry and pomo drama ("Angels in America" anyone?). Let's not be pomophobic when it comes to text...

61 essential reads? What happens to me if I don't read them all?

Stanley Elkin's The Living End and Stephen Dobyn's The Wrestler's Cruel Study (a truly wonderful and overlooked book), and Reuss' Horace, Afoot.

Surely, DeLillo's White Noise should be on the list?

And I agree that you need a Perec.

And there could be a case that Eggers is so self-aware that he's not aware. Pomo for sure.

Fun concept!

Nice to see Steve Erickson on this list. You could probably include everything he's written.

It's arguable whether Borges fits in, or is a progenitor.

And as for Stern, Cerventes, Joyce, Woolf, Shakespere, Kafka etc etc - it seems that all you folks are confusing pomo and experimentation/an eschewing of normalcy. Most of the tropes of 'pomo' can be found in modernist texts (Joyce being key there), and are often exaggerations of earlier tropes (cf Hamlets play-within-a-play, and much Sterne, Cervantes and Swift).

My writing is postmodern, I suppose, but I don't read much postmodern stuff. I like to read to things like Jane Austen and the Bible. Dictionaries. Books of information, like Insight Guides to foreign cities. Liner notes in CDs. The whole list of credits at the end of a film.

All of this shows that the term postmodern is pretty meaningless, no indication of the kind of read one is going to have, and no indication of quality. You might as well just call this: titles of works you may find in a bookstore.

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