This list of "61 Essential Postmodern Reads" is as good an occasion as any to air another of my literary pet-peeves: the insistence by numerous people (critics, academics, fans) that there is something meaningful about a phrase like "Chaucer was a postmodernist avant la lettre" or "Tristram Shandy anticipated postmodernism" or, worse but surprisingly common in work by scholars who should know better, "The conditions we see today were proleptically analyzed thirty years ago by X." No, actually worst of all, something like "Did David Foster Wallace anticipate Twitter?" or "Thomas Pynchon predicted the dynamics of internet culture."
Partly, my pique comes from the imperialism of such a gesture, as if all literary meaning derives from comparison to the immediate present. But mostly it arises from the sheer laziness of this rhetoric—rather than making the effort to craft an extended comparison respecting the contexts of each side (between say, Chaucer's 14th century milieu and the largely academic working environment for mid-to-late-20th postmodernists) to see if there are significant similarities which have bearing on the conditions of literary production, these words and phrases act simply to provide an evanescent frisson of, well, re-branding. Robert Burton—the seventeenth-century heir to DFW!
There is a sort of tabloid shock to these phrases, a touch of the subterranean conspiracy, as if postmodernism (or modernism) isn't so much a way of describing and theorizing a set of temporally localizable conditions as it is a sort of masonic rite which, existing from earliest times, has initiated certain figures into its mysteries across the centuries and which has now reached a great degree of power and influence. The allure of this kind of thing is self-evident, but it is just as meaningless as the latest piece on alien abductions and Elvis. What is really served by telling me that Tristram Shandy is full of metacommentary and is therefore a properly postmodern novel? Just this—you can get the same people who drool over Gass and Gaddis to read an 18th century text. Forgive me for not cheering. Tristram Shandy doesn't need that kind of intermediation.
I suppose I may be simply too anal about these kind of things, but I do think there is something significantly wrong about pretending that literary time can be folded at will for the sake of a momentary spark of historical wire-crossing. The damage is not, I think, to an orderly sense of literary history, but rather to any legitimate attempt to make cross-period comparisons. The sensationalism of presentist re-branding undercuts, I feel, more serious attempts to analyze how writers make use of the past and comment on their present; it is part of a more general shirking of the hard work of thinking about books as part and product of their own culture, both rooted and respondent. By insisting that all writers from all eras are at all times looking forward (so-and-so "anticipates" or is "proleptically" this or that or "predicts" this or that, &c.), I think we do serious damage to our abilities to compare how writers look at their own times, or times prior to them. What Chaucer thought about the people around him may illuminate in some small way what Donald Barthelme thought about the other academics around him (though I doubt it), but I don't seriously believe that what Chaucer "predicted" about the postmodern novel illuminates anything at all.