Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 1, 2009

Postmodernism for the Uninitiated

I’m reading Inland by Gerald Murnane and he is, I think, a postmodern author. That means that it’s a good idea to have a look at what postmodernism is before you start reading…

Alas, Wikipedia is a bit obscure about the characteristics of postmodernism (PoMo) in general.  (Maybe the article was written by a postmodernist?)  There is no handy short list of things to look out for as there is on the modernism in literature page (from which I scrounged my list).  There is an incomprehensible explanation of the differences here so the hapless explorer must trawl through a lot of stuff to find anything useful, though the page on postmodern literature [1] is better, albeit rather long.

For what it’s worth, this is my list of literary characteristics of postmodern literature, culled from the Wikipedia section on postmodern common themes and techniques [2] but I really do recommend that you check out the article because it clarifies these characteristics with examples from books and authors you’ve probably read.

Will it change your reading life? Will it be worth the investment of time?  That depends on who and what you read, and what you want to get out of it.  If some aspects of contemporary literature seem incomprehensible, irritating, phony, offensive or stupid, you may be up against a postmodern author.  You can either reject it or try to find out more about what that author is doing.  (Sometimes, of course it is just incomprehensible, irritating, phony, offensive or stupid.)

Lisa’s List of  the Characteristics of Postmodern Literature

  • Irony, absurdity, playfulness & black humour : treating serious subjects as a joke, sometimes with emotionally distant authors. Playfulness is central to postmodernism; it reinforces the idea that there is no organising principle in a chaotic world.
  • Distrust:
    • of theories and ideologies;
    • of the author/narrator, undermining his control of one voice
    • of modern assumptions about culture, identity, & history,
  • Pastiche  (mixing genres) as an homage to or a parody of past literary styles
  • Metafiction: making the artificiality of writing apparent to the reader, i.e. deliberate strategies to prevent the usual suspension of disbelief, drawing attention to the conventions of literature
  • Poioumena: purporting to be one kind of narrative, when it’s really another, exploring the boundaries of fiction and reality
  • Historiographic metafiction: fictionalising actual events and figures from history
  • Temporal distortion: events can overlap, repeat, or multiple events can occur simultaneously, often to achieve irony.
  • Technoculture and hyper-reality: worlds & characters  inundated with information,  focused on technology in everyday life, swamped by products and bombarded by advertising, ambiguity about what’s real and what’s simulated.
  • Paranoia: subverting or parodying the belief that there is some power or ordering system behind the chaotic postmodern world.  The postmodernist believes that the search for order is pointless and absurd.
  • Maximalism (but not the airport novel LOL): sprawling canvas and fragmented narrative i.e. looking disorganised and filled with playful language for its own sake.
  • Minimalism: short, ‘slice-of-life’ stories where readers have to use their own imaginations to create the story.  Unexceptional characters, economy with words.  Spare style: anti adjectives, adverbs and meaningless details.
  • Faction: blending fact and fiction, especially historical novels or those using real living personalities e.g. world politicians or celebrities.
  • Magic realism: imaginary themes and subjects, with a dream-like quality, mixing the real with the fantastic, surreal and bizarre.  Timeshifts, dreams, myths and fairy stories as part of the narrative, arcane erudition, inexplicable events, elements of surprise or abrupt shock.
  • Intertextuality: quotations, references and allusions, designed to make apparent that every text absorbs and transforms some other text somewhere.

According to Wikipedia, postmodernism offers the possibility of a fiction more democratic in its appeal than alienating modernist texts.

Novels you may have read without knowing they were postmodern

  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
  • Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  • Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  • Wanting by Richard Flanagan
  • Ice by Louis Nowra
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  • The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabr’iel García Marquez
  • Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières
  • The Other Hand by Chris Cleave
  • What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng by Dave Eggars
  • Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findlay
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

and some where it’s a good idea to know about PoMo first

  • The Plains by Gerald Murnane
  • Opportunity by Charlotte Grimshaw
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

For a comprehensive list of postmodern authors, see Wikipedia,  but you really need to know the author’s works because it’s just a list and doesn’t explain why they’re on it.  There are links to the author’s own page on Wikipedia, but most of them (probably wisely) don’t mention PoMo.

Oh, and in case you are in need of a chuckle after all that, click here to have a look at the Postmodern Generator.

Sources:

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodern_literature#Common_themes_and_techniques

Useful also, is Ian Graye’s review at GoodReads of a book called Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930 edited by Malcolm Bradbury et al.

See also my post Modernism, Hooray for Wikipedia.


Responses

  1. Bruce Gillespie, who was a part of the group who formed Norstrillia Press which originally published THE PLAINS, considered the book to be science fiction, or speculative fiction if you like. Murnane didn’t agree. I’ve always thought the book had a number of sf elements which didn’t bother me in the slightest.

    I read THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN sometime in the late 70s and figured it was pretty different right away. Not sure I even knew the term postmodern at that time but it certainly fits the bill. And so did IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELLER, which I find a wonderful book, if rather frustrating – so many good novels started but no endings!

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    • Hi Perry, I can see that there are common elements and links between postmodernism and speculative fiction/fantasy/SF – it depends on how it’s done, and what the author’s intention is. It would be interesting to ask Murnane what his conception of fiction/fantasy/SF is, and how it differs. It’s just a guess, of course, but I think he would say that The Plains is more about intellectual paradoxes that lie at its heart: those Kafka-esque paradoxes and so on. Lisa

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  2. You are right about that Wikipedia section re differences between modernism and postmodernism. It’s almost nonsensical. I’ve added a tag to that section about lack of sources – that might make people think!

    One of the clues to postmodernism for me always is the metafictional aspect – I tend to enjoy self conscious writers who play games with their readers. Not all postmodernists do of course, but quite a few do AND there are non-postmodernists who do it. (Such as Jane Austen who in Northanger Abbey announces that you know you are getting near the end because there aren’t many pages left! Love it!)

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    • I shouldn’t be so rude about Wikipedia. Until today I knew nothing about postmodernism in literature, and now I know a bit, certainly enough to be useful, thanks to whoever wrote all that. It must have been a lot of work, and it’s doubly hard for an expert to write about something so tricksy in user-friendly ways. Now that I’ve sorted out some aspects of PoMo in my mind, I am reviewing some of my responses to some of the books I’ve read. Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz, for example, which I read and dismissed a long time ago, is now niggling away in my brain, asking to be reassessed, and others that I thought were silly or boring or incomprehensible …

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  3. Oh no, it’s OK to be critical of Wikipedia where it fails. There are gaps. I did quite a bit of thinking about postmodernism many years ago when my f2f reading group started reading more books in that style. My understanding of it is mostly intuitive cos, like the style itself and by definition really, what you read about it can be quite slippery. I would never, for example, say it included “Poioumena”!! LOL

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    • Well, I would never say the P word either – because I have no idea how to pronounce it LOL

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  4. People would think you were swearing!

    Sue

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  5. Can I mention here my new book, which argues that postmodernism is over, and looks at what might be seen as its successor? It’s called “Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure our Culture” – don’t let the title put you off, it’s a juicy and accessible read, even if you disagree with what it’s saying!

    http://www.amazon.com/Digimodernism-Technologies-Dismantle-Postmodern-Reconfigure/dp/1441175288/ref=tmm_pap_title_sr

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  6. Hmm, that’s blatant advertising, Alan. I won’t ask for a copy for review, but in return I expect you to make some witty or erudite comment that illuminates my post above, in user-friendly language. Your deadline is 48 hours, or your comment is deleted!

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  7. I’m more than happy to, Lisa (though how witty or erudite I’m capable of being isn’t really for me to say…)!

    I think your list of the characteristics of postmodern literature is a good one, though it’s vulnerable to all such descriptions (no one’s ever come up with one that doesn’t have this problem) that there are plenty of books published before 1945 which could be seen as postmodern in these terms, eg Don Quixote, Ulysses, Gulliver’s Travels. Writers on postmodern literature as sophisticated as Linda Hutcheon or Brian McHale or Ian Gregson struggle with this issue too. I’d recommend Gregson’s “Postmodern Literature” for anyone wanting to get a handle on the subject, by the way – short and accessible. Also Christopher Butler’s “Postmodernism” is a punchy, opinionated and concise introduction to the subject in general.

    Personal favourites among postmodern novels would include Martin Amis’s Money and A.S. Byatt’s Possession. And Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, though that seems to have gone out of fashion these days. My point was that the heyday for such fiction seems a while ago now – the 70s and 80s, mostly.

    Sorry if my post came across as advertising – in retrospect I guess it did, though I also thought I was adding something of interest to the debate! (Maybe I was doing both!) Anyway, I’m happy that through the miracle of Google Alerts I discovered this blog – will be dropping by in future.

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    • Thank you, Alan, you’re off the hook *grin* I loved Possession, and The Name of the Rose but I wasn’t keen on the only Amis I’ve read. I should try him again, I think, one day. Have you read our Murnane? He’s quite intriguing, though not exactly bedside reading. What fun to be chatting with an Oxford academic…BTW I’m that mad Australian tourist in the small red Benz that was driving the wrong way through the pedestrianised area in September 2001, I missed one of the traffic signs LOL.

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  8. I recently checked out post modernism on Wikipedia (wanted to know if that was what I was reading) and I did struggle a little. Nothing of import to add, just ‘thanks;’ for a helpful and entertaining post.

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    • You’re welcome, Sarah. I’ve always felt (coming from the generation before those that learned about post modernism at school or university) that it was an arcane movement that no ordinary mortal could understand, so I wrote my blogpost with some trepidation, ready and waiting to be corrected for all the mistakes. It’s very nice to get some good feedback like this, thank you for taking the trouble to comment:)
      Lisa

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  9. Re. It would be interesting to ask Murnane what his conception of fiction/fantasy/SF is …

    Murnane was one of my lecturers. I couldn’t swear by this, but I came away with the impression that he regarded fantasy — and when he said the word he seemed to be thinking of High Fantasy, the Tolkien kind, with dragons and a sword and a quest — as trash.

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    • How intriguing! Reading Inland, and The Plains before that, I have an impression of Murnane as reclusive. I just can’t imagine him out and about at a university. And that shows you just how cunning he is as a writer, that he has insinuated his ideas into my mind so much that now I have identified his narrator/s with the man himself. I think I’d better read a bit of chick lit when I finish Inland, just to get back into the ‘real’ world *grin*
      *pause*
      No, I don’t mean that about the chick lit…

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  10. […] over at ANZLitLovers, has produced a list of some main features of postmodernism. It just so happens that I am also reading a postmodernist book, Jonathan Safran Foer’s […]

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  11. And you see, now you realise you were trepidatious (!) for no reason. Often, I think, theoretical and movement names sound scarier than they really are.

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  12. Re. Often, I think, theoretical and movement names sound scarier than they really are.

    I’d agree with that. I’ve never come across a theory or book that was as fearsome as its reputation suggested. Everything in literature is approachable. The trick is to find out how. Sometimes I have to read through two other books before the key to a third presents itself, but it was always there, it just needed discovering.

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    • Yes, and I like doing this too…but I must say that after reading Inland in the morning, it’s been refreshing to curl up in bed at night with ‘Maurice Guest’ and just read it!

      Like

  13. […] is a postmodern author, which means that it’s a good idea to have a look at what postmodernism (PoMo) is before you start reading.  With a set of postmodern characteristics in mind, Murnane starts to […]

    Like

  14. A fascinating post – and discussion above. Alan Kirby may have something in saying that post-modernism may have had its day!

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  15. Hi Tom, you may be right, but reading Murnane, for all its challenges, is actually good fun in a bizarre kind of way. It’s interesting having a glimpse of a very different kind of mind. It’s not like reading a novel, not at all, but it’s very engaging and I enjoyed it in the same way that I like doing cryptic crossword puzzles (even though I’m not very good at them).
    Cheers
    Lisa

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  16. Yes, I have heard it has but I hadn’t heard that the replacement was Digimodernism (though it certainly sounds feasible and a possible successor). I heard that there was a return to a greater focus on plot and narrative? BUT I can’t recollect the source for this. Hmmm…slack aren’t I?

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    • Slack? Who could possibly keep up, eh?

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  17. Well, just because it’s had it’s day doesn’t mean we can’t read and enjoy it just as we read and enjoy other past literary styles and periods, does it?

    Cryptic crosswords. I was just thinking about them today. My husband and I courted (partly) over them (we used to have afternoon tea at a favourite place, now gone, on Sundays and do a cryptic crossword). Today, Sunday, we were having coffee at a coffee shop and did a cryptic crossword (from a book we’ve been doing in a similar way all this year). I suddenly realised how long we have been doing them – 32 or so years – and what an important role they play in our relationship. We love them – but there are crossword styles we can do pretty comfortably because we “understand” the style and there are others that mystify us. It’s a fascinating business really.

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    • My parents do the cryptic X-word every week, and have been for decades. They know the deviser’s styles and tricks; I only get time to try in the summer holidays and am just starting to make progress when it’s time to go back to work. And this makes me think that it’s probably true of postmodernist authors too: you get to know an author’s style and it becomes less difficult to read or make sense of…

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  18. Yes, this is often the thing with Cryptics. You know the style and tricks of certain devisers – usually a style associated with a particular publication – and not others. The Canberra Times changed their style last year and I have had great trouble adapting whereas hubby and I “understand” the Sydney Morning Herald style. Nice analogy with post-modern authors I think. It’s perhaps true of a lot of poetry too?

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  19. […] Paint and it’s a classic example of postmodernism!  Yes, as you can see if you check out my Postmodernism for the Uninitiated blog post at ANZ LitLovers there’s absurdity, playfulness and intertextuality – and the […]

    Like

  20. […] its features and prematurely dismissed it. Perhaps if I had known what I subsquently summarised on Postmodernism for the Uninitiated I might have enjoyed the book; even if I still didn’t like it, I could have ‘judged […]

    Like

  21. […] the author/editor again on p183 where Edward waits ‘discretely‘ in the shadows and no PoMo mental gymnastics can rescue […]

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  22. […] (p124)  It is in this last chapter that we see an accumulation of all kinds of PoMo tricks that have been played throughout the novel, including distrust of the author/narrator, […]

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  23. […] See also my post PostModernism for the Uninitiated. […]

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  24. […] of what I now recognise as postmodernist aspects of literature.  So although I’ve dabbled in Postmodernism before, now seems like a good time to investigate Christopher Butler’s Postmodernism, a Very […]

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