Postmodern Literature Guide: 10 Notable Postmodern Authors
Postmodern Literature: In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, modernist literature was the central literary movement. However, after World War II, a new school of literary theory, deemed postmodernism, began to rise.
What Is Postmodern Literature?
Postmodern literature is a literary movement that eschews absolute meaning and instead emphasizes play, fragmentation, metafiction, and intertextuality. The literary movement rose to prominence in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a reaction to modernist literature’s quest for meaning in light of the significant human rights violations of World War II.
Common examples of postmodern literature include Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Literary theorists that crystalized postmodernity in literature include Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Jorge Luis Borges, Fredric Jameson, Michel Foucault, and Jean-François Lyotard.
What Are the Origins of Postmodern Literature?
Postmodern literature’s precursor, modernist (or modern) literature, emphasized a quest for meaning, suggesting the author as an enlightenment-style creator of order and mourning the chaotic world—examples include James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf.
However, after the series of human rights violations that occurred during and after World War II (including the Holocaust, the atomic bombings of Japan, and Japanese internment in the US), writers began to feel as if meaning was an impossible quest, and that the only way to move forward was to embrace meaninglessness fully.
Thus, postmodern literature rejected (or built upon) many of the tenants of modernism, including shunning meaning, intensifying and celebrating fragmentation and disorder, and initiating a major shift in literary tradition.
5 Characteristics of Postmodern Literature
Postmodern literature builds on the following core ideas:
1. Embrace of randomness. Postmodern works reject the idea of absolute meaning and instead embrace randomness and disorder. Postmodern novels often employ unreliable narrators to further muddy the waters with extreme subjectivity and prevent readers from finding meaning during the story.
2. Playfulness. While modernist writers mourned the loss of order, postmodern writers revel in it, often using tools like black humor, wordplay, irony, and other techniques of playfulness to dizzy readers and muddle the story.
3. Fragmentation. Postmodernist literature took modernism’s fragmentation and expanded on it, moving literary works more toward collage-style forms, temporal distortion, and significant jumps in character and place.
4. Metafiction. Postmodern literature emphasized meaninglessness and play. Postmodern writers began to experiment with more meta elements in their novels and short stories, drawing attention to their work’s artifice and reminding readers that the author isn’t an authority figure.
5. Intertextuality. As a form of collage-style writing, many postmodern authors wrote their work overtly in dialogue with other texts. The techniques they employed included pastiche (or imitating other authors’ styles) and the combination of high and low culture (writing that tackles subjects that were previously considered inappropriate for literature).
10 Notable Postmodern Authors
Here are some notable authors who contributed to the postmodern movement:
1. John Barth: Barth wrote an essay of literary criticism titled The Literature of Exhaustion (1967), detailing all writing as imitation and considered by many to be the manifesto of postmodern literature. Barth’s fourth novel, Giles Goat-Boy (1966), is a prime example of the metafiction characteristic of postmodernism, featuring several fictional disclaimers in the beginning and end, arguing that the book was not written by the author and was instead given to the author on a tape or written by a computer.
2. Samuel Beckett: Beckett’s “theatre of the absurd” emphasized the disintegration of narrative. In the play Waiting for Godot (1953), Beckett creates an entire existential narrative featuring two characters who contemplate their day as they wait for the ambiguous Godot to appear. However, he never arrives, and his identity is not revealed.
3. Italo Calvino: Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979) is an excellent example of a metanarrative—the book is about a reader attempting to read a novel titled If on a winter’s night a traveler.
4. Don DeLillo: Following an advertising executive in New York during the Nixon era, DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) is an exceptionally fragmented narrative, exploring the rise of global capitalism, the decline of American manufacturing, the CIA, and civil rights, and other themes. White Noise (1985) reframes postmodernism through consumerism, bombarding characters with meaninglessness.
5. John Fowles: Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) is a historical novel with a major emphasis on metafiction. The book features a narrator who becomes part of the story and offers several different ways to end the story.
6. Joseph Heller: Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) tells many storylines out of chronological order, slowly building the story as new information is introduced. Heller also employs paradox (a literary device that contradicts itself but contains a plausible kernel of truth) and farce (a type of comedy in which absurd situations are stacked precariously atop one another) to complicate the narrative further.
7. Gabriel García Márquez: Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) is an exceptionally playful novel that follows several characters sprawled out over an extended length of time, emphasizing the smallness of human life.
8. Thomas Pynchon: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) is the poster child of postmodern literature, using a complex, fragmented structure to cover various subjects such as culture, science, social science, profanity, and literary propriety. The Crying of Lot 49 (1965) employs a significant amount of silly wordplay, often within contexts of seriousness.
9. Kurt Vonnegut: Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969) is a non-linear narrative in which the main character has been “unstuck in time,” oscillating between the present and the past with no control over his movement and emphasizing the senseless nature of war.
10. David Foster Wallace: Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) embodies postmodernism through its eclectic, encyclopedic structure, characters trapped within the postmodern condition, obsessive endnotes and footnotes, and meandering consciousness. The Pale King (2011) is also highly metafictional, employing a character named David Foster Wallace.
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