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Narrative Techniques in Postmodern Fiction

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One facet of Postmodernism that sets it apart from Modernism is the attitude that postmodern authors bring to fiction. While the modernist was concerned with precision both in language and presentation, the postmodernist breaks with these established practices. Time lines are often disrupted, leaving it to the reader to determine the order of events. At other times narrative expectations are upset as the author either contradicts the narrative or intrudes deliberately into the story line.

The way an author tells a story is through a narrator. Generally the narrator is not the author but a created persona with a personality, a behavior pattern and special reasons for telling the story in the manner it is being told. For example, the narrator of the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Tell Tale Heart” desperately tries to convince the reader that he is not crazy.

These narrators fall into one of the following categories: first person narrator; third person omniscient narrator; third person limited narrator; dramatic narrator (a phenomenological narration that makes no comment on or judgments about any of the actions or scenes in the tale); and in some circumstances the stream of consciousness narration (a specialized narration in the first person through the mind and thoughts of that person). However, there are notable variations to these types. In “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner used a first person plural (“we”) narrator. In this story the townspeople tell the tale.

The only contact a reader has with a tale is through “the act of its being told (or retold)” by the narrator, according to Henry McDonald in “The Narrative Act: Wittgenstein and Narratology.” Therefore, the reader must have a sense of the narrator’s reliability. If the narrator is lying or telling the story in a slanted fashion, the reader must then come to grips with that fact and make a judgment about the story from that vantage point. This does not mean that a story cannot be understood even if the storyteller is lying; it means that the reader must reconcile knowing about a lying narrator with the information that the narrator presents. Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing.” Therein lies the task of the perceptive reader: to locate and to understand the nature of the fictive world and to recognize the “truth” of that fictive world and to separate it from an unreliable presentation of it. The reader must determine the grounds for identifying that “truth.”

An important aspect of the narrative presence is the structure it takes. In “The first thing the baby did wrong . . .,” by Donald Barthelme, the narrator tells his story in monologue style. In the story the father describes his baby’s behavior in a first person continuous narrative that describes how she is punished for tearing pages out of books. The monologue uses a familiar tone, referring to the audience as “you” to create a sense of intimacy (“She got real clever. You’d come up to her where she was playing.”) and to request sympathy for the parents’ dilemma with the baby’s actions. As the baby seems to enjoy her punishment, the father’s narrative reveals frustration and a resolve to maintain rules set by the parents. In this story the narration is a simple one drawing the audience into the family circle and asking for sympathy.

Sometimes the narrative gives the reader a sense of being a part of the story as it unfolds. In the story “Montezuma and Cortez,” Barthelme uses the continuous present to tell the story. It opens: “Because Cortez lands on a day specified...

(This entire section contains 2028 words.)

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in the ancient writing, because he is dressed in black, because his armour is silver . . . Montezuma considers Cortez to be Quetzalcoatl.” The remainder of the story maintains this use of present tense, which gives the reader a sense of immediacy and an eyewitness- to-history feeling about the tale. The reader is not told the story after the fact, but as it happens— like a live television show narrated by an announcer.

Other narrative structures include epistolary novels (novels that use a series of exchanged letters to report the story), diaries, or outline forms. The latter two are adopted by Barthelme. “Me and Miss Mandible” uses the diary format, taking the reader through the events of the story day by day. “Daumier” is in an outline form, with occasional topics indicated to tell the reader what the next section of the story will be about.

In these short story examples, the reliability of the narrator is kept at a high level. Also the author remains outside the story. But for many stories, this is not the case. Two novels that contain examples of authorial intrusions and that raise questions about the narrator’s truthfulness and thereby the truth of the story itself are The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera and The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras.

Authors often deliberately disturb the comfortable expectations of the reader. In many postmodern works the authors make direct statements to the reader, at times confronting the characters in the novel. Wendy Lesser, in her essay “The Character as Victim,” wrote that among contemporary writers “the prevailing idea appears to be that authors and their characters are in direct competition.” This notion is at odds with previous approaches to fiction, which keep the author out of the story. But for the postmodern writer these intrusions have become more normal. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera writes, “Tomas saw her jealousy . . . as a burden . . . he would be saddled with until not long before his death.” The foreshadowing shows the author’s knowledge of the mortality of his own character. This phrase ends a longer passage during which Tomas has become jealous of Tereza’s success as a photographer. Kundera interrupts the passage by telling the reader that Tomas will die soon. This comment seems also a kind of jealous reaction: Kundera is jealous of his own character’s successes and deflates that success by telling the reader of Tomas’s impending death. Lesser confirms this by stating that “the author knows too clearly and powerfully what he wants to say. Nobody else . . . has a chance to say otherwise.” Nobody has the opportunity to be too successful or to be too important. Kundera will not allow it.

Kundera also makes repeated comments that are outside the context of the story line. These authorial intrusions are often comments on various aspects in the novel. For example, in chapter 16 of Part Five, he writes, “Several days later, he was struck by another thought, which I record here as an addendum to the preceding chapter.” The “I” in this sentence is Kundera, who has intruded into his story, telling the reader that he will make comments about an occurrence in the previous chapter.

In this self-reflexive way Kundera refers directly to the novel itself. He writes: “And once more I see him the way he appeared to me at the very beginning of the novel.” Later he comments, “In Part Three of this novel I told the tale of Sabrina.” These interruptions by the author do what E. L. Doctorow claims is “the author deliberately [breaking] the mimetic spell of his text and [insisting] that the reader should not take his story to heart or believe in the existence of his characters.” This act of destroying what has just been created occurs often in the works of postmodern authors.

Knowledge of the identity of the narrator assists the reader in making a connection with the story. The narrator in Barthelme’s “The first thing the baby did wrong . . .” is the father, identified only as “I.” But nothing further is needed. The narrator in Lol Stein is Jack Hold, who is reluctantly identified late in the novel. At the end of one section Duras has written: “Arm in arm they ascend the terrace steps. Tatiana introduces Peter Breugner, her husband, to Lol, and Jack Hold, a friend of theirs—the distance is covered—me.” In this hesitant, circuitous way, the narrator is identified, in the third person by himself!

In Kundera’s novel the narrator is never identified, leaving the reader to wonder if there is one or if the author himself is really telling the tale. But as Maureen Howard says, “Whoever the narrator may be, he’s an entertaining fellow, sophisticated, professional, very European.” Even though the reader does not know his identity, enough of his personality is present so his name does not matter.

Whoever the narrator is, it is imperative that the reader understands whether or not that narrator is telling the truth. Jack Hold, Duras’s narrator, tells the tale of Lol but without a sense of certainty, saying things like, “I seem to remember,” or “I doubt it,” or “I can’t say for sure.” This imprecision (or indecision) leaves the reader without a sense of knowing what is really going on. Adding to the reader’s uncertainty are additional phrases like: “My opinion,” “I invent,” and “I no longer know for sure.” An additional complication to this is the fact that these imprecise statements have no effect on the narrator’s attitude to story telling. He does not apologize for these lapses but ignores them after admitting them.

The most disturbing aspect of Jack Hold’s narration is his admission, “I’m lying.” Another passage includes the line, “I desperately want to partake of the word which emerges from the lips of Lol Stein, I want to be a part of this lie which she has forged.” Further confusing the reader is the contradictory statement: “I didn’t lie.” In this story the narrator does not evade the issue of lying; he takes notice of it and moves ahead with the story.

In his novel, Kundera taxes the reader with the following statement: “The way he rushed into his decision seems rather odd to me. Could it perhaps conceal something else, something deeper that escaped his reasoning?” This is an admission by Kundera (the one asking the question here) that he does not know what is going on with a character of his own creation. How could a character’s behavior seem odd to the author who has created that character? This asks the question: If the author does not know what is going on in the story, how can the reader expect to know? Recalling the earlier notion that Kundera confronts his own characters, in this instance the character seems to have won.

By the end of such statements the reader has no stable basis upon which to establish the verac- ity of the story. No “truth” can happen in the tale in which the narrator does not know what is going on, the author does not know what is going on, or where the narrator of the story admits to lying. The reader does not know what to believe. Here is the uncertainty of Wittgenstein’s “groundlessness of believing.” The reader does not know where to base an understanding of the fictional world the author has created.

A consequence of the self-reflexive aspects of these novels is that the reader is constantly being reminded that “it is a fiction,” according to Terry Eagleton in “Estrangement and Irony.” These reminders disturb the reader’s ability to make the mental leap called the suspension of disbelief, which allows a reader of fiction to become immersed in the story and to care about the characters and their condition. Without this leap, the reader is more willing to dismiss both the tale and the characters.

These are just some of the manifestations of postmodernist concerns about the nature the truth in fiction. Jacques Derrida has noted that since language is unable to convey an absolute meaning, there results the impossibility for language to establish an absolute “truth.” In fiction that “truth” is the creation of the author. Because postmodern authors disrupt their stories, intrude in them, and in some cases confront their own creations, there can be no “truth” in that fictional world.

Source: Carl Mowery, Critical Essay on Postmodernism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.


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The Evolution of Postmodernism: Some Precursors and Background
As I’ve already suggested, there is no sharp demarcation line separating modernism and postmodernism, and the alleged differences between the two become especially difficult to pinpoint if one is examining the development of fiction in a global context and not just focusing on what has been occurring in the United States. (The impulses behind the experimentalism of, say, Latin American or Eastern European fiction are clearly different from those that motivated U.S. authors in the 1960s.) In the United States what occurred in the postmodern outburst of the 1960s seemed very radical in part because fiction in the United States during the previous 30 years had seemed, for the most part, conservative aesthetically. This is not to say that experimenting wasn’t taking place in the United States at all during this period—some of the great innovators of the previous generation continued to explore new forms (Faulkner, Stein, Fitzgerald), and a few newcomers with an experimental bent appeared (Djuna Barnes, Kenneth Patchen, Nathaniel West, John Hawkes, Jack Kerouac); but for the most part, U.S. authors during this period were content to deal with the key issues of their day—the Depression, World War II, existential angst—in relatively straightforward forms. The reasons behind this formal conservatism are certainly complex, but part of its hold on writers has to do with the way the times affected many writers, especially the sense that with such big issues to be examined authors couldn’t afford the luxury of innovative strategies. At any rate, for whatever reasons in the United States from the period of 1930 until 1960 we do not find the emergence of a major innovator—someone equivalent to Beckett or Borges or Alain Robbe- Grillet or Louis Ferdinand Céline—except in the person of perhaps post-modern fiction’s most important precursor, Vladimir Nabokov, who labored in obscurity in this country for 25 years until the scandal of Lolita made him suddenly very visible indeed (though for all the wrong reasons). As a result, by the late 1950s the United States was just as ripe for an aesthetic revolution as it was for the cultural revolution that was soon to follow. The two are, of course, intimately related.

Much of the groundwork for the so-called postmodern aesthetic revolution had already been established earlier in this century in such areas as the theoretical work being done in philosophy and science; the innovations made in painting (the rejection of mimesis and fixed point perspective, the emphasis on collage, self-exploration, abstract expressionism, and so on); in theater in the works of Pirandello, Brecht, Beckett, Genet, even Thornton Wilder; the increasing prominence of photography, the cinema, and eventually television, which coopted certain alternatives for writers while opening up other areas of emphasis. And if one looks carefully enough, there were many modernist literary figures who had called for a complete overhaul of the notion of representation in fiction. It is a commonplace to note that Tristram Shandy is a thoroughly postmodern work in every respect but the period in which it is written, and there are dozens of other examples of authors who explored many of the same avenues of experimentalism that postmodern writers were to take: for instance, the surreal, mechanically produced constructions of Raymond Roussel; the work of Alfred Jarry, with its black humor, its obscenity, its confounding of fact, fiction, and autobiography, its general sense of play and formal outrageousness; André Gide’s The Counterfeiters, with its self-reflexiveness and self-commentary; Franz Kafka’s matter-of-fact surrealistic presentation of the self and its relationship to society (significantly, Kafka’s impact on American writing was not strong until the 1950s); William Faulkner, with his multiple narrators and competing truths, and whose own voice is so insistently foregrounded throughout his fiction as to obliterate any real sense that he is transcribing anything but his own consciousness; and, looming over the entire literary landscape, is the figure of James Joyce, the Dead Father of postmodern fiction, who must be dealt with, slain, the pieces of his genius ritually eaten and digested.

The wider social and political forces that galvanized postmodern writers and provided a sense of urgency and focus to their development were similar, in some ways, to those that provided such a great impetus to artistic innovation during the 1920s. In both Cases, an international tragedy— World War I for artists in the 1920s, and Vietnam (along with a host of more diffused insanities, like the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the ongoing destruction of the environment) for postmodern American writers—created the sense that fundamental reconsiderations had to be made about the systems that govern our lives. Such systems included the political, social, and other ideological forms that had helped lead us to the position we were in, and also the artistic forms through which we could express a sense of ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. Thus, World War I was a global disaster of such unprecedented proportions, and had been produced by the very features of society that were supposed to ennoble and “civilize” us (reason, technology), that artists were forced to rethink the basic rationalistic, humanistic principles that had formed the basis of Western art since the Renaissance. One predictable response to the view that reality had become a fragmented, chaotic “Wasteland” was to turn to art as a kind of last retreat, a last source of reason, stability, and harmony. (One thinks of the magnificently ordered private systems of Joyce, Yeats, Pound, Proust, and Hemingway.) Another tactic was to develop art that turned its back on the barbarism and entropy of reality and explored instead the more abstract, rarified realm of art itself; here was a place where poets could examine language without regard to referents, where painters could explore the implications of lines, shapes, textures, and colors freed from outer correspondences. A third possibility was the development of artistic strategies that affirmed rather than denied or ignored the disorder and irrationalism around it, that joined forces with the primitive, illogical drives that Freud claimed lay within us all—the strategy of the dadaists and surrealists in painting and poetry, and of a few fiction writers as well (Anaïs Nin, Céline, Robert Desnos, Michel Leiris). Interestingly enough, all three tendencies would be evident in postmodern fiction 40 years later: the huge, intricately structured work (Pynchon, William Gaddis, Barth, Don DeLillo, Coover, Joseph McElroy, Alexander Theroux); the work that concerns only itself, its own mechanisms, the pure relationship of symbol and word (in William H. Gass, Richard Kostelanetz, Robert Pinget, Coover, Steve Katz, Barthelme); and the fractured, delirious text whose process mirrored the entropy and fragmentation outside (William S. Burroughs, Barthelme, Raymond Federman, Kathy Acker). The difference between the two periods, then, is finally one of degree—the degree to which contemporary writers have turned to these strategies, the degree to which they have moved away from realistic norms (even in elaborately ordered works), especially in the degree to which artifice, playfulness, and self-consciousness—features not so common to the innovative fictions of the 1920s—have been consistently incorporated into the fabric of postmodern fiction.

It probably seems initially peculiar that postmodernism emerged in the 1960s rather than in the years that immediately followed World War II. It may be that the war, with its Hitlers and Mussolinis, its Hiroshimas and Normandy Beaches and Dresdens, its other unthinkable horrors (the concentration camps, collective suicides, and so on), was too dreadful or overwhelming to be directly confronted. In any case, the great innovators of the 1940s and 1950s tended to be, at least at first glance, nonsocially conscious writers. Beckett, Borges, and Nabokov—the three authors from this period who were to have the most direct impact on postmodern writing—all appeared to turn their backs on the world outside in favor of a movement inward, toward the world of language, dream, and memory, to examine the nature of subjective experience, of the way words beguile, mislead, and shape our perception, of the way imagination builds its own realm out of symbols. I emphasize the word “appear” in these three cases because all three of these authors were, in fact, very much political writers in a very basic sense, for each was profoundly aware of the importance that language plays in shaping the world around us, the way power-structures use this world-building capacity of words, the way that reality and commonsense are disguised versions of ideologies that are foisted on individuals by institutions that profit from the popular acceptance of these illusions. From this perspective, the postmodern emphasis on subjectivity, language, and fiction-making is hardly as irrelevant, self-indulgent, and narcissistic as many unsympathetic critics have charged. Indeed, many of the most important postmodern works, for all their experimentalism, metafictional impulses, selfreflexiveness, playfulness, and game-playing, have much more to say about history, social issues, and politics than is generally realized.

Another writer very aware of the need to examine the role of language within larger contexts was George Orwell, whose 1984 remains the most famous fictional treatment of political language manipulation. 1984, which grew out of science fiction’s dystopian tradition and which was specifically influenced by Yevgeny Zamiatin’s remarkable experimental novel, We (a “postmodern” novel published in 1920), points to another important tendency in postmodern fiction: the increasing attention being paid by serious, highly sophisticated authors to paraliterary forms such as science fiction and detective fiction—forms that proved attractive to the postmodern spirit partly because mimesis was never their guiding concern to begin with. Such genres were thus free to generate forms and conventions that were entirely different from those of traditional fiction, and that proved to be surprisingly rich and suggestive. Developments in these paraliterary forms need to be examined more thoroughly by scholars—there are fertile areas of investigation into, for example, the use of pornographical conventions by Acker, Coover, Samuel Delany, and Clarence Major (not to mention Nabokov); or the appropriation of detective novel forms by many postmodern writers (Nabokov, Stanislaw Lem, Michel Butor, Robbe Grillet, William Hjortsberg, McElroy). But the most significant evolution of a paraliterary form has been that of science fiction. Long respected in Europe and never as clearly separated from literature there as it has been in the United States (cf. the European tradition of H.G. Wells, Zamiatin, Karel Cˇ apek, Olaf Stapledon, Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Arthur C. Clark, J.G. Ballard), SF emerged in the United States from its self-imposed “ghetto status” into a major field of creative activity during the 1960s. Although many literary critics remain suspicious of and condescending toward SF, it is obvious today that a number of the most significant postmodern innovators have been SF writers. This is certainly the case with Philip K. Dick, a writer misunderstood both inside An early postmodern event was the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick and outside his field. Because his publishers forced him onto a treadmill of rapid-fire production, Dick’s novels are always plagued by a certain amount of sloppiness, lack of verbal grace, and two-dimensional character portrayals. Nevertheless, Dick had a brilliant fictional imagination capable of inventing plots of considerable intricacy and metaphorical suggestiveness. In his best works—The Man in the High Castle, Martian Time-Slip, Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—he devised highly original central plot structures that deal with many of the same issues common to postmodernism: metaphysical ambiguity, the oppressive nature of political systems, entropy, the mechanization of modern life.

Similarly, other major SF figures—including Ursula LeGuin, Delany, Gene Wolfe, John Varley, Lem, Roger Zelazny—have been creating complex, ingenious fictional forms that tell us a great deal about the fantastic world around us but that do so with structures whose conventions and language differ fundamentally from that of “mundane fiction” (as Delany refers to it). Indeed, one indication of the richness and diversity of this field can be seen in the number of “mainstream” authors who have turned to SF—Doris Lessing, Anthony Burgess, Italo Calvino, Marge Piercy, Thomas Berger, Nabokov, Raymond Federman, and dozens of others.

There were, of course, other developments occurring before 1960 that would influence the direction of postmodernism. One of the most important of these has been the rapid emergence of the cinema and television as major artistic forms. It is probably no accident that postmodern experimentalists were the first generation of writers who grew up immersed in television, or that many of these writers were as saturated with the cinema as their forefathers had been with literature. The specific influences of television and the movies on postmodern fiction are diffuse, generalized, difficult to pinpoint, but obviously an awareness of the process through which a movie is presented—its rapid cutting, its use of montage and juxtaposition, its reliance on close-ups, tracking shots, and other technical devices—is likely to create some deeply rooted effects on writers when they sit down at their collective typewriters. (The process is also symbiotic: Eisenstein’s theory of montage had a profound effect on an entire generation of writers, but so did Flaubert’s use of montage in the famous “countryfair” scene in Madame Bovary affect filmmakers.) And as important as movies and television were in suggesting to writers what could be put in to their works was the example they supplied for what could be left out profitably. Not only did writers quickly realize that television and the cinema could deal with certain narrative forms more effectively than fiction (photography had similarly made certain forms of painting instantly obsolete), but a number of cinematic shorthand devices proved useful in fiction as well. Audiences trained in the conventions of the nineteenth-century novel may have required certain connections, certain details and transitions, but cinematic directors quickly discovered that many of these could be eliminated once the audience became acquainted with a different set of conventions. (Consider a typical cinematic juxtaposition of a man walking up a street and a shot of him sitting in the interior of a house—there’s no need to supply the sights he saw on his walk, a view of the house approaching, the pause while knocking on the door or inserting the key, and so on.) Similarly, the pacing of television—and of television commercials, whose significance is also substantial in this regard—is directly apparent in many postmodern works (one thinks of Slaughterhouse- Five, Ragtime, of Coover’s and Barthelme’s short fiction, of Manuel Puig and Jonathan Baumbach). The more specific influences of individual directors cannot be discounted: Jean-Luc Godard probably had as much impact on the imaginations of writers during the 1960s as any literary figure; and in various ways, movies like 8, Blow Up, Belle de Jour, Repulsion, 2001, Dr. Strangelove, and a host of other innovative films, have deeply imprinted themselves in the body of postmodern fiction.

The Postmodern Awakening: 1960–1975
The early 1960s saw the publication of a number of fictional works that indicated that American fiction was heading in some very different directions than it had been during the preceding 25 years. Signaling this change in aesthetic sensibility was the appearance within a relatively short period of time (1960–1965) of a number of major works that decisively broke with the traditions of conventional realism. These key works included John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) and Giles Goat-Boy (1966), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961), Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963), Donald Barthelme’s Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964), and Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists (1965). These works were all produced by young, obviously ambitious writers (Nabokov is an exception, in terms of age). This fiction owed its unusual effects to a wide variety of sources, such as the absurdist theater (which had been flourishing in New York’s Off-Broadway scene during the late 1950s), jazz and rock and roll, pop art, and other developments in the avant-garde art scene, the growing appreciation of Kafka and other experimenters (many of whom were first being translated during this period: Céline, Robbe-Grillet, and the other French New Novelists, Jean Genet, Borges, Günter Grass), the energy and hot-wired delirium of the Beats. The result was a peculiar blend of dark humor, literary parody, surrealism, byzantine plots full of improbable coincidences and outrageous action, all presented in a dazzling variety of excessive styles that constantly called attention to themselves. Postmodern fiction had arrived.

What was to characterize the direction of postmodern fiction during the rest of the decade—the push to test new forms of expression, to examine conventions and solutions critically and seek new answers, to rethink so-called natural methods of organizing perception, expose their ideological origins, and pose new systems of organization—was hardly born in an ivory-towered, academic vacuum. The art of the 1960s, including the postmodern fiction, reflected the basic ways in which the ideologies on which the U.S. order had traditionally relied, together with the cultural values by which it rules, were in deep turmoil. Fiction reflected the sense, shared by many of our most thoughtful and articulate citizens, that we had been led (and misled) into the age of nuclear nightmare, into Vietnam, into ecological apocalypse, into political oppression, and into an insane and immoral sense of values that devalued human beings by glorifying abstractions and the inanimate—all this in the name of certain labels and covert ideologies that badly needed overhauling. A natural extension of this feeling was the desire to tear down the ruling ideologies (political, sexual, moral, social, aesthetic, all of which proved to be remarkably integrated) and reveal them for what they were: arbitrary structures imposed as a result of various complex, historical, and economic forces, instated into societies as natural and commonsensical, all of which served, in one way or another, to reinforce the status quo and insure the continued world view (and hence the continued power) of those who established these ideologies. Thus, the aggressive, radicalized poetics of postmodernism was an extension of a larger sense of dissatisfaction and frustration. “Don’t trust anyone over 30” was an expression commonly heard among young people in the 1960s who were fed up with the content and structure of their lives. A similar distrust of one’s “elders” was equally apparent in postmodern fiction writers.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new generation of writers had firmly established itself. During this period experimental fictions appeared by authors who were eventually characterized by critics as being postmodern in outlook: William Gass’ In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, Jerzy Kosinski’s Steps, Robert Coover’s Universal Baseball Association and Pricksongs and Descants, John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Steve Katz’s The Exagggerations of Peter Prince, Donald Barthelme’s City Life, Snow White, and Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction, Raymond Federman’s Double or Nothing, Rudolf Wurlitzer’s Nog, Nabokov’s Ada, and Joseph McElroy’s A Smuggler’s Bible. The point is not that these authors approached the issue of fictional innovation in a fundamentally unified fashion. Rather, quite the opposite was true: writers were busy exploring a host of innovative strategies, many of them very different in intent and effect. (One can hardly imagine, for example, two works so opposed in aesthetic orientation as, say, Federman’s Double or Nothing and Gass’ “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.”) What these experimentations did share, however, was a general sense that fiction needed to acknowledge its own artificial, constructed nature, to focus the reader’s attention on how the work was being articulated rather than merely on what was happening. Distrustful of all claims to truth and hypersensitive to the view that reality and objectivity were not givens but social or linguistic constructs, postmodern writers tended to lay bare the artifice of their works, to comment on the processes involved, to refuse to create the realist illusion that the work mimics operations outside itself. In the ideology of realism or representation, it was implied that words were linked to thoughts or objects in essentially direct, incontrovertible ways. On the other hand, postmodern authors— operating in an aesthetic environment that has grown out of Saussaurian linguistics, Wittgenstein’s notion of meaning-as-usage, structuralism, and deconstructive views of language—tend to manipulate words as changeable entities determined by the rules of the particular sign-system (the fiction at hand). Hardly a translucent window on to an object (the world, reality) or a mind, the language in many postmodern texts becomes “thickened,” played with and shown off, and frequently becomes just another element to be manipulated by a self-conscious author.

Other conventions of the realist narrative were challenged. The notion of the unified subject living in a world of stable essences (one of the cornerstones of traditional fiction) was one such notion that was frequently mocked by postmodern authors, either by so obsessively emphasizing the schizophrenic, subjective nature of experience as to obliterate the distinction between subject and reality (as in Philip Dick or Jonathan Baumbach or Federman) or by creating characters with no definable personality or who changed from scene to scene (as with Ronald Sukenick’s figures who change “like a cloud,” or Ron Silliman’s prose experiments in which narrator and setting disappear into the process of language selection). The commonsensical distinction between fact and fiction, author and text, also became increasingly difficult to make. “Real” authors began making increasingly common excursions into their fictional worlds (as Vonnegut did in Breakfast of Champions and Fowles did in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, or as Sukenick and Federman and Katz did in nearly all their works); fragments of real events, real reportage, and news often became incorporated into works, collage- fashion, making it impossible to untangle what was being made up from what had really happened. (Here one thinks of Barthelme, Burroughs, Vonnegut, Harold Jaffe, Coover, and William Kennedy.) This tendency to break down the seam between the real and the invented, or to deny the relevance of this distinction altogether, was also evident in the writing of the New Journalists, like Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Hunter Thompson. These authors, along with other writers who blurred the fact/fiction dichotomy (Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Maxine Hong Kingston in The Woman Warrior and China Men, Peter Handke in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, V. S. Naipaul in In a Free State, and so on), not only employed various conventions borrowed from fiction to heighten a sense of drama and plot development, but they also thrust their own subjective responses into the forefront of their works rather than making claims that their texts were objective. Likewise, the distinction between poetry and prose was also often dissolved, not just by fiction writers who emphasized poetic qualities in their prose (Gass, Barry Hannah, Stanley Elkin, Nabokov, Hawkes), but also by poets who began to explore longer forms of prose. (See Ron Silliman’s discussion of this important phenomenon in this volume.) Even the familiar “look” of books—the conventions of typography, pagination, and other visual elements that actually govern the process of reading itself—was freely tampered with, in works of such visual ingenuity as Federman’s Double or Nothing, Katz’s The Exagggerationsof Peter Prince, Gass’ Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, Julio Cortázar’s Ultimo Rundo, Barthelme’s City Life, or Butor’s mobile. In short, virtually all of the elements that make the reading experience what it is were being reexamined by postmodern experimenters during the 1960s. Not surprisingly, many of the experiments proved to be dead ends or were rapidly exhausted and then discarded. This seems to be the case with the New Novel experiments and with a lot of the typographical experimentation, for example. But even these innovations were useful in that they suggested avenues that writers need no longer explore.

Postmodern Criticism
As should be evident from the focus of the two critical articles dealing with postmodern criticism and from the critics I selected to be included in the individual author entry section, I have tried to emphasize critical thought that shares features of postmodern thought rather than focusing on criticism that deals with postmodern fiction. Indeed, it seems evident to me that many of the same principles and tendencies that were shaping the direction of postmodern fiction are central to the development of the most important critical schools of the past 25 years: structuralism, deconstruction, and Marxistoriented criticism. (For a good overview of this interaction, see Charles Caramello’s Silverless Mirrors: Book, Self & Postmodern American Fiction.) For example, the Marxist and structuralist emphasis on the constructedness of human meaning is similar to postmodern fiction’s sense that reality is not given and that our way of perceiving it is hardly natural or self-evident. Terry Eagleton’s fine summary of the chief tenets of structuralism in his survey of critical thought, Literary Theory helps clarify the interrelationship between structuralism and postmodern aesthetics very clearly. Structuralism, he notes, emphasizes that:

Meaning was neither a private experience nor a divinely ordained occurrence: it was the product of certain shared systems of signification. The confident bourgeoise belief that the isolated individual subject was the fount and origin of all meaning took a sharp knock: language pre-dated the individual, and was much less his or her product than he or she was the product of it. Meaning was not “natural,” a question of just looking and seeing, or something eternally settled; the way you interpreted your world was a function of the languages you had at your disposal, and there was evidently nothing immutable about these. Meaning was not something which all men and women everywhere intuitively shared, and then articulated in their various tongues and scripts; what meaning you were able to articulate depended on what script or speech you shared in the first place. There were the seeds here of a social and historical theory of meaning, whose implications were to run deep within contemporary thought. It was impossible any longer to see reality simply as something “out there,” a fixed order of things which language merely reflected.

For structuralism, then, reality and our experience of reality need not necessarily be continuous— a view that is intimately connected with postmodern fiction’s refusal to rely on fixed notions of reality, its emphasis on reproducing the human being’s imaginative (subjective, fictional) responses to what is “out there” rather than trying to convince the readers that they are experiencing a transcription of reality unfiltered by a mediating process. Roland Barthes’ early ventures into structuralist criticism produced a notion that also bears some striking relevance for what would develop in fiction during the 1960s. For example, Barthes’ analysis of the healthy sign is directly applicable to what postmodern authors suggest about healthy fiction: in both cases the artifact is healthiest which draws attention to itself and to its own arbitrariness— one that makes no effort to pass itself off as natural or inevitable but that, in the very act of conveying a meaning, communicates something of its own relative, artificial status as well. Thus, very much like postmodern fiction writers, Barthes rightly perceives that one of the functions of ideologies and power-structures of all sorts is always to convert culture into nature—to make it appear that conventions, signs, and social realities are natural, innocent, commonsensical. The obvious literary analogy to this natural attitude can be found in realist fiction, which implies that it possesses the means (a natural language) to represent something else with little or no interference with what it mediates. Such a realist sign is for Barthes—and for the postmodern authors of the 1960s—essentially unhealthy, for it proceeds by denying its own status as a sign in order to create the illusion that we are perceiving reality without its intervention.

Deconstruction and poststructuralism, as developed by Derrida, Paul de Man, Barthes, and others, was essentially an attempt to topple the logic by which a particular system of thought (and behind that, a whole system of political structures and social institutions) maintains its force. By demonstrating that all meaning and knowledge could be exposed as resting on a naively representational theory of language, poststructuralism provided still another justification for postmodernism’s emphasis on the free play of language, of the text-asgenerating- meaning. The later Barthes (as in The Pleasure of the Text, 1973) suggested that only in writing (or in reading-as-writing) could the individual be freed momentarily from the tyranny of structural meaning, from ideology, from theory. As Eagleton notes, one product of this emphasis on the unnaturalness of signs was admittedly the tendency by some poststructuralists (and some fiction writers) to flee from history, to take refuge in the erotic play of writing/reading, and conveniently to evade reality and all political questions completely:

If meaning, the signified, was a passing product of words or signifiers, always shifting and unstable, part-present and part-absent, how could there be any determinate truth or meaning at all? If reality was constructed by our discourse rather than reflected by it, how could we ever know reality itself, rather than merely knowing our own discourse? Was all talk just talk about talk? Did it make sense to claim that one interpretation of reality, history or the literary text was “better” than another?

Such questions cut to the heart of the debate that was to rage during the mid- to late 1970s about the moral responsibility of fiction—a debate most famously summarized in the series of public discussions between the late John Gardner, whose study On Moral Fiction sparked considerable public interest in this issue, and William Gass, whose eloquent defense of fiction’s irrelevancy to conditions outside the page (in Fiction and the Figures of Life) became a seminal aspect of postmodern aesthetics. (The Gass-Gardner “Debate” in Anything Can Happen) The outline of this debate centered on Gardner’s claim, echoed by a number of other critics (perhaps most effectively in Gerald Graff’s Literature Against Itself), that postmodern experimentalism, with its willful artifice and subjectivity, its metafictional impulses and emphasis on the play of language, is fundamentally trivial, vain, self-absorbed, and narcissistic. Gass, on the other hand, took essentially the familiar art-forart’s- sake position but developed his views with considerable rigor, supporting them with theories of language and aesthetics formulated by Wittgenstein and Max Black (both of whom Gass had studied under at Cornell), Paul Valéry, and Gertrude Stein. Words, said Gass, are the writer’s chief concern, for the writer’s final obligation is to build something (a world of language, with its own rules and systems of transformations), not to describe something. One senses in Gass a longing for a safe and human refuge in this world of language, a place controlled and purified, an escape from an ugly, petty reality in which history becomes a destructive monument to human greed, in which discourse has been degraded into instruments of commerce, politics, and bureaucracy. Paradoxically, then, although Gass’s emphasis on fiction as an interaction of signifiers had a liberating effect on the formal concerns of postmodern authors, there was also a potentially troubling elitism about his position, with its emphasis on formal complexity and beauty, and its lack of self-irony and play. This tendency is also obvious (and troubling) when one examines the important Yale School of Critics (Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, de Man, and, with some reservations, Harold Bloom). These latter critics have argued, often brilliantly, that literary language—indeed, all forms of discourse constantly undermines its own meaning. But in their tendency to view all elements of reality, including social reality, as merely further texts to be deconstructed as being undecidable, there emerges the sense that one has found a means to demolish all opinions without having to adopt any of one’s own. Perhaps the key factor that needs to be emphasized in this regard is that, as Derrida and Barthes, among others, have demonstrated, there is no fundamental opposition between a fiction that emphasizes its unnaturalness, its arbitrariness, that reveals (and revels in) its différances, and one that deals with history, politics, and social issues in a significant fashion. Indeed, by opening up a radical awareness of the sign systems by which men and women live, and by offering exemplars of freely created fictions that oppose publicly accepted ones, postmodern fiction contains the potential to rejoin the history which some claim it has abandoned. Thus, although most critics have been largely blind to the political thrust of postmodern experimentalism, it will surely soon be recognized that the fiction of Barthelme, Coover, Sukenick, Federman, Gaddis, Barth, Pynchon, DeLillo, Silliman, and other innovators of postmodernism is very much centered on political questions: questions about how ideologies are formed, the process whereby conventions are developed, the need for individuals to exercise their own imaginative and linguistic powers lest these powers be coopted by others.

Post-Postmodernism: The Evolution of Contemporary Conciousness
If a single work may be said to have provided a model for the direction of postmodern fiction of the 1970s and 1980s, it is probably García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, a work that admirably and brilliantly combines experimental impulses with a powerful sense of political and social reality. Indeed, Márquez’s masterpiece perfectly embodies a tendency found in much of the best recent fiction—that is, it uses experimental strategies to discover new methods of reconnecting with the world outside the page, outside of language. In many ways, One Hundred Years of Solitude is clearly a nonrealistic novel, with its magical, surreal landscape, its dense reflexive surface, its metafictional emphasis on the nature of language and how reality is storified from one generation to the next, its labyrinthine literary references, and other features. Yet for all its experimentalism, One Hundred Years of Solitude also is a highly readable, coherent story, peopled with dozens of memorable characters; and it also urgently speaks to us about political, historical, and psychological realities that are central to our experience. It thus becomes an emblem of what postmodernism can be, being self-conscious about its literary heritage and about the limits of mimesis, developing its own organic form of experimentalism, yet managing to reconnect its readers with the world around them. When one examines some of the major works that have appeared since 1975—Barth’s Letters, for example, or Gaddis’ JR, or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, or William Kennedy’s Ironweed —one can see a similar synthesis at work.

This synthesis between experimentalism and more traditional literary concerns is explainable on many levels. Partly it has to do with the predictable, dialectical process that seems to govern most revolutions (aesthetical and otherwise), with the radicalism of one era being soon questioned, reexamined, and then counterattacked by more conservative attitudes. If the public spirit of rebellion, distrust, and unrest was reflected in the disruptive fictional forms of the 1960s, so, too, has the reactionary, conservative political and social atmosphere of the late 1970s and early 1980s inevitably been manifested in the literature of this period. This is not to say that experimentalism has dried up completely, but certainly it is obvious that authors today are less interested in innovation per se than they were ten or fifteen years ago—especially innovation in the direction of reflexive, nonreferential works. And, of course, the source of this shift in sensibility lies beyond the political climate alone. For one thing, the experimental fervor that seemed to sustain postmodernism for several years has been subjected to repeated counterattacks by authors and critics (one thinks of Gardner, Carver, Gore Vidal, and Graff). More significantly, we find authors simply exploring new grounds, different methods of innovation, redefining notions like realism and artifice in much the same way that, for example, photorealists did in painting. This is a familiar scenario: socalled artistic revolutions have a natural life span, and they are inevitably succeeded by a new artistic situation, with its own demands and needs, its own practitioners who do not share the enthusiasms of the previous group and who are anxious to define themselves as individuals in their own way. Thus, when we examine a number of the highly regarded writers who have emerged since 1975—authors like Ron Hansen, Ian McEwan, Frederick Barthelme, William Kennedy, Toni Morrison, Jayne Anne Phillips, Stephen Dixon, Raymond Carver, or Ann Beattie—we discover a very different aesthetic sensibility in their work than that which characterized earlier postmodern writers, a sensibility that seems interested in what I would term experimental realism. (Note that Professor Jerome Klinkowitz presents a different notion of this term in his article in this volume.) By experimental realism I mean fiction that is fundamentally realistic in its impulses but that develops innovative strategies in structure (the nonendings of Beattie, Carver, Barthelme, the absence of character and plot in Silliman), language (the poetic prose of Phillips or Maxine Hong Kingston or Marilynne Robinson, the collageassemblage of Silliman), the use of unusual materials (as with the use of “found” materials in Beattie, the manipulations of legend and history in Hansen, Kennedy, Leslie Silko, and Kingston), and so on. Of course, some of the sense of the decline of experimentalism results from our greater familiarity with the innovative strategies that once seemed so peculiar and difficult. Because later fiction which uses these experimental strategies seems more familiar and hence less threatening, its subsequent appearance is less likely to be remarked on—it is, in fact, no longer considered to be experimental at all. To take an obvious example, it might not occur to most readers or critics to discuss John Irving’s The World According to Garp as an experimental novel, although it obviously employs many of the same metafictional techniques—the book-within-a-book, the interweaving of fiction and reality, playful selfreferences to its author’s previous works—that other, more radical texts were using back in the 1960s. This isn’t to say that Irving’s book isn’t experimental or metafiction—it clearly is; it just may seem beside the point to label it as such.

Much the same point can be made about many of the best works of fiction that have appeared in the United States from 1975 to 1984. Books like Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, Alexander Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat, John Barth’s Sabbatical, Ann Beattie’s Falling in Place, Kurt Vonnegut’s Jailbird, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, William Kennedy’s Albany trilogy, and John Calvin Batchelor’s The Further Adventures of Halley’s Comet (to give just a sampling) incorporated postmodern experimental strategies into their structures so smoothly that they have often been seen as being quite traditional in orientation. Naturally, more radical experimental works continue to be written, but with a few notable exceptions—most of the books published by the Fiction Collective, the remarkable prose experiments of Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Barrett Watten, and Charles Bernstein, Joseph McElroy’s Plus, Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew, Kathy Acker’s “punk novels,” Walter Abish’s works—most of the important, vital fiction of the last decade were neither exclusively experimental in an obvious, flamboyant manner, nor representational in a traditional, realist sense. Again, this situation recapitulates what we see in the other arts, in which the advances and new directions adopted by artists of one period (say, the break with representation and fixed perspective in painting) are gradually assimilated by artists of succeeding generations until a new period of stagnation arises which subsequently produces a new revolution. Thus, like the operations that are endlessly forming and transforming the nature of reality itself (and the nature of our lives within this flux), the transformations of art will surely continue, heedless of the desires of critics for clear patterns, unassailable definitions, and useful labels.

Source: Larry McCaffery, “Introduction,” in Postmodern Fiction: A Bio-Bibliographical Guide, edited by Larry Mc- Caffery, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. xiv–xxviii.


Critical Overview