Study Guide

Postmodern Literature

Postmodern Literature Introduction

Postmodernism is one of those words that has made itself at home in our everyday language. Just think how often you've heard a movie or a book being described as "so postmodern." From Andy Warhol's pop art, to authors like Chuck Palahniuk and Douglas Coupland, to ultra-popular movies like Moulin Rouge, Scream, and Pulp Fiction, there's no getting around it: postmodernism has become part of our lives and our entertainment.

But…um…what is it?

Like any lit movement, postmodernism (or "pomo," if you want to be trendy) can't be pinned down to one thing—in fact, one of its big beefs is with the idea that things have to be tied up in a neat little package.

But there are a bunch of features that often crop up in postmodern texts and give us an idea of what sort of criteria we're looking at. We'll get into the essentials later, but one of the major ideas behind postmodernism is that everything has already been done—every story has been told, and it's impossible to be 100% original anymore.

Womp womp.

This attitude might seem gloomy at first, but postmodernism is far from Debbie Downerville. It takes this lack of originality as a starting point and says, what the hey?—let's just have fun experimenting and drawing inspiration from those texts that already exist. Sure, some critics may see this as a cop-out, but for postmodernists, it can be liberating. Think of it like a collage, where you piece together stuff to create another text that takes on a life of its own. You've seen those Andy Warhol prints that reframe Marilyn Monroe using neon colors? Imagine that but applied to literary texts.

Postmodernism is known for its rebellious approach and willingness to test boundaries. We may take this for granted in literature today, but there was a time back in the 17th and 18th centuries (known as the Enlightenment) that was all about order, unity, reason…you get the idea. We're not saying that postmodernists were the first to go against the grain: Romanticism and then modernism had already questioned whether these ideals were possible. The difference is that postmodernists are all about embracing disorder and taking a more playful approach.

The word "postmodern" is so widely used today that some people see it as a cliché. But maybe it's just super popular? Far from being ancient history, postmodernism is one of the big literary movements of our time and has given us some of the best-loved texts of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Not too shabby.

What is Postmodern Literature About and Why Should I Care?

Throw away the dusty history books: postmodernism is what's happening today.

It started to generate buzz around the mid-20th century and since then, it's become more and more a part of our lives—for better or worse, depending on who you ask.

Since postmodernism exploded onto the scene, it's grown to the point where some folks have suggested that we're now moving into (or have already moved into) a post-postmodern age. At the moment, though, the idea of what this new age might involve is still vague, with academic types having different ideas about where we're heading. So let's stick with postmodernism for the moment.

And what has postmodernism done for us? Well, it's broken down boundaries. Where some other eras and literary movements have tried to draw a line between high and low culture, postmodernism mixes things up. It's the opposite of snobby, and doesn't worship a particular set of "classic" authors or texts.

Because of this laidback approach, postmodernism has helped change people's ideas about what we can classify as literature. Sure, there may be some folks who'd like to stick with the old emphasis on "serious," "highbrow" texts, but postmodernism has made a major dent on traditional ideas about literature, art, and culture.

With its playful approach and rebelliousness when it comes to the line between high/low culture, postmodernism isn't burrowed away in some narrow corner of academia; in fact, it has seriously shaken up academia, all while having a massive impact on pop culture. NBD.

Postmodern Literature Resources

Introduction to Postmodernism
Put together by Purdue University's English department, this useful overview of postmodernism includes a general intro, a glossary of terms and concepts, and modules on some key theorists (Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson, and Linda Hutcheon), along with lesson plans and examples of postmodernism in action. Covering texts ranging from a 1538 woodcut to William Gibson's <em>Neuromancer</em>, plus <em>Star Trek</em> and <em>The Matrix</em>, it's definitely worth a look.

The Modern Word
Don't be fooled by the title—this site isn't about modernism. When it uses the term "modern," it's in the same way that we use it in daily life; i.e., to talk about stuff that has to do with either the present day or recent history. Spanning fiction from the 20th century onwards, this site is dedicated to "writers who have pushed the edges of their medium, combining literary talent with a sense of experimentation." All the big postmodern names are here, so if you're looking for info on an author then this site has it covered.

OnPostmodernism
This online dictionary is your doorway to the world of postmodernism, summing up the key terms we're likely to come across when reading up on the topic. It's not just your basic dictionary, though: it features listings of postmodern literature, movies, TV, art, and architecture, plus some key theoretical works. Oh, and don't forget to check out the "links" page too.

Postmodern Culture
A lot of journals are aimed squarely at the academic crowd and don't make their contents freely available. However, this e-journal does things its own way: founded in 1990, its goal is to appeal to academic and non-academic types alike. Not only is its most recent issue available online; it also features a text-only archive where you can read full articles from past issues.

"The Postmodern Essay Generator"
We all know how literary theories and movements sometimes have their fair share of fancy lingo. Ever read an essay and come away confused? We share your pain. For a fun spoof of this experience, head over to Communication from Elsewhere's Postmodern Essay Generator. Every time you visit this page you'll be greeted with a randomly-generated, fake essay that's full of "pomo" names and terms. Just don't fall into the trap of mistaking them for the real thing.