Study Guide

Postmodern Literature Characteristics

  • Intertextuality

    The poet John Donne once wrote that "no man is an island," and for postmodernists, no text is an island. Postmodernism is all about the connections between texts, including the various ways in which one text references another (or many others). There are all kinds of techniques that authors can use in order to highlight these links, including pastiche, parody, quotes, and direct references, as well as subtler nods to other material. What these techniques have in common is that they're examples of intertextuality.

    Julia Kristeva coined the term "intertextuality" in 1966, explaining that there are two relationships going on whenever we read a text: there's the relationship between us and the author (the horizontal axis) and between the text and other texts (the vertical axis). It's the vertical axis that gives us our definition of intertextuality; still, both axes emphasize that no text exists in a bubble and that we need to recognize how existing works shape current texts and readings.

    Intertextuality feeds into some of the big questions about literature—e.g., can a text be seen in isolation or do we need to look at how it relates to other texts? For postmodernists, it's clear that no text exists in isolation and that works of literature can only be created using stuff that already exists. Looking at it from this perspective, then, intertextuality is unavoidable: postmodern authors may enjoy drawing attention to it but it's always there. As the theorist Roland Barthes sums up, a text is "a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash" (source).

    Another question that's been discussed a lot over the years is whether the author is in full control of the text, or whether the reader plays an active role. On the one hand, it's the author who weaves together this collection of intertextual references; however, we as readers make a mental connection. This act involves recognizing conventions (academic types call these "codes") and is something we do naturally: when we read or view any kind of text, it goes into our memory bank and shapes our responses to other texts.

    Whatever form it takes, intertextuality treats literature as a network and invites us to pick up on how a text relates to other texts. This textiness sets postmodernism apart from some other literary movements that are all about realism and naturalism. Postmodernism doesn't try to disguise that a text is a construct, and that's why intertextuality is so postmodern—it reminds us of the very thing that some other kinds of texts try to keep under wraps.

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    Lots of postmodern fiction is intertextual, but the concept is at the core of Jorge Luis Borges' "The Library of Babel". The story describes people's desperate, futile attempts to decode the contents of a library. With folks getting depressed as they plough on, Borges writes, "The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms." Pretty deep, huh? Still, the idea that everything has already been written—and that there's not some "big meaning"—is the basis of postmodernism.

    Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita has become so well-known for its controversial subject that its literary style sometimes gets overlooked. Make no mistake: this novel is bursting with different genres: detective fiction, memoir, romance, satire, fairy tale, realism, tragedy, and psychological case study. Some combo. Add in references to Edgar Allan Poe, James Joyce, Laurence Sterne, Lord Byron and T.S. Eliot, and we have a prime example of intertextuality.

  • Metafiction

    Here's a term that gets tossed around quite a bit.

    First used by William H. Gass in a 1970 essay, "Philosophy and the Form of Fiction," the word "metafiction" signals the kind of text that emphasizes its status as a text. Metafiction is 100% aware of the fact that it's fiction—some literature may try to be naturalistic or realistic, but postmodernism doesn't hide what it is.

    In fact, it flaunts it.

    Metafiction is a prime example of the self-aware vibe we often find in postmodernism. Rather than trying to pass itself off as a window on the world and disguise its structure and techniques, metafiction lays its cards on the table. There are lots of different ways in which authors can create this effect—story-within-a-story, making obvious references to storytelling conventions—but what they have in common is that they call attention to the processes of writing and reading.

    This technique started to attract attention in the 1960s when it was used in some classic texts such as John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. It then reached the height of its popularity in the '70s, though some authors (such as Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace) kept using it in spades. Fast forward to the present, and metafiction has spread out much wider, becoming a major part of pop culture.

    Through its references to literary styles and conventions, metafiction gives us another example of postmodernism's bric-a-brac approach. Postmodern literature isn't about creating something 100% new and real—remember, these ideals are no longer seen as possible by postmodernists. Rather than fighting against this, though, postmodernists go with the flow and embrace the idea of writing stories about stories, instead of getting bogged down in a quest for what's authentic or real.

    P.S. As an add-on to the concept of metafiction, Linda Hutcheon came up with the term "historiographic metafiction" in 1988. The term describes fictional texts that bring history into the mix—a combo that takes us away from the idea of history as fact and highlights that writers can put their own spin on things (after all, it's history we're dealing with here).

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    Think metafiction is a 20th-century invention? Think again. Check out Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759-1767) for an early slice of self-awareness.

    If we're talking metafiction, then it doesn't get more meta than Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night A Traveler (1979). Experimental to the max, it's a prime example of a text that emphasizes its status as a text.

  • Pastiche

    Think of pastiche as the literary equivalent of a collage: it's not about creating something from scratch but drawing on what already exists. (Yeah, those Bachelor contestants know what's up.) There are all sorts of ways in which texts can reference other texts, right? But what a pastiche does is imitate other texts or genres. It's like playing dress up: a text may take on the guise of a hard-boiled detective novel, a Gothic melodrama, a spy adventure…take your pick. The postmodern author doesn't even have to choose just one—they can mimic as many genres as they like.

    People sometimes get pastiche and parody mixed up, since they're both examples of intertextuality and relying on our knowledge as readers: we can't recognize parody or pastiche in action unless who know what they're referencing. But parody usually exaggerates and pokes fun at the original material. Pastiche, meanwhile, adopts the stylings of the original but doesn't comment on or make fun of the material (if anything, it's more likely to pay tribute).

    As with postmodernism in general, not everyone is in love with the idea of pastiche—Fredric Jameson famously called it pointless and empty. Despite its critics, though, pastiche is a super-popular technique in postmodern texts and can be found in all areas of pop culture. Think Quentin Tarantino movies: they imitate a bunch of genres, like kung fu, grindhouse, and western movies; and dime store pulp novels.

    So if you're reading or watching something and it seems like it's a hodgepodge of different genres, you can put your money on pastiche.

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    Some works may stick to one genre ,but David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (2004) is made up of no less than six, including mystery, cyberpunk, sci-fi, and period drama. This is one novel that relishes the use of pastiche, but that's no surprise—Mitchell wears his influences on his sleeve and has even listed the styles and authors that he has mimicked (check out this article).

    In the mood for a fun jaunt through '80s pop culture? Then check out Ernest Cline's Ready Player One (2011). Fed up with living in a bleak future world (2044 to be precise), the characters in this novel retreat into a virtual reality game—a game whose designer had a thing for the '80s. Cue a totally radical journey into a decade of legwarmers, Ghostbusters, and Pac-Man (click here for a handy list of pop culture references).

  • Maximalism

    Where minimalism is all about making things neat, tidy, and low key, maximalism goes against the grain by embracing excess. And for many postmodernists, maximalism is where it's at.

    Because postmodernism doesn't stick to any hard and fast rules, its texts can be any length. Still, some of its best-loved texts tend to be on the long side (coughDFWcough), and it's usually maximalism that's to blame—er…thank? Postmodernists just love to describe stuff.

    And it's not just lengthy descriptions that create these 800-page tomes. These authors also tend to, um, go off on tangents. Postmodernism definitely doesn't stick to traditional ideas about plotting and narrative structure, which means authors are more likely to take diversions and explore other themes and subplots that tickle their fancy.

    As with so many postmodern characteristics, maximalism gives the author the chance to experiment. Since we're living in an age in which the line between authentic and inauthentic has become blurred (so say the pomos), we may as well just throw everything into the mix rather than getting bogged down with what's real/false or certain/uncertain.

    Postmodernism's love of intertextuality and metafiction adds to its maximalist character. It's inevitable if you think about it: if an author is making loads of references to other texts—and to itself as a text—then we're most likely dealing with a work of maximalist fiction. In fact, maximalism is pretty blatant about including heaps of outside info and references.

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    Zadie Smith's White Teeth (2000) is a classic example of maximalism: following the lives of three families over three generations, the novel is jam packed with different settings, characters, and voices. With all that going on, it's no wonder that the novel grapples with so many themes.

    Racking up multiple awards and 600 pages, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981) gets its title from a fictional scenario: that children born on India's first hour of independence (August 15, 1947) were gifted with magical powers. You may be thinking this is another Harry Potter, but Rushdie's more into using this theme as an allegory for the issues facing post-colonial India. Mix this with a non-linear narrative, and we've got ourselves a work that's a maximalist classic.

  • Irony

    Irony isn't exclusive to postmodernism, but the pomos just own it. Before we dive in, take a look at Shmoop's definition of irony, paying closest attention to verbal irony. It's kind of like sarcasm…just fancier. Irony can be playful, or it can be used to highlight the absurdity or severity of serious situations.

    Yep, it's a multitasker.

    By the 1990s, irony had exploded onto the pop culture scene. In fact, it had become so popular that it seemed to have lost its impact—people even started talking about the end of irony, especially in the immediate wake of 9/11. For some, irony seemed to have no place following the very real horror of this tragedy. As guys like Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller had shown in response to WWII, though, irony can always be an effective literary device: it may lay low for a while, but it always returns.

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    Want to see the ultimate fictional treatment of irony? Then check out Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961), which is all about folks who find themselves stuck in ironic situations: so much so that the term "catch-22" has become part of our everyday language.

    How does Kurt Vonnegut use ironic themes? For a great example, take a look at Cat's Cradle (1963). Even the title is an ironic play on the game of cat's cradle, which involves twisting string to create a crisscross figure. We could see the finished product as making up a pattern, but one of the characters declares that there's "no damn cat, and no damn cradle." In other words, there's no big meaning or absolute truth out there.

  • Hyperreality

    While some authors and theorists welcomed postmodernism with open arms, others have argued that it's not all fun and games. Guy Debord wrote an influential book called The Society of Spectacle (1967), in which he flagged the downsides of a world in which the media had seemingly invaded every corner of society. His conclusion was that we're now living in a society in which nothing's real anymore: "All that once was directly lived has become mere representation."

    Deep.

    Jean Baudrillard was another guy who held this outlook, expanding on it in Simulacra and Simulation (1981). For Baudrillard, postmodernism wasn't just about experimental art and fiction: he focused on the 20th-century background in which it had developed, arguing that media and consumer culture had gone into overdrive and led to a Matrix-style scenario where there's no originality left and what seems real is just a simulation.

    Rather than embracing the postmodern age, Baudrillard saw its speed and its blurring of real/unreal as having had a damaging effect. According to this guy, we've become so bombarded with images that we've lost touch with reality and, what's more, mistake these images, or "simulacra," for reality. The result? Life may seem real but it's no longer really real—we're now living in a state of hyperreality.

    Trippy, right?

    Though Baudrillard puts a negative spin on things, his theory has its roots in one of the big ideas behind postmodernism, which is that there's nothing original left so say and no story that hasn't been told. Words like originality and authenticity used to have a lot of street cred, but for postmodernists, nothing's truly original anymore. In this view, art and literature are created by reworking existing texts and ideas.

    Postmodernism usually doesn't sweat this lack of authenticity or concepts like "reality" and "truth." Its attitude is pretty much "so what?"—it takes it as a given and works from there. But there were some folks who weren't too happy about this turn of events. So is postmodernism a thrill or is it the demise of civilization?

    You be the judge.

    Chew on This

    Want to see how ideas about hyperreality and simulation play out in fiction? Take a look at William Gibson's cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (1984). As well as featuring a pastiche of different genres and mixing high and low culture, the novel takes Baudrillard's vision of a hyperreal society and places it in a futuristic setting: a high-tech consumer society called "Freeside", in which folks occupy virtual streets, bars, and shopping malls, and reality has been replaced by simulation.

    Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" (1961) hinges on the concept of hyperreality. It's set in society in which everyone is finally equal. Sounds like a good thing, right? Well, not so fast—this equality is achieved by making sure that no one is allowed to have any individual skills or characteristics. It's a seriously bleak world, but thanks to brainwashing techniques, folks are stopped from recognizing—or confronting—what's really going on.

  • Paranoia

    For all its playfulness, postmodern literature also deals with heavy stuff—including paranoia. Yep, these people thought someone was out to get them.

    Okay, we need to take social and historical background into account here. Remember, postmodernism grew out of a mid-late 20th-century setting in which technology, consumerism, and the media were all growing at an insane rate. As the world entered a new era of mass communication and technology (i.e., "technoculture"), writers started tapping into the theme of technology going into, um, overdrive and people being left powerless under its reign.

    So technology is ramping up: is that enough to make people freak out? Possibly, but the postmodernists had more factors on their side. Namely, a little thing called the Cold War. The Cold War was basically a game of chicken, in which the ongoing suspicion between the East and West was so thick, you could cut it with…a dystopian story.

    Technology + a war of distrust = Big Brother is watching.

    And remember, the idea that you're being controlled, that your life isn't your own, is especially horrific for postmodernists, who were all about person freedom and, frankly, chaos. The order being imposed on the world around them—be it through technology or spies—was enough to psych them out.

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    Technology run amok is a favorite of postmodernist writers, including Philip Reeve, who wrote the steampunk novel Mortal Engines (2001). In this novel, the world is back on track after an apocalyptic event, but technology seems as though it's heading in the same direction. Here we go again

    Think Alan Moore's Watchmen (1986-1987) is just a superhero saga? Think again. This graphic novel shines a light on U.S./foreign relations and Cold War paranoia. Set in an alternate version of New York circa 1985 (we're talking dystopian, Dark Knight stuff here), it works as an allegory: its characters' different outlooks mirror some of the political views and questions going on at the time. Plus, let's face it, the whole superhero thing is way more fun than some stuffy debate.

  • Fragmentation

    Let's hop in our Shmoop time machines and head back to the 18th century: a little period we like to call the Enlightenment. Enlightenment folks were all about order, rationality, science, reason, and unity. Yeah, not exactly a postmodern manifesto.

    As with any movement worth its salt, Enlightenment thinking had its fair share of challengers. And as time went on, new movements started to flourish and to tap into social changes that were the order of the day. After Romanticism and Gothicism had their run, modernism came around the corner—after World War I, the modernists were all about uncertainty, alienation, and fragmentation.

    Sound familiar?

    Yeah, the modernists and postmodernists had a lot in common. But here's the thing: modernists tended to express a sense of sadness about this turn of events (hello, The Waste Land ), seeing the fragmentation as something to be mourned. Some modernists even tried to cling onto order, using art as a beacon of meaning in a world where meaning seemed to have been totally lost.

    Postmodernism, on the other hand, doesn't hanker after these qualities or try to hold onto them. Quite the opposite: it embraces the idea of fragmentation and uses it to create playful texts that reflect and explore the chaos of the world. No attempts to find some sort of grand meaning or insight ("grand narratives," that is); these dudes were skeptics to their souls.

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    Featuring several unreliable narrators who all have their own version of events, William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936) turns its back on the idea of a "master narrative." The story at the heart of the novel keeps being reinvented to the point where we can't pinpoint an absolute truth: instead, we're dealing with multiple, individual truths that depend on who's doing the telling. How does this modernist text relate to and differ from the postmodernist texts that came after it?

    Want to see how fragmentation can work in both a stylistic and thematic way? Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is all about fragmentation; given that its protagonist travels around in time, we'd expect nothing less. This fragmentation not only lets Vonnegut play around with time and place; it also reflects the sense of psychological fragmentation that our protagonist is going through.

  • Post-World War II

    As you might imagine, postmodernism isn't big on boundaries and limits—which means there's not really a set date we can point to and say, "That's it! That's exactly when postmodernism began!" (Bummer, too—we love shouting stuff like that.) In fact, some folks have argued that postmodernism is more about an attitude than a historical period or a certain set of techniques.

    But come on: we're literary scholars, so it'd be helpful to have some sense of how and when the movements came about. And for postmodernism, we're gonna go with…World War II.

    World War II and the horror of the Holocaust had a major impact on the cultural landscape of most of the world—it couldn't help but shake things up and influence how people thought and wrote. Sure, there are some postmodernist (or proto-postmodernist?) texts that crop up before the war, but the shift between modernism and postmodernism is pretty drastic post-1945.

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    Some postmodern texts address World War II directly, but what about the more allegorical stuff? Look no further than Albert Camus' The Plague (1947). Set in the 1940s, it's about a town that's ravaged with the plague, but it conjures up a wartorn landscape. It can be seen to echo/foreshadow other wars and epidemics, too, as well as raising postmodern issues: e.g., it questions consumerism and the idea of history as progress.

    How does postmodern fiction deal with a topic as heavy as the Holocaust? Just take a look at Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale (1986-1991). Based on the experiences of Spiegelman's father (who was a Polish Jew), the novel takes an inventive approach in using the graphic novel format. And that's not all: by representing the characters as animals (e.g., the Germans are cats and the Jews are mice), it joins Animal Farm in showing how effective allegory can be in tackling serious themes.

  • Late Capitalism

    Let's sum up an entire economic and political way of living in one sentence: capitalism describes an industrial society in which consumerism and private ownership are the order of the day and competition is the name of the game.

    (Yes, there's much more to it, but let's just start there.)

    A guy called Ernest Mandel helped popularize the idea that capitalism comes in three stages. The most relevant to us is the third stage, late capitalism, which Madel defines as a time of "generalized universal industrialization" (source) that began around 1945—the same year that World War II ended and postmodernism is often said to have gotten started.

    The alternate name for this stage, "advanced capitalism," helps shed some light on what we're talking about: a stage in which industrialization and commodity culture have invaded more and more areas of everyday life. When we use the term "late capitalism," then, we're referring to a world of mass media and consumerism, globalism, and big corporations. Ring any bells? Yep, this is the kind of setup that grew out of the mid 20th century and is still going strong today.

    Mandel isn't the only one who's discussed this concept: in his well-known book, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson helps flesh out the timeframe in which late capitalism developed, pointing to the 1950s as the decade in which wartime shortages were being made up for and new technologies were coming onto the scene. It wasn't just about economics but cultural changes, too, and Jameson emphasizes that, by the 1970s, we'd reached a fully-fledged stage of postmodern late capitalism.

    That's right: Jameson draws a connection between late capitalism and postmodernism. For him and many other folks, postmodernism isn't just about experimental art and fiction—it's a major symptom of late capitalism. In fact, Jameson argues that any opinion on postmodernism is also a "political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today".

    So what does this mean in practice? How do the two connect?

    Take fragmentation: in Jameson's view, fragmentation is a sign that we've become lost in a world of globalization and mass communication where there's no longer an obvious "center" and space isn't easily mapped. It's no surprise that paranoia rears its head, too, this being a world in which technology is everywhere and the media is king. And how about late capitalism's reliance on the recycling of images and commodities? Originality and authenticity are no longer seen as possible in a postmodern age—all we can do is work with the stuff that already exists.

    For Jameson, though, postmodernism isn't about creativity; rather, it's a sign of a hollow world in which any sense of history has been lost and replaced with just a stream of images.

    Way to harsh our mellow, Fred.

    Chew on This

    When late capitalism seems as though it's all-powerful and controls every area of life, it can get seriously frustrating. Just check out Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club (1996), in which a bunch of guys decide that they're mad as you know what and aren't gonna take it anymore. Their chosen mode of rebellion? An underground fighting ring that grows into a full-blown anarchist mission.

    Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961) is a great illustration of lots of postmodern concepts, and late capitalism is no exception. In this novel, we find that people may be different in loads of ways, but there's one thing they have in common: they're driven by greed. Capitalism is all about about money, money, money, and the characters in this novel put aside their moral values as they pursue the almighty dollar.