The last few years may be, in the minds of later historians, the peak of the postmodern worldview. Postmodernism’s chief tools are irony, metafiction, and word games; to paraphrase David Foster Wallace (himself a postmodern writer) the basic premise is that we are reading a text, the text itself is aware it is a fictional story, and by extension the real world is a text we, or some authority, can manipulate. Kurt Vonnegut’s work provides a wealth of examples, particularly his narration in Slaughter-House Five and Breakfast of Champions where he appears as a character. Other postmodern authors like Cormac McCarthy and Brett Easton Ellis do not play with text as much as Wallace or Thomas Pynchon, yet their subject material is postmodern—both portray bleak worlds with little hope because PoMo posits there are no grand narratives. Ellis’ novel Glamorama depicts the world manipulated by media for nefarious ends, not unlike the way the avant-garde authors of the immediate postwar era manipulated the language of their novels directly.
Postmodernism, logically, flows out of some movements within Modernism. The two most obvious examples of this are Gertrude Stein’s often considered unreadable works such as The Making of Americans[i] and James Joyce’s opus Ulysses and his final work Finnegan’s Wake. Both authors make their works deliberately obtuse—Joyce is said to have remarked that he’d have the professors scratching their heads for years.[ii] They were the literary Bolsheviks of their day, upending the English language itself to invent new forms. Other Modernists like Ezra Pound attempted new forms to try to build on the Western literary heritage. Pound held an M.A. in literature back when it meant something and had read the Provencal poets, the Italian troubadours, and Far Eastern poetry when it was relatively obscure in the West. The Cantos requires an immense breadth of knowledge to read and understand, both historical and linguistic. Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner ran against the grain of established styles while preserving the story. Interestingly, Faulkner precedes the “world building” of his postmodern successors (Particularly Vonnegut) with his recurring setting and interlinked characters. Within Modernism there were literary revolutionaries like Joyce alongside the authors like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Pound, who synthesized new forms while keeping a substantive story. Modernism, importantly, often lacks the irony and cynicism of postmodernism.
Another important development in the rise of postmodernism is the proliferation of the creative writing workshop and the MFA program. Supporters of these programs claim that they are no different from the Pound or Stein salons, or other literary entourages of the past, but their weakness is that they are bound up within institutions—not the product of an organic group. Impassioned defenses of the programs strike me as post-hoc rationalization for thousands of dollars and hours of time at a masters’ program one can do by writing frequently and reading books free from the library. The introduction of the MFA program has its roots in an unlikely place: the CIA’s efforts in the Cold War to influence culture. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop received money from the “Farfield Foundation” (in reality a front for the CIA) to recruit left wing writers from Asia and Europe to supervise them for the cultural battle against Soviet social realism. The Agency also sponsored Jackson Pollock and other postmodern visual artists, as their work exemplified to the intelligence officers the intellectual freedom of America; literature is no different. This is not the sole reason for the entrenchment of postmodernism, but it is an important factor.
To be fair to the postmodern authors, they would probably not describe themselves as postmodernists, as this is a categorization placed on them for writing in a particular period and using similar techniques. Postmodern techniques can be used effectively, yet the trap many of the authors fall into is focusing on word play and narrative manipulation at the expense of the story and characters themselves. After all, to the PoMo practitioner these aspects are merely textual game pieces to manipulate. This thinking infects other areas of modern thought, particularly in conspiracy research circles where reality itself is merely a simulacrum controlled by a vague “they,” with no hope of change. There is no ultimate truth within many postmodern novels because they quite often have nihilistic or ambiguous endings without real resolution. This loss of meaning is the heart of the postmodern movement,[iii] and highlights the trauma of modernity—many Western people lack telos in their lives. While the textual games of postmodernism are tiresome, PoMo literature has value as a weather vane for particularly American thought in the last five decades. Vonnegut’s Galapagos explores this lack of meaning, where the genetic evolution of survivors of an apocalypse does not cause positive development, but devolution into animals. Unlike Hemingway’s heroes embracing their struggle and suffering, the postmodern hero typified by Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men resigns himself to defeat in a random, meaningless world.
The constant use of irony and deconstruction in postmodern literature creates other issues; as British nationalist Jonathan Bowden said in his Wyndham Lewis lecture, you deconstruct to the point that there is no fixed frame of reference from which the writer deconstructs from. Poe’s law demonstrates this on the internet. Parody accounts—quite often of radical liberals—are indistinguishable from their real counterparts. The cloistering of writers within academia does not help this situation, as the academy is a clique you must fit into. The tide of irony may be receding, as David Foster Wallace predicted, with New Sincerity. How this impacts contemporary literature is unclear. Americans do not seem to regard the novel as serious entertainment. This is not to say all writers who teach workshops or have MFA degrees are necessarily bad—their prose is quite often very good—but they emerge out of the same milieu. This is not at all Hemingway’s Left Bank of journalists, starving painters, trust fund debutantes, and eccentric poets milling around. Many modern “name” writers follow the progression of college and then straight into teaching, not quite the interesting and diverse lives of previous literary periods.
With the ever-worsening fate of the American book industry, the literary tides may change. I doubt it will come from, in the end, Kindle publishing alone. While KDP is a great platform for writers who want to avoid the Byzantine corporate publishing system, the Kindle book market is full of pornographic “romance” novels and self-help books cobbled from poorly written blogs. It may not be the place in the long term for serious fiction, but on the other hand, New York literati consider agitprop “serious” fiction. The only thing to do now is keep writing and pay attention.
[i] I have not read this novel by Stein, so I do not know how readable it is.
[iii] “movement” is used loosely here