Overview of Major International Literary Movements

Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson analyzes four different literary movements that influenced literature across the globe. Those four movements include: modernism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and the New Sincerity movement.

Overview of International Literary Movements

You may have heard of the Romanticist movement or the Victorian movement or many other names of 'movements' in literature from the 19th century and even earlier in history, but those movements never really spanned the globe the way literary movements did after the First World War. With the rise of technological society, the modernist period ushered in a new age of communication and dialogue between writers across the globe. There emerged 'trans-Atlantic' societies in which authors and poets shared their aesthetic philosophy, creating cross-cultural trends in the fiction and poetry. The network of influence has expanded in the more contemporary era. Postmodernism, postcolonialism, and New Sincerity are the major international literary movements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Each of these movements unites writers across the globe who share a certain ethos or attitude about truth and the role of literature in society.


Modernism is an aesthetic movement that developed in the beginning of the twentieth century in response to the first World War. Modernism was trans-Atlantic, since there was a lot of dialogue and exchange between British and American writers, compared to earlier periods of literature. Ezra Pound, a publisher and power broker in the Modernist literary culture, organized a trans-Atlantic society of poets, which brought together American literary figures like T. S. Elliot with Anglo-Irish literary figures like W. B. Yeats and James Joyce. Modernist writers focused on the themes of fragmentation and disconnection from the world, feeling that the modern individual was living in a waste land of modern warfare. Modernist fiction and poetry is known for its stream-of-conscious (uninterrupted) style of narration and for its fragmentation of form.


Postmodernism describes the artistic and philosophical developments that emerged in the aftermath of World War II. Postmodernism modifies modernist themes, such as fragmentation. Rather than examine the individual's fragmentation from society, postmodernism examines the individual's internal fragmentation. The postmodern subject is imagined as pluralistic and contradictory, not having a stable or fixed identity. Likewise, truth for the postmodern writers, is subjective and partial, rather than absolute. This philosophy is expressed in postmodern fiction across the world. Take, for instance, South African novelist J. M. Coetzee, British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, and American novelists Toni Morrison or Bret Easton Ellis. While these writers represent different aesthetic styles, they all emphasize that reality is a fiction and that there is no such thing as objective truth. Postmodernism uses irony (self-consciousness), cynicism, and unreliable narration to flaunt the artificiality of reality. For instance, postmodern novelists often confess to making up the story, which emphasizes the need for skepticism and doubt.


Postcolonialism is an international literary and philosophical movement that examines the impact of colonialism (being the holding of land in a different location of the sovereign country, primarily practiced by the European powers in the 20th century) across the globe. Famous examples of postcolonial authors include Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie (again!), and Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. While their work spans various continents, it shares a central focus: the domination of imperial forces and the suffering of colonized people. Postcolonial novels use resistance as a theme, showing how indigenous people can fight the dominant culture that is imposed upon them during colonization. Postcolonial novels also explore the importance of reclaiming the past and of reclaiming one's native language. Arundhati Roy's postcolonial novel, The God of Small Things, for instance, experiments with English language words to suggest that colonized subjects (Indians) can master a language that was forced upon them.

New Sincerity

New Sincerity fiction encompasses 'post-postmodern' narratives that aim to abandon the ironic forms used by the postmodernists to return to the 'single-entendre principles' advocated by American author David Foster Wallace in his now-famous 'E Unibus Pluram' essay (though a Russian version of 'new sincerity' had been practiced in Russia since the 1980s). In this essay, Wallace argued that postmodern irony and cynicism had become unproductive. He asserted that the idealistic assumptions behind early postmodern irony--that 'etiology and diagnosis pointed toward a cure, that a revelation of imprisonment led to freedom'--had, by now, proven false. Critical knowledge, Wallace argued, was not liberating; the dismantling of grand narratives had provided little ground for meaningful action.

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