Postmodernism in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Postmodern Literature Defined
  • 3:21 Postmodern Philosophy
  • 5:51 Examples of Postmodern…
  • 8:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
James Fleming
Expert Contributor
Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for six years.

Postmodern literature is a type of literature that came to prominence after World War II. Learn about how postmodernism in literature rejects many literary conventions and embraces new ones in this lesson. Then, test your knowledge with a quiz.

Postmodern Literature Defined

Postmodern literature is a form of literature which is marked, both stylistically and ideologically, by a reliance on such literary conventions as fragmentation, paradox, unreliable narrators, often unrealistic and downright impossible plots, games, parody, paranoia, dark humor and authorial self-reference. Postmodern authors tend to reject outright meanings in their novels, stories and poems, and, instead, highlight and celebrate the possibility of multiple meanings, or a complete lack of meaning, within a single literary work.

Postmodern literature also often rejects the boundaries between 'high' and 'low' forms of art and literature, as well as the distinctions between different genres and forms of writing and storytelling. Here are some examples of stylistic techniques that are often used in postmodern literature:

  • Pastiche: The taking of various ideas from previous writings and literary styles and pasting them together to make new styles.
  • Intertextuality: The acknowledgment of previous literary works within another literary work.
  • Metafiction: The act of writing about writing or making readers aware of the fictional nature of the very fiction they're reading.
  • Temporal Distortion: The use of non-linear timelines and narrative techniques in a story.
  • Minimalism: The use of characters and events which are decidedly common and non-exceptional characters.
  • Maximalism: Disorganized, lengthy, highly detailed writing.
  • Magical Realism: The introduction of impossible or unrealistic events into a narrative that is otherwise realistic.
  • Faction: The mixing of actual historical events with fictional events without clearly defining what is factual and what is fictional.
  • Reader Involvement: Often through direct address to the reader and the open acknowledgment of the fictional nature of the events being described.

Many critics and scholars find it best to define postmodern literature against the popular literary style that came before it: modernism. In many ways, postmodern literary styles and ideas serve to dispute, reverse, mock and reject the principles of modernist literature.

For example, instead of following the standard modernist literary quest for meaning in a chaotic world, postmodern literature tends to eschew, often playfully, the very possibility of meaning. The postmodern novel, story or poem is often presented as a parody of the modernist literary quest for meaning. Thomas Pynchon's postmodern novel The Crying of Lot 49 is a perfect example of this. In this novel, the protagonist's quest for knowledge and understanding results ultimately in confusion and the lack of any sort of clear understanding of the events that transpired.

Postmodern Philosophy

Postmodern literature serves as a reaction to the supposed stylistic and ideological limitations of modernist literature and the radical changes the world underwent after the end of World War II. While modernist literary writers often depicted the world as fragmented, troubled and on the edge of disaster, which is best displayed in the stories and novels of such modernist authors as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Albert Camus, Virginia Woolf and Thomas Mann, postmodern authors tend to depict the world as having already undergone countless disasters and being beyond redemption or understanding.

For many postmodern writers, the various disasters that occurred in the last half of the 20th century left a number of writers with a profound sense of paranoia. They also gave them an awareness of the possibility of utter disaster and apocalypse on the horizon. The notion of locating precise meanings and reasons behind any event became seen as impossible.

Postmodern literary writers have also been greatly influenced by various movements and ideas taken from postmodern philosophy. Postmodern philosophy tends to conceptualize the world as being impossible to strictly define or understand. Postmodern philosophy argues that knowledge and facts are always relative to particular situations and that it's both futile and impossible to attempt to locate any precise meaning to any idea, concept or event.

Postmodern philosophy tends to renounce the possibility of 'grand narratives' and, instead, argues that all belief systems and ideologies are developed for the express purpose of controlling others and maintaining particular political and social systems. The postmodern philosophical perspective is pretty cynical and takes nothing that is presented at face value or as being legitimate.

Similarly, at the core of many postmodern literary writer's imaginations is a belief that the world has already fallen apart and that actual, singular meaning is impossible to locate (if it can be said to exist at all), and that literature, instead, should serve to reveal the world's absurdities, countless paradoxes and ironies.

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Additional Activities

Postmodern Literature and You

This lesson gave you an introduction to postmodernism in literature, a genre notoriously tricky to define. Use the prompts below to explore the topic further.

Genre Comparison

Postmodernism is a literary genre that shares many traits with other kinds of writing. Write an essay comparing postmodernism to another genre or literary movement of your choice. Examples that may prove fruitful include absurdism, dada, post-humanism, post-structuralism, bizarro, and hysterical realism. You can focus on specific novels or on broader combinations of traits that make up the genres.

Postmodernism: Historical Context

This lesson gave you an overview of the historical factors that influenced the creation of the postmodern genre. List events in the latter half of the 20th century that may have contributed to the rise of postmodernist literature besides the end of World War II. With your list, try and find examples of postmodernist novels that you can directly or indirectly link to various events. What does this tell you about the genre and those who write in it?

Get Creative

Now that you understand the conventions of postmodernist literature, try writing your own short story using postmodernist style as much as possible. This is a challenge because the style may seem a little old-fashioned and may not be particularly informed by your own life experiences. Nonetheless, use it as a formative exercise in genre experimentation. When you finish writing, reflect: what aspects of postmodernism were easy to emulate? Which were difficult? Do you feel that you were able to mimic or participate in the genre? Why or why not?

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