4.101: Postmodern and 21st Century Literature in America


Our current period in history has been called by many the postmodern age (or “postmodernity”) and many contemporary critics are understandably interested in making sense of the time in which they live. Although an admirable endeavor, such critics inevitably run into difficulties given the sheer complexity of living in history: we do not yet know which elements in our culture will win out and we do not always recognize the subtle but insistent ways that changes in our society affect our ways of thinking and being in the world. One symptom of the present’s complexity is just how divided critics are on the question of postmodern culture, with a number of critics celebrating our liberation and a number of others lamenting our enslavement….

One of the problems in dealing with postmodernism is in distinguishing it from modernism. In many ways, postmodern artists and theorists continue the sorts of experimentation that we can also find in modernist works, including the use of self-consciousness, parody, irony, fragmentation, generic mixing, ambiguity, simultaneity, and the breakdown between high and low forms of expression. In this way, postmodern artistic forms can be seen as an extension of modernist experimentation; however, others prefer to represent the move into postmodernism as a more radical break, one that is a result of new ways of representing the world including television, film (especially after the introduction of color and sound), and the computer. Many date postmodernity from the sixties when we witnessed the rise of postmodern architecture; however, some critics prefer to see WWII as the radical break from modernity, since the horrors of Nazism (and of other modernist revolutions like communism and Maoism) were made evident at this time. The very term “postmodern” was, in fact, coined in the forties by the historian, Arnold Toynbee. (Click this link for more about the aforementioned aspects of postmodernism.)

Postmodernist Literature

Postmodernism is difficult to define. Don DeLillo is recognized as one of America’s premier postmodernist novelists, yet he rejects the term entirely. “If I had to classify myself,” he explains in a 2010 interview in the Saint Louis Beacon, “it would be in the long line of modernists, from James Joyce through William Faulkner and so on. That has always been my model.”

DeLillo in New York City, 2011

Literally, the term postmodernism refers to culture that comes after Modernism, referring specifically to works of art created in the decades following the 1950s. The term’s most precise definition comes from architecture, where it refers to a contemporary style of building that rejects the austerity and minimalism of modernist architecture’s glass boxes and towers; postmodernist architects retain the functionalist core of the modernist building but then decorate their boxes and towers with playful colors, forms, and ornaments that reference disparate historical eras. Indeed, play with media and materials, and with forms, styles, and content is one of the chief characteristics of postmodernist art.

While postmodernist architects play with the material of their buildings, postmodernist writers play with the material that their poems and stories are made of, namely language and the book. Postmodernist writers freely use all the challenging experimental literary techniques developed by the modernists earlier in the twentieth century as well as new, even more experimental techniques of their own invention. In fiction, many postmodernist authors adopt the self-referential style of “metafiction,” a story that is just as much about the process of telling a story as it is about describing characters and events. Donald Barthelme’s postmodernist short story, “The School,” contains metafictional elements that comment on the process of storytelling and meaning-making, as when the narrator describes how the “lesson plan called for tropical fish input” even though all the students in the schoolroom knew the fish would soon die. Who is telling this story? Bartheleme? The unnamed narrator? The lesson plan? The stories that make up history itself are often a playground for postmodernist authors, as they take material found in history books and weave it into new tales that reveal secret histories and dimly perceived conspiracies. David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Consider the Lobster,” is a good example of the narrative excess found in postmodern literature. In this essay written for Gourmet magazine, Wallace uses his visit to the Maine Lobster Festival to tell a history of the lobster since the Jurassic period that eventually turns against the organizers of the festival themselves, who may or may not be covering up the truth about how much lobsters suffer in their cooking pots. The form of the essay cannot even contain Wallace’s ideas, which spill over into twenty excessively long footnotes, many of which are little essays in themselves. In addition to playing with the form of literature and the notion of authorship, postmodernist writers also often play with popular sub-genres such as the detective story, horror, and science fiction. For example, in her poem “Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich evokes both the detective story and science fiction as she imagines a futuristic diver visiting a deep sea wreck in order to solve the mystery of why literature and history have been mostly about men and not women.

Not all works of postmodernist literature are stylistically experimental or playful. Rather, their authors explore the meaning and value of postmodernity as a cultural condition. Several philosophers and literary critics many of whose names have become synonymous with postmodernism itself have helped us understand what the postmodern condition may be. “Poststructuralist” philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard have argued that words and texts do not reflect the world but instead exist as their own self-referential systems, containing and even creating the world they describe. When we perceive the world, Derrida’s philosophy of “deconstruction” claims, we see not things but “signs” that can be understood only through their relation to other signs. “There is no outside the text,” Derrida famously claimed in his book Of Grammatology (1967). In this way, words and books and texts are powerful things, for in them our world itself is created an insight that many postmodernist creative writers share. Baudrillard, in turn, argues in his book, Simulacra and Simulation (1981), that the real world has been filled up with and even replaced by simulations that we now treat as reality: simulacra. These postmodern sensibilities are reflected in both Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “A Supermarket in California,” and our selection from DeLillo’s White Noise. In Ginsberg’s poem, food has become “brilliant stacks of cans” knowable only by their similarity to each other. The “neon fruit supermarket” is not even a simulation of a real farm but instead is a simulacra full of families who have probably never even seen a farm. In DeLillo’s novel, we find the insight that the collected photographs of “the most photographed barn in America” are more real than the physical barn being photographed. Nobody knows why this particular barn is the most photographed barn in America. The barn is famous simply because it is a much-copied text, valued more as a sign in relation to other signs (all those photos of the same thing) than as a thing in itself with a specific history and a particular use. In his book Postmodernism (1991), the leftist critic Frederic Jameson chastises postmodernism for being the “cultural logic of late capitalism,” which for him is a culture that erases the real meanings and relations of things such as the most photographed barn in America, replacing true history with nostalgic simulacra.

Read this excerpt about “the most photographed barn in America” from DeLillo’s White Noise (1985):

Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.

“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?”

The culture of postmodernism in general exhibits a skepticism towards the grand truth claims and unifying narratives that have organized culture since the time of the Enlightenment. In postmodern culture, history becomes a field of competing histories and the self becomes a hybrid being with multiple, partial identities. In his provocative study, The Postmodern Condition (1979), the philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard argues that what defines the present postmodern historical era is the collapse of “grand narratives” that explain all experience, faiths, and truths, such as those found in science, politics, and religion; in place of all-explaining master narratives, he argues, we now know the world through smaller micro-narratives that don’t all fit together into a greater coherent whole.

These insights are thoroughly explored in the confessional, feminist, and multicultural American literature of this era, whose authors write from their subjective points of view rather than presuming to represent the sum total of all American experiences, and whose works show us that American history has been far from the same experience for all Americans. For example, both Sylvia Plath and Theodore Roethke have poems about their fathers, but their appreciation of their respective fathers is shaped by both their genders and their own personal histories. Roethke feels a kinship with his father. Plath, however, sees her father as an enemy. The Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko tells her story specifically from the point of view of a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, whose members use old stories about the Yellow Woman and the ka’tsina spirit to understand their tribe’s relationship to the rest of America. In the works of African-American literature in this section, we find similar explorations of cultural identity.

Read these excerpts from Almanac of the Dead (1991) by Leslie Marmon Silko:

[He] had been carefully following advice printed recently in a number of magazines concerning depression and the best ways of combating it. He had purposely been living in the present moment as much as he could. One article had pointed out that whatever has happened to you had already happened and can’t be changed. Spilled milk. But Sterling knows he’s one of those old-fashioned people who has trouble forgetting the past no matter how bad remembering might be for chronic depression…                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      You destroyers … don’t know how much the spirits of these continents despise you, how the earth hates you….All the riches ripped from the heart of the earth will be reclaimed by the oceans and mountains. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions of enormous magnitude will devastate the accumulated wealth of the Pacific Rim….

James Baldwin uses the African-American music of the blues and jazz to describe the relationship between the two brothers in his story, “Sonny’s Blues.” Ralph Ellison, in the first chapter from his novel Invisible Man (1952), writes about the experience of attending a segregated school that keeps black Americans separate from white Americans. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, in their stories, explore the hybrid nature of African-American identity itself, showing us the tensions that arise when one’s identity is both American and black.

The varied, playful, experimental literature of postmodernism, the critic Brian McHale helpfully observes in his book Constructing Postmodernism (1993), presents readers not with many ways to know our one world but instead with many knowable worlds created within many disparate works in many different ways. Modernist authors all strove to devise new techniques with which to accurately represent the world, McHale observes. Postmodernist authors, however, are no longer concerned with representing one knowable world but instead with creating many literary worlds that represent a diversity of experiences. Thus, much as the American literature of the contemporary era presents us with a record of how the nation has known, questioned, and even redefined itself, so too does the literature of postmodernism present us with a record of how writers have known, questioned, and even redefined what literature is.

Literature in the 21st Century

In many ways, the literature of this century is still postmodern, as it challenges grand narratives, monolithic constructions of identity, and many traditions and techniques of literature of the past. (And if it is not, there is no term for what is post-postmodern!) One motif that has persisted and proliferated during this century revolves around the impact of technology on the topics postmodern writers addressed in the latter part of the 21st century. Cyberpunk, which dealt with the “down and out” struggling to survive or transform a dystopian setting in which technology both empowers and enslaves, and which rose to prominence in the 1980s with authors such as William Gibson, Pat Cadagin, and Bruce Sterling, set the groundwork for this genre.

William Gibson at a 2007 reading from his new book Spook Country at Bolen Books in Victoria BC Canada.

Fiction writers such as Alaya Dawn Johnson continue to question essentializing of sexual identity and practice, and a patriarchal, if not-so-dystopian society in a work such as The Summer Prince. Larissa Lai considers the same kind of topics with the integration and, at times, through the lens of Chinese mythology. The Circle by David Eggers confronts the loss of privacy and authentic selfhood via technology, and the question of if progress or self-definition is more important in an ever speeding up world. And M.T. Anderson’s Feed calls into question the supposed utopia of a world proming instant gratification at the expense of destroying the environment, dumbing down the citizenry, and a general loss of humanity.

Johnson in 2013

In drama Jennifer Haley has written plays suggesting there today exists a blurring of the material and digital in relation to video games (Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom) and virtual reality (The Nether). And Jordan Harrison’s play Marjorie Prime addresses the possibilities and limitations of technology for filling the gap of losing a loved one and preserving one’s “existence” after death.


What this era is and will be known as is still unclear, and the dominance of visual and aural narrative forms is likely pushing the written narrative to a less pervasive and influential role than anytime before the emergence of the alphabet. But, then again, what constitutes literature is also changing with the times, as everything from video games to websites have been analyzed as forms of literature this century. So, maybe this is a transformational time for literature and we will just have to wait to see how the changes play out.