In case you haven’t exposed yourself to the particular subset of U.S. authors who write so-called postmodern tomes (it’s rather unique to the USA, I think), think David Foster Wallace. Jonathan Franzen. Jonathan Safran Foer. Thomas Pynchon. Michael Chabon. Don de Lillo. (A caveat: I’d like to include some female writers in this particular subset of postmodern writing, but for the life of me I can’t come up with any who fit.)
You’ll find many others in a listing of this category, many not from the U.S. But the writers listed above – for better or for worse where literature is concerned – have a lot in common. My purpose here is to offer a perspective on these commonalities – and what they mean to the future of literature and reading.
- They take on the social issues of the twenty-first century – diversity, technology, contrasting cultures, gender, a shrinking world, war. This is as it should be. One can’t write with any sense of realism about today’s world without dealing with these subjects.
- Their writing is complex, both is subject matter and in situation. Again, one can’t write about these times without dealing – at least indirectly – with a complex world without complex writing.
- The writing tends to deal with the “common” levels of life. Sure. This is where cultures -and all their inherent problems – are at first blush found. The underprivileged, the immigrants, the struggling, the so-called blue collar types of our society, find themselves in constant touch with similar folks of other cultures. There is no socioeconomic shelter from one another, and so what better social groups to write about to depict a multicultural world.
The above characteristic are what make this literary form valuable, worth reading – studying, even. But there are other characteristics that I’d term as problematic:
- The tone of such writing, rather than being in the voice of such people, tends to the erudite. I think this comes from the fear of being classified as – ah, shall we say – as limited perceptively as the characters depicted. This can be done successfully, but by and large this trait as practiced by the above writers tends to set the writer and his/her narrator(s) apart, i.e., above, from the characters. Whether this urge comes from a sense of academic elitism, insecurity, or one of social separation (writers do tend to be set apart from the “masses” when it comes to their natures – they’re more observers of life than participants, hence their social value), I can’t say, and won’t try.
- Narration overwhelms all else. There seems to be a strong sense of self-awareness in this class of writer, and it comes through more in narration than in characterization or story structure. The problem: it sets the writer foursquare between the writing and the reader, by tone, voice and story structure in ways that prevent the reader from being able to immerse in this literarily created world.
- Story arc is minimized. Much of this writing is done in present tense – or with that sensibility. Once again, narration is god. The authors tend to wander from vignette to vignette free associatively. The sensibility here seems to be an emphasis of complexity (read: chaos) over order. The feeling that invariably comes though is one of despair, defeat – withdrawal from life and its attendant problems. The relevant issue: while literature isn’t mean to solve personal and social problems, it should inspire the reader to want to find such solutions, even amid a vortex of insolubility.
- Characters seem flat, reactive. This again seems to have its root in narration. Readers aren’t summoned into the lives of the characters; instead, all you get is the narrator(s)’s take on the characters, their motivations their lives’ arcs. And here, the unspoken “N”-word (nihilism) really reaches out to the readers: “You are creatures who can only respond in short-sighted, paramecium-like fashion to stimulus or situation; you have no ability to work your way through or out of society’s morass.” While I’d be the first to admit that we Americans tend to shortsightedness, these should be ways of having the reader recoil from such a character depiction, rather than allowing him/her to wallow in it.
The strain of writing tends, at the end of the day, to be pretty ebolic, i.e., self-perpetuating – with both readers and writers as carriers of the strain. Harsh I know, but I see it as more of a literary infection than an avenue to understanding.
The postmodern ethos, if there is one, can led us in two directions: to some sense of order amid this era’s whirlwind of complexity, or it will re-divide us, returning us to a new but devolved form of world tribalism. I can only hope that writers will continue to evolve this form, to take it in the former direction.