Post-modern literature has evolved from modernist literature, with both movements showing similarities as well as significant differences. Chronologically, post-modern writings appear after World War II, while modernism developed in the period from 1900 to the 1920s.
Post-modernist literature is associated with influential figures such as French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and American novelist William S. Burroughs. It emerged as a reaction to some basic ideas of modernist literature such as the latter's distinction between "high" culture and everyday life and the totalizing elements of modernist thought. It developed in the broader context of nuclear threat and against a background of the Cold War, capitalism and cultural diversity.
For many years, academics have debated the characteristics and significance of post-modern literature, although there is no consensus on the exact start and end of the movement. The year 1941 is generally considered to be the beginning of this era. During this time two of the most prominent modernist novelists James Joyce and Virginia Woolf died. However, some refer to major events as marking the start of post-modernism, such as the first performance of Beckett's play Waiting for Godot in 1953.
Modern and post-modern literatures both have similarities in their movement away from the realism of the 19th century. Modern and post-modern literature abandons the omnipresent narrator, who tells the story from an objective point of view and embraces subjectivism. Modern and post-modern writers also place linear order in plots, characters and themes and use more fragmented narratives and structures.
However, modernists search for meaning and order in a chaotic world and see extreme subjectivity as an existential conflict, while post-modernists mostly ‘play' with meaning, as they view it as non-existent. They also write about chaos, which they perceive as inevitable. Derrida in his Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences essay of 1966 developed the concept of ‘free play.'
Fragmentation is explored further in post-modernist writing as seen in the complete breakdown of narration and character in Joyce's close friend, the absurdist Beckett, who is considered a transitional figure from modernism to post-modernism in fiction and drama. Beckett is also associated with post-modern literary minimalism where the author uses few words to give only the general context and leave readers to create the story using their imagination. The Naked Lunch (1959) of Burroughs, a representative of the Beat Generation of young American writers who were discontent with the materialism of the 1950s, is an example of highly fragmentary prose with no narrative backbone.
Post-modern literature is believed to have reached maturity in the 1960s and 1970s with Joseph Heller's Catch 22 (1961) and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). The two authors used the post-modernist technique of black humor and humorous treatment of serious themes. However, Heller, like fellow authors Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey and Thomas Pynchon, showed a patchwork of a disintegrated world after World War II by expressing the common feeling of absurdity and disillusionment. The literature of the next decades saw a rebirth of realism with no clear ending of post-modernist, with some critics tentatively speaking of post post-modernism.
An influential critic in this field is Canadian Linda Hutcheon. In her studies on post-modernism Hutcheon points to the use of paradox, pastiche and the profusion of references and parallels to other literary texts and genres (such as science fiction, detective stories, fairy tales) as typical for post-modern writings. She also introduced the term ‘historiographic metafiction' to refer to literary texts that fictionalize historical figures and passed events in a highly self-reflective post-modern discourse.
According to Pauline Marie Rosenau, author of Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences (1992) "characters and character development in post-modern novels, plays and poetry, at least in theory, do not count for much." Rosenau argues that there are not any character descriptions in post-modern literature. For example, an author would not talk about a character in any particular detail, such as having a certain color hair or being big or small.
Writers including Italian Italo Calvino American authors Tim O'Brien and Vonnegut, as well as British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie uses the post-modern method of metafiction, also referred to as fabulation. This technique makes obvious the fictional character of fiction and challenges the authority of the author and the structure of the traditional novel. It also makes unexpected shifts in the narration and follows unique story-telling paths with fanciful and bizarre elements.