Postmodern American Fiction

By Green, Daniel | The Antioch Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Postmodern American Fiction


Green, Daniel, The Antioch Review


Although the term has come to denote a general attitude toward traditional intellectual presuppositions or, more specifically, certain related practices in philosophy, the social sciences, and all of the arts, "postmodern" was originally a critical label attached to an emergent group of American fiction writers perceived to be challenging established literary convention. Conventional storytelling and the protocols of realism had been challenged, to be sure, by the previous generation of modernist writers, but this new fiction was "post-modern" in extending the modernist rejection of existing assumptions to include assumptions even the modernists still accepted, about the integrity of character, for example, or about the intricate effects of "point of view." Among the writers identified as postmodern were John Barth, Donald Barthelme, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, William Gass, and Thomas Pynchon. Certainly each of these writers differed, sometimes profoundly, in the ways in which they attempted to continue to "make it new," but that they were clearly enough engaged in the attempt seemed to warrant something like the designation of their work as postmodern.

Exactly how a concept originating in literary criticism came to carry the great cultural weight it now bears is a potentially confusing story relevant to a consideration of postmodern fiction only in that it highlights the extent to which it was identified, at least for a time, as an avant-garde movement calling into question not only particular literary practices but also more generally held beliefs about the value of representation, whether in art or in critical and philosophical discourse, as well as about the capacity of language itself to represent "reality" in any ultimately trustworthy way. These characteristics, however accurately they may have been ascribed to the original American postmodernists, have largely been appropriated to the broader cultural concept of postmodernism and its various academic branches. As a result, postmodern fiction has been left as a kind of curious collection of eccentric works, vaguely considered "experimental" at best, frivolous or unnecessarily difficult at worst, and for many already mostly a historical phenomenon with little if any relevance to currently notable writers and their work.

Some current writers do continue to be identified as postmodernists, or at least as influenced by various of the first-wave postmodernists. David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, and Jonathan Franzen are perhaps the best known of the younger writers associated with the use of postmodern strategies or techniques (Franzen incorrectly, in my view); other writers, while not necessarily embracing the postmodern approach directly nevertheless to varying degrees produce works of fiction not assimilable to the assumptions and methods of neorealism now predominant in American fiction, and could be said to be fellow travelers along the modernist/postmodernist route of literary innovation. But the degree to which even a perceived affinity with postmodern challenges to convention has become increasingly viewed as an unwelcome deviation from the current norms of neorealism, a kind of clinging to an approach no longer fashionable, can be measured in the hostile critical reception of the most recent novels by Don DeLillo (Cosmopolis) and Richard Powers (The Time of Our Singing).

DeLillo could not really be considered postmodern in terms of the formal innovations to be found in his work. Instead, his novels provide readily identifiable, highly stylized analyses of what could be called postmodern culture--analyses that are inflected by such notions as self-referentiality, the fragility of human identity, or the blurring of the line between reality and culturally pervasive, manufactured representations of it but incorporate them as subject or theme rather than the inspiration for formal invention. Likewise Powers, whose books are stylistically audacious and formally unconventional, but who is really engaged in a relatively earnest examination of intellectual, cultural, and historical issues. …

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