“Bro, postmodern literature is so weird.”
This is an observation that actually came out of my mouth at some point. I was on a call with a friend and had begun ranting about a book I just finished.
“Everything about it just screamed postmodern,” I said.
That’s when I ended up adding my comment about the oddness of the genre. Immediately after the sentence left my brain and fell into the public domain, I could not rid myself of the giggles that followed.
This is also an observation that comes up a lot in literary communities. Recently, I had a discussion with my English teacher about his disdain for postmodern literature; for its unreliable narration, for its weird sense of voice, for its pseudo-intellectualism. These are criticisms I share for the genre, but there’s one kudos I must commend postmodernism for: it feels so human.
Bro, what does Postmodern even Mean?
Postmodern literature is a broad topic that is often hard to define. It is an era that will not stray away from the usage of “bro” in a work. Some scholars say that we are actually living in a “post-postmodern” era of literature because of the introduction of technology. However, for the purposes of this article, postmodernism will refer to everything from publications directly after World War II to the infamous “BookTok” of today.
To define what postmodern literature is, it’s important to first define what modern literature is. Modernist works deviated from their predecessors in two main ways: Valuing the individual over the society and experimentation in prose. In modernist works, the individual’s psyche was thought to be more interesting than the broader society itself, which led to a focus on mind over matter. Experimentation added a unique edge to modern literature in which novelists would abandon rules so as to create a work that closely resembles the human mind. Postmodern literature takes all these components, so what does postmodern literature do to distinguish itself from the modern?
The main characteristic of postmodernist literature, to me, is a lack of meaning. The authors write because they want to write. There is no meaningful purpose beyond sharing a story and their own human experience. That’s not meant as a criticism, because oftentimes this can make works more human. With a focus on style rather than content, on story rather than themes, we are able to peer directly into the experience of others in the most realistic way possible. This is what makes it so weird to read, because it betrays every virtue of literature that has been hammered into our head since middle school.
When I was in middle school, we read “Romeo and Juliet.” “Romeo and Juliet” is the exact opposite of what I imagine postmodern lit to be. It seems like everything is a motif, a metaphor, or a symbol. You can’t go two words without coming across something symbolic. In addition to this, the plot as a whole is also filled with thematic purpose that goes beyond the simple story Shakespeare tells. This also goes for most works found in a high school classroom.
In contrast is the postmodern. Most popular with Atlanta teens, YA novels are great examples of this. Though the works may lack thematic purpose, the novels are filled with mood and story. Recently, I reread Kara Thomas’ “The Cheerleaders.” The story was incredible, the tone was mysterious, but it did not mean much. It was a mystery simply because the author wanted to write a mystery.
Bro, why does Postmodern Lit Looklikethat?
One of the largest contributors to the odd feeling of postmodern works is the use of syntax and grammar. Syntax and grammar are used uniquely in postmodern works in that it is almost disregarded entirely in favor of a more human sound. When a character’s heart rate beats with a speed that thumps in their chest and pounds in their head, their thoughts may begin to be thoughtlikethis and they’re suddenly
use paragraphs properly.
And then they
They repeat until you get the point.
Repeat until you get the point.
Repeat until you get the point.
Repeat until you get the point.
This ultimately creates a very human feel in which the author uses grammar, or lack thereof, to portray a character’s feelings exactly as they may imagine it in their head. It serves no thematic purpose, but creates a style that is unique to the writing of postmodern works.This is often called ‘stream of consciousness’ narration, a technique taken from modernist writers.
Similarly, sometimes postmodern novelists will just
Break into poetry, words spiral, words sprawl,
A choice akin to Shakespeare,
Seemingly for no reason at all.
Postmodern authors will often use inspiration from previous years of literature. In the above example, I used Shakespeare’s way of breaking into poetry in the middle of prose. This is called pastiche, a French cognate for the Italian pasticcio pie-filling mixed from diverse ingredients. Just like the pie-filling, pastiche is the mixing of diverse styles to create one single work.
Why so Vulgar, Bro?
Postmodern works are often vulgar in nature. They use obscenities and sometimes violent words that make me cringe upon reading. These profanities, again, serve no broader purpose, but contribute to the in-your-face unapologetically human style of postmodernism. As readers, we are taught to gasp and clutch our pearls at any bad words, but postmodernist literature challenges this in a way that even naturalism could not. The profanities serve exactly zero purpose apart from authentically portraying how humans are.
It is What It Is, Bro
Humans exist without theme. This is what makes postmodernist literature postmodernist. In modernist literature, people were itching to find meaning in what was most likely the worst time of their lives. World War I brought about some of the most famous examples of modernist literature, such as “The Wasteland” by T. S. Eliot. In this work, Eliot attempted to address loss brought about by the war through symbols and motifs. Postmodernist literature dares to defy the idea of meaning. Postmodernist literature is because it is—and this is what makes it so weird to read. Whether this is a good thing is for you to decide.
Personally, I will always prefer my classics, but I often find myself a white knight for the postmodern in literary discussions. From “Slaughterhouse Five” to whatever BookTok book is sitting on your shelf, this peculiar era of literature refuses to reside within the rules established by generations before it. I respect it…Bro?