What Are the Tenets of Postmodernism in Literature?
Postmodernism takes many forms in literature and other artistic fields, but all of these exist within an expansive set of ideas and values about the world and the modernist movement. The possible tenets of a given piece of postmodern literature are exhaustive. To interpret any particular piece of postmodern literature, you must understand the work’s context and purpose, because postmodern literature is fundamentally based around responding to or rejecting ideas and values of other movements' beliefs.
Critique of Previous Movements
Postmodernism grew as a response to the modernist movement, which divided culture into high art and lower art. It presumed that artistic greatness had specific and definable forms. Although postmodern literature and art may seem to have no purpose outside of this context, most of the works trace back to specific tenets of previous art and literature movements, which artists in the postmodern era see as no longer valid.
Postmodernists reject the idea that there is a separation between high art and popular forms of art. Therefore, postmodern literature blends high and low culture, often using slang, advertising or other aspects of popular culture to create different combinations of artistic works.
Parody and Irony
In order to undercut or criticize aspects of modern literature, postmodern works often represent modern art in parody or use it as the punchline for ironic jokes. Black humor and comedy as a response to the horrors of life grew from the cultural context after World War II in which postmodernism began. Making a joke about a modernist tenet displays, according to a postmodern ethos, the futility of trying to bring order to a chaotic and violent world.
Aspects of modern and realist work, in which time and space are linear and coherent, become distorted in postmodern literature, which creates non-linear narratives and fragmented stories which may not seem to have any narrative structure at all. Postmodernism experiments with storytelling to challenge the coherency of value systems of the traditional narrative, such as the concepts of morality or the possibility of happy endings. Fragmented narratives also present the world in a way that does not follow traditional plot or standards of beauty, which postmodern artists might say demonstrates the fact that their narratives are truer to reality.
Postmodern work is often self-aware, which means that the text is aware and comments on itself as a text and a work of art. Characters in a meta-narrative often refer to and understand the fact that they are fictional characters in a story. Meta-narratives may also speak directly to the reader, a feat that is only obtainable because the text is aware of itself as a work of fiction.
Postmodern work can take the tenets of modernism and realism and push them to extremes, creating in some cases what is called the “Theatre of the Absurd.” According to the postmodern system of beliefs, the very attempt of modernists to try to make sense out of life or art is absurd. Some postmodern literature raises this criticism by creating stories, characters and art which are meant to be truer to life because of their nonsensical or absurd nature.
Chuck Lander holds a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing from American University. In addition to working at university writing centers and teaching writing skills in high school classrooms, he has written for blogs and publications such as the American University Writing Center and "Practicing Planner" since 2008.