Examining the way literary movements converge
Welcome to A Narrative of their Own, where I discuss the work of 20th century women writers and their relevance to contemporary culture.
This is the second part in my series all about writers and the art of writing. This week, I’m looking at Modernist, Postmodernist, and Contemporary writing forms, interrogating the differences and nuances of each, and the ways in which they intersect and borrow from earlier traditions. If you enjoy this kind of post, please consider a free or paid subscription.
Modernist Literature: This term usually refers to the period in literature which began around the early 1900s and continued until the early 1940s. Modernist writers in general rebelled against clear-cut storytelling and formulaic verse from the 19th century. Think of the loose, ‘baggy’, realist style texts of writers like Henry James, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot.
The literary Modernists experimented with new styles of writing, which put emphasis on the character over plot, as well as creating an aesthetic that blended imagery with contemporary themes and concerns, such as the fallout of WW1. Many also contained a stream of consciousness style of writing which contains a free-flowing inner monologue.
There are often examples of dreams and non-linear narratives within Modernist writing, as well as the use of fragmentation. These novels often deal with important issues of the time, including PTSD following WW1 and the changing lives of women.
The early pioneers of Modernist writing, such as William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound were quickly joined by women breaking barriers within their writing and ideas. May Sinclair coined the term stream of consciousness when referring to Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series, though this term is probably most often referenced in regard to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses, both of which feature a day in the life and mind of a central character.
“She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day.”
Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
Mary Borden’s short stories taken from her nursing memoirs The Forbidden Zone, meanwhile, is one of the finest examples of the use of fragmentation, another feature of Modernist literature, which features ruptured sentences and non-linear narratives, allowing for a disregard of earlier traditions of prose writing such as punctuation and linear plotlines, as well as dream sequences and imagery intended to shock the senses.
“You see those men, lolling in the doorways—uncouth, disheveled, dirty? They are soldiers. You can read on their heavy jowls, in their stupefied, patient, hopeless eyes, how boring it is to be a hero.”
The Forbidden Zone, Mary Borden
But although these writers were forging new ways of understanding the world within their novels, they admitted to borrowing from older traditions. As I discussed in my piece on the poetry of Barbara Guest, she borrowed heavily from the Pastoral tradition, which utilised images of the natural world within its genre, such as the earlier poetry of Milton and Shelley.
‘The water’s lace creates funerals
It makes us see someone we love in an acre of grass’.
‘The Location of Things’, Barbara Guest
Postmodernist Literature: The period following Modernism was the Postmodernist era of literature, generally delineated as literature written around the 1960s and 70s. This is often seen as a reaction to the Modernist view; in terms of literature, it is characterised by the idea of experimentation and a rejection of conventional forms and often eschews absolute meaning and instead emphasises play, fragmentation (again), metafiction, and intertextuality.
Writers writing in the Postmodern aesthetic often believed that there was no “high” art, declaring that some works of creativity are not inherently more valuable or artistic than others.
The Handmaid's Tale is regarded as a Postmodern novel that pushes the reader to critically engage with questions regarding the formation and acceptance of historical narratives as well as recognise the cyclical nature of dystopian conditions.
“Better never means better for everyone... It always means worse, for some.”
The Handmaids Tale, Margaret Atwood
Postmodern literature is often characterised by the use of metafiction, unreliable narration, self-reflexivity, intertextuality, and often thematises both historical and political issues.
In Atwood’s work, she often revises ancient myths, legends, and fairy tales, and modernises them by giving them a new meaning with a contemporary parodic or ironic twist from the point of view of the twentieth- and twenty-first century, as is typical of Postmodernism.
Angela Carter also wrote around fairy tales within her gothic Postmodernist fiction such as The Bloody Chamber, a Postmodernist resignification of Perrault's Bluebeard. Carter’s work draws on an eclectic range of themes and influences, including gothic fantasy, traditional fairy tales, and Shakespeare.
Muriel spark is also often referred to as a Postmodernist, as much of her work contains elements of metafiction. However, she bridges the boundary of both Modernist and Postmodernist literature, despite most of her output coming after the Modernist movement. Her novels expose anxieties around the status of the individual, as well as paranoic tendencies which place her within a more Modernist framework.
More recent examples of the use of metafiction which would align them with a Postmodernist aesthetic (although written more contemporarily) would be Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad and the novels of Jenny Offil, including Dept. of Speculation.
Contemporary Literature: Generally defined as literature written after World War II through the current day. Much of the writing we read now would fall into this definition, which makes it perhaps more complicated to pin down.
Some common themes in Contemporary literature include the coming-of-age novel, redemption, good versus evil, courage, feminism, oppression, and more.
Commonly referenced Contemporary writers include Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, and Margaret Atwood.
But as we can see from the example of Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale, these three literary eras actually blend and converge, and literature is constantly borrowing from earlier traditions as it goes, whilst continually developing new forms.
Looking at the definition of Contemporary literature above, we can see that the characters in Toni Morrison’s Beloved are dealing with the results of centuries of oppression, as the novel examines the destructive legacy of slavery through the life of a Black woman named Sethe as she negotiates life from her pre-Civil War days as a slave in Kentucky to her time in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1873.
“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”
The Beloved, Toni Morrison
The Colour Purple by Alice Walker meanwhile examines some similar themes, presented through the feminist lens of the struggles of central character Celie as she comes of age and finally finds liberation to live her own life.
Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea meanwhile falls into a Contemporary literature mode because of its themes of oppression and feminist ideology, and the time it was written, but also borrows from the Modernist literature era in its style and in which much of Rhys’s other novels and short stories were written. Rhys is certainly a key exponent of the earlier Modernist aesthetic.
Meanwhile, Maya Angelou’s coming of age memoir collection beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings would fall into the Contemporary fiction bracket, as would JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series which makes full use of the good versus evil trope.
As you can see, although we often utilise terms to distinguish literary movements, particularly within literature study, it is not an exact science. Even just taking the example of these three literary movements - Modernist, Postmodernist, and Contemporary – we can see the constant overlap and merging of writing traditions and styles. Just as we can equally see that many have borrowed from other, earlier traditions, such as the Gothic style of the eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries, and the Pastoral tradition which can be traced back as early as 750 to 650 BC Greece.
The fact is that if you are not a student or scholar of literary studies then perhaps none of this is of any importance to you. When we pick up a book to read, we are not generally considering the literary movement it straddles. Our interest as readers lies in an appreciation of the story, character development, narrative, genre, and atmosphere of a book – to name just a few.
However, it could just be my geeky interest in all things literature which drives this deep fascination of the ways in which writers write, but I think that an appreciation of the cultural and political structures in which a writer worked, as well as their intentional use of style techniques, has a significant and direct influence on the work produced.
When I pick up Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, for example, I could just reflect that it is simply a portrait of a day in the life of a self-absorbed society hostess. If I look deeper, however, considering that the novel was written in an era between the wars, I can see that it features a war veteran suffering with PTSD; that its wholly Modernist prose was significantly breaking barriers in literary fiction that would continue to influence writers of Contemporary fiction into the twenty-first century; and that perhaps it was Woolf’s way of asking questions about the position of women of a certain age and class, and their usefulness to society.
For me, all this knowledge brings a richness to the text that might otherwise have been overlooked.