There is plenty of academic scholarship on postmodernism in the library and online, although a definition has proved somewhat elusive, attempts varied and sometimes contradictory. Here I have pulled together some of the themes and characteristics which have been put forward by different writers which apply particularly to texts for children and young adults. I have given a few examples of where these characteristics come up in the texts that we have studied on the module this year and in previous years for further understanding and as models of application.
Postmodern texts distrust the idea that the world can be understood through reason, either objectively or even subjectively. There is a sense of this in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service where the rational cannot explain the events, or even in Dying To Know You which acknowledges the difficulty of the individual’s attempt to make sense of the world. In postmodernist texts, only a partial, biased or creative reflection of the world is possible. The world is not unified, it has no eternal or unifying truth. Lyotard’s ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ is about a distrust in ideas of progress, Marxism, teleological Christianisation, Enlightenment etc. (see The Postmodern Condition). Other themes of awareness are the negative effects of commercialization and industrialization of public life in Western civilization. Postmodernists are often critical of consumerism and are concerned with the environment and the ecological crisis. This appears in Z for Zachariah which also presents readers with the negative effects of subscribing to the idea of scientific progress. Man is dissociated from nature and the world in postmodernist theory. This is closely connected to the postmodernist idea of superficiality and artificiality of experience. Many authors aim to write about the reconnection of man with the landscape, as in Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. Knowledge in postmodern writing is personal (and thus plural), historically determined and relational. This is demonstrated well by Aidan Chambers’ Dying to Know You which contains multiple narratives and is self-conscious of its construction and limitations to represent an experience. Knowledge is provisional, open and indeterminate. For example, in the Chaos Walking trilogy there are multiple narrative voices which overlap and provide different perspectives on the same events.The power of language is often foregrounded. Language can have creative, positive power but can also manipulate our vision of the world and be destructive in postmodernist works. Both these extremes are seen in Here Lies Arthur. Myrddin’s myths construct how the characters see themselves and others, which cause them to act in certain ways, for the better of some, but the worse for others. Gwyna, at the end of Here Lies Arthur realises that a life without stories is meaningless, one should be aware of their power and be wary of the stories they tell but not stop telling them. Texts often contemplate ideas from post-structuralist theories such as language as an unstable and relative system dependent upon context.
Gender, Sex, Sexuality
Radical scepticism of what is ‘natural’ abounds and many texts denaturalise the idea of a biological essence to gender, instead subscribing to the idea that gender is socially constructed and implicated with issues of power. Here Lies Arthur is an excellent example of this. Gwyna’s performance as a boy is so convincing she even fools herself. Peri has been raised as a girl despite being biologically male and does not know any different. This portrays the idea that gender is performative and not determined by biological sex. In terms of power, you could consider how Gwynhwyfar and other females in the text are married off for political purposes and the way they are treated. You may consider and compare the stereotypes of males and females in Z for Zachariah, Here Lies Arthur and Dying To Know You. There are jibes about the sexuality of characters in both Here Lies Arthur (Myrddin, Myrddin’s parentage) and Dying To Know You (the suspicion of a homosexual relationship between the writer and Karl). The connection between sex and power is explored in Z for Zachariah (e.g. the attempted rape scene) and Dying To Know You (e.g. the way Fiorella acts promiscuously at Karl’s party).
You may want to read around Michel Foucault’s work which also heavily influenced Judith Butler (Gender Trouble 1999) and her ideas about the performance of gender constituting our gender identity. I would also advise works in the area of Feminist postmodernism e.g. Dworkin, Haraway, also perhaps post-transgender criticism by Sandy Stone and Kate Bornstein.
Parody, Irony, Playfulness
Authors often adopt a position of distance from serious events which are the subjects of their works e.g. war, death. There can be humour or irony there. The Book Thief uses Death as its narrator to create this distance. This dehumanised perspective makes strange the actions of humans and makes a statement that there are acts/ideologies/situations which are incomprehensible, they just can not be understood or represented by humans because they are just overwhelming and complex. Linda Hutcheon has noted the subversive impulse of these techniques. She also writes: “[P]ostmodern parody is both deconstructively critical and constructively creative, paradoxically making us aware of both the limits and the powers of representation—in any medium” (Hutcheon 1991:228). Postmodernist fiction is self-reflexive in drawing attention to the parodied text and also the processes of linguistic representation which are used in depicting reality in literature. Here Lies Arthur exemplifies this. Gwyna repeatedly draws attention to the existing myths of Arthur, their construction, and her own attempts to tell the ‘truth’. In postmodernist works, alternative perspectives of past and present ‘realities’ are given by different ethnic, social, and minority groups which critique typical traits of national, gender, sexual or ethnic identities. Again, Here Lies Arthur is a gendered narrative, written by a slave, both voices which have typically been repressed in national histories.
Closely related to the section above, postmodern fiction often foregrounds its relationship and dependence on previous literary works. Often it uses pastiche to overcome the idea that everything new has been done already so the only way to be creative is to mix styles and genres and forms (see John Barth The Literature of Exhaustion). We see this in Alan Garner’s works and It also recontextualizes the meanings of these texts by revisiting them in new cultural and linguistic contexts and in doing this they can also comment on previous works. Writers may also use a palimpsestic technique in which a new text is written on layers of an old, traditional or canonical pretext to give it a new meaning. The Owl Service is an example of this, where mythology is given new meaning. It is also done by Liesel and Max in The Book Thief where they create a picture-book on the whitewashed pages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. See also Metafiction below.
Metafiction (see the extracts from Patricia Waugh’s pivotal text elsewhere in the blog on which this is based.)
Metafiction draws attention to its ficitionality and is characterised by self-reflexiveness. This can be through authorial intrusion or the presence of the author in the diegesis. The narrator of Dying To Know You frequently refers to his creative process and controlling of the narrative, choosing when to include or discard things and often digressing on certain subjects which he thinks may entertain the reader. Metafictive texts remind us characters construct their own realities verbally and are tellers of tales. Myrddin and Gwyna are good examples of this. Furthermore, Gwyna in Here Lies Arthur draws attention to the fact that the text is her story and exists because she is choosing to tell it. It can draw the reader’s attention to its processes of construction. It asserts that the writing of the text is fundamentally problematic and draws attention to the idea that language constructs and maintains everyday ‘reality’ narrative intrusion.
Historiographical Metafiction (see Linda Hutcheon for the best work on this. Also Waugh.)
I discuss this in the Historical Fiction lecture. Here, texts question the ability of the text to represent the past, to be objective, to be ‘true’ and problematise the narrativisation of history, collapsing the distinction between history and story. These texts keep their pre-texts in clear view. Here Lies Arthur is a prime example of this. It displays an awareness of the instability of historical ‘truth’ and denaturalises and deconstructs the original text by exposing the discourses and ideologies within it. It seeks to replace the pre-text, negates the pre-text’s cultural power and ‘corrects’ the way we read the past. These texts often have clear cultural-political thrust, often reflecting Feminist or Postcolonial discourses and criticism. They expose previous texts’ complicity in oppressing minority ethnic, postcolonial (such as former British colonies) gender (especially female), sexual orientation groups.
Faction is similar, it blurs the distinction between fact and fiction so we no longer can tell which is which, whereas historiographical metafiction reflects the idea that both fact and fiction are constructions and problematises representation.
Non-linearity, Fragmentation, Formal and Temporal Play
Chapters may be short and seemingly random or disconnected as in The Seeing Stone and sometimes in Dying to Know You. Sometimes it may be hard to distinguish between different ontological levels. I think of the scene in Here Lies Arthur where Gwyna tells a history of Gwenhwyfar and then at the end reveals that is how she sees it in her head (imagination) anyway. Chapters may be in different forms. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time contains logic puzzles, math problems, and maps for example and also chapters which are digressions from the main plot. This is also present in Dying to Know You. There is significant formal play in The Seeing Stone where poems, prose, song and scenes in the obsidian follow on from each other and seem disconnected in both theme and time. Authors and narrators may jump backwards or forwards in time, they may use prolepsis and analepsis. There may also be anachronisms, where historical socio-cultural references appear inaccurately, such as events happening before or after they did or characters who have died or not yet been born appearing in the text.
Frederic Jameson called postmodernism the “cultural logic of late capitalism”. Society is now beyond capitalism and in an age of information and technology. Although Jameson is talking about advertisement and media, The Knife of Letting Go, in fact the whole Chaos Walking trilogy, is an example of the way some postmodernists present information and/or communication overload, where characters are in situations cannot escape communication and technology. In Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking world, ‘noise’ causes information overload, characters cannot prevent their own thoughts from being communicated nor receiving the thoughts of others which is embarrassing, problematic and often dangerous. The trilogy is about the very attempt of one person to control ‘noise’ to manipulate people and stop communication overload for select few in order to make them powerful over others. In Dying to Know You there is also a form of this theme. The writer is bombarded with emails by Fiorella and comments on how different she is in real life. Who we are behind a computer may not be reflective of who we are face to face.
Authors question whether modern society can be explained or understood as it is so chaotic. Postmodernism also distrusts fixity and categorisation, it dislikes the labelling of things or people as a single type, place, or identity. Consider the contemplation on identity and its construction as fractured in Dying To Know You by Chambers. Authors often reflect an idea that society or groups in society conspire against individuals or that the individual is caught up in the web of multiple schemes which individuals have made against others as seen in The Knife of Never Letting Go and other young adult texts which posit the child as the victim. Z for Zachariah takes paranoia as a central theme and explores the psychological game played by Loomis and Ann in the valley.
While modernism generally divides author from readers, postmodernists try to engage the reader. It may ask or encourage the reader to ask questions about the narrator, characters, the form, the plot, the reliability of the narrator, the authenticity of aspects of the text, the etc. Unwritten narratives in postmodern fiction sometimes require the reader to engage because they have to construct, interpret or dictate the direction of the plot of the text. Sometimes two narrative strands, or two completely separate stories run side by side, as in the picture-book the Pirate in which the page is split and one half of the page follows one story, the other half follows the other.
Magical realism is the introduction of fantastic or impossible elements into an otherwise normal narrative. This can include objects which are ontologically uncertain (such as the obsidian in The Seeing Stone-is it really magic or is it all made up by Arthur?), time-slips and playing with time (Phillipa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden), the blending of the mythic or fairy tale with the real, complex plots (Alan Garner’s The Owl Service).