Postmodernism in literature took root roughly during the 1940s and remains a thriving genre today. A wide-ranging, vaguely defined movement, postmodernism has encompassed a broad variety of authors of many nationalities writing in many forms. Despite this diversity, postmodernist works often feature many of the same central characteristics: self-referentiality, ironic humor, blurring of different styles and genres, blending of high and low culture, voicing of view-points from outside of mainstream society, and reframing of earlier works of figures from new perspectives.

As its name implies, postmodernism developed largely out of modernism, the major Western literary movement that preceded it. Modernist authors, such as James Joyce (1882-1941), Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), William  Faulkner (1897-1962), and T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), had seen the rapidly changing twentieth-century world as a shattered landscape, rife with human isolation, alienation, and uncertainty. For postmodenist authors, however, this world was no longer new and unfamiliar; accepting it as given, they scrutinized it through a more playful, detached, and often humorous lens.
Most postmodernist works employ black comedy and irony to investigate problems of the contemporary world. Novels such as Catch-22, by Joseph Heller (1923-1999), and Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), use frenetic, cartoonish storytelling to reveal the horrors of modern warfare. The novels of Thomas Pynchon (1937-) and Don DeLillo (1936-) brim with a sense of paranoia, false meaning, and information overload.
In addition, postmodernist works frequently toy with the relationships among the author, the reader, and the work. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), John Fowles (1926-2005) inserts himself into the story, includes three alternate endings, and implies that his own characters are beyond his control. If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979), by Italo Calvino (1923-1985), intersperses chapters of ten wildly different novels of Calvino’s invention with passages in which Calvino addresses the reader directly, exploring the experience of reading itself.
Additional Facts
1. Some of the myriad authors who have been labeled postmodernist include Tom Stoppard, Jean Rhys, Umberto Eco, John Gardner, Vladimir Nabokov, Paul Auster, Truman Capote, Salman Rushdie, John Barth, William Gaddis, Jeanette Winterson, Phillip K. Dick, and Toni Morrison.
2. Postmodern literature comprises a number of movements, including postcolonialism and metafiction, that in themselves emcompass expensive bodies of work.
3. Postmodernism is not confined to literature: in fact, one of the most fruitful arenas has been architecture. Notable examples include the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the AT&T Building (now the Sony Building) in New York City.
From The Intellectual Devotional – Modern Culture by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim
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