This semester, I had to do a course on postmodern literature. I always like these kind of classes, where you just go and figure out everything about one literary movement, supported by lots and lots of great classics to read. I have had similar courses on realism and modernism, so I figured I knew what to expect.
Postmodernism, however, was completely different, because I kept stumbling in to problems which made it hard for me to put my finger on the subject. I’ll name some of these problems:
- Even postmodernism doesn’t know what postmodernism is. During our first class, we discussed some philosophers who seemed to have it all figured out. I wrote a good definition of postmodernism in my notebook and thought I was done. Problem is, we read about two different philosophers every week, and everyone has a completely different view on the subject. There’s just no pinning down!
- The postmodern book doesn’t exist. Because of all the definitions about postmodernism, we don’t know what a postmodern book would be. We even had discussion in class about whether a certain book would be postmodern, and it was all “Well, according to this philosopher it would be…” “But according to this other person it would be something different!” If you don’t have a working definition, it’s hard to know which objects you’re even talking about.
- We don’t even know when it started. The first book we had to read was Naked Lunch. It’s quite a special book, so I thought, well, this must be typical postmodernist. But during class, the teacher told us that most people think of Naked Lunch as somewhere between modernism and postmodernism. So it was kind of a transitional book, and I expected pure postmodernism for next week’s book, which was The Crying of Lot 49. So we had to read an article about it by Brian McHale, in which he says that because of it’s open ending, The Crying of Lot 49 is not a postmodern book. So two weeks in and apparently, I still haven’t read anything postmodernist. And even with later books, there was always a discussion if it’s really postmodernism.
- We don’t even know whether we are still living in a postmodern world or not. So we don’t really know when it started, and we also don’t know when it ended, or if it even ended. So people claim postmodernism ended in 1989, some say it ended with 9/11, and other people claim it’s still going strong. One of my favourite authors, Arnon Grunberg, is a very productive writer, and is often categorized as a postmodern writer, so apparently there are still postmodern books being written.
Regardless of all these problems, I still thought it was a great course. Because postmodernism seems to be about so much, I was able to read a great variety of books and I discovered new writers I’d never read before. I completely fell in love with Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, and as someone who doesn’t read a lot of science-fiction, I was pleasantly surprised by Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber. As a feminist, I also loved the intersectionality of these books, addressing issues of gender, race, etc. Especially the more recent books taught me a lot.