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Postmodernism - From A History of English Literature


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Postmodernism From A History of English Literature

The end of the Second World War marked a new phase in literature. After the war, British writers shared a desire for change and a mood of reaction against political ideology—revulsion from fascism, disillusionment with communism. But only a few of them, such as Samuel Beckett and John Fowles, had any interest, at first, in the theoretically based innovations that were being made in Continental literatures, particularly French. Indeed, many English-speaking writers seemed to distrust radical changes of form as much as they distrusted large statements. They preferred minimal affirmations, often disguised, like those of Kingsley Amis, John Wain, Philip Larkin, or Angus Wilson, under a cover of sardonic irony.

This split between “advanced” and traditional writing had of course already existed in earlier modernism: Nabokov was hardly published in English until 1941, in Britain until 1957. But now the avant garde, although still separated from the public at large, drew increasing support from the young—and they began, at first in America, to build a larger following, without however increasing literature’s total readership. The new avant garde literature (NEOMODERNIST or POSTMODERNIST) partly carried modernism further, partly reacted against it—for example against its ideology and its historical orientation. What it consistently pretended to be (and sometimes actually was) was new. Determinedly self-destructive, it attempted to cut off its branch of the past, by proposing entirely new methods, a fresh “syllabus” or canon of authors (Nietszche, Freud, Saussure, Proust) and a new register of allusions. (Postmodern writers like the American Thomas Pynchon are more likely to allude to recent science and politics than to literature of the past.) Supporting all these innovations was a new aesthetic, based at first on existentialism, then on structuralist literary theory. And latterly, postmodern writing has been closely responsive to deconstruction.

These strains of thought have been uncongenial to most British writers, because of their extremity—whether the STRUCTURALIST extremity of denying the author’s existence (concentrating on the relation between literary elements to the exclusion of their function), or DECONSTRUCTION’s Nietszcheian scepticism about the possibility of meaning. In consequence, a certain insularity has characterized much postwar English fiction and poetry, for good or ill. Until recently, even the best English writers remained ignorant of the work of Nabokov, Barth and Pynchon, who were elsewhere seminal. Indeed for a time, from the late fifties to the early seventies, American fiction—like Scottish and Irish poetry—tended to overshadow English ‘metropolitan’ (but provincial) writing. Nevertheless, postmodernism in a broader sense eventually came to constitute a distinct period in English fiction, too.

Distinguishing much postmodernist fiction was an awareness that simple realism leaves out a good deal, and presupposes countless assumptions about what constitutes the real. It reflected an awareness, in fact, that literary imitation is problematic. Individual character, for example, no longer seemed to motivate action adequately—so that it accordingly ceased to be the main focus, at least, of avant garde fiction. Recognizing all this, some novelists set out to “damage” narrative illusion deliberately, by alienation devices. They might do so by making authorial intrusions like John Fowles’s in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969). Or they might introduce impossibilities into the narrative itself, which force the reader beyond the story to its meanings. Now readers take such damaged fiction in their stride, so pervasive has postmodernism’s influence been.

Another possibility was to multiply versions of reality, as Lawrence Durrell did in The Alexandria Quartet (1957-60), or Fowles in The Collector (1963) and The Magus (1966, rev. 1977). The same idea underlay the alternative endings of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, supposedly corresponding to different “worlds.” This may not seem a very new device: it was already implicit in the double ending of Kipling’s The Light that Failed (1891). But, even at their most experimental, the modernists took for granted the unitary seamlessness of a reality they were content to imitate. And this the postmodernists refused to do. Whatever their differences, they agreed in rejecting Ford Madox Ford’s doctrine that “the object of the novelist is to keep the reader oblivious to the fact that the author exists—even of the fact that he is reading a book.”

Traditional fiction nevertheless continued to develop strongly, if in a more expressionist way, in the work of such novelists as Graham Greene, Angus Wilson, and Iris Murdoch, and for that matter in Fowles and Golding. Perhaps significantly, however, several of the finest of such novelists, including Patrick White and V. S. Nalpaul, worked within extra-European frames of reference, and to that extent may have seemed to escape the compromised ideological “reality.” The most impressive oeuvres of the period, indeed, have been those of traditional novelists. No experimentalist has achieved more than Greene, or Naipaul with his masterly Conradian, and at times Jamesian, style. One might go so far as to speak of a continuing hunger for fiction of individual character. If this is not satisfied by traditional novels, it turns to biography (recently popular and of high quality), to journalistic documentary fiction (the American Truman Capote is the most notable practitioner), or to novels with historical characters such as the Hitler of Beryl Bainbridge’s Young Adolf (1978) or the Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway of James Aldridge’s One Last Glimpse (1977)—which however raise their own subtle questions about the boundary between fiction and reality.

When characters are comparatively undeveloped and the main emphasis falls on the story’s meaning, the term TABULATION is sometimes used—a postmodernist way of saying “fable.” Instead of having their structure based on character development, tabulations often depend on that of another literary work. This predecessor provides a subtext, or perhaps, rather, a myth to be “demythologized” or subverted. Thus Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) answers Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1858). The same overtly acknowledged INTERTEXTUALITY, or dependence on another literary work, can be seen in short stories by the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, and by Davenport; in poetry such as Robert Lowell’s Imitations (1961), and even in plays, for example Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967) and Travesties (1974).

Alternatively, tabulations may have a non-literary framework, like the “nymphet” and butterfly hunt of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), with its concealed philosophy of ideal form. A similar example is John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, where a burlesque version of colonial American history covers sceptical deconstruction of historiography. In another variant, a simpler genre like the adventure story or explorer’s tale can be made a vehicle—as in Saul Bellow’s African tale Henderson the Rain King (1959) and Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast (1981). All these works, one notices, have something to say as well as to tell: they are not so much imitations of life as narrative statements about it. And indeed, when you think of such works as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) and J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), it becomes noticeable how many of the period’s strongest works are “timeless” fables with timely if enigmatic messages for society. In this strategy, the postmodernists departed from the modernists, and returned to an older tradition: one going back to the Melville of The Confidence Man and the Twain of Huckleberry Finn, and ultimately to Rabelais and More.


In the course of innovation, character was not the only feature under threat. Progressively, other elements could also be subtracted. For all the modernist talk of a “new culture,” the postmodernists went far further towards a radical restructuring of literature. Sometimes, indeed, they removed so much as to reach MINIMALISM, in which the functioning of remaining elements is enhanced by their iconic isolation, on a principle of “less means more.” Narrative was often reduced: already only implied in late James and in Compton-Burnett, it was trivialized in Ulysses and in the French nouveau roman. In plays like Endgame (1958), Beckett reduces even the element of movement to a point at which the slightest modification becomes portentous; while in short prose pieces such as Lessness (1970; French 1969) he discards even syntax.

Some see minimalism in terms of “minimal affirmation,” instancing the poetry of Philip Larkin (1922-85) with its minimal differentiation from prose and its cautious, highly sceptical positives.

Hours giving evidence

Or birth, advance

On death equally slowly.

And saying so to some

Means nothing; others it leaves

Nothing to be said.

(“Nothing to be Said” 13-18)

(Notice, along one syntactic line, the telling omission of “with” after “leaves.”) Others see minimalism as avoidance of the unneccessary—of “bourgeois” ornament. Doubtless minimalism means various things to different writers. With Beckett it seems a matter of concentrating austerely on the absurd essentials of existence—as if anything but silence in face of it is likely to smack of betrayal. But in Finlay, although austerity is by no means lacking, the minimal can be seen as a positive aesthetic ideal: “small is beautiful.” It should be noted that minimalism is totally dependent on a continuing literature of “normal” proportions—if only to provide the foil against which its own become noticeable.

A subtraction that sometimes makes postmodern literature difficult is that of rational sequence. This may take the form of an extreme digressiveness or irrelevance of parts, which forces the reader of fiction like Donald Barthelme’s to suspend expectation of rational sequence. (The best reading strategy is to stay receptive to patterns of repetition, contrast and the like, without expecting direct clarification in terms of external reality.) Closely related is postmodernism’s use of STOCHASTIC, aleatory or randomizing devices, as when William Burroughs composes his narratively incoherent works by cutting up and shuffling the parts.

Frequent interruptions of narrative sequence tend soon to result in a marked loss of interest. But in poetry, permutations and similar rituals have been more successful. The phonetic rule of Edwin Morgan’s “The Computer’s First Christmas Card” is surprisingly productive:

jolly merry

holly berry

jolly berry

merry holly

happy jolly

jolly jelly

jelly belly

belly merry . . .

(The Second Life,


In many postmodernist works the sequence of ideas may seem a little surrealistic (based often on dream processes). There is likely, of course, to be some underlying order. But this may be so multiplied (“decentred”) or so intricate—as for example in Finnegans Wake (1939) or Thomas Pynchon’s V (1963) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)—that it amounts to no order beyond that of the work itself. It would be as ridiculous to think of mastering Finnegans Wake as of understanding the world. Similarly, since almost anything can be compared to the letter V, its pattern is useless as a basis for ordering experience. Why this highly cerebral irrationality? Perhaps such writers wish to avoid being tamed by interpretation. Perhaps they are determined that their works will challenge as extremely as a Rothko painting—a more direct response.

During the structuralist phase, the idea became current that works of the imagination might be self-validating, without mimetic relation to the world—an idea that drew support from scientific idealism, as well as from structuralism’s own doctrine of the inaccessibility of reality. A frequent corollary of discontinuity has been fragmentation into small structural units. The epigrams of John Berryman’s Dream Songs (1964-8), in eighteen lines, and those of Robert Lowell’s Notebook (1969) and Edwin Morgan’s The New Divan (1977), in fourteen lines or so, like the short prose pieces of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns (1971), allow any number of fresh starts or irrelevant transitions—and so escape expectations of an overall scheme. In case the sequence of Notebook should be thought imitative of the external world in any direct way, Lowell repeatedly changed it, first by revision and addition (1969, 1970), and then by comprehensive reordering in History (1973). Nevertheless, Lowell’s individual epigrams often touch the nerve of individual experience. And Morgan’s sequence evokes so intensely clear an emotional world that it even has a cumulative effect, like the sonnet sequences of an earlier period.

In much postmodemist writing, the parts tend to be related less by a larger syntax, or logical sequence, than by COLLAGE. This less explicit linkage of juxtaposition obviously continues a familiar feature of modernism—but with a difference. Whereas modernist collages explored metaphorical transitions, those of the postmodernists—like the urban fragments of Barthelme’s City Life (1971)—appear to have an almost random sequence. (William Carlos Williams’s Paterson [1953] was a transitional example.) In such works the logical and metaphorical connections ordering things in usual ways are removed, so as to make the reader see them afresh, as if an unideological vision were possible. Sometimes, a consistent overall pattern turns collage into mosaic, and a strong statement emerges. The result is likely to be a quasi-paranoid vision, often with an apocalyptic-satiric strain, as in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) and Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966).

Such tendencies and devices have crystallized to shape several new genres. One broad grouping is the METAFICTION, or novel that exposes its own fictional illusion in some way—perhaps by taking up conventions only to discard them, perhaps by the use of an obviously naive narrator. In rejecting ordinary reality, the metafictions of the sixties and seventies for the most part reflected a somewhat paranoid alternative. But more recent practitioners have gained confidence, sometimes relaxing into the MAGIC REALIST or poetic novel (D. M. Thomas; Salman Rushdie; John Irving; Angela Carter). In this genre’s kaleidoscopic variety, real places and historical events are often introduced, but all in a distorted or poetically molded form. Typically, all such tabulators return to the loose, Dickensian form of the novel. They have a broad sweep, and open very large perspectives resembling in this such Continental novelists as Bulgakov and Grass in a way that contrasts sharply with the tight manner of the modernists.

It is also possible to see a narrower grouping, of POIOUMENA, or self-begetting novels. In this genre, the central strand of the action purports to be the work’s own composition, although it is really “about” something else—as Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) is about the composition of India after independence. Often the writing is a metaphor for constructing a world. The poioumenon has a long prehistory (hardly a tradition), going back through Beckett’s trilogy and Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, but it is preeminently a postmodernist genre. After Nabokov’s dazzling Pale Fire (1967), indeed, it became a dominant form: perhaps a quarter of the more ambitious novels of the seventies featured work in progress. Even the most considerable writers have felt obliged to attempt the genre, like Lessing in The Golden Notebook (1962, rev. 1972), Fowles in Mantissa (1982), and Golding in Paper Men (1983). Influenced more or less directly by literary theory, the poioumenon is calculated to offer opportunities to explore the boundaries of fiction and reality—the limits of narrative truth.

With this in view, such novelists interweave action with writing inextricably. In Midnight’s Children the narrator’s illness produces “fabulism,” and in Frederick Busch’s Mutual Friend (1978), narrated by Dolby, Dickens rubs shoulders not only with Wilkie Collins, but with characters from his own novels, in what purport to be their non-fictional guises. Authentic fragments of the ostensible work-in-progress may be inset. And Nabokov’s Pale Fire presents a long inset poem with a pretended commentary, in such exquisite intertextual relation with the poem that it itself invites commentary, in a regress like that of Pope’s Dunciad (to which the self-commentator alludes). Such self-reference, which is common in postmodernist fiction generally, becomes ubiquitous in the poioumenon. Confidential patter is likely to be kept up at each formal turn. “I will not succumb to cracked digressions,” says Rushdie’s narrator. For some, the best in this kind will seem but shadows of shadows. Nevertheless, it has challenged resourcefulness in ways of hesitating between fictions, and has generated a brilliant rhetoric of uncertainty, exploiting ironies of the elusive distinction between a writer-narrator and a writer who narrates.

A feature of the seventies and eighties has been the emergence of feminist writing of a new type. This grouping may seem a rather arbitrary, external category, since the novel has always been a female domain. But it is argued that earlier forms of the novel, however largely invented by women, were nevertheless sexist in underlying assumptions. And certainly there is not a novelistic convention that the new feminists have omitted to rework: a processing from fresh perspectives that may have given the genre a new lease of life.

Much feminist writing is deconstructive, in the sense that it exposes the sexist orientation of ostensibly neutral institutions and cultural forms. In this it has at least two distinct strategies. The first, a strategy of subversion, or reversal, or tat for tit, is evident in the work of Angela Carter. Carter’s ferociously aggressive, highly inventive fictions, such as Nights at the Circus (1984), rewrite fairy tales and rework gothic romance motifs, so as almost to sketch out an inverted, alternative sexist culture. Another strategy, which probably takes even more thinking out, is to assume the feminine viewpoint as normative, and proceed to ordinary realism. Although this can be seen in Margaret Drabble’s Bennettian novels, a better example is the Canadian Margaret Atwood. Atwood’s fiction, which has much more than productivity and hype to commend it, is marked by ardent intelligence.


It was in poetry, inevitably, that opacity was carried furthest. Here, at least, surrealism had something of an impact. Its dreamworld progressions—albeit combined with Christian and cosmic imagery—help to give Dylan Thomas’s strange transitions their inevitability:

Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house

The gentleman lay graveward with his furies;

Abaddon in the hangnail cracked from Adam,

And, from his fork, a dog among the fairies . . .

Here there remains a modernist difficulty of obscure symbolic connections. But it is striking that Thomas’s later poems, although they may seem to consist of clear, simple statements, say little about the world outside the poem. They nevertheless make sense of another sort; and everyone who cares for poetry will study such great lyrics (possessed of many traditional strengths) as “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” “Fern Hill,” “Poem in October,” and “In the White Giant’s Thigh.”

The forties and fifties were a poor period for British poetry, perhaps because of the absence of a generation of poets, lost in World War I. After the opaque poetry of the Apocalyptic group—George Barker, David Gascoyne and Norman MacCaig in his early manner—and Thomas’s culminating Collected Poems of 1952, there was a sharp reaction to prosaic lucidity in the so-called “Movement.” The Movement poets, such as Robert Conquest, Donald Davie, and the far more considerable Philip Larkin (the last despite Yeatsian beginnings) returned to what they saw as the true English tradition. They eschewed foreign entanglements, weak syntax and obvious difficulty. And they brought everyday life back into poetry—London and church-going and Whitsun weddings—as if they were confident that the problems of literature’s relation to the world could be bypassed merely by taking up a no-nonsense stance. With them may be grouped the older John Betjeman and the younger Ted Hughes, although the latter’s Crow (1970) took directness to a violent extreme. Larkin’s poems are beautifully constructed (and to an extent this is also true of Betjeman’s and others’ in the group).

There was much in the work of the school of Larkin that could have been better managed in prose, as prose had developed. Indeed, Sydney Goodsir Smith’s Joycean prose extravaganza Carotid Cornucopius (1947) had more brilliant word play than most of the poetry of his time. He scorned the limitations of a period when anything that suggested literary diction was avoided, in the impossible pursuit of some ‘writing degree zero’ (Roland Barthes’s phrase). The colloquial idiom of the school of Larkin almost invited poetry to be treated as informational: a tendency aggravated in the sixties.

The principal British poets of the sixties and seventies—Tomlinson, Porter, Morgan and Geoffrey Hill, and to some extent Sisson, MacCaig and Seamus Heaney—have escaped our besetting provinciality but at the price of being distinctly more demanding. C. H. Sisson (1914-), a poet in the Hardy-Edward Thomas tradition, has latterly come to grips again with unsolved problems of modernism. MacCaig’s Metaphysical epigrams enter into the process of perception itself. And Charles Tomlinson (1927-) similarly complicates the poet’s reality with overlays of imagery. His landscapes are palimpsests of repeated construction “interrupted pastoral,” “horizon  . . . above horizon,” “dense / With its own past”—where consciousness is “feeling its way among . . . hesitant distinctions”:

The sky goes white. There is no bright alternation now

Of lit cloud on blue: the scene’s finality

Is robbed of a resonance. The day will end

In its misting-over, its blending of muffled tones,

In a looking to nearnesses. A time

Of colouriessness prepares for a recomposing,

As the prelude of quiet grows towards the true

Prelude in the body of the hall. Anew we see

Nature as body and as building

To be filled, if not with sound, then with

The thousand straying filamented ways

We travel it by, from the inch before us to the height

Above, and back again . . .

The Australian expatriate Peter Porter (1929-), by a different method, undermines the referential solidity of his images by admitting momentary trains of thought and feeling:

The view from Patmos, the ghost inside the module! Living neither long enough nor so curtly brings us nominative snakes, time turned to blood upon the hour, fours and sevens when the Lamb lies down with Fury . . .

In such poems, Porter interrupts the image sequence frequently (far more so than the modernists); so that his reader is obliged to give up facile interpretative construction and attend more closely.

Dylan Thomas’s surrealist mantle seems to have been assumed by the potent psychoanalytic poet Peter Redgrove. But the Welshman’s more significant influence may prove to have been an indirect one, on the American Ashbery. John Ashbery enjoys an eminence almost like that of Wallace Stevens, in whose metaphysical tradition he stands, while carrying scepticism a good deal further. Such poems as “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) show Ashbery capable of eloquent meditations of great immediacy:

The sample

One sees is not to be taken as

Merely that, but as everything as it

May be imagined outside time—not as a gesture

But as all, in the refined, assimilable state.

But what is this universe the porch of

As it veers in and out, back and forth,

Refusing to surround us and still the only

Thing we can see?

Yet elsewhere he has chosen to exercise a freedom of transition that alienates many readers. In spite of his transparent (even commonplace) diction, he avoids external reference, with a consequent increase—a quantum jump, in fact—of difficulty. Like most other postmodern writers he is antisymbolist, rejecting metaphysical structures and reducing his symbols to temporary, relative, internally self-defined meanings.

But Ashbery also differs from the ambiguous modernists in not leaving one at liberty to extend his meanings into the external world in a freely polyvalent way. In fact, he intransigently bars free misinterpretation, either by writing about the process of composition itself, or else by breaks in syntax that hold the world in abeyance:

Old-fashioned shadows hanging down, that difficulty in love too soon

Some star or other went out, and you, thank you for your book and year

Something happened in the garage and I owe it for the blood traffic

Too low for nettles but it is exactly the way people think and feel . . .

(“37 Haiku” in A Wave, 1984)

Continually frustrating readers’ attempts to construct external worlds of their own, Ashbery insists that his poems be read as poems, not bits of novels. To get anywhere with them, one has to be receptive to his structures, his train of thought and feeling. With Ashbery, in this regard, may be grouped the British poets J. H. Prynne and John Ash.

But there are abundant signs of a more accessible style. (Poetry readings may have played a part in this.) Without any loss of interest in language, poetic style has now become transparent enough to make possible feeling elegy (Douglas Dunn; Peter Porter), narrative (Andrew Motion) and Irish fantasy (Paul Muldoon, Paul Durcan). In fact, it seems that the question of difficulty has altered. Some postmodern poets continue to practise a style as opaque as that of modernism but many have found other ways to challenge or freshen their readers’ world building—by involving them perhaps in problems of perception (Charles Tomlinson), perhaps of historical recollection (Geoffrey Hill). They can afford to have a clearer style, because the locus of difficulty has moved from diction and imagery, and is directly acknowledged to lie in ideology and reference. Of course, the various difficulties can coexist. Geoffrey Hill, who is the most complete poet of the period, stretches the reader’s power to respond at every point.


Drama has taken a similar course. There, too, noticeability of style has been a feature of the period. It is evident throughout Harold Pinter’s obscure discontinuities and eloquent timed silences (acme of minimalism), as well as his delicious savouring of demotic speech, as in The

Caretaker ). But it also shows in tours de force of dialect by John Arden ( 930-) and even of historical dialect by Robert Maclellan ( 1985), both with political point.

The literary development of drama, however, has been distorted by financial dearth, by lack of adequate theatres, by loss of dependable audiences, by the ephemeral influence of television and by the follies of directors’ theatre. And the fifties divide between modernism and postmodernism seems in drama more marked. The theatre of the absurd appears to have an obvious beginning with Waiting for Godot and an immediate continuation in N. F. Simpson’s A Resounding Tinkle ( 956). But Simpson can be seen as reenlivening a recessive native tradition of nonsense (Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, the Goons). Moreover, Beckett himself is a large enough figure to span more than one style, and certainly too serious to accept the absurdity of man’s condition without protest. (He is so evidently serious as effectually to disguise how little he says about the external world except about our frailty, as in a radio play like All that Fall, 1957.) As we have seen, his drama revives the gothic Morality; anything further from the totally new could scarcely be imagined.

A distinct departure from Beckett’s transitional style came with the thoroughgoing postmodernism of Harold Pinter (1930-), who although he began as an imitator of Beckett and Eugene Ionesco with backward glances at the absurdist tradition of the surrealists has latterly come to occupy a role like Ashbery’s in poetry, as doyen of the current style. Contrary to appearances, Pinter, again like Ashbery, pursues a meaning that is relatively univocal. Whereas audiences were free to interpret Waiting for Godot (even its broad allegory) as they pleased, Pinter’s later plays, such as The Homecoming ( 965) and Old Times (1971), make a more precise demand. His explorations of language and communication amount to realism, albeit a new realism on a more sceptical footing. Indeed, no dramatist since Ben Jonson has observed speech so closely; and no one at all the meaningful proportions of its absence in silences.

In one way, the change of dramatic style has been particularly marked in the proportions of dialogue and business. After modemism’s lexical emphasis, postmodernist drama returned to an older and more central tradition, in which the verbal element was balanced more evenly by non-verbal action. This is true not only of Peter Shaffer (1926-) and Alan Ayckbourn (1939-) with their theatrical experimentation, but also of Edward Bond (1935-) and even of Tom Stoppard (1932-), despite his fondness for didactic speeches, as in Travesties (1974). (Ayckbourn’s technical experiments simultaneous actions, divided stages, plays viewed from behind may at times be arid; but they have undeniably enlarged the repertoire of devices.) Many of the obscurities of postmodernist drama disappear if it is thought of as acting out feelings or ideas or clich s in literal fact, so as to preclude our habitual responses to them. All this is not to say that dramatic language has been neglected. Both Shaffer (for example in Amadeus, ) and Stoppard (in Rosencraniz and GuiIdenstern Are Dead, 967) have combined brilliant verbal textures with spectacular action in an exciting way. The shift away from literariness has clearly proved invigorating and beneficial to the theatre. Whether it will lead to a dramatic literature of lasting value remains to be seen.


From the essentially Edwardian position still occupied by many British readers, postmodernism may well seem the same as modernism, only more so. But from a more appropriate viewpoint it can be seen to have a distinct character of its own. As I have suggested, postmodernist writers tend not to have the symbolists’ tolerance of polyvalent interpretation, but instead tend to devise interruptions that confront one more inescapably. Again, they have mostly abandoned modernism’s easy dependence on the order of myth; although they may still have things to say about the larger world. Postmodernists can sometimes achieve a solider realism founded on epistemological immediacy. Another difference is that postmodernists are more given to brooding on ‘the human condition’ in a very general, transcultural way which makes them prone to the escape of absurdism, or sometimes to what H. G. Wells called big thinks Several writers (Beckett and Hughes come to mind) have taken up very extreme stances, although one cannot yet be sure how central this is to postmodernism at large.

Throughout the period, literature has been increasingly influenced by literary criticism. This change perhaps began with T. S. Eliot’s own critical activity: modernism went hand in hand with the criticism of congenially tough-minded Metaphysical poetry. But the tendency accelerated with the growing need for explication of difficult modernist authors like Joyce, with the development of graduate work in the modern field and with the founding of university posts for novelists and poets. In short, there is now an academic context for literature.

Joyce may not have anticipated the industry centred on Finnegans Wake but subsequently many others have undoubtedly written in a way calculated to engage academic interpreters. In consequence, criticism has had a double, and perhaps an undue, influence. This shows, for example, in excessive ambiguity, the vice of mid-century poetry. Contemporary American New Criticism was a method specifically designed to generate multiple senses in the close reading of local opacities. And in Britain, despite the moral tradition represented by F. R. Leavis, it is William Empson’s criticism, with its cult of ambiguity, that has had most impact on writers, particularly poets. Empson’s influence, and that of academic structuralists, can be traced in a good many features of contemporary literature.

Some postmodernist writing is so dominated by theory that its forms do not even arise unpredictably from imitation of life. Instead they merely obey a programme of over-turning realist expectations. Or else they display a narrowly intellectual ingenuity. There have been fears, indeed, that literature may split into two separate developments: one high international, cerebral and difficult; the other low insular, antiacademic and readable. But against that dark possibility the continuing popularity of several writers of the highest calibre Golding, White, Naipaul, Pinter counts as a ground for optimism.

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