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Breaking Post-modernism: The Effects of Technology and Writing Programmes on Contemporary Literature

Amanda M. Bigler, Loughborough University

Abstract

The paper explores the relationship between post-modern literature and contemporary literature after the expansion of the technological age. Through the effects of technology, such as the internet, the subject matter and the overall tone of literary fiction has made a departure from post-modern literature. Post-modernism is seen as a reaction to the end of World War II and the persistence of the Cold War, which creates a different socio-political atmosphere than in the contemporary era. The technological influences on contemporary literature encompass the growing inclusion of a globalised voice and an understanding and curiosity of other cultures that can be expressed through works of fiction. The writing programmes within the academic setting have also influenced the contemporary writer’s relationship with the post-modern texts often consulted in the programmes. Because students react to the post-modern tone and writing style, they have created a post-post-modern attitude towards writing fiction.

[Keywords: Post-modern, contemporary literature, contemporary fiction, creative writing programmes, technology and literature]

Introduction

The differentiation between post-modernism and contemporary literature is vital to the literary community. By looking at contemporary works, academic journals, and the influence of technology and writing programmes on writers’ perspectives, one perceives a significant difference between the post-modern literature movement and the contemporary literature writing forms today. As well as the technological influence on contemporary literature, the way in which budding authors are taught in an academic setting has also impacted the voice of the contemporary author. As many contemporary writers today have taken either coursework in creative writing or have pursued degrees in literature and creative writing, the academic setting of the classroom must be taken into account when studying contemporary works. The rise of creative writing programmes both in the United States and within the United Kingdom have impacted writers both by exposure to post-modern works and by working on self-reflection as well as taking in the opinions of peers.

Works of, for example, Vladimir Nabokov versus the works of David Foster Wallace show some of the gaps between post-modern literature and contemporary literature. The influences of post-modern writers vary greatly from those of contemporary writers. Nabokov’s Lolita focuses on the inward struggle of the protagonist and the narcissistic nature of obsession; David Foster Wallace’s lengthy novel, Infinite Jest, includes numerous main characters (Hal Incandenza, Remy Marathe, John Wayne, Michael Pemulis, Don Gately, etc.), three separate locations and backgrounds of the characters, and an interweaving plot between the characters that allow the reader to experience multiple points-of-view by refusing to alienate the audience. Researchers and critics have commented on the narrow viewpoint that Lolita encompasses, and, as Kasia Boddy points out, “since Lolita was published in 1955, many have agonized over the fact that his eponymous heroine had neither much of a life nor, in Humbert Humbert’s hands, much of a literary memorial,” (Boddy 2008: 165). This single-minded need of Nabokov to indulge the reader in only Humbert’s thoughts and emotions, and by depicting Lolita as literally incompetent, is testament to the post-modern tendency to absorb the work in the self. This self, often loosely attached to the musings and struggles of the author, outshines the other characters and often renders the other players as one-dimensional. This is due to the emphasis on the protagonist’s opinions and conflicts, and deters the work from delving into other viewpoints that would divorce the work from an often egocentric frame of reference.

David Foster Wallace, on the other hand, has broken away from the post-modern notion of self-reflection in support of using multiple character points-of-view to create an all-encompassing narrative that veers from the ego of the protagonist into a patchwork of differing voices. He swiftly and abruptly moves from one character to another in often jarring segues. As Timothy Aubry notes, “when [Wallace] interrupts the progression of the narrative, rendering it all the more compelling, Wallace highlights the fact that plots are often propelled, or at least enhanced, by efforts to suspend them, and he exposes a similar pattern in addiction… Addiction and metafiction (sic), then, turn out to be peculiarly resonant,” (Aubry 2008: 209). This literary device of diverting the reader from one plot to another is prevalent in contemporary literature in response to the often linear progression of post-modern works. By challenging the reader to abandon one character for another, Wallace is able to create an environment in which multiple viewpoints can be explored and understood. This understanding and study of differing characters allows the work to foster an open foray into empathising with varying scenarios and developments that is not easily created in single-protagonist centred works of post-modern fiction.

Many contemporary writers utilise multiple viewpoints in order to create a broader and more encompassing experience for the reader. As stated above, creating multiple protagonists allows the reader to empathise with different persons and world views. Chuck Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh, John Barth, and Zadie Smith, amongst others, have worked with incorporating this style in order to challenge, involve, and intrigue the reader. McLaughlin states that “in the movement into the twenty-first century [literature] has learned to adapt post-modern techniques of subversion for its own purposes [by] constructing ‘realities’ from multiple narratives,” (McLaughlin 2013: 289). The multiple narrative literary device is only one example of the contemporary movement to connect with the reader and forego the often cynical and alienating tone of post-modern fiction. Robert McLaughlin reminds the literary community, “David Foster Wallace, for one, argued that the post-modernists of the 1960s made good use of irony for tipping various sacred cows, but at the end of the century, when all sacred cows have been tipped, irony leaves us caught inside a self-referring trap, unable to assert any belief, unable to connect with others, unable to make a new world,” (McLaughlin 2013: 285). This “tipping of cows,” as it were, is necessary to bring cultural issues to light, but (somewhat ironically) by relying solely on irony, an alienation of those within said culture is evident. An example of this depressing and empty irony can be found in Don DeLillo’s White Noise when Jack states, “No sense of the irony of human experience, that we are the highest form of life on earth, and yet ineffably sad because we know what no other animal knows, that we must die,” (DeLillo 1985: 20). This quote encapsulates both the self-absorption in the protagonist in regards to the “animals” around him, and the unrelenting use of irony to push others away…Access Full Text of the Article

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