Don DeLillo in France, June 1991. Although DeLillo's work does not share the self-consciousness about language and literary technique that is characteristic of much postmodern literature, his concern with the breakdown of metanarratives often groups him with the movement.
Variously defined, "postmodernism" can refer to a historical period that began in the 1940s, a style of literature, philosophy, art, and architecture, or the situation of Western society in a late capitalist or postcapitalist age.
The French theorist Jean-François Lyotard succinctly defined postmodernism as "incredulity towards metanarratives"; that is, a skepticism toward the "grand narratives" that seek to explain and plot human life and history. Literary postmodernism is generally characterized by features such as: a mixing of styles ("high" and "low," for example) in the same text; discontinuity of tone, point of view, register, and logical sequence; apparently random unexpected intrusions and disruptions in the text; a self-consciousness about language and literary technique, especially concerning the use of metaphor and symbol, and the use of self-referential tropes. Even though the writers most often associated with postmodernism may deal with serious themes, their work often has absurd, playful, or comic aspects, and sometimes makes special use of parody and pastiche and of references to other texts and artifacts.
The American writers most typically termed postmodernist are Vladimir Nabokov
(1899-1977), William S. Burroughs (1914-97), John Ashbery (b. 1927), Adrienne Rich (b. 1929), John Barth (b. 1930), Donald Barthelme (1931-89), Robert Coover (b. 1932), Richard Brautigan (1933-84), Thomas Pynchon, James Tate (b. 1943), Leslie Marmon Silko, and Kathy Acker (1948-97).
PARACRITICISMS (1975) by Ihab Hassan; POSTMODERNISM, OR, THE CULTURAL LOGIC OF LATE CAPITALISM (1991) by Fredric Jameson; THE MODES OF MODERN WRITING (1977) by David Lodge; THE POSTMODERN CONDITION (1979/1984) by Jean-François Lyotard, and POSTMODERNIST FICTION (1987) by Brian McHale.
From THE ESSENTIAL GLOSSARY: AMERICAN LITERATURE by Stephen Matterson. © 2003 Stephen Matterson
. Reprinted by permission of the author.