This week we’re looking at postmodern fiction. I can hear you groaning from here but bear with me. Now that I’ve had the term explained to me, I’m pretty on board with the idea (although still not keen when the idea is translated onto paper).
Postmodernism, according to my Middlesex University course tutor, is a rejection of generalising definitions and concepts which – because they are so broad, and made by those in a dominant position – marginalise a lot of other opinions on the same subject:
Patriarchal culture silenced and marginalised women during the nineteenth century; nineteen-seventies feminism, initially positioning itself as speaking for all women, was soon designated as speaking for white, middle-class, heterosexual liberals whose assumptions of what women needed ignored the specific and alternative demands of race, class and sexuality. Any claim to be, or speak for, a social or public position inherently excludes or marginalises. – MA course notes
I’m totally happy with that as a concept. Generalisation is marginalising and can be dangerous, so postmodernism sounds good to me.
Postmodern writing is an attempt to show this up, either through narrative constructions that are so obviously flawed that they can’t speak for everyone (unreliable narrators would fall into this category, as would two narrators with opposing views), or by being self-reflexive, i.e. deliberately drawing attention to the fact that the story is an artificial construct. This demonstrates the author’s awareness of the dangers of copy-cat representation and stereotyping as potentially oppressive, and their wish to distance themselves from it.
Metafiction is a literary device used self-consciously and systematically to draw attention to a work’s status as an artifact. It poses questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self-reflection. – Wikipedia
Antimimetic stories are those which challenge the idea that mimesis, or realism, is the main focus and refuses to follow the conventions of natural storytelling, instead ‘flaunting their artificiality’. Which is where most people go off them. We have a fairly ingrained notion of how a story is supposed to be structured, and expectations that all stories will follow those guidelines. Postmodern stories gleefully don’t and so it’s easy to stop recognising them as stories at all.
The Author’s Voice
I’m not a fan of demonstrating my existence or cleverness to the reader within a story. It breaks their immersion, which I’m generally trying very hard to coax them into. I also tend to write in either 1POV or close 3POV, which means that I want the voice of the story to come across as the character-narrators rather than my own. The existence of an implied author is fine – someone has to write down the story, after all – but I don’t want to draw attention to it.
The concept of an implied author is especially important when discussing co-written, ghost-written, or anonymous works: political speechwriters all want to sound like the candidate who will speak their words; the multiple authors of a religious work, modern novel, or Hollywood movie want the material to sound as if it came from the same person. ~ Brian Richardson in Narrative Theory: Core Concepts & Critical Debates
I also have no problem with what’s call mask narration, where the author puts their own personal views into the mouth of a character, so long as it’s done with some finesse. I think this is actually an important role of genre fiction – it allows us to debate sensitive issues such as gender or religion without quite so much real-life emotion attached because it’s a conversation between, say, an atheist elf-queen and a pangendered halfling missionary.
Transparent narration, on the other hand, is a bit trickier. That’s where the distinction between author and narrator-character breaks down, and nonfictional statements are made within the story. That’s breaking the fourth wall, essentially, with the author poking their head in the window and saying to the reader ‘I’m going to interrupt your consumption of this narrative for a second, and talk politics/morality/cooking at you’. It can be done well in exceptional cases, but generally speaking I’m not a fan.
Traditionally, the storyteller is composed of three aspects: the actual real-life writer, the implied author (the person putting down the words of the Narrated, when not in 1POV), and the narrator-character. Postmodernism deliberately disrupts that triad.
Kurt Vonnegut, Paul Auster, and Richard Powers all have written works of fiction that include characters bearing the author’s name and some of his characteristics; they deliberately conflate these different versions of themselves. ~ Brian Richardson in Narrative Theory: Core Concepts & Critical Debates
Someone on my course, however, made the point that even if those distinctions are pulled down by the author, there will always exist two storytellers – the one the author puts across, and the one the reader perceives, which will necessarily be different because the reader’s experiences (and therefore interpretations) are not the same as the author’s.
Because postmodern authors are deliberately trying to do things differently, their narrators are a different kind of unreliable. Firstly, you’ve got the ‘real’ author themselves, trying to blur their identity with the fictional/implied author (and frequently the narrator). This blurring is a fictional construct, creating a fourth type of narrator – a new character masquerading as ‘real’. That masquerade is, by definition, unreliable. Vonnegut is one of the better examples of this, particularly Slaughterhouse Five.
Secondly, you’ve got antimimetic unreliability, where the author wants to break down the fourth wall and critiques their own reliability. They deliberately call into question the validity of their narrator’s (or even implied author’s) statements. Salman Rushdie did this with Saleem Sidai in Midnight’s Children.
Next, there’s the contradictory narrator, who tells a story that’s a mass of contradictions. This is a single implied narrator or narrator-character, rather than multiple narrator-characters who counter each other. The example in my text book is Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, which I haven’t read or even heard of before.
And finally a disframed narrator – a narrator-character who claims to have written other books which were actually written by the real-life author who created that character. Harry Dresden in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files just about falls into this category. I’m quite a fan of this form, as it blurs the boundaries between the character’s fictional world and the reader’s real one, which I think increases the reader’s ease of immersion.
In antimimetic fiction, you can also have narrator-characters that aren’t people, such as a horse (John Fowles’ Sweet William) or machines (Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad). Which made me realise that, by definition, all SF&F is antimimetic.