Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A question from the comments

Danielle has asked an excellent question:

how you can tell if a novel is experimental or post modern?

It's so excellent a question I hesitate to answer it all on my own. Here is my lame attempt from the comments:

I think the term "experimental" can apply to a writer from any time period -- Tristram Shandy from the 18C is a good example. The term postmodern refers to works roughly from the end of WWII to the present, but it only refers to certain types of works. I don't know that I have good definitions, but I would call something experimental if it's setting out to change the "rules," like Woolf does, like Gertrude Stein, Nabokov, Barnes. These people are messing around with the "realist" novel. But it's not easy to define, because many, many writers try to do new things. It's a matter of degree, I suppose. As for postmodern, that refers to writers who play around with language and form, who draw attention to the text as a text rather than trying to create a "realistic" portrait of the world, who question the idea of a coherent self and identity (and therefore may not have characters of the traditional sort), who question the idea of any absolute truth. You could call Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, John Barth, and David Foster Wallace postmodernist writers. This is the sort of thing critics will argue over for hours. If you come across something that doesn't have a traditionally realist narrative and characters, it's probably experimental in some way, and if it's written between 1945 and the present, you could probably call it postmodern.

Does anyone have a less lame answer? I mean, even to call Tristram Shandy experimental seems to be a bit of a problem, since it was published in a time when the "rules" for novels, such as they are, are only being formed. So can one experiment with something that isn't fully defined and formed yet? (I know, I know, the novel is never fully defined and formed, because it's constantly changing, but I think you know what I mean.) And, to make things more complex, people sometimes will call Tristram Shandy postmodern. Now that clearly doesn't make sense since the term postmodern only makes sense if it refers to something, well, "post" the "modern" period. But Tristram Shandy sure does seem remarkably postmodern for all that. If anyone wants to add more characteristics of the postmodern novel, or if anyone wants to quibble with what I've got, by all means do.

By the way, the movie "adaption" of Tristram Shandy was an awful lot of fun. I highly recommend it. You could even call it experimental. Maybe.