postmodern literature slaughterhouse five
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is one of the most well-known postmodern literary works. Courtesy of The Independent.

The design and architecture of the mid 20th century is well-known and celebrated worldwide. But what about the other artistic movements of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s in literature or art? Join us as we tackle that first one: postmodern literature, the literary movement of the mid century.

Modernism Vs. Postmodernism

Though it may be an easy leap to assume that modern literature came about at the same time Mid Century Modern design did, that would be a misnomer! Modern literature found its place in the late 19th and early 20th century, as the world began reeling from rapid industrialization, World War I and the Great Depression. Modern literature focused on trying to find and create meaning in a chaotic world, but the literary movement that followed in the mid 20th century took a markedly different approach—postmodern literature looked at the unpredictable world surrounding it and simply decided that there was no meaning. “It has often been said that postmodernism is at once a continuation of and a break away from the modernist stance,” says Nasrullah Mambrol of “Literariness.”

However, this lack of meaning didn’t mean literature was doom and gloom from then on out. Rather, postmodern literature celebrated the meaninglessness of the world and embraced the obscure and the nonsensical. It blurred the lines between reality and fiction, and had fun doing it.

The Key Elements of Postmodern Literature

The notable literary devices of postmodern literature are paradox, unreliable narrators, unrealistic narratives, parody and dark humor. Most postmodern literature also rejects the idea of a single theme or meaning, choosing instead to have many meanings or forgo theme entirely. This rejection of theme and meaning is often because many of its authors and artists fail to see a singular meaning in the broken, disastrous world around them. Instead, it often enjoys poking fun at those who try to find meaning themselves.

Additionally, postmodern literature blurs the line between high and low art and genre, as literary works frequently use intertextuality (referencing other literature, real or imagined, within the work), metafiction (making readers aware of the fact that they are reading fiction) and magical realism (a realistic narrative with an implausible supernatural or magical element thrown in).

A Few Key Figures

postmodern literature jorge luis borges
Courtesy of Britannica.

Jorge Luis Borges was one of postmodernism’s earliest writers. Writing almost exclusively in short stories, Borges’s work explored philosophical ideas and the boundaries of time and space, all without leaving the reader with any sense of a key theme or meaning. One of his most famous works is “Library of Babel,” a 1941 short story that describes a library full of everything that has been and will ever be written (the idea of ‘everything that could ever happen has happened’ is a very postmodern one) where visitors from all over come to try to find meaning. Unsurprisingly, they never do.

postmodern literature
Courtesy of The New Yorker.

Kurt Vonnegut might be one of postmodern literature’s most recognizable authors—his works explored the counter-culture movement, state oppression and war. He frequently employed satire, irony and dark humor in his stories, and one of his most well-known ones is his 1969 book Slaughterhouse-Five, the obscure tale of aliens, time travel and World War II.

postmodern literature doris lessing
Courtesy of The New York Times.

Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize winning author, brought an important female perspective to postmodern literature, as her 1950 book The Golden Notebook played with fragmentation and explored topics like mensuration and female sexual pleasure. Lessing’s works often walked the line between modernism and postmodernism and used scattered narratives and parody to tell a story.

Learn more about some other great mid century reads by checking out Even If You Own No Other Books on Mid Century Modern Design, Own These. And of course, don’t forget to follow us on InstagramFacebook and Pinterest for more Atomic Ranch articles and ideas!