To engage in literature


In Rethinking Postmodernism(s) Katrin Amian declares that “Postmodernism, it seems, is history”[1] for the simple reason that “the term appears to have exhausted its potential as a means of describing and understanding the shifting alliances of literary and cultural production in the new millennium.”[2] I, too, believe contemporary literature can not be understood as postmodern. In fact, I believe, labeling it ‘postmodern’ is unserviceable. This term limits the possibilities to interpret and reflect on these texts and simplifies the complexity of today’s literature.

In this essay I wish to outline a few currents in contemporary literature. I divided this essay into two sections. In the first section I will discuss the returns of  ostensibly outdated concepts such as authenticity, ethics, engagement and aesthetics and what kind of themes are pushed to the foreground because of this. In the second section I will inquire how these shifts are reflected in literary theory.

Many concepts that postmodernism declared ‘dead’ seem to have returned from what now appears to have been nothing more than a deep sleep. In The Pathos of Authenticity Ulla Haselstein and others point out that

Authenticity is making a comeback, in the guises of memory, ethics, religion, the new sincerity, and the renewed interest in ‘real things’. Although sometimes envisioned as the rejection of postmodernism, the ‘new’ authenticity remains profoundly shaped by postmodern skepticism regarding the grand narratives of origin, telos, reference, and essence.[3]

What makes this quote so insightful is that it reflects on how contemporary literature does not dismiss postmodern ideas, but rather incorporates those ideas, though utilizing them for completely different outcomes, for example for installing authenticity or sincerity. One dominant strategy that is being pursued is to seek for ways to engage the reader again. This might sound quite banal, but if you think of Paul Auster’s detective figures struggling through word labyrinths, or Don DeLillo’s death-fearing pill-popping protagonists – did you really identify with the characters or were you only waiting for the next intertextual clue? David Foster Wallace (although not so innocent when it comes to irony, parody and side-tracking comments) speaks of a certain expectation that seems to go along with writing literature nowadays, but he also hints to a way out:

 […] we fiction writers […] won’t (can’t) dare try to use serious art to advance ideologies. […] People would either laugh or be embarrassed for us. Given this (and it is a given), who is to blame for the unseriousness of our serious fiction? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t (could not) laugh if a piece of morally passionate, passionately moral fiction was also ingenious and radiantly human fiction.[4]

In a straightforward way Wallace points out the writer’s responsibility to make the readers engage by allowing them simply no way out, by writing in such ways that makes it impossible not to care. It is precisely this that most contemporary literature tries to do. It tries to find ways that allow (or even force) the reader to be involved in what is presented to them, without falling back into a distanced mode. What Wallace hoped for seems to be shared by many authors. In an interview the author Nicole Krauss makes a revealing remark about her literary influences. Like many writers her age she studied and learned from postmodern writers. However, she is quick to point out their limitations in terms of her own interests:

[…] DeLillo is very good – one of the best really […] But there are things DeLillo doesn’t seem to care about that I do. Heat, for example. I mean emotional heat: passion, jealousy, love, grief. The whole messy scope of human emotion. He seems to court detachment. He’s not so interested in his characters’ psychology. He’s not even, I don’t think, interested in rousing any compassion for them. To me that’s a very limited way of writing. So while I have learned from him, and I take my hat off to him, I don’t really want to be like him.[5]

It would be too far-fetched to identify an argument for post-postmodernism here, since Krauss is talking about what guides her personal writing experience. However, I believe that Krauss’s protagonists are a reflection of today’s renewed interest in ‘real’ characters in the sense of presenting protagonists that deal with essential issues (however they are defined in their world). When talking about her first novel Man walks into a Room, Krauss states the following:

In a large sense, this is what Man Walks into a Room is about. It’s about a man who becomes disengaged, and who – after a lot of loneliness and pain – relearns the difficult beauty of engagement. If I could reduce what matters to me most right now to a single word, it would be simply that: engagement.[6]

Krauss exemplifies very well the results of this newfound engagement. The shift in sensibility has mayor consequences, e.g. for the choice of topics and the strategies employed. Krauss (as well as Jonathan Safran Foer, Bernhard Schlink or Yann Martel) explores one area postmodernism struggled to engage with and was criticized most for: ethical issues. Foer and Schlink in particular have exhibited daring ways to engage with the Holocaust by breaking a taboo: although the victims are still playing a role in their novels, they are not the sole interest anymore. Both authors strive for some form of communication between offenders and victims which is unthinkable in a postmodern world where we tend to experience the story through the victim’s eyes.[7] This seemingly specific shift in ethical treatment only appears to be specific. There is a growing trend to narrate from ‘uncomfortable’ perspectives, think for example of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace or Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillants in which we learn about WW II from the perspective of an SS-officer. This triggers a disturbing reading experience which forces the reader to engage with the novel in ways he might feel uncomfortable with. Strategies like this prevent the reader from feeling detached from the novel’s protagonist or to inhabit an ironic stance towards him.

Whereas Krauss states the limitations of the postmodern writer in a rather personal way, a stronger declaration comes from A.L. Kennedy. She criticizes postmodernism more directly, associating a certain type of people and lifestyle with it. She does not tolerate people, she writes,

who might find it amusing to read about bare-knuckle fighting, or even got to watch, who praise the hunt, cigar-smoking, the more picturesque types of drug abuse, people who enjoy a good joke about the Holocaust, because that doesn’t mean they’re being bigoted, ignorant or simply inhumane, it means they’ve decided to be Post-Modernist. These are also people who may tell you that cruelty is more real than tenderness, but who still always seem to want tenderness for themselves – less real, or not. These are the people for whom I have very little respect.[8]

Besides her critical personal attitude towards postmodernists, Kennedy can be praised for her  accomplishments to revive the empowering feature of fiction in her works. As McEwan does in Atonement, A.S. Byatt in Possession or Margaret Atwood in The Blind Assassin, she installs fiction as a powerful instrument that is used strategically by the protagonists rather than the protagonists being subjected to the overpowering nature of language and contextualization. The undecidability between fiction and reality that has been the clue of so many postmodern novels is not an issue anymore. Instead the value of aesthetics is highlighted by creating an emotional need in the reader for those kinds of aesthetic experiences (think for example of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi[9]).

The last ‘return’ I would like to mention is that of so-called narrativity which entails nothing else than a return to the simple joy of story-telling. As Jeffrey Eugenides puts it adequately:

I don’t see myself as a high postmodernist. […] Middlesex is a postmodern book in many ways, but it is also very old-fashioned. Reusing classical motifs is a fundamental of postmodern practice, of course, but telling a story isn’t always. I like narrative. I read for it and write for it.[10]

This revived interest in stories triggered a comeback of conventional literary forms like the historical novel, the realist novel or the family saga. The successes of authors like Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Richard Powers or Amitav Ghosh are living proof for this growing popularity. They seem to tap into a contemporary urge: to speak of families, homes and all the issues that seem to be involved with it today (e.g., how to deal with Alzheimer’s disease in the family).

Underlying all those returns is a philosophical re-orientation. I believe a crucial characteristic of post-postmodern literature is its specific treatment of subjectivity. This observation has, in my experience, even been noted and accepted by very critical circles towards post-postmodernism. The distinctively changed conceptualization of the subject in international literature seems to be a phenomenon that simply cannot be ignored or brushed aside.[11] Promising I find Jan D. Kucharzewski´s  Hello, I say it´s me. Contemporary reconstructions of self and subjectivity in which the treatment of subjectivity is explored from Jim Grace to Danzy Senna, Marisha Pressl and many others. Although this work is not completely successful at stepping away from postmodernist ideas, it serves as proof for the growing interest in the question “What comes after the subject?”[12]. Also it locates itself in the midst of several other post-postmodern strands in literary theory. Similarly, Nicoline Timmer’s Do you feel it, too? The post-postmodern syndrome in American fiction at the turn of the century expresses this newfound interest in subjectivity by investigating David Foster Wallace’s novel and short stories, Mark Z. Danielewski House of Leaves as well as works by Dave Eggers. In all those examples, Timmer argues, we find “possible reconfigurations of subjectivity that can no longer be framed, I believe, as ‘postmodern’.”[13] However, all these observations are nothing more than that – observations and descriptions. To my knowledge there hasn’t been made much effort made to systemize those developments concerning the subject as well as the general development towards post-postmodernism. Raoul Eshelman is one of the few critics who goes further by formulating a concise theoretical construct called ‘Performatism’. Throughout his work Eshelman highlights several consequences and strategies that go along with this. I wish to explore the two main aspects that I mentioned throughout this overview: the subject and the framing of the novel. Eshelman observes a changed, so-called ‘opaque’ subject in European contemporary literature whose limitations prove to be liberating in the end: “By virtue of being trapped in a closed space, the performatist subject is able to shut out the endless regress of filiation that would normally keep it from establishing some form of unified self.”[14] This has significant effects on the reading experience, since contemporary novels employ “strategies that produce narrative closure in double frames and ensure obligatory reader identification with the subjects entrapped in those frames […]”[15] This ‘double framing’ on the level of discourse enables the subject (and in many cases also the reader) to experience a form of (bracketed) transcendence and, as mentioned before, forecloses constant re-contextualization.[16] The effect is an experience of bracketed unity, in the sense that it is an utterly limited one. Strategies of fragmentation and destabilization are either left behind completely or given a smaller role in order to reintroduce a form of transcendence, a phenomenon that was significantly lacking in postmodern literature.

Finishing with this last return, the return of transcendence, one could formulate a hypothesis: contemporary literature is trying to reintegrate precisely those themes and styles that postmodernism either was never interested in or was trying to get rid of. As a consequence, today’s novelists are finding inventive ways to create refreshing narratives that allow those themes a comeback under very specific circumstances, and by doing so are enabling a going ‘beyond’ postmodernism.



[1] Amian, Katrin (2008): Rethinking Postmodernism(s). Charles S. Peirce and the pragmatist negotiations of Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, and Jonathan Safran Foer, Amsterdam: Rodopi, p.1

[2] Ibid., p. 3

[3] Haselstein, Ulla, Andrew Gross and Maryann Snyder-Körber (Eds.) (2010): The Pathos of Authenticity. American passions of the real, Heidelberg: Winter, p. 19

[4] Wallace, David Foster (2006): Consider the Lobster and other essays, New York and Boston: Little, Brown and Company, p. 274

[5] A conversation with Nicole Krauss. Interview, in Bold Tpye.

[6] Those observations I owe to Raoul Eshelman’s work, e.g. on “Dexter”(Fall, 2011), in: Performatism, “Dexter”, and the Ethics of Perpetration, in Anthropoetics  – The Journal of Generative Anthropology, Volume XVII, number 1 ISSN 1083-7264,URL:

[7] Kennedy, Alison L. (2000): On Bullfighting, London: Yellow Jersey Press, p. 82 quoted from: Bach, Susanne (Hg.) (2010): Gewalt, Geschlecht, Fiktion. Gewaltdiskurse und Gender-Problematik in zeitgenössischen englischsprachigen Romanen, Dramen und Filmen. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, p. 233-234

[8] Again, an insight taken from Eshelman, Raoul (2008): Performatism or The End of Postmodernism, Aurora, Colorado: Davies Group Publishers.

[9] Foer, Jonathan Safran: An interview with Jeffrey Eugenides, BOMB 81/Fall 2002, Literature.


[10] See also Simone Stirner’s essay on the subject:

[11] Nancy, Jean-Luc (1991): Introduction, in Astrid Erll, Herbert Grabes, and Ansgar Nünning (Eds.): Ethics in Culture: The Dissemination of Values Through Literature and Other Media, Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, p. 1-15, quoted from (Kucharzewski: 2009).

[12] Timmer, Nicoline (2010): Do you feel it too? The Post-Postmodern Syndrome in American Fiction at the Turn of the Millennium. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi (Postmodern Studies, 44), p. 13

[13] Eshelman, Raoul  (Fall, 2009): Transcendence and the Aesthetics of Disability: The Case of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time , in: Anthropoetics – The Journal of Generative Anthropology, Volume XV, Number 1, ISSN 1083-7264  URL:

[14] Eshelman, Raoul  (2008): Performatism or The End of Postmodernism, Aurora, Colorado: Davies Group Publishers,  p. 39

[15] This concept of framing argues implicitly against Jacques Derrida’s thoughts formulated in The Truth of Painting.


Images from top to bottom:

Floating Lights, by Juan Salmoral,

Great House, by life serial,

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Notes on Metamodernism, 2014