Modernism, Postmodernism, Storytelling, and the Struggle Between Writers and Readers

Should writers care about readers?

Rudyard Kipling, Old Fashioned Storyteller (image courtesy, Wikimedia)

This starts with a conversation I had in graduate school. I was trying to decide which author I would focus on for my master’s thesis. I knew it wouldn’t be a poet (I adore poetry and have a large number of poets whose work I admire and love to read and discuss, but I’m a prose writer myself and I felt I’d be more simpatico working with someone who did what I do), and I knew I wanted to choose someone who hadn’t been, in the words of my adviser, “done to death.” This was the early 1980’s and my school’s English department was actively discouraging students from writing any more theses on Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, Vonnegut, Brautigan, Kerouac, Ginsberg or any Beats – and you couldn’t even whisper that you wanted to write about a Romantic. We Boomers had worn out professors’ patience writing – and writing – and writing about these same authors.

James Joyce, Modernist literature’s poster boy (image courtesy, Wikimedia)

Contrarian that I am and have ever been, I decided to try to reconsider the reputation of Rudyard Kipling. I liked much of his work; some, like Just So Stories, Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, and Kim had enriched my childhood; others, like his novel The Light that Failed and stories like “Without Benefit of Clergy” I thought deserved more attention. Irving Howe, a highly respected scholar, had just brought out a new Kipling reader. Besides, how could a Nobel prize winner not deserve renewed attention? I also knew that writing about an author often (and not completely incorrectly) branded a racist, imperialist, jingoist super patriot would fly in the face of convention. But Kipling was a great storyteller – and I missed that. I was tired of sitting in classes hearing professors drone on about how it took classes full of grad students and their professor months (was it years?) to “decode” the”Benjy” section of The Sound and the Fury.  Or that Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse was a triumph of stream-of-consciousness narration that represented a great advance in literature. Or that Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake was somehow superb because it was unreadable.

After a long talk with my adviser I gave up on Kipling. I could see that “old fashioned” storytelling, even done beautifully, thoughtfully, meaningfully wouldn’t be enough to satisfy literary critics and scholars.  What I needed was to find someone else – anyone else – besides Kipling. And no, I couldn’t write about Jack London or Robert Louis Stevenson or Arthur Conan Doyle or H.G. Wells or Daphne DuMaurier either. I needed to choose a serious artist writer – not someone who wrote stories that children could read and understand.

(I wanted to finish my thesis and get the hell on to my doctoral program [at another university], so I made a choice that made everyone happy – I wrote my thesis on Jane Austen, a most acceptable serious artist author. I’d just read Persuasion in a grad course on the history of the novel and loved it – it is, after all, arguably the first ‘modern” novel with its heroine who makes the best of her bad situation and as a result finds real happiness. And I managed to piss my committee off by choosing to examine Austen’s heroines’ behavior in light of Rogerian psychological theory. So eventually everybody ended up happy – well, as happy as could be expected in academia.)

This overlong introduction is by way of  trying to get at a problem that we face right now. The collapse of the canon, which I have bemoaned in my own way, may not be the tragedy that some old codgers – even me (aging Boomer alert!) – have occasionally described. One of the things that Boomers did was to “open” the canon to other possibilities – our insistence on including the study of narrative film, even TV programs, as part of English (and other) departments’ course offerings has had, in some ways, salutary effects. It has re-opened the discussion of what we mean when we say “literature” or “art.”

While I don’t dislike the authors I mentioned above – Faulkner, Woolf, Joyce – at all (indeed, I actually like them), they represent, indeed embody, the artistic/cultural movement we call Modernism. So let’s talk a few moments about what Modernism really is. Modernism was an artistic movement that reacted to the repression of the Victorian era. It was also affected by the chaos, terror, and incoherence of World War I (and, truth be told, WWII also). It is the movement that gave us the concept of “high” versus “low” art.

Marcel Duchamp (courtesy, Wikimedia)

Perhaps no figure represents the Modernist revolt against its preceding age better than Marcel Duchamp.  Duchamp’s concept of “art is in the mind, not the eye” would affect not just art but music and literature also. Duchamp, with his pieces like “Fountain” (a urinal signed by the artist and submitted as art work for an exhibition) challenged traditional concepts of art. In the same way his literary contemporaries – Faulkner, Woolf, Joyce – challenged traditional storytelling. Their achievement is obvious. The works mentioned above are great literature (at least according to my professorial training and experience). And they certainly changed the view our culture has of the possibilities of storytelling. Obviously, such challenges to storytelling also created challenges to readers, too. Through the 1970’s readers (if the sales success of literary “high” authors vs. popular “low” authors is a reasonable measure – and I think such a criterion has to be at least part of the measurement of an artist’s success) seemed willing to accept such challenges. Since then something has changed – and serious artist writers have lost favor with the reading public at an alarming rate.

Don DeLillo, Postmodernist extraordinaire (image courtesy, Wikimedia)

Postmodernism, of course, sought to challenge the Modernist stance by shifting the grounds of the debate. Modernism was an argument about art and what artists can/should do; postmodernism was an argument about culture and about how artists relate to their culture. Yet in unfortunate ways postmodern literary artists have been the victims of their modernist predecessors, especially stylistically. So while postmodern writers like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo incorporated popular cultural elements into their work like their visual artist contemporaries Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein, their storytelling was as complicated and challenging – and, to the reading public, perhaps, off putting – as that of their predecessors William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.

Neil Gaiman, highly respected author who chooses to write sci-fi, fantasy, and other genres (image courtesy, Wikimedia)

That desertion of writers by readers (or readers by writers, it might be argued) raises a question. Is the stance of challenging readers with difficult, sometimes (Joyce isn’t the only one) nearly/mostly/completely incomprehensible prose as an “artistic imperative” still supportable? As I noted in an earlier piece, readers have largely abandoned serious artist authors for writers who focus on “old fashioned” storytelling. Most of these masters of “old fashioned” storytelling write genre fiction: science fiction, detective fiction, fantasy, even romance. Many of them are highly respected authors.

Where, then, does this leave us and where will it lead us? That’s what a comments section is for.

And just for the hell of it, here’s Duchamp’s Fountain:

“Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp, 1917 (image courtesy, Wikimedia)

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About Jim Booth

writer, professor, rock star - pretty inaccurate summary, I think...
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