English classes often include literary classics such as The Great Gatsby, 1984, Lord of the Flies, and Pride and Prejudice on the syllabus. Though I usually enjoyed these books and studying them in school, the two attributes I always associated with them were: old and hard to read. There are definitely many reasons why these types of classics should be read, which is why they are so prevalent in schools today, but what about more contemporary classics?
Postmodern literature is vaguely defined as novels (primarily written post-World War II) that push the bounds of literary convention. For a long time, I didn’t think that a novel could be considered a “classic” or “literature” unless it was at least 50 years old. Throughout school, my only understanding of postmodern novels was that they were “weird” and weren’t real “classics”. On the popular book-focused website Goodreads, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald has 2.8 million ratings while Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, one of the most popular postmodern novels, has only 57 thousand. Does this mean that books like The Great Gatsby have more value to readers than books like Infinite Jest? Here’s why I don’t think so:
Contemporary language and content
One of the reasons it was hard for me to enjoy an assigned book in school was simply because the language was difficult. As beautiful as “what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men” sounds, no one can claim that it’s easy to understand on the first read-through. Postmodern novels often challenge the divide between “high” and “low” art by using the language and events common in our lives today. But just because the style of postmodern novels often isn’t as “fancy”, they are not shallow but use various other techniques to tackle important themes. In fact, what makes these novels challenging is that they break from traditional literary form and force readers to think critically about what exactly they are reading and if they can trust the words on the page.
Ideas we should be talking about
Classics often become classics because they deal with timeless and universal themes. But there’s only so much authors in the 1800’s can tell us about how today’s prevailing issues. Contemporary and postmodern literature provides an avenue to think about and discuss the important issues of today from the modern American identity to the influence of technology.
Delivered in a way we can relate to
Postmodern novels often use dark humor, irony, and metafiction as literary techniques, moving away of the seriousness of earlier literature. Take a look at movies and TV shows popular today and you’ll see how this shift in sensibilities is reflected. This generation is all about irony and satire (even when we watch the news) and no one can deny that being meta is cool cool cool. Yes, postmodern books deal with serious issues and themes, but they packages these ideas in a way that today’s audience is already hungry to consume.
I hope by now I’ve convinced you to give postmodern books a try! If you’re still on the fence, give this excerpt from Infinite Jest a shot before you decide.