Updated: Sep 2, 2022
Well, well, well.
I've been asked by someone, "so what is the purpose in your stories, what is moral, what am I learning here." and this made me think to write a short article on a trend of literary fiction in which we don't try to convey a goal or purpose in the story. My writing particularly can be categorized under transgressive fiction and has many commonalities with absurdism and dark fiction but what gives them the quality I'm looking for is postmodernism perspective on literature. I would like to use this to expand my response to such a reaction of so what is the goal? After such a conversation, I felt purposeless for a few minutes. Then I thought what if there’s good to not seek a unified purpose?
Absurdist fiction is a genre of literature that began in the 1950s and 1960s mainly in France and Germany as a result of post-war disillusionment. This is a specific time period in which gave birth to Postmodern literature and what that label entails. Postmodern literature is defined as literature written after World War II through the current day. Works of Postmodern literature reflect a society's social and/or political viewpoints, shown through realistic characters, connections to current events, and socioeconomic messages. The writers are looking for trends that illuminate societal strengths and weaknesses to remind society of lessons they should learn and questions they should ask. So when we think of Postmodern literature, we cannot simply look at a few themes or settings. Since society changes over time, so do the content and messages of this writing. It is from these real-life themes that we find the beginning of a new period of writing.
Moving forward, we have Postmodern literature that is a form of literature characterized by the use of metafiction, unreliable narration, self-reflexivity, intertextuality, and which often thematizes both historical and political issues. This style of experimental literature emerged strongly in the US in the 1960s through the writings of authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Philip K. Dick, Kathy Acker, and John Barth. (source) Postmodernists often challenge authorities, which has been seen as a symptom of the fact that this style of literature first emerged in the context of political tendencies in the 1960s. (source)
Linda Hutcheon claimed postmodern fiction as a whole could be characterized by the ironic quote marks, that much of it can be taken as tongue-in-cheek. This irony, along with black humor and the general concept of "play" are among the most recognizable aspects of postmodernism. (source) So, Postmodern literature is a form of literature that is marked, both stylistically and ideologically, by a reliance on such literary conventions as fragmentation, paradox, unreliable narrators, often unrealistic and downright impossible plots, games, parody, paranoia, dark humor, and authorial self-reference. (source) It is important to know that Postmodern authors tend to reject outright meanings in their novels, stories, and poems, and, instead, highlight and celebrate the possibility of multiple meanings, or a complete lack of meaning, within a single literary work.
Postmodern literature often rejects the boundaries between 'high' and 'low' forms of art and literature, as well as the distinctions between different genres and forms of writing and storytelling. Here I have some common stylistic techniques that are often used in this form of literature:
Pastiche: The taking of various ideas from previous writings and literary styles and pasting them together to make new styles. The word implies a lack of originality or coherence, an imitative jumble, but with the advent of postmodernism, pastiche has become positively constructed as deliberate, witty homage or playful imitation (source).
Intertextuality: The acknowledgment of previous literary works within another literary work. It includes allusion, quotation, calque, plagiarism, translation, pastiche, and parody (source).
Metafiction: The act of writing about writing or making readers aware of the fictional nature of the very fiction they're reading. It is frequently used as a form of parody or a tool to undermine literary conventions and explore the relationship between literature and reality, life, and art (source).
Temporal Distortion: The use of non-linear timelines and narrative techniques in a story. The author presents multiple possible events occurring simultaneously—in one section the something chaotic is happening while in another section nothing happens and so on—yet no version of the story is favored as the correct version(source).
Minimalism: The use of characters and events which are decidedly common and non-exceptional characters. It can be characterized as a focus on a surface description where readers are expected to take an active role in the creation of a story. Generally, the short stories are "slice of life" stories (source).
Maximalism: Disorganized, lengthy, highly detailed writing. In the arts, maximalism, is an aesthetic of excess. The philosophy can be summarized as "more is more", contrasting with the minimalist motto "less is more"(source).
Faction: The mixing of actual historical events with fictional events without clearly defining what is factual and what is fictional. (source)
Reader Involvement: Often through direct address to the reader and the open acknowledgment of the fictional nature of the events being described. (source)
Absurdism and Transgressive Fiction
Going back to the root of Absurdist Fiction, we can find influences from the Romanticism trends in Paris in the 1830s, the collapse of religious tradition in Germany and the societal and philosophical revolution led by the expressions of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, Absurdist fiction takes form most commonly in a novel, play, poem, or film, that focuses on "the experiences of characters in situations where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events that call into question the certainty of existential concepts such as truth or value". (source)
This is very similar to a Transgressive Fiction character, in that the character is feeling confined by the norms and expectations of society and breaks free of those confines in unusual or illicit ways. As I explained what is Transgressive fiction in my previous article, I can add that there are common elements in both absurdist and Transgressive fiction including satire, dark humor, incongruity, the abasement of reason, and controversy regarding the philosophical condition of being "nothing"(source) Both genres are characterized by a focus on the experience of the characters, centered on the idea that life is incongruous, irreconcilable and meaningless(source).
The Absurdist movement can be the root of Transgressive fiction, as well as an extension of the Existentialism movement. (source) Existentialism, focuses on the pointlessness of humans, particularly, the emotional angst and anxiety that happens when the existence of purpose is challenged (source). Absurdist Fiction and Transgression is central to the work of Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, and Eugène Ionesco. (source)In short, the difference between existentialism and absurdism comes in their solution to finding meaning in life. They both agree that the universe is inherently meaningless, but existentialism states that we must create our own meaning.
The existentialist mantra, at least the Sartrean, is existence precedes essence; "we are born, we exist, and then we must choose to craft our own essence, our own purpose." (source) But Absurdism focuses on the tension between a meaningless universe and our constant striving to find meaning. This tension is what gives rise to the Absurd and later Transgressive fiction and art. Camus argued that we are all struggling with this tension and so we have alternatives: "we can kill ourselves, we can deny the absurdity and take refuge in myths and religion, or we can embrace the absurdity."(source) Mixing this with Postmodernism, we see striving for meaning all of a sudden become meaningless.
John Barth, the postmodernist novelist in his 1967 essay "The Literature of Exhaustion" explains the need for a new era in literature after modernism had exhausted itself. His ideal Postmodernist author neither refusing nor immitating the 20th-century Modernist parents or his 19th-century pre-modernist grandparents (source) so, "the ideal Postmodernist novel will somehow rise above the quarrel between realism and irrealism, formalism and "contentism," pure and committed literature, coterie fiction, and junk fiction..." (Ibid.)
The novelist and theorist Umberto Eco, in his Reflections on 'The Name of the Rose', explains his idea of postmodernism as a kind of double-coding, and as a transhistorical phenomenon. He adds that Postmodernism isn't a trend to be "chronologically defined, but, rather, an ideal category". Instead of the modernist quest for meaning in a chaotic world, the postmodern author eschews, often playfully, the possibility of meaning, and the postmodern novel is often a parody of this quest. This distrust of totalizing mechanisms extends even to the author and his own self-awareness. So postmodern writers often celebrate chance over craft and employ
metafiction to undermine the author's "univocation" that is the existence of narrative primacy within a text, the presence of a single all-powerful storytelling authority.
To conclude, as a writer, I refuse to clearly define the meaning for my readers. I believe it is the duty of the reader to discover the meaning from their own perspective and thus, they can relate to the story on a deeper level. As Camus said, ‘Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux.’ which means one must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ while if you know the story of Sisyphus, you may wonder, was he? This is a way to define my type of story. You find a meaning and a purpose in them based on your own comprehension. Therefore, if you haven't found any meaning, purpose or asked yourself "so what" after reading my stories, rethink. That can define who you really are: a purposeful deep-thinker or else?