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date: 26 March 2023

Contemporary Fiction and Modernismfree

Contemporary Fiction and Modernismfree

  • Ryan TrimmRyan TrimmUniversity of Rhode Island


Modernism stands as the signal literary upheaval of the long 20th century, and yet the tenuousness of its appeal to “make it new,” as Ezra Pound commanded, entails the period or periods that follow are likewise uncertain save in their reference to modernism. However, even here there is ambivalence: contemporary authors might be charted regarding their modernist literary forebears, yet many explicitly reject modernist methods altogether; others continue this legacy, and still more look to complexly incorporate and negotiate modernist methods. Likewise, theoretical accounts of postwar fiction mark what comes after in reference to modernism: postmodernism, post-postmodernism, and the like. Modernism’s outsize shadow stems from its association with literary experimentation, aesthetic innovations elevating its austere emphasis on form above such traditional concerns as telling stories and creating characters. Though swaths of Anglophone fiction reject these modernist impulses and return to realist narratives, contemporary fiction must also be viewed as occurring within an era in which modernism has become institutionalized in university reading lists and the practices of their creative writing programs. Fiction after modernism thus might be best viewed as encompassing competing impulses, often within the same text or author: to revert to traditional modes of storytelling and thereby reject modernism; to borrow aspects of modernist technique but develop them so form might convey not only a sense of interior experience or textuality but also situate characters and texts socially (and globally); and to return afresh to those literary experiments, investing them with new relevance. These divided relations between contemporary fiction and aesthetic modernism underscore a complex and conflicted temporality operative within the very conceptions of both modernism and the contemporary.


  • Fiction
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)
  • Literary Theory

Fredric Jameson warns “we cannot not periodize,” an obligation incurring a rhetoric of ruptures and continuities.1 However, such exercises must be equivocal fictions, less an exact distinguishing of how one literary species begat another and more a useful fudge enabling discussion of how rough groupings of texts relate to each other in some sequence of development and divergence. These difficulties are all the more salient in discussing modernism and the period (or periods) that follow. In its assertion of novelty, modernism famously offers an antagonistic self-articulation, one marking division from all that preceded it. As Paul de Man notes, modernism functions to disrupt, making it consequently unstable and oppositional: “Modernity invests its trust in the power of the present moment as an origin, but discovers that, in severing itself from the past, it has at the same time severed itself from the present.”2 Consequently, the modernizing impulse to make it new discloses “the impossibility of being modern.”3 Newness, particularly that marshalled around a self-imposed imperative to innovate, entails an inability to connect to those prior sources of one’s own identity and a compulsion to move away from what constitutes one’s very present. If modernism is an impossible task, then its supersession positions the contemporary as what follows after such a fractious event, a modernity divided against itself (as this entry necessarily focuses on our own present, fraught questions of defining modernism as well as its relation to the contentious concept of modernity must be left to the side, even though these issues impact how contemporary fiction is perceived; further, modernism and contemporary fiction will both be largely discussed in terms of Western Anglophone fiction). In such circumstance, modernism’s new is fractured and no longer fresh; it thus stands as an uncertain progenitor or prior figure, a now-antiquated novelty. Moreover, if modernism as a label functions as less historically certain than previous periods defined around definite centuries, historical figures, or movements, then the contemporary situates its own newness with even more doubt, highlighting the hollow and deictic nature of the contemporary as a term. Indeed, the vagueness of the contemporary deprives it even of modernism’s oppositional stance, one supplied through manifestos, aesthetic pronouncements, and jarring stylistic difference. Consequently, the contemporary becomes an uncertain and belated moment, one ending we know not when. Given its open-ended nature on one side, the contemporary necessarily turns to modernism as the only frame that might allow its own identity to take some shape. The rationale for Jameson’s double-negative imperative becomes clear: as the uncertain period of modernism gives rise to one even more inchoate, articulating lines of relation becomes ever-more necessary for developing something approaching a grasp on moments that do indeed appear distinctive, permitting us to begin identifying major features; and yet these features pull in different directions, do not allow neat summative statements, sketch multiple lines of relation. In sum, periodizing the contemporary is a necessity, one for which the modern stands as the key figure; however, this task is also necessarily an impossible one or, rather, one whose work cannot be conclusively completed.

Both modernism and the contemporary depend on suggesting a faultline of newness. However, this sense of the new changes as modernism has given way to the contemporary. As Raymond Williams observed, the divergence of these terms is a relatively recent occurrence, one helping signal fraught relations between modernism and the contemporary: during the 20th century, “‘modern’ shifts its reference from ‘now’ to ‘just now’ or even ‘then,’ and for some time has been a designation always going into the past with which ‘contemporary’ may be contrasted for its presentness. ‘Modernism’ as a title for a whole cultural movement and moment has been retrospective as a term since the 1950s, thereby stranding the dominant version of ‘modern’ or even ‘absolute modern’ between, say, 1890 and 1940.”4 Peter Osborne develops this line of thinking, observing “the contemporary acted there mainly as a qualification of (rather than a counter to) ‘the modern’: the contemporary was the most recent modern, but a modern with a moderated, less ruptural futurity.”5 As the modern became an historical period, the techniques associated with its imperative to “make it new” now marked literary historical categories, while the contemporary becomes an ill-defined period in its own right, one less well distinguished regarding standout techniques. Moreover, making the contemporary its own distinct period serves at once to separate it from previous moments while raising the problem of connection between these pasts and our present. Consequently, the contemporary comes to the fore only by situating modernism as something already accomplished, then defining itself as that which transpires after the modern. This recursiveness renders the contemporary something of a problem, a present in search of itself. Accordingly, the contemporary—or, better, the competing impulses within contemporary fiction—might be best defined through articulations of how this present now relates to modernism. This article accordingly sketches the major features of these lines of relation.


Modernist self-presentation, with its assertion of disruption and innovation, makes any subsequent gesture problematic: What comes after the absolutely new? The self-conscious belatedness of a contemporary after the modern lends itself either to what appears as recursive returns (showy turnings-back to some tradition defined around realism) or a reflexive problematizing of modernism’s formal focus (postmodernism). But these postwar waves might be seen to crest and recede, so what comes after what follows the new? Or might we after all still somehow be in the modernist wave, in the new? These formulations help foreground the manner in which such literary histories seem clear only that there was a prominent modernist tide, a movement that the contemporary still defines itself against, relations taking the form of some version of rejection, supersession, or continuation.

Here difficulties in pinning down modernism regarding both definition and historical limits are paralleled by an equal haziness around the contemporary: What constitutes the contemporariness of contemporary fiction? When did it begin? Even confining discussion to Anglophone fiction in Britain and the United States, uneasy parallels and jarring discrepancies appear. If the contemporary begins after 1945, the American literary landscape encompasses the final phase of high modernists such as William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, as well as the blossoming of late modernists such as Vladimir Nabokov and James Baldwin. For the British scene, although the decades immediately following the war might contain late modernists (Samuel Beckett, Elizabeth Bowen, Henry Green), the main lines (as defined by literary historians such as Malcolm Bradbury) seem oriented more around a return to 19th-century realism: the Angry Young Men and following them a wave of Kitchen Sink writers. This discrepancy not only entails different relations to modernism (with the immediate postwar decades appearing either as a final flowering of modernism or an attempt to return to some prior style and technique), it also means the appearance of the first wave of postmodern authors in the 1960s and 1970s generates conflicting accounts: figures such as John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, and E. L. Doctorow seem to move away from the elitism of high modernism while authors such as B. S. Johnson, Christine Brooke-Rose, John Fowles, and Doris Lessing represent a reprise of the modernist foregrounding of fragmentary narratives stressing their own textuality. Moreover, the 1960s are now exceeding half a century away: its fiction can hardly be called contemporary. Then how does the relation between our new contemporary period and modernism compare with that of the postmoderns? Further, postcolonial writers such as Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai, Ben Okri, Arundhati Roy, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie complicate these lines of relation. How does this ever-more-global scope of the contemporary transform our understanding of a purportedly cosmopolitan modernism? Attempts to answer such questions necessarily privilege some authors or national lineages rather than others; a more balanced assessment might be developed by providing a rough map of how competing contemporary trends strike varied relations with modernism.

One line of attack involves straightforward literary influences and genealogies. If early postmodernist authors such as Pynchon and Barth might be seen as reacting against modernism, subsequent authors appeared to consciously hark back to high modernism. Novelists who came to prominence during the 1970s and 1980s appear to align with modernist forebears: Toni Morrison with William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston; Jeanette Winterson with Virginia Woolf; Cormac McCarthy with Faulkner (as well as Ernest Hemingway); Peter Ackroyd with T. S. Eliot; Kazuo Ishiguro with Ford Madox Ford; V. S. Naipaul with Joseph Conrad; Percival Everett with Ralph Ellison; John Banville with Beckett and Henry James; Paul Auster with Franz Kafka (as well as Raymond Chandler); the familiar comparison of Salman Rushdie’s excess and J. M. Coetzee’s minimalism with James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, respectively. Subsequent decades yield more such lines of descent: Alan Hollinghurst and Henry James; Michael Chabon and F. Scott Fitzgerald; Zadie Smith and E. M. Forster. A growing number of contemporary writers have also foregrounded a relationship to modernism through fiction explicitly invoking high (and early) modernist authors: Michael Cunningham’s The Hours traces Woolf’s composition of Mrs Dalloway, paralleling that narrative strand with characters who decades later echo Woolf’s Clarissa; Timothy Findley’s Famous Last Words employs Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (the fictional “poet” of Ezra Pound’s eponymous poem) as its main character; Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy revolves around war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart War Hospital; Peter Ackroyd’s The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde takes the form of a diary by the playwright; J. M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg follows Fyodor Dostoyevsky in an imagined scenario launching his writing The Devils; Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot follows a retiree obsessed with the French author’s biography; Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt centers on a character who is the cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; Colm Tóibín (The Master), David Lodge (Author, Author), Cynthia Ozick (“Quartet”), and Alan Hollinghurst (The Line of Beauty) all invoke Henry James. In addition, contemporary authors have engaged with modernism in other forms such as music (Toni Morrison’s Jazz, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming through Slaughter, Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo) and the visual arts (Don Delillo’s Underworld; Richard Powers’s Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance; William Boyd’s Any Human Heart). Modernism constitutes a rich source of influence as well as a growing field for fictional topics and themes.

However, this warm embrace of the modernist legacy does not comprise the entirety of contemporary fiction, for many authors consciously position themselves against the stylistic and narrative innovations that had, per its self-characterization, constituted the soul of modernism. Spurning a reflexive textuality, whether of the modern or postmodern variety, these authors hark back to a realist tradition, a self-conscious aversion to and rejection of modernism. Philip Roth, for example, has pronounced high modernist experimentation as “outlandish.”6 Dale Peck has more violently repudiated modernism, summarizing its genealogy as a progression from Ulysses’ “diarrhoeic flow of words” to Faulkner’s “incomprehensible ramblings and the sterile inventions of Nabokov.”7 Indeed, for realist authors such as Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, and Jonathan Franzen, their fiction relates to modernism primarily by attempting to move as far as possible from its techniques. This vein of contemporary fiction thus treats modernism as a mistake or an experiment gone too far, an era that should be treated as a regrettable lapse.

Retrospective Relations: Modernism and Postmodernism

In all these accounts, modernism appears as the exceptional literary event, the major tectonic literary upheaval of the past century plus, its formal innovations transforming genres and narrative techniques for good or ill. Consequently, the very identity of the literary waves breaking after 1945 (and modernism’s apparent completion) take shape against this self-perception, whether as reversal, return, or complex negotiation. Indeed, the contemporary is often defined against a canonization of modernism: many critics argue that contemporary literature in its various guises, waves, and impulses is articulated around the institutionalization of modernism within university curricula.8 Moreover, modernism’s academic enshrinement has coincided with an increasing theorization of literary and cultural studies, so modernism and its relation to contemporary literature has been a major concern for theoretical engagements. In addition, authors (and theories) rarely fall neatly into one camp or another, for a varied diet of influences and a complex menu of techniques entail that in a single author, Zadie Smith, say, the influence of both modernism and 19th-century realism might be witnessed. Smith’s fiction largely returns to realism and as such appears to move away from the experimentation associated with James Joyce and Virginia Woolf; however, at the same time, Smith’s fiction also includes open homages to modernist figures (E. M. Forster in On Beauty), the use of modernist devices (stream of consciousness in NW; a disordered temporality in White Teeth), and postmodernist riffs (most especially in White Teeth and The Autograph Man) indicating a complex relation to modernism. Taking Smith as an exemplary figure for most (if not all) contemporary novelists, a neat map depicting which authors reject modernism, which continue with or return to modernist devices and themes, and which negotiate a complex relation to the modernist legacy is impossible. Rather, these different lines of relation might be discussed better around critics and theorists who trace specific connections between modernism and contemporary fiction. These shifting patterns of relation for contemporary fiction appear less as neat genealogies or rejections and more as unstable weather systems, ephemeral fronts where competing pockets of pressure produce changing lines of relation.

Here, postmodernism stands as the movement where relations between modernism and the contemporary are made most explicit. The growing rift between modernism and the contemporary after mid-century led to “postmodernism” being coined as a periodizing stopgap, a signal that some movement had occurred away from modernism but without a clear account of what this next act might be save in relation to the modern. Now that postmodernism itself seems increasingly consigned to literary history, the postmodern stands in uneasy relation with the contemporary. As most accounts of contemporary fiction date this phenomenon from after World War II or after 1960, postmodernism comprises an (or perhaps the) opening movement of the contemporary. However, even as something fully completed, postmodernism also stands as the historical bridge between our own moment and the era of heroic modernism. Indeed, accounts of postmodernism provide the clearest articulations of how modernism relates to contemporary fiction.

As many have observed, the advent of postmodernism during the 1960s foregrounded relations with modernism: Douglas Kellner notes, “utilizing the term ‘postmodern’ in a meaningful way requires that one develop a systematic contrast with the ‘modern’.”9 Accordingly, major postmodern theorists in the 1970s and 1980s stressed lines of relation between modernism and postmodernism. Ihab Hassan charts counterpointed lists of traits associated with each period, modernism’s drive for qualities such as form, design, and a sense of purpose contrasting with postmodernism’s “antiform,” an emphasis on the aleatory, and a general spirit of playfulness.10 This schematic highlighted some shared sense of technique between the two periods but also foregrounded a sense of openness and inconclusiveness witnessed in early postmodern fictions such as Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. For Andreas Huyssen, the contrast between these ends of the century revolves around different relations to mass culture. Modernism had distinguished itself from rising mass cultural forms such as cinema, radio, and the tabloid press, a divorce from the marketplace granting austere purpose to modernist literary experimentation, an asceticism that emphasized its aestheticism. Labeling this separation the “Great Divide,” Huyssen argues “postmodernism rejects [its] theories and practices. . . . Indeed, the birth of the postmodern out of the spirit of an adversary avant-gardism cannot be adequately understood unless modernism’s and postmodernism’s different relationship to mass culture is grasped.”11 Huyssen’s argument appears to best address particular lines of post-1960s American fiction where mass culture genres or commercial products are foregrounded, encompassing authors such as Pynchon, Don Delillo, Bret Eaton Ellis, and Mark Leyner, and distinguishing them from seemingly more high-minded high modernists. Similarly, Wendy Steiner agrees the first wave of postmodernists reacted against the “difficulty” of modernism, its elite experimentation. Steiner suggests these 1960s and 1970s authors wished to retain the notion that formal distinctiveness would retain a properly pure aesthetic focus. However, here, the emphasis on form was a blind alley, leading to a calcified self-conscious style and lamentations regarding the novel’s extinction.12 Modernism is then seen as having inaugurated an unsustainable emphasis on a purity of aesthetic form that produced an exhaustion of possible narrative techniques and stylistic modes in following the “ ‘high road’ of art.”13 In this account, writers disparaged because of gender (Joyce Carol Oates) or race (Alice Walker), a relegation due to practicing purportedly outdated modes of realism, help resolve this impasse by rejuvenating old forms.14

Other theories stress the way apparently similar narrative devices and styles between the two periods actually foregrounded different orientations toward self and world. Brian McHale suggests that, though the periods shared numerous devices and themes such as fragmentation and a self-conscious formalism, the difference was a shift from an internal to an external inclination: “the modernist novel explored interior experience” through representing “embodied consciousness—the mind in its engagement with the world—which underlies and motivates many of modernism’s experiments in narration, perspective, the representation of interiority, temporality, and language, as well as its problematizing of knowing and unknowing. Modernist fiction was epistemological, knowledge-oriented.”15 Modernism is conceived here primarily around stream-of-consciousness fictions such as those by Faulkner, Woolf, and Joyce, fiction defined primarily through its depiction of subjectivity evoked through the play of perception and memory. In contrast, McHale suggests postmodernism “was ontological in its orientation . . . ask[ing] ‘Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?’ . . . postmodernist fiction did not take the world for granted as a backdrop against which the adventures of consciousness could be played out but rather foregrounded the world itself as an object of reflection and contestation. Postmodernism multiplied and juxtaposed worlds; it troubled and volatized them.”16 Authors such as Barth, Pynchon, and Fowles whose fiction foregrounds multiple possible realities are envisioned as generating the central impetus of contemporary fiction. The differences between modernism and postmodernism appear as divided orientations, modernism’s “centripetal” drive for “strategies of inwardness” versus postmodernism’s “centrifugal” inclination with its “‘openness’ to the world outside and beyond consciousness.”17 This assessment might be extended as modernist texts often have the sense of a center (or perhaps pine for a center) toward which the allusions, fragments, and disparate narrative foci gravitate: a “mythic method,” a master intertext, a shared moment/place/event, a longing for a reassembled culture. In contrast, postmodern texts fragment into uncertain constellations, at best unsure anything might firmly forge the pieces back together again into a fully signifying whole or system. Postmodern constellations appear unstable and doubtful of any plenitudinous meaning: these fictions conjure conspiracies that might not actually exist, histories and stories that ultimately pull in different directions, glimpses of a sublime that seem half farcical.

Precisely this sense of a rupture in representation led Jean-François Lyotard to offer one of the most influential theoretical accounts of the relation between modernism and a contemporary defined around postmodernism, a difference less about period tendencies and more regarding how such techniques expressed contrasting attitudes toward modernity. Lyotard suggests the distinction between modernism and postmodernism transpires through the “disappearance of the close bond” between aesthetic endeavors and “an ideal of the progressive realization of social and individual emancipation encompassing all humanity,” an evaporation ending any possibility of centripetal movement.18 Consequently, postmodernism “finds itself condemned to undertake a series of minor modifications in a space inherited from modernity . . . there is no longer any horizon of universality, universalization, or general emancipation.”19 The contemporary in its guise as the postmodern accordingly resorts to “‘bricolage’: the multiple quotation of elements taken from earlier styles or periods . . . this ‘rupture’ is in fact a way of forgetting or repressing the past, that is, repeating it and not surpassing it.”20 Postmodernism is a reassessment of the past, not in the form of adherence to some tradition, but more from a state of blockage or inability to construct the entirely new; beyond exhaustion or replenishment then, the pastiches of Barth and Ackroyd appear as a recalibration. Modernism, in contrast, is precisely the attempt to jettison techniques from the past in a sublime attempt to articulate the wholly new, as in the way Joyce and John dos Passos developed innovative styles and narrative strategies. For Lyotard, the postmodern sense of belated exhaustion in fact precedes endeavors to embark on wholly new paths: “A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.”21 That is, a self-conscious awareness of form and presence within a history is necessarily a reflexive step intervening before the development of new forms striving to refine the powers of representation for fresh assaults on the unrepresentable.

Fredric Jameson builds on this argument in his own account of modernism and postmodernism, a theorization persistent still as the reference point regarding relations between modernism and postwar cultural forms. Modernism and postmodernism, for Jameson, correlate with the oncoming tide of modernity and capitalism. The essential difference between the two eras is that modernism still retains a sense of something outside capitalism, an exterior lost during the postmodern regime: “In modernism . . . some residual sense of ‘nature’ or ‘being,’ of the old, the older, the archaic, still subsist; culture can still do something to that nature and work at transforming that ‘referent.’ Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good.”22 For him, modernism emphasized temporality through such means as reworking narrative form and its focus on conveying consciousness. Contemporary fiction during the postmodern regime accordingly demonstrates a contrasting stress on space.23 Though Jameson somewhat agrees the postmodern era in fiction has ended, he still views contemporary fiction as unable to provide a proper historicizing assessment of its own moment, an echo of his account of postmodernism. Current fiction operates with an emphasis on “suddenness,” a “singularity [that] is a pure present without a past or present.”24 Texts like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder invoke modernism’s formal experimentation but do so through “one-off” narrative and stylistic techniques, “one-time unrepeatable formal events” that in inventing a mode that will not be replicated formally stress the text as pure irruption. This instantaneity through non-replicable forms, for Jameson, carries postmodern schizophrenia into the age of the financial derivative, investment vehicles and products themselves based on mysterious and arcane logarithms which are not extendable to or exemplary for any other situation or financial scheme.25 Such assessment finds in contemporary fiction an echo of modernism’s focus on the new but, against such now-canonical techniques, offers instead a novelty whose newness is always purely now for it could have neither progeny or a developmental arc as it resides solely in a present moment. Some critics, however, have warned that here theories of postmodernism collapse with their object of critique. Timothy Bewes, in particular, has warned that theorists such as Jameson (as well as Hassan) produce a depthless, consumer-driven spectacle world purged of traditional narratives, emotions, and full-fledged identities, a realm where “events are no longer possible,” a closure of history echoing the smug assessments of conservative figures such as Francis Fukuyama.26 The presentism of such accounts entails they are unable to articulate meaningful relations with specific legacies of the past such as the modernist project.

Post-Postmodernism and After

As postmodernism is seen as having arisen in the 1960s and then reached a high summer of accomplishment in fiction and theorization during the 1980s, it is small wonder the movement is increasingly viewed as having expired some time during the decade or so that followed. Consequently, many critics suggest the postmodern moment has itself given way to something else, a supersession entailing transformation of relations between the contemporary and the postmodern. The apparent faltering of postmodernism, though, means that whatever period follows (and “contemporary” has been the most prominent literary label) must be assessed as well regarding its relation to modernism. Some view a movement away from the postmodern as entailing a similar shift away from modernism’s concern with difficult styles and techniques, a concern with form seen as foregrounding the separateness of these literary texts. Madhu Dubey suggests that “if postmodernism ended some time around 1990, American fiction in the following decades . . . is said to be marked by a renewed engagement with the social world . . . [constituting] a new kind of fiction that once again aspires to represent and critique the social world.”27 The emergence of these new realisms—dirty realism, neo-realism, new realism, and the like—signify the modernist project is now truly over, that fiction has returned to traditional modes. Dubey characterizes the 1980s moment of high postmodernism as mirroring the previous era of modernism, as both had occurred during eras when the “lineaments of a political-economic system” were undergoing transformation; when a new dominant later installed itself (for the contemporary, a “flexible regime of accumulation” constituted on a now truly global scale), this newfound stability makes it easier for plots and subjects to be charted in a social world.28 That is, formalist experimentation, whether modernist or postmodernist, only rises to prominence during times of socio-economic transition. Josh Toth and Neil Brooks concur, suggesting the dominant feature of the return to realism is that this neorealism has eschewed postmodern metafiction, a move away from formalism that “seems to be indicative of a more general epistemological relinquishment of aesthetic imperatives as such.”29 Here the contemporary in moving away from postmodernism also firmly leaves behind the modernist legacy, shifting from a self-conscious formalism to relatively straightforward representations of the contemporary world.

In contrast, Mark McGurl emphasizes less stylistic dominants/experiments distinguishing individual literary periods and more institutional transformations bridging them together. Postwar fiction, particularly in the American scene, increasingly revolved around university campuses as the locus where novels where written, read, and rendered canonical through institutionalization in course syllabi. As such, the growth in creative writing programs—and the style of fiction they practiced, taught, and championed—should be seen as mirroring the explosive rise of the “modern cold war laboratory.” This new fiction might be usefully seen as “technomodernist,” a term stressing “continuity of much postwar American fiction with the modernist project of a systematic experimentation with narrative form, even as it registers a growing acknowledgement of the ‘scandalous’ continuity of the literary techne (craft) with technology in the grosser sense—including . . . mass media technology . . . modernist narrative becomes visible not as the antithesis of debased genre fiction but as a genre in its own right called literary fiction—which relativization does not . . . disable the distinction between high and low . . . but situates it in a larger cultural industrial system.”30 That is, modernist fiction develops itself as a highly evolved discipline much like nuclear physics or biochemistry, generating a field of knowledge (and an outpouring of sophisticated products) that increasingly appear arcane to outsiders. Postwar authors are apprenticed into this genre of literary fiction. Consequently, self-conscious modern and postmodern prose might be thus seen not as “radically ‘deconstructive’ ” but rather as “radically conventional, as testaments to the continuing interests of literary forms as objects of a certain kind of professional research.”31 McGurl suggests this research foregrounds literariness, “as moments in the operation, the autopoiesis, of a larger system geared for the production of self-expressive originality,” a self-conscious concern with craft institutionalized through the spread of creative writing programs.32 Contemporary fiction is then only an official instantiation of modernism, house-training literary experiments into house style for creative writing programs. Fiction written by those associated with such programs distinguishes itself from popular fiction and extends these techniques across a range of minority cultures, “synthesizing the particularity of the ethnic—or analogously marked—voice with the elevated idiom of literary modernism.”33 These developments help “partially democratize” modernism, moving it from an elite literary practice to a practice extended to all who undergo academic training in this trade.

Similarly, Amy Hungerford suggests that since postmodernism was characterized by a certain institutionalization of modernism, the arc of an extended 20th-century literary history might best be labeled as “long modernism.”34 The closure of this era then appears less antagonistic and more uncertain—Hungerford suggests “the period formerly known as contemporary” and then “post 45,” the latter designating a bare chronology that nonetheless swallows up both the immediate post-war reactions against modernism and the following postmodern era.35 Along these lines, Jeremy Green likewise notes the apparent closure of postmodernism occasions reassessment of the relation between the apparently austere formalism of modernism, and a more generous and demotic postmodern, for the relation between high modernism and the contemporary “now looks a good deal more variegated and complex; an awareness of modernism’s internationalism has begun to offer a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics of the literary periods.”36 Likewise, Matthew Hart and Amy Elias suggest the apparent closure of the postmodern moment occasions a larger re-assessing of how the contemporary relates to modernism, foregrounding not only ruptures with modernism but also how contemporary fiction maintains a number of continuities.37

Consequently, as David Rudrum and Nicholas Stavris indicate, marking the end of postmodernism is an uncertain process, for “its legacy still has a persistent influence” and claims that it is definitively over “carry with them the implications that first, it is clear what ‘postmodernism’ means; second, its meaning is stable and unitary; and third, the proposed finishing moment . . . neatly encapsulates both the essence of the postmodern and the clear evidence of its downfall.”38 Here they echo Jameson, for though postmodernism might be superseded as a period term, the techniques associated with it might still be observed flourishing in the wilds of literary fiction.39 Authors such as Colson Whitehead (John Henry Davs), Margaret Atwood (Oryx and Crake), David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas), Hari Kunzru (Gods Without Men), and Nicola Barker (Darklands) all have produced fiction returning to—or perhaps continuing—postmodern techniques. However, if postmodernism still persists within the contemporary as a stylistic mode, then increasingly modernism itself is also making a reappearance.

Beyond the direct invocation of modernist figures in fiction by Barnes, Cunningham, Hollinghurst, Toibin, and the like, a growing number of contemporary authors have adapted modernist modes. Tom McCarthy in fact has proclaimed that “the task for contemporary literature is to deal with the legacy of modernism.”40 Many authors have followed through on this sentiment: McCarthy’s own C is not only set during the years of high modernism but also returns to its interior focus; Ian McEwan’s Atonement toys with both stream of consciousness and the late modernist styles of figures like Elizabeth Bowen; Will Self’s trilogy (Umbrella, Shark, and Phone) employs wandering streams of consciousness that not only move between characters present within a given contemporary frame but also subsume thoughts of other characters encountered decades before; Monique Truong has employed stream-of-consciousness narration in both of her novels to date (Book of Salt and Bitter in the Mouth). David James and Urmila Seshagiri label such recent fictional efforts as metamodernism, a movement regarding “modernism as an era, an aesthetic, and an archive”—in sum, a resource for creating contemporary works.41 The fictions thus addressed to high modernism comprise “narratives of modernism,” a phrase referring “on one hand, to experimental fiction shaped by an aesthetics of discontinuity, nonlinearity, interiority, and chronological play,” while on the other, it “describes fictions—overtly experimental or otherwise—plotted around the very creation of modern art and letters.”42 Such fictions reappropriate modernist techniques as well as addressing modernism’s “sociopolitical, historical, and philosophical contexts.”43 It seems striking that a rough assessment of metamodernism finds the practice more prevalent in British authors than American ones, a tendency that might speak to the power of American creative writing programs to move would-be authors away from techniques such as stream-of-consciousness narration. Such an observation thus reveals limits to the suggestion that such programs domesticate modernist experimentation—or perhaps the limiting effects of this domestication.

Elsewhere, David James characterizes this return to modernist aesthetics as contemporary fiction’s negotiation of the legacy of modernism: “fiction today partakes of an interaction between innovation and inheritance that is entirely consonant with what modernists themselves were doing more than a century ago, an interaction that enables writers to work with their lineage in the process of attempting new experiments with form.”44 This assessment continues to foreground the conception of modernism as an acme of innovation regarding narrative form and style. And representing consciousness too returns as a central objective of this reworked aesthetic but in a manner reflective of the world structuring these perceptions: “contemporary writers reveal the potential for modernist fiction to be more than simply a laboratory for examining consciousness as a hermetic domain . . . [by] incorporat[ing] techniques for showing how mental experiences are shaped by material circumstances.”45 Fiction over the long 20th century abandons the lurch between centripetal interiority and centrifugal exteriority, now looking to interweave epistemological and ontological interrogations. Such re-engagements, according to James, refashion not only our understanding of modernism but also what constitutes the contemporary: “The contemporary itself . . . is no longer what it was.”46 However, this uncertain contemporaneity is matched by a transformed vision of modernism. James maintains “a more complex account of fiction’s transitions from mid-century to the present can only be achieved by an understanding of what modernism was but also of what it might still become.”47 This reassessing impulse is also behind the endeavor represented by the “New Modernist Studies,” an “expansion” reconsidering the temporal, spatial, and vertical (regarding divisions between high art and popular culture, changing canons, problems of reception, and inclusion/reevaluation of works by authors of “marginalized social groups”) boundaries of how modernism has been traditionally understood.48 Indeed, for some time, the contemporary has been viewed as something revising our understanding of modernism itself: not only does the modern stand as some prior moment to which the contemporary must reply, but contemporary fiction might transform how modernism is understood.49

Of course, the reason for these widely differing positions on the legacy of modernism in contemporary fiction, one ranging from something largely superseded to a return to modernist methods, is that the contemporary is an impossibly broad category and even individual novels house competing impulses. A novel like Ian McEwan’s Atonement, for example, amply illustrates this division: it employs a mostly realist opening section but does so as part of a deeper metafictional device in which a variety of narrative modes are employed that evoke specific moments and literary strategies from the long 20th century. Atonement thus seems to hark back to an older realism, one that would eschew modernism; yet at the same time that realism is self-consciously subsumed into techniques gleaned from modernism’s legacy—a metafictional deployment of a panoply of narrative and stylistic techniques. The novel illustrates Peter Boxall’s argument that contemporary fiction is defined precisely around the question of relation to previous literary movements. Boxall suggests the developmental arc of the novel after the high moderns be viewed around the “negotiation of the political and ethical relationship that prose fiction has with the historical past. It is possible to trace the passage from the modernist fiction of Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Stein and Faulkner, through the forms of realism that emerged partly as a reaction against modernism . . . to the postmodern fiction of Rushdie, Barth, Marquez and Carter, in terms of the novel’s engagement with the past, and the forms with which it seeks to record and manipulate it.”50 Contemporary fiction, given the rise of creative writing programs and Anglophone literature as an academic field of study, cannot but see itself as an epigone: every stylistic and narrative choice necessarily invokes forebears. As such, modernism stands most prominently as the largest debt, at once providing a rich archive to navigate and also clearly underscoring the reflexive sense of textuality linking modernism with much contemporary fiction. Whether through explicit or implicit rejection, self-conscious reclamation, or complex and ambivalent negotiation, modernism is the most significant prior period to which contemporary fiction relates itself.

Consequently, this relation between modernism and the contemporary reveals the uncertain and gravid potential of our own present. Peter Osborne suggests this contemporary moment might be best seen as a “con-temporaneity, a coming together not simply ‘in’ time, but of times: we do not just live or exist together ‘in time’ with our contemporaries—as if time is indifferent to this existing together—but rather the present is increasingly characterized by a coming together of different but equally ‘present’ temporalities or ‘times’, a temporal unity of disjunction, or a disjunctive unity of present times.”51 Accordingly, modernism would thus be the most prominent moment in our divided and ecstatic present, the most jarring such moment unsettling the present. Similarly, Giorgio Agamben highlights a Nietzschean “untimeliness” at work in the contemporary.52 This sense of being out of season means the contemporary is never fully present to itself as such, for it is always at odds with one’s own time: “Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. More precisely, it is that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disjunction and an anachronism.”53 If such a present is disrupted by the unrealized nature of particular pasts that linger significantly, by the specter of futures that might visit again through shades who never truly departed, then modernism remains the most persistent of these disjunctive literary ghosts.

Discussion of the Literature

Questions of modernity, postmodernity, and the contemporary have provoked major theoretical endeavors as in the works of Giorgio Agamben, Paul de Man, Jean-François Lyotard, Peter Osborne, and Raymond Williams. Critically, endeavors to define the postmodern necessitated distinguishing it from the modern.54 Central to these distinctions has been the argument that fiction from the 1960s represents a reaction to the institutionalization of modernism within reading lists, syllabi, and creative writing programs; Mark McGurl provides the most sustained and supported version of this argument.55 All such arguments might be too briefly summarized as suggesting that postmodernism and the contemporary incorporates some elements of the modernist method but distinguishes itself by key differences in technique and outlook, with the contemporary being more demotic regarding mass culture, offering a stronger sense of being open-ended (an emphasis on centrifugal forces for it is no longer able to fully conceive a socio-economic totality or any outside to capitalism), etc. Such accounts are opposed to those critics and novelists arguing that modernism (and postmodernism) constitute a blind alley of formalism, a wrong turn from which fiction must return to traditional byways of realism and straightforward narration.56 Overall, the key reference point for periodizing relations between modernism and postmodernism/the contemporary within the literary historical narrative of the long 20th century has been the long arc of Fredric Jameson’s arguments from the 1980s on.

Since the turn of the millennium, there have been several collections and journal special issues garnering appraisals and post-mortems on the postmodern; the essays gathered there generate useful maps of the apparent passing of postmodernity. The collections include Postmodern/Postwar and After edited by Jason Gladstone, Andrew Hoberek, and Daniel Worden; Postmodernism. What Moment? edited by Pelagia Goulimari; Supplanting the Postmodern: An Anthology of Writings on the Arts and Culture of the Early 21st Century edited by David Rudrum and Nicholas Stavris; and the special issue of Twentieth-Century Literature edited by Jason Gladstone and Daniel Worden. Amy Hungerford also has been a central figure as well in endeavoring to formulate how the contemporary might be in the process of diverging from the postmodern.

Likewise, shifts in considerations of postmodernism have led to alterations in how the lines of relation between modernism and contemporary fiction are viewed. David James has helped launch this reappraisal; his Modernist Futures: Innovation and Inheritance in the Contemporary Novel, as well as his edited collection The Legacies of Modernism: Historicising Postwar and Contemporary Fiction offer essential forays for considering both the mainlines of relation between modernism and the contemporary as well as interrogations of individual lineages between modernist authors and contemporary novelists. These critical endeavors have also returned focus to more broadly theoretical assessments of both modernism and the contemporary, arguments ranging from classic assessments by Paul de Man and Raymond Williams to more recent arguments by Peter Osborne and Giorgio Agamben.

Further Reading

  • Connor, Steven. “Modernism After Postmodernism.” In The Cambridge History of Modernism. Edited by Vincent Sherry, 820–834. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • Green, Jeremy. Late Postmodernism: American Fiction at the Millennium. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
  • Hoberek, Andrew, with Samuel Cohen, Amy J. Elias, Mary Esteve, Matthew Hart, and David James. “Postmodern, Postwar, Contemporary: A Dialogue on the Field.” In Postmodern/Postwar and After: Rethinking American Literature. Edited by Jason Gladstone, Andrew Hoberek, and Daniel Worden, 27–56. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2016.
  • Hungerford, Amy. “On the Period Formerly Known as Contemporary.” American Literary History 20, no. 1–2 (2008): 410–419.
  • Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986.
  • James, David. “Introduction: Mapping Modernist Continuities.” In The Legacies of Modernism: Historicising Postwar and Contemporary Fiction. Edited by David James, 1–19. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • James, David. Modernist Futures: Innovation and Inheritance in the Contemporary Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • James, David, and Urmila Seshagiri. “Metamodernism: Narratives of Continuity and Revolution.” PMLA 129, no. 1 (2014): 87–100.
  • Jameson, Fredric. “Modernism and Imperialism.” In Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature. Edited by Seamus Deane, 43–66. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990. Though the argument of this book does not extend to the postwar period, Jameson’s situation of modernism in relation to its own moment provides essential background for his broader narrative of the relation between modernism and postmodernism developed in other texts.
  • Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.
  • Jameson, Fredric. A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present. New York: Verso, 2002.
  • Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  • Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence 1982–1985. Translated by Don Barry, Bernadette Maher, Julian Pefanis, Virginia Spate, and Morgan Thomas. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
  • McGurl, Mark. The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
  • McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1992.
  • McHale, Brian. The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Steiner, Wendy. “Postmodern Fictions, 1970–1990.” In The Cambridge History of American Literature: Vol. 7, Prose Writing, 1940–1990. Edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, 425–538. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


  • 1. Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (New York: Verso, 2002), 29.

  • 2. Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 149.

  • 3. de Man, 144.

  • 4. Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists. Ed. Tony Pinkney (New York: Verso, 1989), 32.

  • 5. Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (New York: Verso, 2013), 16.

  • 6. Philip Roth, in Milbauer, Asher Z. and Donald G. Watson, “An Interview with Philip Roth.” In Reading Philip Roth. Ed. Asher Z. Milbauer and Donald G. Watson (London: Macmillan Press, 1988), 1–12.

  • 7. Dale Peck, “The Moody Blues,” The New Republic 227, no. 1 (2002): 37.

  • 8. See Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986); Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991); Wendy Steiner, “Postmodern Fictions, 1970–1990,” in The Cambridge History of American Literature: Vol. 7, Prose Writing, 1940–1990, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 425–538; Mark McGurl, “The Program Era: Pluralisms of Postwar American Fiction,” Critical Inquiry 32, no. 1 (2005): 102–129; and David James, Modernist Future: Innovation and Inheritance in the Contemporary Novel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

  • 9. Douglas Kellner, “Reappraising the Postmodern: Novelties, Mapping and Historical Narratives,” in Postmodernism. What Moment?, ed. Pelagia Goulimari (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2007), 108; see also Peter Osborne, The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde (New York: Verso, 1995), viii; and Bill Brown, “The Dark Wood of Postmodernity (Space, Faith, Allegory),” PMLA 120, no. 3 (2005): 735.

  • 10. Ihab Hassan, The Dismemberment of Orpheus (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982), 267–268.

  • 11. Huyssen, After the Great Divide, viii.

  • 12. Steiner, “Postmodern Fictions,” 429.

  • 13. Steiner, 427.

  • 14. Steiner, 431–432.

  • 15. Brian McHale, The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism (New York: Cambridge University Press), 14.

  • 16. McHale, 15.

  • 17. Brian McHale, Constructing Postmodernism (New York: Routledge, 1992), 44.

  • 18. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence 1982–1985, trans. Don Barry, Bernadette Maher, Julian Pefanis, Virginia Spate, and Morgan Thomas (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 76.

  • 19. Lyotard, 76.

  • 20. Lyotard, 76.

  • 21. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 79.

  • 22. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Raleigh, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), ix.

  • 23. Fredric Jameson, “The Aesthetics of Singularity,” New Left Review 92 (2015): 105.

  • 24. Jameson, 113.

  • 25. Jameson, 117.

  • 26. Timothy Bewes, “Against the Ontology of the Present: Paul Auster’s Cinematographic Fictions,” Twentieth Century Literature 53, no. 3 (2007): 275.

  • 27. Madhu Dubey, “Post-Postmodern Realism?” Twentieth Century Literature 57, no. 3/4 (2011): 364.

  • 28. Dubey, 368.

  • 29. Toth, Josh. “from The Passing of Postmodernism: A Spectroanalysis of the Contemporary (2010). In Supplanting the Postmodern. (Eds.) David Rudrum and Nicholas Stavris (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 219–249, p. 219. See also Josh Toth and Neil Brooks, “Renewalism: Introduction: A Wake and Renewed? (2007)”. In Supplanting the Postmodern. Ed. David Rudrum and Nicholas Stavris (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 209–218; and Toth, Josh. “from The Passing of Postmodernism: A Spectroanalysis of the Contemporary (2010). In Supplanting the Postmodern. Ed. David Rudrum and Nicholas Stavris (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 209–218.

  • 30. McGurl “The Program Era,” 109.

  • 31. McGurl, 111.

  • 32. McGurl, 112.

  • 33. McGurl, 117–118.

  • 34. Amy Hungerford, “On the Period Formerly Known as Contemporary,” American Literary History 20, nos. 1–2 (2008): 418.

  • 35. Hungerford, 410–419.

  • 36. Jeremy Green, Late Postmodernism: American Fiction at the Millennium (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 22.

  • 37. Matthew Hart and Amy Elias, in Hoberek, Andrew with Samuel Cohen, Amy J. Elias, Mary Estreve, Matthew Hart, and David James. “Postmodern, Postwar, Contemporary: A Dialogue on the Field.” In Postmodern/Postwar and After: Rethinking American Literature (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press), 27–56. See pp. 30–34.

  • 38. David Rudrum and Nicholas Stavris, “Introduction,” in Supplanting the Postmodern: An Anthology of Writings on the Arts and Culture of the Early 21st Century, eds. David Rudrum and Nicholas Stavris.

  • 39. See Fredric Jameson, “Postscript,” in Postmodernism. What Moment?, ed. Pelagia Goulimari (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2007): 213, 215; Rey Chow, “On the Graphic in Postmodern Theoretical Writing,” Twentieth Century Literature 57, nos. 3/4 (2011): 373–374; and Hillary Chute, “The Popularity of Postmodernism,” Twentieth Century Literature 57, nos. 3/4 (2011): 354.

  • 40. Tom McCarthy, personal conversation with James Purdon.

  • 41. David James and Urmila Seshagiri, “Metamodernism: Narratives of Continuity and Revolution,” PMLA 129, no. 1 (2014): 88.

  • 42. James and Seshagiri, 89.

  • 43. James and Seshagiri, 93.

  • 44. David James, Modernist Futures: Innovation and Inheritance in the Contemporary Novel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 2.

  • 45. James, Futures, 10.

  • 46. James, Futures, 11.

  • 47. David James, “Introduction: Mapping Modernist Continuities,” in The Legacies of Modernism: Historicising Postwar and Contemporary Fiction, ed. David James (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 3.

  • 48. Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, “The New Modernist Studies,” PMLA 123, no. 3 (2008): 737–738.

  • 49. See Patricia Waugh, Practicing Postmodernism, Reading Modernism (New York: Edwin Arnold, 1992).

  • 50. Peter Boxall. Twenty-First-Century Fiction: A Critical Introduction (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 46.

  • 51. Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (New York: Verso, 2013), 17.

  • 52. Giorgio Agamben, Nudities, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 10.

  • 53. Agamben, 11.

  • 54. See Hassan, The Dismemberment of Orpheus; Huyssen, After the Great Divide; McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (New York: Routledge); and Steiner, “Postmodern Fictions.

  • 55. McGurl, “The Program Era.”

  • 56. See Dubey, “Post-Postmodern Realism?” for one version.