Sunday, December 19, 2010

Who’s afraid of what comes after Virginia Woolf?

I would not say that I am afraid of the modernist masters such as Virginia Woolf (she is a personal hero of mine - God I adore her). Nor the departure from reality and into the realm of stream of consciousness, or the injection of the writer into the narrative. But the literary movement which followed modernist literature does leave me quaking in my proverbial boots as a writer and a reader.

My queasiness with post modern lit began, I think, when the members of a now defunct book club I belonged to in the 1990s selected David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest as our next book selection. At 1079 very long pages, I refused to participate, much to the surprise and dismay of my fellow club members.

Please, I thought, I just can’t take that on. I have just had a child, I’m tired, I‘m irritable, I'm sleepless and sleepy. I’m sure I have lost brain cells (literally) during this pregnancy…

Even just examining the book, the heft of a brick or two, was distressing, the footnote upon footnote, the rabid reviews for and against it in the literary news, the excitement with which my male friends approached it. The footnotes, Foster Wallace explained, were a method of “disrupting the linearity of the text while maintaining a portion of the narrative’s cohesion, for readability”.

Hmm. I’m reminded a little of a remark that one of Bertolt Brecht’s colleagues made to him when he said that the radical nature of his theatre work was meant to remind the patron continuously that they were watching theatre at all times. The wit replied, something to the effect that, where else would the theatre patron think he was while he watched the production?

On paper, when I read about postmodern lit I am completely on board. In an essay called “Some Attributes of Post-Modernist Literature” by Prof. John Lye at Brock University he mentions a few attributes (there are many more – my apologies to Prof. Lye for abbreviating the text) such as:

· challenging of borders and limits, including those of decency
· exploration of the marginalized aspects of life and marginalized elements of society
· an attempt to integrate art and life - the inclusion of popular forms, popular culture, everyday reality
· a crossing or dissolving of borders - between fiction and non-fiction, between literary genres, between high and low culture

And as I read these descriptions I think I’m there! I’m so there… willing to jump on the po-mo train of literature and give it a go. And yet…a glimpse at the plot lines of said books send me spinning. Query me on the now deceased Kathy Acker and her work (which I have read) and I am put out. Compel me, as on a dare by my partner, to read a recent Paul Auster book and I am left with a guilt induced headache of resentment as I grit my teeth and read it.

Dare I say it? Post-modern tomes bore me. Perhaps they require too much thinking, too much sleight of hand? Am I too lazy to peruse them? Am I resentful that I don’t fully understand the purpose of what is written? They seem to be written by a very odd subspecies of writer whom I don’t fully understand or appreciate.

But, Lord, I have tried. You cannot say I have not tried.

Published in an altered format on February 20th, 2007 at


Cheryl said...

Perhaps it is frustration instead of laziness. To me reading this genre is a bit like picking up pieces of shattered glass and trying to fit them together. It takes forever to figure it out, sometimes it hurts, and in the end it doesn't look right anyway. Postmodernism is interesting, but somehow very taxing on the soul . . .

Michelle said...

That's a great analogy Cheryl - very apt.