All novels, of every age, are concerned with the enigma of the self,” says Milan Kundera in a dialogue on The Art of the Novel. Once the writer creates a character she is immediately confronted by the question of what it means to be a “self,” (23) which is collectively defined by the cultural time period and location in which the author writes. For the contemporary author wishing to address or explore this question in her work, it is necessary to have a thorough understanding of the beliefs, rejections, questions, and quandaries of the given culture. The truly motivated writer will also want to learn about the evolution of macro-culture in terms of literature—one might study romanticism, modernism, and most importantly postmodernism, as it is the macro-culture from which our new culture is developing.
Two key aspects that characterize the concept of postmodernism is self-consciousness and subjectivity. Particularly since the explosion of the Internet and globalization, I suspect it wouldn't be too far off to assume that our hyper-aware culture would know when it's changing, when it is marked by macro-elements that differ or contradict from those that currently define and shape the postmodern world. Academia seems to agree with me. Scholars are already referring to the cultural movement after postmodernism by a variety of names. Among them are Post-Postmodernism, Performatism, New Sincerity, and Pseudo-modernism, which seems to be the most popular name. To understand the particularities of pseudo-modernist fiction and how they differ or diverge from postmodernist fiction, in addition to the representation of pseudo-modernism in fiction, I will first briefly discuss the canons of postmodernism with specific regard to literature. With a more comprehensive cultural context, it will be easier to develop an understanding of pseudo-modern fiction, what elements of the fiction embody the culture and will therefore speak to its people. How is the pseudo-modernist individual defined? By way of action? The exterior world? The interior psyche? These are questions that writers must address if they wish to truly create a world in their novels that offers us truth.
Representation of Truth in Fiction
The concept and representation of truth is one of the most influential elements of fiction—I mean both the overarching philosophic truth for the characters in the world a writer creates as well as the believability of the story, despite that it's fiction. Fictional truth relies on the writer's ability to imaginatively construct a virtual reality within the text through setting, characterization, pace, and plot development. The theme of truth has undergone a change from the postmodern concept, which was that truth can never be realized. Nietzsche described truth as limited and forever evolving so nothing can ever be proven, and Kant further explained this by the disconnect between “things” and our conception or idea of “things.” This is exacerbated by the infinite number of screens through which we experience our lives: cameras, televisions, mirrors, etc. In Don DeLillo's White Noise, Jack and Murray venture to a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. “What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns?” Murray asks Jack as they stand in front of the barn, “We can't answer these questions because we've read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can't get outside the aura. We're part of the aura” (13). Murray is explaining that the concept of a barn is defined by the picture of the barn; the barn itself is lost in the individual's preconceived notions of “a barn.”
David Foster Wallace, in his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” attributes our coexisting desire for and fear of connection to that other-worldly screen with a hypnotizing glow we call television. “We spend enough time watching,” he writes, “pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching. We start to 'feel' ourselves feeling, yearn to experience 'experiences'” (160). Literary fiction, like television, “presents and defines the contemporary world,” (167) beckoning the reader/viewer to escape into an imaginary world which is meant to be as “lifelike” as possible.
The endless intermediaries between individual and reality seem impossible to escape, so how then does the concept of truth differ in pseudo-modernism? And how would this play out in American fiction? Contemporary truth is known as being under “constant revision” (Wood 6) and exists situationally, moment to moment. The public, it seems, has come to accept that that there isn't any tangible kind of truth, gravitating toward fictionalized realities without the postmodern pessimism, which resulted rather unfortunately in the widespread popularity of irony, or the comedic celebration of what “is” but “shouldn't be.” David Foster Wallace, among many other writers and scholars, had a rather morose attitude toward irony. As a result of its popularity, irony has become “institutionalized” (Wallace 184) and deprives the content (to which it refers) of meaning. As a result, culture adopted a sort of “whatever, fuck it” attitude, inevitably trickling into fiction. Pop culture references and brand names replaced thoughtful descriptions. Some writers became so focused on trying to imitate or mock reality that they lost their grasp on one of the primary comforts of fiction, which is to illustrate something real about the human condition. Tao Lin's fiction best exemplifies this idea. Here is a quote from his most recent novel, Eee Eee Eee:
"He used to think things like, This organic soymilk will make me healthy and that'll make my brain work better and that'll improve my writing. Also things like, The less I eat the less money I spend on publicly owned companies the less pain and suffering will exist in the world. Now he thinks things like, It is impossible to be happy” (12).
Tao Lin shows the reader that he's conscious of the associations people make about organic soymilk drinkers and also knows that the reader will understand. It's a hollow reference. An inside joke. He parodies the thoughts of a guilty liberal but throughout the novel fails to provide any sort of substantial commentary about what that means. Here lies the inherent contradiction in postmodern irony that pseudo-modernism may attempt to remedy: the parody of 'mindless' fiction (or entertainment in general) without commentary or illustration is also unavoidably mindless. We're given no new meanings.
In the place of irony, pseudo-modernism may bring about what Alan Kirby, in his essay, “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond,” refers to as “the trance.” Pseudo-modernism will alleviate the anxiety of po-mo's meaningless world by replacing it with a new one altogether, empowering the participant, albeit superficially. The empty, bitter irony started in the first place because of television (Wallace 151) and its silent claim that it could and does provide an authentic depiction of reality behind its glass screen. The internet makes no such claim; when we use it we're not simply absorbing its content like a sponge, putting ourselves in the place of the characters on screen. The digital world is precisely that, an alternate reality in which we're given a hand shaped like an arrow and told to move, to click, to choose, to act.
They're here! Blogs, online journals, and forums have revived the previously-severed connection between storyteller and listener. Gone are the postmodern passive, powerless consumers of limited available media; the internet allows people to comment directly on stories, fostering a digital dialogue between reader and writer.
Like many aspiring writers, I operate a blog where I host a collection of my poetry and fiction. Friends and family often visit the blog and leave comments, to which I respond, creating a back-and-forth discussion about my pieces. They give me feedback, which I keep in mind when I write stories and poems in the future. Whether I'm conscious of this or not (I suspect I'm often not), it's as if my readers have a role in my writing. With proper copyright usage, this would be useful for all young writers who wish to gain exposure, comments, or critique. While the claims from the older generations about how the internet actually works to socially-isolate us further and shorten the attention spans needed for meaningful intellectual activity, I argue that the internet is an imperfect solution (but a solution nevertheless) to the mindless, couch-potato consumption of yesteryear. The dawn of the internet essentially marks our return to interacting in the world, only this one happens to be digital, not physical.
Although he's generally regarded as a postmodern author, Kurt Vonnegut exemplifies the internet's interactivity in Breakfast of Champions. The novel begins with, “This is a tale...” (7) and the second paragraphs opens with Vonnegut conversing with the reader directly, asking her to “Listen:” (7) to the story, as if he were also sitting at her kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a cigarette, narrating the tale in person. Throughout the novel, the story is broken up by images related to the content or included for demonstration, hand-drawn and printed. Midway through the story, Vonnegut even writes a character for himself, called the “creator of the universe;” his character is literally self-aware.
David Foster Wallace's fiction is inconspicuously interactive in that he acknowledges the influence of the reader's own life on the world that he has created in his fiction. In an interview, he once said, “Once I'm done with the thing, I'm basically dead, and probably the text's dead; it becomes simply language, and language lives not just in but through the reader” (Kelly ref. “An Interview” 141). He's also noted as describing fiction as less of a “scientific sharing of valence and more as a conversation” (Kelly 2009). One way he facilitates this in his writing is by supplying the reader with footnotes when referencing a person, event, place, etc of which the reader might not be familiar. More and more writers are following suit, not just in nonfiction either. Footnotes are useful because they're not as intrusive as parentheses, which tend to disrupt the flow of the text. They're essentially similar to either a pause in conversation to provide context or supplementary information for the other person in the conversation or they act as an answer to a question about the particular subject which would not have otherwise been answered if the reader were given only the text of the story. While being careful to not overwhelm the reader with an obnoxious amount of unnecessary commentary, the addition of footnotes can only be beneficial to the writer, as the reader can always skip them over if they're not interested.
Not only is Wallace interactive within his fiction, but he also establishes a connection with readers in other ways. First of all, he's been called “the first major writer to live and die in the internet age” (Kelly 2009). An obscene amount of Wallace-related content is offered online, from reviews of his work, book summaries, quotes, readers' responses, etc. They're all available for anyone to access. Immediately following the release of his second novel, Infinite Jest, came the birth of an online listserv for which avid fans to casual readers could subscribe and have access to a constant stream of updates about the novel and Wallace's comings and goings. Then sprouted Yahoo discussion groups, message boards, and content forums. Readers have never had so much access to the creator of their favorite fictions. Even though Wallace passed away in 2008, on the internet he's still telling us stories, writing us essays, his responses to readers digitally cemented on the page in italics which obscure the period, as if the conversation is endless.
People tend to regard video games as a seemingly mindless activity requiring little emotional or intellectual investment, but with the increasing popularity of role playing games, online virtual reality games (i.e. The Sims, Second Life, World of Warcraft), the players have become completely immersed in the content, forced to then exercise their creativity and intellect to develop and employ stratagems which will help them succeed in the game. More often video game developers are integrating literary techniques in the design of video and online games, borrowing many aspects of fiction. My younger brother's current favorite video game is based off Dante's Inferno; it's an adventure game in which the player must enter each circle of Hell and defeat the key characters in each circle. The game's transitions between levels are passages either from the book or based on the book. This is all contradictory to the previously negative view of video games. Interactive fictions, such games included, have the potential to offer its reader what Jonathan Wood calls “moments of emotional (if not intellectual) profundity” (8).
Taking a step beyond footnotes are links or hypertext in a written work of fiction. HTML, the language of the internet's fabric, provides writers with a number of advantages to enhance their text. In fact, one of the hallmarks of pseudo-modernist fiction is hypertextuality, of which David Foster Wallace is a champion. Hypertextuality applies to written, hard-copy fiction as well as digital. The easiest way to employ hypertext is through online content, via pages that that connect through links. The literal process of reading hypertext is itself a manifestation of the idea that truth is in a state of constant revision (Wood 6).
Although the implementation of this new and useful writing technique is easiest in an online format, writers can also accomplish it in their written texts. In written narratives, the hypertextuality occurs either via footnote (see: most of David Foster Wallace's fiction and nonfiction) or by referencing an earlier event later in the text. This makes it so that the results of an action or event remain in the readers' memory and are brought back later to modify the plot. This also gives previous events new meanings and readers may have an even more enriching experience reading the text a second time.
The introduction of a new fiction genre called the “interactive novel” or short story has initiated an entirely different way of engaging in a text. Writers with even remedial HMTL skills can create their own online interactive fiction. These are made by first beginning the story on the introductory page, perhaps a lengthy paragraph or so, and then below sits two links that readers can choose between. Each link directs them to an alternating version of the story, allowing them a level of participation in how the story unfolds. One such example is “Slouching Toward Bedlam” by Daniel Ravipinto and Star Foster, which won the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition. As video games, RPG's, and online virtual worlds become more popular, I urge writers to embrace this new technology rather than scoff at it because of its less-than-favorable reputation among academics and the scholarly elite. Perhaps this cultural transition may ease this widespread skepticism toward new media, particularly if inherent in the medium's structure is the participation of its user.
One hopeful aspect of pseudo-modernism is the return to sincere displays of emotion, what scholars are calling New Sincerity. It would appear that the LOLs of postmodern irony didn’t provide enough emotional or intellectual stimulation; readers now seem to have a newfound appreciation for fiction that doesn't merely point out or mock the contradictions that resulted from the modernist concept of an objective world. The new generation, aware of the confusion, the inconsistencies, the obnoxiously subjective nature of all that exists (and all that doesn't?), wants to know more than what is wrong. We want to find out what's right. Sincerely! For a raw definition of this movement, I turn again to Jonathan Wood, who says “in New Sincerity, admirable/sincere Enlightenment goals—the search for Utopia, the desire for equality between all—can once more be undertaken, and yet at the same time it is recognized that achieving these goals is fraught with danger” (4). Pseudo-modern fiction would then unite the skepticism of postmodernism and the optimism of modernism. A scenario that exemplifies this idea would involve a character seeking an existential or human meaning in a dissonant, chaotic, seemingly meaningless world and eventually reaching an acceptance or understanding that satisfies the conflict. Jeffrey Eugenides' most recent work Extreme Solitude is exemplary of this in both theme and the writing style.
“It was debatable whether or not Madeleine had fallen in love with Leonard the first moment she’d seen him. She hadn’t even known him then, and so what she’d felt was only sexual attraction, not love. Even after they’d gone out for coffee, she couldn’t say that what she was feeling was anything more than infatuation. But ever since the night they went back to Leonard’s place after watching “Amarcord” and started fooling around, when Madeleine found that instead of being turned off by physical stuff, as she often was with boys, instead of putting up with that or trying to overlook it, she’d spent the entire night worrying that she was turning Leonard off, worrying that her body wasn’t good enough...” (1)
The character Madeleine struggles with whether or not she is experiencing love. It's clear from the run-on sentences and frantic stream-of-consciousness that this is a matter of great importance to her, so the reader is to assume that she wants to be in love but is hesitant to acknowledge its truth for fear of rejection.
“...after she’d allowed herself to sit naked on his gross couch and to walk to the bathroom knowing that he was staring at her (imperfect) ass, to root for food in his disgusting refrigerator, to read the brilliant half page of philosophy paper sticking up out of his typewriter, and to hear him pee with taurine force into the toilet bowl, certainly, by the end of those three days, Madeleine knew she was in love” (1).
Despite Madeleine's anxiety about how her lover sees her (note how this reflects the postmodern crisis of identity: the self is determined by her conception of how others perceive her), she eventually comes to accept that he does, in fact, see her true self, and for this she loves him. Eugenides explores the nature of this love through the characters' actions in the rest of the story.
Conveying emotion in fiction requires the same sort of interactivity that is inherent in pseudo-modernism. The writer wants to avoid simply depicting emotion by way of naming it or giving away how a character feels before the reader has a chance to discover it on her own through the actions, descriptions, and dialogue. Author Debra Spark insists that “the label itself dissolves the feeling. You trap emotion by assigning it an adjective or a metaphor, but if you give gesture and response then you have an image that frees the reader to react” (10). In her essay, “Handling Emotion in Fiction Writing,” she also discusses how conveying emotion is subject to the time period in history. In the romantic Victorian era, sentimentality in fiction was not a faux-pas but rather an “attempt, among other things, to generate or at least strengthen the possibility of the triumph of the feelings and heart over self-serving calculation” (5).
While New Sincerity calls for writers to embrace the themes, ideas, and emotions once considered trite or sappy by postmodernists, we can also circumvent sentimentality by presenting “what gives rise to emotion” (Spark 11) instead of identifying or describing the emotion itself. A successful handling of the story's main conflict should lend itself to a sincere emotional response in the reader.
The Pseudo-modern Conflict(s)
Adam Kelly, a scholar on pseudo-modernism, notes the emergence of observer-hero narratives (citing Roth, Eugenides, and Auster), which he references Lawrence Buell in defining the genre as “a story told by a dramatized first-person narrator about a significant relationship or encounter he has had with another person. The two figures are both opposites and counterparts,” (315) and “the structure of the narrative is built upon the interplay of these psychic universes” (316). The definition of the observer-hero narrative is conveniently intrinsic to the concept of pseudo-modernism; the clashing of two opposing worlds (modernism and postmodernism) to create new meaning.
If the predictions about pseudo-modernism and literature come to be true, fiction in this new age will be marked by the set of qualities which I have described in this essay, qualities which differ from those of postmodern era fictions, including an acceptance of truth as obtainable but only momentary and constantly under revision, a return to sincerity, the redefinition or exploration of the human condition in an entirely new (digital, globalized) reality, interactivity with the reader, the integration of other media, and hypertextuality. If the goal of storytelling has long been to connect to other people, for the reader or listener to become engaged or immersed in the story, then the characteristics of pseudo-modernist writing are quite appropriate, further fostering a dialogue between the writer and reader.