by Dina Sleiman
Let’s look at a few hallmarks of contemporary literature.
Experimental – The current postmodern worldview rejects the concept of absolute truth. Therefore, people of this generation are always searching to create meaning. They reject the authorities of the past and look for new structures and models for viewing the world. This can be seen in literature in a number of areas such as nonlinear plots, stream of consciousness writing, deconstructionist criticism, experimentation with grammar, loss of dialogue tags, plots that do not resolve, ect… While Christians maintain that the word of God is absolute truth, that does not mean that we necessarily accept the Webster’s Dictionary, the Oxford standards of grammar and punctuation, or a specific five point plot structure as absolute truth.
An example of experimental literary fiction can be seen in one of this year’s Christy Award winners, The Passion of Mary-Margaret. This book is written as if you are reading Mary Margaret’s personal journal. It is a sort of fictional memoir. She jumps back and forth in time between the present and random moments in her past. She has rambling reflective segments of “telling” that normally are not allowed in fiction. However, the whole book works together to create a very moving and meaningful work of art.
Mixed Genres – As a natural result of this experimentation, mixed genre writing has increased in popularity. For example, National Public Radio employs “literary journalism,” which removes the cold objectivity of standard journalism and allows us to enter an experience with the journalist using fictional techniques and poetic language. In the Christian arena, several books which have hit the New York Times best-seller list have been mixed genre books. Blue Like Jazz is a poetic memoir full of personal stories, which includes a series of comics. The Shack is a sort of fictional memoir which combines suspense and allegory.
I wrote my first narrative nonfiction book last year. It is basically a series of thematic lyric essays. The idea of the lyric essay is that it explores a theme in a somewhat poetic, disjointed, scene by scene fashion, braiding or weaving all of the ideas together, and tying them up tight at the end. So I was able to include poetry, personal stories, short stories, essays, devotionals, and scriptures, weaving them all together into a unified collection.
Distrust of Authoritative Voice – Since the postmodern reader rejects traditional authority and absolute truth, they tend to distrust an authoritative voice as well. In nonfiction, because we no longer believe that true objectivity is possible, this leads to books full of anecdotes and personal example stories to illustrate the logical points. In historical books and biographies, this leads to the author treating themselves as a character as they search for meaning in the various accounts of history. In fiction, the omniscient narrator has fallen out of favor. The most popular point of view is now multiple third person. This allows us to see the world up close and personal from a number of perspectives and lets us to draw our own meaning from the experiences of the characters.
In my newest novel, I feature three main characters from very different backgrounds: a Christian, a Muslim, and a New Age postmodern thinker. By using multiple points of view, the reader can see how each character reacts to the world and to each other. The reader gets an in-depth look at each mindset without being told what to believe. Since this is a Christian book, I did place my Christian character as the primary protagonist, and one of the other characters will undergo a significant change. However, my Christian will also learn and grow from the views of the other two women.
Multi-sensory – Now we get to the aspects of contemporary literature affected by both postmodern philosophy and our film and television oriented culture. We need a lot of sensory stimulation in our books to compete with visual media. So more than ever our words have to draw our reader into the story, bringing them all the way into the heads and bodies of our point of view characters so that they can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell what our characters are experiencing. However, you can still see the effect of postmodernism, because we want to have a relationship with a character and draw meaning from their experiences rather than just have those experiences reported to us.
Use of Scenes – The last area I would like to cover is the use of scenes. Of course this relates to television and film and our attention deficit culture. We’ve become used to scenes set in one time and place. A quick switch of the camera, and we accept that we’re in a new time and place, which is the next significant time and place in the storyline. We don’t need an explanation about how we got there or what happened in the interim. We don’t question if the writers and directors have left out some significant information that we need to know. But again, this also relates to the postmodern mindset because we want to draw our own conclusions and don’t want everything explained to us from an authoritative point of view.
In trying to be brief for this blog post, I probably broke a lot of the rules of postmodern literature by explaining the subject in an authoritative voice ;) So what are your experiences with contemporary reading and writing? What trends have you seen? How do you notice our culture affecting today’s literature and media?