Postmodern picture books are a specific genre of picture books. Characteristics of this unique type of book include non-linear narrative forms in storybooks, books that are “aware” of themselves as books and include self-referential elements, and what is known as metafiction.
A classic example of this genre is David Macaulay’s award winning Black and White (1990). This book consists of four “separate” sub-plots which are related, but the reader must decide in what way the story becomes meaningful. The inside front cover of this book, awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1990, states: “WARNING: This book appears to contain a number of stories that do not necessarily occur at the same time. But it may contain only one story. Then again, there may be four stories. Or four parts of a story. Careful inspection of both words and pictures is recommended.”
Examples of postmodern picture books include David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs, Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park, and Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man. Some books have unusual pictures that don’t always mesh with the traditional, linear text (that often matches the pictures). An example would be Bamboozled by David Legge.
Frank Serafini (2004) has created lesson plans that lead students to discuss how text interacts with illustrations. Three sets of texts could be discussed: books that have corresponding text and pictures, books where the illustrations enhance the texts, and books where the illustrations contradict the text (Bamboozled is an example of contradictory text). Another lesson that Serafini describes that incorporates PM picture books could be having students read books that are ambiguous and allow for multiple interpretations. Student are encouraged to record their thinking in a journal called a “walking notebook”. Books that are especially open to interpretation include: Browne’s Voices in the Park, Wiesner’s The Three Pigs, and David Macauley’s Black and White.
These books could be thought of as multi-modal texts that defy the usual, linear organization of storybooks. In postmodern, meta-fictive books, the reader is intentionally made aware of the way that the book calls attention to itself. For example, in Wiesner’s The Three Pigs, the main characters decide to climb outside the text; pictures depicting the pigs climbing outside the story are prominent. In The Stinky Cheese Man, Scieszka and Lane purposely use intertextual references, or references to many other well-known fables, to create tongue-in-cheek, satirical stories and spin-offs of classic fairy tales. Widely varying size fonts and pictures combine to create a post-modern picture book.
According to Anstey (2002), characteristics of postmodern picture books include:
Non-traditional plot structure
Using the pictures or text to position the reader to read the text in a particular way, for example, through a character’s eyes or point of view.
The reader’s involvement with constructing the meaning of the text.
Intertextual references, which requires the reader to make connections to other books or knowledge, in order to better understand the text.
Varied design layout and a variety of styles of illustration.
Ryan & Anstey (2003) suggest that post-modern picture books may allow students to increase their “self-knowledge about reading” and that students might be able to use this knowledge in strategic ways as they read. In their study, Ryan and Anstey looked at how sixth graders responded to a PM picture book, which was selected because it was open to many interpretations, titled The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan. They discovered that the reading of such texts allow students to draw upon their resources as readers. The reading of such books supports a multiliteracies perspective. Accordingly, such books may be useful in allowing teachers to use texts that encourage students to draw upon their own identity and use this knowledge to read strategically.
Common themes and techniques
Several themes and techniques are indicative of writing in the postmodern era. These themes and techniques, discussed below, are often used together. For example, metafiction and pastiche are often used for irony. These are not used by all postmodernists, nor is this an exclusive list of features.
Irony, playfulness, black humor
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” (related to Derrida’s concept or the ideas advocated by Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text) are among the most recognizable aspects of postmodernism. Though the idea of employing these in literature did not start with the postmodernists (the modernists were often playful and ironic), they became central features in many postmodern works. In fact, several novelists later to be labeled postmodern were first collectively labeled black humorists: John Barth, Joseph Heller, William Gaddis, Kurt Vonnegut, Bruce Jay Friedman, etc. It’s common for postmodernists to treat serious subjects in a playful and humorous way: for example, the way Heller and Vonnegut address the events of World War II. The central concept of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is the irony of the now-idiomatic “catch-22”, and the narrative is structured around a long series of similar ironies. Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 in particular provides prime examples of playfulness, often including silly wordplay, within a serious context. For example, it contains characters named Mike Fallopian and Stanley Koteks and a radio station called KCUF, while the novel as a whole has a serious subject and a complex structure.
Since postmodernism represents a decentered concept of the universe in which individual works are not isolated creations, much of the focus in the study of postmodern literature is on intertextuality: the relationship between one text (a novel for example) and another or one text within the interwoven fabric of literary history. Intertextuality in postmodern literature can be a reference or parallel to another literary work, an extended discussion of a work, or the adoption of a style. In postmodern literature this commonly manifests as references to fairy tales – as in works by Margaret Atwood, Donald Barthelme, and many others – or in references to popular genres such as sci-fi and detective fiction. An early 20th century example of intertextuality which influenced later postmodernists is “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” by Jorge Luis Borges, a story with significant references to Don Quixote which is also a good example of intertextuality with its references to Medieval romances. Don Quixote is a common reference with postmodernists, for example Kathy Acker’s novel Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream. References to Don Quixote can also be seen in Paul Auster’s post-modern detective story, City of Glass. Another example of intertextuality in postmodernism is John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor which deals with Ebenezer Cooke’s poem of the same name. Often intertextuality is more complicated than a single reference to another text. Robert Coover’s Pinocchio in Venice, for example, links Pinocchio to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Also, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose takes on the form of a detective novel and makes references to authors such as Aristotle, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Borges. Some critics point to the use of intertextuality as an indication of postmodernism’s lack of originality and reliance on clichés.
Related to postmodern intertextuality, pastiche means to combine, or “paste” together, multiple elements. In Postmodernist literature this can be an homage to or a parody of past styles. It can be seen as a representation of the chaotic, pluralistic, or information-drenched aspects of postmodern society. It can be a combination of multiple genres to create a unique narrative or to comment on situations in postmodernity: for example, William S. Burroughs uses science fiction, detective fiction, westerns; Margaret Atwood uses science fiction and fairy tales; Giannina Braschi mixes poetry, commercials, musical, manifesto, and drama; Umberto Eco uses detective fiction, fairy tales, and science fiction, Derek Pell relies on collage and noir detective, erotica, travel guides, and how-to manuals, and so on. Though pastiche commonly involves the mixing of genres, many other elements are also included (metafiction and temporal distortion are common in the broader pastiche of the postmodern novel). In Robert Coover’s 1977 novel The Public Burning, Coover mixes historically inaccurate accounts of Richard Nixon interacting with historical figures and fictional characters such as Uncle Sam and Betty Crocker. Pastiche can instead involve a compositional technique, for example the cut-up technique employed by Burroughs. Another example is B. S. Johnson’s 1969 novel The Unfortunates; it was released in a box with no binding so that readers could assemble it however they chose.
Metafiction is essentially writing about writing or “foregrounding the apparatus”, as it’s typical of deconstructionist approaches, making the artificiality of art or the fictionality of fiction apparent to the reader and generally disregards the necessity for “willing suspension of disbelief.” For example, postmodern sensibility and metafiction dictate that works of parody should parody the idea of parody itself.
Metafiction is often employed to undermine the authority of the author, for unexpected narrative shifts, to advance a story in a unique way, for emotional distance, or to comment on the act of storytelling. For example, Italo Calvino’s 1979 novel If on a winter’s night a traveler is about a reader attempting to read a novel of the same name. Kurt Vonnegut also commonly used this technique: the first chapter of his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five is about the process of writing the novel and calls attention to his own presence throughout the novel. Though much of the novel has to do with Vonnegut’s own experiences during the firebombing of Dresden, Vonnegut continually points out the artificiality of the central narrative arc which contains obviously fictional elements such as aliens and time travel. Similarly, Tim O’Brien’s 1990 novel/story collection The Things They Carried, about one platoon’s experiences during the Vietnam War, features a character named Tim O’Brien; though O’Brien was a Vietnam veteran, the book is a work of fiction and O’Brien calls into question the fictionality of the characters and incidents throughout the book. One story in the book, “How to Tell a True War Story”, questions the nature of telling stories. Factual retellings of war stories, the narrator says, would be unbelievable, and heroic, moral war stories don’t capture the truth. Another example is David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, in which he claimed that the copyright page only claimed it was fiction for legal purposes, and that everything within the novel was non-fiction. He also employs a character in the novel named David Foster Wallace.
Fabulation is a term sometimes used interchangeably with metafiction and relates to pastiche and Magic Realism. It is a rejection of realism which embraces the notion that literature is a created work and not bound by notions of mimesis and verisimilitude. Thus, fabulation challenges some traditional notions of literature—the traditional structure of a novel or role of the narrator, for example—and integrates other traditional notions of storytelling, including fantastical elements, such as magic and myth, or elements from popular genres such as science fiction. By some accounts, the term was coined by Robert Scholes in his book The Fabulators. Strong examples of fabulation in contemporary literature are found in Giannina Braschi’s “United States of Banana” and Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
Poioumenon (plural: poioumena; from Ancient Greek: ποιούμενον, “product”) is a term coined by Alastair Fowler to refer to a specific type of metafiction in which the story is about the process of creation. According to Fowler, “the poioumenon is calculated to offer opportunities to explore the boundaries of fiction and reality—the limits of narrative truth.” In many cases, the book will be about the process of creating the book or includes a central metaphor for this process. Common examples of this are Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which is about the narrator’s frustrated attempt to tell his own story. A significant postmodern example is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), in which the narrator, Kinbote, claims he is writing an analysis of John Shade’s long poem “Pale Fire”, but the narrative of the relationship between Shade and Kinbote is presented in what is ostensibly the footnotes to the poem. Similarly, the self-conscious narrator in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children parallels the creation of his book to the creation of chutney and the creation of independent India. Anagrams (1970), by David R. Slavitt, describes a week in the life of a poet and his creation of a poem which, by the last couple of pages, proves remarkably prophetic. In The Comforters, Muriel Spark’s protagonist hears the sound of a typewriter and voices that later may transform into the novel itself. Jan Křesadlo purports to be merely the translator of a “chrononaut’s” handed down homeric Greek science fiction epic, the Astronautilia. Other postmodern examples of poioumena include Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable); Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook; John Fowles’s Mantissa; William Golding’s Paper Men; and Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew.
Linda Hutcheon coined the term “historiographic metafiction” to refer to works that fictionalize actual historical events or figures; notable examples include The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel García Márquez (about Simón Bolívar), Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes (about Gustave Flaubert), Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow (which features such historical figures as Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Booker T. Washington, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung), and Rabih Alameddine’s Koolaids: The Art of War which makes references to the Lebanese Civil War and various real life political figures. Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon also employs this concept; for example, a scene featuring George Washington smoking marijuana is included. John Fowles deals similarly with the Victorian Period in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five has been said to feature a metafictional, “Janus-headed” outlook in the way the novel seeks to represent both actual historical events from World War Two while, at the same time, problematizes the very notion of doing exactly that.
This is a common technique in modernist fiction: fragmentation and nonlinear narratives are central features in both modern and postmodern literature. Temporal distortion in postmodern fiction is used in a variety of ways, often for the sake of irony. Historiographic metafiction (see above) is an example of this. Distortions in time are central features in many of Kurt Vonnegut’s nonlinear novels, the most famous of which is perhaps Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five becoming “unstuck in time”. In Flight to Canada, Ishmael Reed deals playfully with anachronisms, Abraham Lincoln using a telephone for example. Time may also overlap, repeat, or bifurcate into multiple possibilities. For example, in Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter” from Pricksongs & Descants, the author presents multiple possible events occurring simultaneously—in one section the babysitter is murdered while in another section nothing happens and so on—yet no version of the story is favored as the correct version.
Magic realism may be literary work marked by the use of still, sharply defined, smoothly painted images of figures and objects depicted in a surrealistic manner. The themes and subjects are often imaginary, somewhat outlandish and fantastic and with a certain dream-like quality. Some of the characteristic features of this kind of fiction are the mingling and juxtaposition of the realistic and the fantastic or bizarre, skillful time shifts, convoluted and even labyrinthine narratives and plots, miscellaneous use of dreams, myths and fairy stories, expressionistic and even surrealistic description, arcane erudition, the element of surprise or abrupt shock, the horrific and the inexplicable. It has been applied, for instance, to the work of Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian who in 1935 published his Historia universal de la infamia, regarded by many as the first work of magic realism. Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez is also regarded as a notable exponent of this kind of fiction—especially his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. The Cuban Alejo Carpentier is another described as a “magic realist”. Postmodernists such as Salman Rushdie and Italo Calvino commonly use Magic Realism in their work. A fusion of fabulism with magic realism is apparent in such early 21st-century American short stories as Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Ceiling”, Dan Chaon’s “Big Me”, Jacob M. Appel’s “Exposure”, and Elizabeth Graver’s “The Mourning Door”.
Technoculture and hyperreality
Fredric Jameson called postmodernism the “cultural logic of late capitalism”. “Late capitalism” implies that society has moved past the industrial age and into the information age. Likewise, Jean Baudrillard claimed postmodernity was defined by a shift into hyperreality in which simulations have replaced the real. In postmodernity people are inundated with information, technology has become a central focus in many lives, and our understanding of the real is mediated by simulations of the real. Many works of fiction have dealt with this aspect of postmodernity with characteristic irony and pastiche. For example, Don DeLillo’s White Noise presents characters who are bombarded with a “white noise” of television, product brand names, and clichés. The cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and many others use science fiction techniques to address this postmodern, hyperreal information bombardment.
Perhaps demonstrated most famously and effectively in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the sense of paranoia, the belief that there’s an ordering system behind the chaos of the world is another recurring postmodern theme. For the postmodernist, no ordering is extremely dependent upon the subject, so paranoia often straddles the line between delusion and brilliant insight. Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, long-considered a prototype of postmodern literature, presents a situation which may be “coincidence or conspiracy – or a cruel joke”. This often coincides with the theme of technoculture and hyperreality. For example, in Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, the character Dwayne Hoover becomes violent when he’s convinced that everyone else in the world is a robot and he is the only human.
Dubbed maximalism by some critics, the sprawling canvas and fragmented narrative of such writers as Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace has generated controversy on the “purpose” of a novel as narrative and the standards by which it should be judged. The postmodern position is that the style of a novel must be appropriate to what it depicts and represents, and points back to such examples in previous ages as Gargantua by François Rabelais and the Odyssey of Homer, which Nancy Felson hails as the exemplar of the polytropic audience and its engagement with a work.
Many modernist critics, notably B.R. Myers in his polemic A Reader’s Manifesto, attack the maximalist novel as being disorganized, sterile and filled with language play for its own sake, empty of emotional commitment—and therefore empty of value as a novel. Yet there are counter-examples, such as Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest where postmodern narrative coexists with emotional commitment.
Literary minimalism 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. The characters in minimalist stories and novels tend to be unexceptional. Generally, the short stories are “slice of life” stories. Minimalism, the opposite of maximalism, is a representation of only the most basic and necessary pieces, specific by economy with words. Minimalist authors hesitate to use adjectives, adverbs, or meaningless details. Instead of providing every minute detail, the author provides a general context and then allows the reader’s imagination to shape the story. Among those categorized as postmodernist, literary minimalism is most commonly associated with Jon Fosse and especially Samuel Beckett.
Fragmentation is another important aspect of postmodern literature. Various elements, concerning plot, characters, themes, imagery and factual references are fragmented and dispersed throughout the entire work. In general, there is an interrupted sequence of events, character development and action which can at first glance look modern. Fragmentation purports, however, to depict a metaphysically unfounded, chaotic universe. It can occur in language, sentence structure or grammar. In Z213: Exit, a fictional diary by Greek writer Dimitris Lyacos, one of the major exponents of fragmentation in postmodern literature, an almost telegraphic style is adopted, devoid, in most part, of articles and conjunctions. The text is interspersed with lacunae and everyday language combines with poetry and biblical references leading up to syntax disruption and distortion of grammar. A sense of alienation of character and world is created by a language medium invented to form a kind of intermittent syntax structure which complements the illustration of the main character’s subconscious fears and paranoia in the course of his exploration of a seemingly chaotic world.
Source from Wikipedia