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4 Postmodern multimodal literature

In the next Reading, Lewis starts by outlining some key features of postmodernity.

Postmodernity and postmodernism are notoriously difficult to define, but for our purposes here it is enough to understand postmodernity as a cultural condition (‘the state we find ourselves in’), of living in an increasingly technologically orientated society, with lower levels of trust in authority and ‘truth’ than previously, where the meaning of things is unstable and open to interpretation. Postmodernism, as it relates to literature, can be understood to refer to texts that can be seen to represent such instability and unreliability. A key feature of postmodern texts is the intrusion of the author. Postmodern texts are often playful, opening up alternative interpretations for the reader in a variety of creative ways:

Postmodern literature and art often challenge conventions of representation, particularly any straightforward notions of unity of meaning, emphasising instead the possibility of consciously playing with meaning in any text or art form.

(Swann, et al., 2004, p. 246) The next Reading is about postmodernism in children's literature.

Activity 7: Postmodernism in fiction (Reading C)

Click on the link below to read Reading C, ‘Postmodernism and the picturebook’, by David Lewis.

Postmodernism and the picturebook [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Answer

Lewis provides a useful framework for thinking about the links between trends in sociology and cultural studies, adult literature and picturebooks. He starts by outlining some of the main aspects of postmodernity – indeterminacy fragmentation, decanonisation, irony and hybridisation. These are not, of course, exclusive properties of postmodern texts: indeterminacy and irony are, for example, features of many novels and poems. At issue perhaps is the degree to which such features seem salient to the reader: the extent to which they invite us to see them as ‘postmodern’. You may have already considered the idea of the literary canon and the notion of hybridity, and some of these concepts may be familiar to you from literary studies. What may be new is Lewis’ analysis of how these are represented visually in texts for children. Activity 8 then offers some examples of texts (both children's and adult) which demonstrate his points.

Activity 8: Postmodern picturebooks

Timing: 0 hours 30 minutes

Look at Figures 15 and 16. They are examples of what could be termed postmodern picturebooks (Child, 2003; Scieszka and Smith, 1993). What evidence can you find of the ‘markers’ of postmodernism that Lewis outlines?

Figure 15
Figure 15: Who's afraid of the big bad book?, Lauren Child
Figure 16
Figure 16: Endpaper from The Stinky Cheeseman and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

Answer

In Figure 15, Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Book? by Lauren Child, the main character, Herb, has found himself inadvertently in somebody else's story. The ‘story’, or what we initially assume to be the narrator's voice, is on the left (Herb woke with a start …). You may like to think about the significance of this position on the page, and whether or not this part of text is on a wall, a blackboard, a separate book? The girl's speech is printed in capitals and gets progressively bigger (suggestive of rising tone and volume?). It emerges at an angle from her mouth, and appears to be so forceful as to buffet the curtains at the window. Other visual and typographical pointers are the depiction of Herb's stammering, the girl's aggressive facial expression and the use of the (similarly aggressive?) angle of the girl's speech to draw us on to the next page.

The reader is obliged to interpret the words and pictures as a whole in this text – indeed it is arguable here whether the words are not actually more meaningful if interpreted as images. Even the boxed text on the left carries potential meanings unrelated to the words themselves, due to its positioning, its difference to the rest of the page, and its plain background, set apart from the other elements. In postmodern terms, the text is unstable and hybrid, positioning the reader uncomfortably. The text is polysemous – that is, open to multiple interpretations. We are left unsure of the identity of the narrator, our relationship with the shrieking girl, and even which (whose) story we are reading. It posits a complex reading position where we have to accept instability and uncertain meanings as part of the experience.

The second example, Figure 16, is similarly unsettling and equally fun. Here the narrator explicitly breaks into the story being told by the Little Red Hen and starts arguing about the proper place in the book for its non-narrative elements (endpapers, title pages and so on). This intrusion forces the reader back to reality: we are pulled back with a jolt from ‘storyland’ into the real world. We are ‘knowing’ in all sorts of ways: we know that books are produced as commercial and cultural artefacts; we also know that to read a book is to enter an imaginary world. Here our expectations are undermined and we have no choice but to play along with this fragmentation of identity and roles. (Who is the narrator? Jack? The Little Red Hen? The authors? The reader? All of us?) Texts such as these make demands on the reader, who is forced to construct some kind of narrative sense out of a multitude of possibilities.

These are just a few preliminary reflections linking the examples to the points in Lewis’ Reading – you will probably think of many more questions yourself and link them to issues he raises. The example in Figure 17 serves to illustrate that adult fiction can also be playful, and creatively disrespectful of boundaries and conventions. The endpaper from Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) shows the author intervening in the space conventionally reserved for legal and copyright information. There's a good chance that most readers would merely glance at this. Unless you were a writer intending to cite from the book, or had a pressing need for the address of the publisher, you would normally have no reason to look at an endpaper.

Figure 17
Figure 17 A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers, 2000).

There is a kind of comedy double act going on here, this time with the visual layout playing the ‘straight man’. The combination of conventional print size, shape, location and general appearance of the endpapers – and, of course, the reader's expectations – makes this look conventional and unexceptional. The joke – the creative intervention into both the text and our expectations – takes place in the verbal mode.

More visible traces of postmodernism in adult literature are the creative uses of typography and layout to signify different voices in the text. There are many examples of these: one is Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves (2000), which has a different typeface for each ‘voice’, and different characters intruding on each other's prose, inserting footnotes, poems, citations, contradictions and corrections, musical notation and images.

In Reading C, Lewis referred to the ‘flattening out of differences between high and low’, and postmodernism's tendency towards hybridisation of styles. This ‘mixing and matching’ can be seen in many of the texts discussed in this course: rules and conventions are cheerfully disregarded, the narrator interrupts the reader, and grammatical rules are violated to creative effect.

I now return briefly to an issue raised in the introduction to this course, which is how we decide which multimodal texts are creative, and also how we decide which have ‘literary value’.

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