- Reviewed by
The three books under review (all published in 1987) confirm that postmodernism is still a term in search of a definition; each area of study (English Literature, American Literature, Film Studies, Art History, and Criticism) uses "postmodernism" in different ways that have to do with theoretical models current in that field. None of the books here, for instance, makes much use of the work of either Jean Baudrillard or Fredric Jameson (to name two central postmodern theorists often discussed in media and art criticism) or of the debates that have taken place in feminist and Marxist circles. In fact, I suspect diat some of the writers here felt constrained to position their work within the now fashionable concept of postmodernism, or they succumbed to pressure from publishers always concerned about "marketability."
The strain is perhaps felt most keenly in Fletcher's book about satire and apologues. Fletcher's aims are laudable: taking a traditional literary genre and basic method, he traces changes in the specifically political satire or apologue from the 1950s to the present. The strain appears in his insistence on making a case for the postmodernsatire—that is, in including recent works as examples of political satire. What he actuallyshows is that satire in its original senses and as a specific literary genre is impossible in the postmodern era. This is something that Fletcher himself at times admits: for instance, in the Introduction, Fletcher notes that the prerequisites for satire "appear to conflict with the contemporary assumptions about reality, human knowledge and values that inform 'post-modern' literature—metafiction, surfiction, the nonfiction novel, etc." Nevertheless, Fletcher prefers to see a novel like Vidal's Duluthas a "Post-Modern Political Satire" rather than simply as a postmodern text. It might have been better to argue that once postmodernism emerges as a new kind of consciousness in the wake of the 1960s, something so drastic happens to the political satire that the term no longer applies. Fletcher could either have invented a new term for a novel like Duluthor have explored the pertinence of Fredric Jameson's concept of pastiche (a mode set off against parodythat belongs in the satiric genre) that Jameson sees as specifically postmodern. Either strategy might have worked better than straining to fit Duluthinto the same tradition as the other novels considered.
In many instances, it is clear that Fletcher needed to address the modernist/postmodernist debate; for often when he uses or refers to the term "postmodern," I thought that "modernist" was what he really was after. For example, he talks about the idea that reality is fragmented as a postmodern concept, when that seems to me rather a modernistnotion. I don't believe that Fletcher ever uses the term "modernist," which would support my hunch that he is collapsing two terms that require clear differentiation. Since postmodernism precisely [End Page 733]announces the demise of satire, Fletcher's thesis would only have been strengthened by his making that idea central: as it is, he confuses matters by alternately insisting on textual properties traditionally labeled "satire" and arguing that, after all, contemporary satire can, as it were, add on what Fletcher calls "the intellectual assumptions of post-modern literature," as if such assumptions were a kind of decoration rather than a way of being.
Many of these problems are taken care of in Lance Olsen's Ellipse of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Postmodern Fantasy, which, interestingly enough, takes on a project analogous to Fletcher's and is similarly organized. Where Fletcher took the traditional literary genre of satire and attempted to position it within the contemporary context, Olsen takes a traditional genre—this time the literature of die fantastic—and attempts to explore its postmodern forms. Unlike Fletcher, Olsen does clearly define postmodernism...