Introduction to the Anthology

As David Harvey has written in The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), perhaps the central achievement of postmodernism is the "consideration of difference," an insistent attention to the local cultures and undervalued constituencies that modernism's exaltation of unity and grand narrative often obscured. In composing the anthology, we believed that its design and contents should reflect a spirit as egalitarian and pluralistic as the standard construction of a literary anthology would permit. Contrary to conventional wisdom, more Americans are reading now than ever, and what American readers call "fiction"--and what American academics call "serious"--has never been more diverse, fractious, and exhilarating.


The anthology proper is divided into six sections, each containing between five and ten selections of representative fiction: "Breaking the Frame," "Fact Meets Fiction," "Popular Culture and High Culture Collide," "Revising Tradition," "Revisiting History," and "Technoculture." In our view, these section headings reflect six of the most significant trends that define the history and development of postmodern fiction in America since 1955. By utilizing them, we hope to provide a degree of narrative coherence to a complex literary movement that offered few "schools," lines of influence, or any of the other markers that are used to tell traditional literary history.

Our section headings are not meant to be exclusive or absolute, but open-ended, kaleidoscopic, and attentive to the range and depth of contemporary American fiction. Defining overlapping movements within postmodernism, the sections themselves overlap: Art Spiegelman's Maus, for instance, is here presented within "Revisiting History"; its graphic-novel format, however, suggests that it would also belong within "Popular Culture and High Culture Collide." Finally, the section headings are meant to be chronological in only the loosest sense: "Breaking the Frame" is presented first to reflect the prevalence of formal experimentation among the first generation of postmodern writers; "Fact Meets Fiction" is presented second to reflect the influence of the New Journalists of the early and mid-1960s (still early on the postmodern fiction timeline) on more recent literary trends; and so on. If anything, our arrangement of section headings is meant to betray a linear historical narrative of postmodernism. By placing Robert Coover in "Popular Culture and High Culture Collide," for instance, we sought to break from the critical tendency to separate the postmodern writers who rose to prominence during the 1960s from later postmodernists, and to illustrate greater commonality across generational, gender, race, and genre lines.

At the conclusion of the six fiction sections, the reader will find "A Casebook of Postmodern Theory," containing essays and excerpts from twelve observers of postmodern literature and culture. Postmodern theory and postmodern fiction are strongly entwined, two separate genres of writing contemplating a shared cultural state. We believe that ready access to at least a sampler of this theory will allow the reader to more readily elucidate the backdrops and subtexts of much of the fiction contained here. These selections of theory and criticism were chosen to reflect divergent viewpoints on a series of postmodern literary and cultural issues, and they were also chosen in many cases for their direct applicability to the fiction in the anthology: Trinh T. Minh-Ha, for instance, writes theory about Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Leslie Marmon Silko, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Gloria Anzaldúa, all included here.


"Postmodern" authors. We selected specific authors (or texts) for inclusion because they had already been labeled "postmodern" by a consensus of critics, scholars, and general readers too significant to ignore. These authors and texts include men and women like Donald Barthelme and Kathy Acker, novels such as Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, and short stories such as William Gass's "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country." In some situations where a specific author has been frequently represented in previous fiction anthologies by a specific story or excerpt, we chose to call attention to deserving, resonant, but less frequently anthologized selections by those same authors: John Barth, for instance, whose short story "Lost in the Funhouse" has been often reprinted, is here represented by "Dunyazadiad," the opening novella from his critically praised Chimera.

"Postmodern" literary genres. In many instances, we have cited a specific genre of literature as strongly postmodern, or otherwise essential to the postmodern enterprise. In these cases, we have represented those specific genres with authors whose work within those genres has been particularly heralded by critics and readers, or whose work provides an expressive concatenation of postmodern issues within the context of fulfilling the requirements of that genre. Throughout the construction of this anthology, our criteria for inclusion were multivalent, absorbing the richness and contradiction of postmodern culture: an excerpt from Joanna Russ's The Female Man, for instance, illustrates the ideological and linguistic sophistication of recent science fiction; it also illustrates the reclamation and transformation of a popular literary form; it further provides a remarkable speculative exploration of gender, sexuality, and subjectivity; it lastly provides a provocative extrapolation upon the progress and changing role of biotechnology in our daily lives. Any one of these criteria would have argued for its inclusion.

"Postmodern" literary traits. We have also chosen to include selections by authors whose work contains style and thematic traits of postmodern American fiction, but who themselves would not necessarily be considered primarily "postmodern" authors. In so doing, we hoped to illustrate how postmodernism does not exist as a discrete and bounded school within the larger realm of contemporary fiction in general, but rather as a multifarious worldview that is woven in lesser or greater amounts through the work of most contemporary authors. In reprinting an excerpt from Toni Morrison's Beloved, for instance, we do not claim that Morrison's corpus of fiction, or Beloved itself, are exemplars of postmodern fiction per se; rather, we claim only that Beloved, in its relationship and response to modernist history and narrative, practices postmodern literary strategies.

Nationality. Historians and cultural critics have observed that one of the major characteristics of postmodernism is the diminishment of national boundaries by the rise of global capitalism and transnational forms of communication. This historical trend, in turn, dovetails with a general hostility toward fixed boundaries of any kind that marks much postmodern cultural and literary theory. Nationality may be no more than a cultural construction, as Benedict Anderson and others have argued, but that does not mean that nations are not real, only that they are also narratives capable of revision. In constructing this anthology, we chose to respect the postmodernist bias toward inclusion and unstable boundaries, a bias that both compelled and allowed a broad definition of what constitutes "American" literature: the inclusion of work by Gloria Anzaldúa and Helena María Viramontes, for instance, explores the borderlands shared by the United States and Mexico. William Gibson, born in California but currently residing in Canada, is included because the geographically ambivalent case for his citation within "American literature" is supported by his seminal importance to the field of science fiction in America during the past decade.

Genre. A similar set of issues guided our decisions regarding genre boundaries--what is and is not fiction. For forty years, some of the most vital and innovative American fiction has routinely transgressed genre boundaries, and has drawn strength from the transgression. In constructing this anthology, we felt it was essential to include a variegated sample of these hybrid exercises, while still limiting ourselves to those hybrids that remained predominantly "fiction" according to traditional understanding. To represent the journalism/fiction hybrids of early postmodernism, for instance, we chose Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which bears more resemblance to a traditional realistic novel than similar work by contemporaneous New Journalists. Similarly, we selected autobiography/essay/fiction hybrids by Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Norman Mailer because each of these authors demonstrated in their respective works an innovative act of genre crossing as well as a self-conscious awareness of the act of genre crossing itself.

Difference. The spirit of postmodernism leans toward heterogeneity. In part, this anthology acknowledges that perhaps the most crucial development in American fiction during the past forty years--a development that may or may not be strictly "postmodern," but that would have to be central to any anthology of postmodern literature--is the increasing importance of minority and women's literatures, and the corollary issues raised by these dramatic alterations of the literary landscape. But "difference" takes many forms, and we understood our purview to be wide and broad. In this anthology, best-seller is juxtaposed against scholarly success; New Yorker-style short story resides alongside ’zine fiction; graphic novel follows (or precedes) work possessing modernist density. In this context, the inclusion of two selections of hypertext fiction reflected our responsibility to acknowledge the technological developments that are altering the reading and writing of literature; but it also represented an opportunity to extend the field of diverse literary objects that an anthology of fiction can contain.