Critiquing Modern Literature


  1. fragmentation
  2. distortion
  3. resistance to a traditional form
  4. disruption of sequence
  5. a shift in focus
  6. technique over content

We have considered six elements of modernism by looking at art and listening to music and we have tried to make sense of how the elements “fit” into the pieces, but now we need to see those elements as they “fit” into pieces of literature. From a literary perspective, the main characteristics of modernism may also include:

1. an emphasis on impressionism and subjectivity in writing (and in visual arts as well); an emphasis on HOW seeing (or reading or perception itself) takes place, rather than on WHAT is perceived. An example of this would be stream-of-consciousness writing.

2. a movement away from the apparent objectivity provided by omniscient third-person narrators, fixed narrative points of view, and clear-cut moral positions. Faulkner’s multiply-narrated stories are an example of this aspect of modernism.

3. a blurring of distinctions between genres, so that poetry seems more documentary (as in T.S. Eliot or ee cummings) and prose seems more poetic (as in Woolf or Joyce).

4. an emphasis on fragmented forms, discontinuous narratives, and random-seeming collages of different materials.

5. a tendency toward reflexivity, or self-consciousness, about the production of the work of art, so that each piece calls attention to its own status as a production, as something constructed and consumed in particular ways.

6. a rejection of elaborate formal aesthetics in favor of minimalist designs (as in the poetry of William Carlos Williams) and a rejection, in large part, of formal aesthetic theories, in favor of spontaneity and discovery in creation.

7. A rejection of the distinction between “high” and “low” or popular culture, both in choice of materials used to produce art and in methods of displaying, distributing, and consuming art.

 Now use the elements outlined above as the main content of your discussion in the critiques of short stories and works of art,. Avoid a personal review (I loved/hated it, it is my favorite/least favorite) and focus on explaining the author’s purpose and style. Some useful questions to ponder:

1.      What about this story makes it “modern”?

2.      I see what is “present” in the story, but what are the absent things about it that create meaning for the reader?

3.      I think I see the element, but what does it have to do with the writer’s concept?

4.      If the who, what, where and when are not important as content, then what is the role of how it was created and why an important part of the work?

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