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Literary Figureheads: American Writers of the Postmodernist Era

Updated on July 1, 2016

Postmodernism's Beginnings

Postmodernism in American Literature which began in the 1960s was largely influenced by the political climate during the Vietnam War, and even after the Second World War. There was a huge distrust of politicians and the media, which involved egging the country into launching a full-out war. Conflicts were over-dramatized. Writers who later wrote in Postmodern fashion paralleled the public's distrust and their ideas revolved mostly around:

  • removal of the difference between social classes
  • response to technological advances
  • irrational thought
  • re-conceptualization and re-imagining of society

Postmodernism: Modern Themes

Although Postmodernism has a broad range of elements and characteristics, and the writers are constantly reconstructing styles, there are common themes that set apart postmodernist writings:

Irony, Playfulness, Black Humor, and Cynicism

In The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon "uses childish wordplay while discussing serious subjects", especially in the names of his characters like Dr. Hilarius, Mike Fallopian, and Mucho Maas.


The Postmodern genre can be a mix of sci-fi, pop culture references, mystery fiction, and even dystopian themes.


Writing about writing, and writing about the author's own thoughts on stories or writing in story format or novels was a unique feat in that period. Writer Lydia Davis, in her The Old Dictionary, analyzes the way she sees things as a writer.

Paranoia, Magic-realism, and Surrealism

Postmodernism expounds on the idea that there is something out of the ordinary while things remain the same. Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions portrays a character who goes nearly psychotic when he imagines that he is the only human in a world or robots.

Joseph Heller
Joseph Heller | Source
Bret Ellis
Bret Ellis | Source
William S. Burroughs II
William S. Burroughs II | Source

Postmodernist Writers

Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923 in Brooklyn, New York. His famous novel, Catch 22, describes the efforts of Captain John Yossarian who devises ways to avoid going on missions, but it seems that the military bureaucracy constantly one-ups him. Yes, he's a soldier and needs to go on missions, but it's freaky when you think that people of authority are really out to get you.

Heller was once noted saying, "Everyone in my book accuses of everyone else of being crazy. Frankly, I think the whole society is nuts - and the question is, 'What does a sane man do in an insane society?'"

Bret Easton Ellis is well-known for his novel, American Psycho, which is written in the first-person point-of-view of Patrick Bateman, a serial killer. Suffice to say, the very concept repulsed many readers and intrigued more.

In an interview in 2010, Ellis said that Bateman was crazy the same way he was, in isolation and alienation living in a "consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse...."

William Seward Burroughs II was one of the most celebrated writers of his time. His story, Naked Lunch, is a series of loosely-connected vignettes which follow the narration of William Lee who travels from the United States to Mexico under a cover of various aliases. Eventually, he got to "Interzone", which is a sort-of Twilight Zone, unexplained and irrational in the story's world. The story becomes disjointed and the story stops without prior explanation and further ado.

In his own words: The word cannot be expressed direct.... It can perhaps be indicated by a mosaic of juxtaposition like articles abandoned in a hotel drawer, defined by negatives and absence (1990).

Postmodern stories range from having an apparent plot to having a seemingly disjointed set of events jumbled together that are not supposed to make sense. Postmodernism constantly tries to resist being part of a genre, criticizing and deconstructing different genres, including postmodernism itself.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Kurt Vonnegut is well-known for his works Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Breakfast of Champions (1973), and Cat's Cradle (1963). Not exactly classified as a Postmodernist writer, Vonnegut belongs to a genre unto himself. His notable works, however, portray themes heralded by the Postmodernism Period. Most of his novels depict science fiction, satire, a macabre dystopian future of machines, and a portrayal of authorities as highly fallible and densely tyrannical.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., known commonly as just Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., known commonly as just Kurt Vonnegut


“Thomas Pynchon." Famous Authors. Retrieved 26 Feb 2013.


“Bret Easton Ellis." Random House. Retrieved 27 Feb 2013 <>.

"Postmodern American Fiction." Norton Anthology. Retrieved 01Mar 2013. <>.

“Joseph Heller.“ Joseph Heller Biography. Retrieved 02 Mar 2013


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    • Penny Sebring profile image

      Penny Leigh Sebring 

      11 months ago from Fort Collins

      This is a clear description of what post-modern writing is at its core. Nicely done!


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