9 Complicated Literary Movements Explained Simply

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Books can be complicated, and the culture surrounding literature and its various theories and ideas can even trip up Ph.Ds and Gaddis-quoting Brooklynites.

Sometimes, though, you need a little straight-talk to understand why your favorite author keeps getting described as having been decontextualized, which makes these particular statements by critics and writers on various literary concepts incredibly illuminating.

1. MODERNISM

“Make it new!”
— A phrase attributed to Ezra Pound that he in fact lifted from a 17th-century B.C. Chinese text, which in itself is a pretty good summary of modernism

2. POSTMODERNISM

[Describing the postmodern era:]
“On the one hand, there’s sort of an embarrassment of riches for young writers now. Most of the old cinctures and constraints that used to exist—censorship of content is a blatant example—have been driven off the field. Writers today can do more or less whatever we want. But on the other hand, since everybody can do pretty much whatever they want, without boundaries to define them or constraints to struggle against, you get this continual avant-garde rush forward without anyone bothering to speculate on the destination, the 'goal' of the forward rush.”
— David Foster Wallace (above) in conversation with Larry McCaffery in The Review of Contemporary Fiction

3. STRUCTURALISM

“Structuralism is a theory of humankind in which all elements of human culture, including literature, are thought to be parts of a system of signs. Critic Robert Scholes has described structuralism as a reaction to '"modernist" alienation and despair.’… Roland Barthes, among others, sought to recover literature and even language from the isolation in which they had been studied and to show that the laws that govern them govern all signs, from road signs to articles of clothing.”
— Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray in The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms

4. DECONSTRUCTION

“I’ve already in a way started to respond to your question about deconstruction, because one of the gestures of deconstruction is to not naturalize what isn’t natural—to not assume that what is conditioned by history, institutions, or society is natural.”
— Jacques Derrida speaking on his own indefinable theory of deconstruction, which is often discussed in terms of what it is not rather than what it is

5. SURREALISM

…A method “by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought.'”
— Andre Breton, the father of surrealism, in his First Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924

6. DADA

“Dada Means Nothing.”
— Tristan Tzara in the Dada Manifesto, 1918. He doesn’t mean it has no meaning, but rather that it means “nothing,” i.e. the opposite of something; Dada was created as a rejection of the logic and reason that its artists believe led to World War I

7. AESTHETICISM

“The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim. … Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”
— Oscar Wilde in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

8. MAGICAL REALISM

“Surrealism runs through the streets.”
— Gabriel Garcia Marquez

9. HYSTERICAL REALISM

“Hysterical realism is not exactly magical realism, but magical realism's next stop. It is characterised by a fear of silence. This kind of realism is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity.”
— James Wood, describing the work of Don Delillo, Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, and others

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May 30, 2014 - 1:00am
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