Why We Don’t Like the Word “Postmodernism”
Nobody likes the word Postmodernism. It’s a terrible word. It sounds silly, for one thing. For another, it refers to a specific literary period, from around the 50s to the 80s—the so-called “postmodern moment.” We’re not looking for work exactly like that, but rather work that comes after that period & is informed by it. Which means we’d have to call ourselves Post-Postmodern, and if there’s anything sillier-sounding than Postmodernism, it’s that.
When we sent out our original call for submissions, it included the lines:
We do not believe that postmodernism need or ought be heartless. But neither do we require that every story wear its heart on its sleeve.
Soon after, we got an email from a would-be contributor who, along with his submission, included a lengthy explanation of why “postmodernism” was a vacuous philosophical stance, and one we should disassociate ourselves from ASAP. Now, clearly there was some miscommunication, and I tried to explain as much when I responded to his email: we weren’t interested in postmodernism as a philosophy, really, but instead were using the term to indicate a certain tradition of literature, non-realist, interested in the materiality of the text, paying attention to the possibilities of form without being strictly formalist. “Postmodernism” functioned, we hoped, as a sort of shorthand for a set of (specifically literary & aesthetic) concerns.
But it’s still a pretty terrible word.
Why We Don’t Like the Word “Experimental”
The temptation is to say that names don’t really matter, that one should focus on the work itself. And that’s fine up to a point. But we’re interested in pushing a certain aesthetic tradition, and we need to be able to, if not name it, at least describe it. The problem is, most of the names and descriptions for this tradition are problematic. Take “experimental.” We’re listed in Duotrope as interested, among other things, in experimental work. Which we are. Or at least, we’re interested in work that often gets labeled experimental. But we have misgivings. We doubt, in our heart of hearts, whether the work we’re looking for is truly experimental. Certainly there is some experimental work out there—particularly in new media, where experimentation is necessary to figure out how to make a given medium work in the first place. But the work we’re interested in is actually part of a long tradition, has a history reaching back, according to some, to the BCE.
We worry, too, about the inordinate value placed on novelty by terms like “experimental,” “avant-garde,” “innovative fiction,” etc. Don’t get us wrong: we like novelty just fine. But literature doesn’t develop the same way that science does. The “experimental” techniques of as avant-garde a writer as William Burroughs, for example, go back at least as far as the 4th century. If we have to chose between novelty and passionate virtuosity, we’re going to take the latter.
What We Like
Right now, we’re fans of the Oulipian term “potential literature.” Not that we believe that all literature must be based on formal constraint. But a form establishes the potential for the creation of certain literary works. A set of aesthetic concerns, or a certain tradition, can likewise establish this potential. “Potential” implies something as-yet unmade, something that, in the best of cases, will be surprising in its realization, but, unlike “experimental” or “avant garde,” doesn’t require a constant novelty. One can return to old forms and create new works, or one can create new forms and see where they lead (with passionate virtuosity, in either case).
We’re not totally settled on this term though, particularly since it’s so linked to the Oulipo, and, while we like seeing Oulipian work in our submissions pile, we’re not strict Oulipians. If you’ve got ideas for what to call what we’re looking for, we’re open to suggestions.