19.06.27 Anderson, Postmodern Artistry in Medievalist Fiction

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Ann F. Howey

The Medieval Review 19.06.27

Anderson, Earl R. . Postmodern Artistry in Medievalist Fiction: An International Study. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co Publishers, 2018. pp. 236. ISBN: 978-1-4766-7300-4 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Ann Howey
Brock University
ahowey@brocku.ca

Postmodern Artistry in Medievalist Fiction aims to draw attention to the intersection of postmodernism and medievalism in fiction. Citing novels from Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Britain, Brazil, Mexico, Cuba, the United States, and Canada, the book fulfils its claim to be international and thus demonstrates the widespread influence of postmodernism and the appeal of medievalism. The author defines his project in particular ways: the book's structure is defined by rhetorical strategies, rather than by texts or authors, with the goal of organizing "observations into something like a hierarchy, or at least a taxonomy" (7); its concern "is postmodern artistry, not postmodernism" (7, italics in original)--that is, the way authors use narrative strategies influenced by postmodern theory, rather than that theory itself--so theoretical texts tend to be referenced briefly; and it resists drawing conclusions, instead preferring to work "by example" (191). These structural choices affect the persuasiveness of the book overall, though since its main goal seems to be an initial, descriptive step in literary criticism on many of the authors cited, it seems to be leaving space for further exploration.

The book is divided into an introductory section (Preface, Introduction) and then three sections organized around strategies and issues of postmodern artistry (titled "Rhetorical Foundations," "The Rhetoric of Doubt and Denial," and "Four 'Hard Problems' in Fiction"), followed by a brief Postscript. After a brief overview of the burgeoning of postmodern medievalist fiction and the book's approach in the Preface, the Introduction establishes definitions for medievalism and postmodernism, as well as suggesting possible reasons for the popularity and longevity of medievalism. It also outlines the way texts were selected from an initial sample of 500 novels and introduces the idea of a text being "'daimonized' by one or more rhetorical strategies" (9). Subsequent chapters explore these strategies that drive postmodern medievalist texts, with particular attention to "'meanings' that come to light through intertextuality" (9).

Section I, Rhetorical Foundations, has five chapters. Chapter 1, "Narrative Conceits," covers a variety of conceits: "writing at breakneck speed" (14), "genealogical conceits" (16), "exhumation conceits" including relics (16), "'personal apocalypse' trope" (18), "aura-conceits" (18), and "perdus interruptus" (19). Settings are addressed as well, with concentration on those that are personified (20) and those that use the medieval forest (21). Chapter 2, "Genre-Plurality," begins by distinguishing between constituent and syncretic genres (24), thus considering both the momentary inclusion of different genres in a text as well as the continuous use of two or more genres; this discussion also addresses medieval-modern hybrids, which are "modern tales with medieval appropriations" (30). Chapter 3, "The Artifice of Time," explores different concepts of time in postmodern medievalist fiction, including the ways in which they establish a medieval setting or draw attention to the way we construct notions of time. Chapter 4, "Intertextuality," distinguishes between overt and covert (50), and between "horizontal" and "vertical" (51)--that is, between the use of references to multiple texts and more sustained engagement with a single text. Chapter 5, "The 'Medieval Temper' in High Resolution," considers tropes that "medievalize" fiction, giving a sense of place and time; the chapter divides these into tropes based on imagery and those based on categories of thought.

Having established these rhetorical strategies, the book turns to postmodern novels' "approaches to resistance," referred to as "the 'negative' side of postmodern artistry" (82). Section II, "Rhetoric of Doubt and Denial," begins with Chapter 6, "Deconstructive Modes," which includes discussion of deconstruction of status and transformation of character, decentring of usually prominent characters, defamiliarization, and demystification. Chapter 7, "Paradox," focusses on those paradoxes that are not easily resolved and that therefore raise questions about the reliability of perception. Chapter 8 looks at "paradox writ large" (98) in its focus on "Equillopence and Skepticism." Chapter 9, "Rhetoric of Disappointment," divides its attention among narrative hypallage as seen in satire, characterization, Weltanschauung, and narrativity (115). The section concludes with Chapter 10, "Postmodern Negation of Remainder History," which illustrates that what is left after negation is often the narrative of the common people or survivors; most of the chapter is a reading of José Saramago's História do cerco de Lisboa (1989) with reference to Freud and Lacan.

Section III, "Four 'Hard Problems' in Fiction," contains four chapters. Chapter 11, "Subjectivity," addresses medieval notions of the self as well as giving examples of the way fiction represents subjectivity. Chapter 12, "Intentional Semiotics," begins by discussing signs and theories of perception, provides a profile of premodern semiotics, and traces concepts of the sign from medieval to postmodern texts. Chapter 13, "Steganography," is mainly concerned with detective fiction and thrillers, given its focus on the "art of concealing signs" (163), as well as their discovery and interpretation. Chapter 14, "The End of the Middle Ages," recognizes the definition of that "end" as both "a historiographic problem and also a trope" (175), and identifies that trope in novels' use of chronology, representation of the decline of chivalry, and the representation of art and shifting art styles.

As the preceding description suggests, the book's organization focusses on strategies, tropes, and ideas to create the "taxonomy" (7) mentioned in the Introduction. Examples are provided from a variety of texts in each case (Chapter 10 is an exception) and are in some cases explicitly recognized as extracted from "the 'micro' level" of the text (82). Although this structure foregrounds rhetorical strategies, one of the aims stated in the Preface (2), this choice has disadvantages. Repetition occurs as the same novel is reintroduced in multiple chapters or sections within chapters. It also creates the effect of a list or catalogue, a rhetorical strategy recognized as popular in medieval literature and less appreciated now (76).

The brief references to postmodern theory act as touchstones throughout the book, but the rhetorical strategies themselves, even the modes of resistance and the hard problems, have earlier roots. The book points to antecedents (often medieval, but also classical, Renaissance, even Victorian or modern) for the various conceits, tropes, and problems being discussed. This strategy has the advantage of illustrating the way that novels create medievalism: novels' use of rhetorical strategies with medieval roots, for example, recreates the medieval on the structural level as well as in content. However, this emphasis on continuity, combined with the brevity of references to postmodern theories and the listing of examples, makes it at times unclear what makes these texts "postmodern." If steganography is postmodern in itself (as discussion of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code [2003] in chapter 12 would suggest), then don't all detective novels and thrillers become postmodern?

These disadvantages are exacerbated by the lack of transitions and conclusions. One example tends to follow another to the end of a paragraph (or chapter or section), only to move to a new list of examples (chapters 4, 5, and 10 are exceptions). As a result, one of the assumptions of the text, that postmodern novels are superior in artistry (9), remains largely undiscussed as the significance of most examples is left unstated. The Preface acknowledges that "emphasis...on technical aspects of artistry...leads to a 'canon' of postmodern medievalist fictions based on merit" (2), but the justification for the canon created in the book could use greater explanation.

Perhaps that explanation is yet to come. In the Postscript and elsewhere Anderson asserts that this book is a first step: "I offer my analysis in the expectation that younger scholars might feel free to take up the medievalist banner" (191). His taxonomy of rhetorical strategies draws attention to numerous texts that, as his explanation of the Pareto effect in the Postscript suggests, have not received much scholarly attention. The book overall thus indicates possibilities for further study in this intersection of postmodernism and medievalism.

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