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Playing with Expectations

Postmodern Narrative Choices and the African American Novel


Preston Park Cooper

Playing with Expectations: Postmodern Narrative Choices and the African American Novel explores a merging of works by African American novelists to promote critical acceptance of postmodern literature and advance the legitimacy and usefulness of postmodern literary techniques. This book examines novels by Ishmael Reed, Charles Johnson, and Toni Morrison, and two novels by comparative newcomer Colson Whitehead – all of whom have used postmodern techniques not only to help their work be read, but to gain a racially wide audience that is open, willing, and able to understand.
Jean-François Lyotard’s concept of local narratives and grand narratives helps show how African American novels, using postmodern strategies, function as small-scale narratives. Consequently, these narratives, set up in opposition to hegemonic metanarratives, offer readers an alternative mode of thinking to that offered by the larger, more widely diffused and self-distributing grand narratives. By providing realistic characters in ways that defy the typical grand narratives of race, as well as the expectations of storytelling itself, readers are stimulated into new realizations about previously accepted ideas, and become prepared to spread the now-realized truth about the inaccuracies of the racist grand narratives.
This book is a vital and thought-provoking addition to the ongoing conversation about storytelling and race, and will engage readers in classroom discussions dealing with race, postmodernism, or twentieth-century literature in a more general sense.
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Chapter One: Introduction


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African American writers are producing successful and critically noted novels using postmodern techniques. Because postmodern African American writers and their techniques are quite complementary to one another, they have met and merged in a partial symbiosis. Initially, the work of African American novelists reflected the efforts to advance, critically and in the popular esteem, a collective body of work. In a gradual process, but especially in the last four or five decades, these efforts have sometimes met and mingled with the efforts to promote critical acceptance of postmodern literature, or at least the legitimacy and usefulness of postmodern literary techniques.

The need to be heard, to be read, to gain an audience that is open, ready, willing, and able to understand is an extremely important factor motivating African American writing. It is advantageous, therefore, for the African American novel to find and use techniques that allow it to reach a racially wide audience, techniques that will succeed in spite of the fact that writing for such an audience of readers risks losing a portion of some readers’ identifications with the issues and viewpoints the novel presents. Instead of pretending that an American audience of readers does not have cultural splits along racial lines when it comes to identifying with a given racially-charged message or viewpoint, some of the most successful African American novelists have chosen to use postmodern narrative techniques, writing for and thereby pointing out to the readers that they are...

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