Does Tristram Shandy Demonstrate That There Can Be Postmodern Texts Before Postmodernism?

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Does Tristram Shandy demonstrate that there can be postmodern texts before Postmodernism?

Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy dominated the London literary marketplace during its serial publication from 1759-1767. Like his contemporary writers, Sterne engages in debates concerning what we would now regard as the disciplinary boundary between literature and philosophy which has established its canonical status as a work of postmodern fiction. It is difficult to ascribe, as many scholars have, to Tristram Shandy the title of ‘postmodern’. To characterize this novel through a future literary movement which defines itself through the rejection of the principles of the previous movement is incongruous. How can a novel which precedes postmodernism by over a century and a half reflect the cultural and political formations which sparked the movement itself? However, Tristram Shandy does contain fictional and narrative elements which clearly invite comparison with the fiction of the postmodern movement. Born into the Augustan Age, Sterne’s discordant writing makes him seem out of place in his own era Differing drastically from the contemporary imaginative literature of Defoe, Richardson and Fielding and the philosophical writing of Johnson, Tristram Shandy has been explained by critics as an example of ‘process writing’, a text presented in the very act of creation and change. This analysis can be applied to Sterne himself; moving away from the Augustan poets and the sentimental writers, Sterne’s writing is termed postmodern because it is a rejection of realism, turning from the objectivity of external truth to examine inner states of consciousness. Sterne’s novel clearly exhibits the postmodernist theory of metafiction, in which the writing self-consciously points to itself as an object in order to question the relationship between reality and fiction. Sterne was certainly not alone in critiquing methods of narrative construction and exploring the fictionality...
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