Modernism was an artistic, cultural, and even philosophical period from approximately 1885-1935 or so. Why should that matter to a writer? How could knowing a little bit about Modernism help you write a better novel or story? Because knowing the history and lessons learned and imparted by those who came before us in any discipline or field can only make us better at what we do. The application of knowledge and education works cumulatively and synergistically. The more we know, the better we are at what we do. Does anything make more sense than that?
#1 Foster and express a rebellious spirit
The Victorian world was no longer. The old values were gone or exposed as false or hypocritical; the feeling was that new values must be created. The philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche had a profound influence, scorning the idea of getting at truth, believing that there is no truth, no reality, no absolute. All is relative and a matter of individual perception.
He believed in “undecidables”—in life, language, and art. Writers who rebel, creating new ways of writing or thinking about things, are always in demand. Risk takers win big. Writers who play it safe lose.
#2 Understand, recognize, and shun decadence
When a form of something (art, lifestyle, fashion, culture, civilization, government, etc.) has gone as far as it can and no one can think of another direction for it, that’s decadence. So much writing today is decadent. It’s so derivative and redundant. Do we really need another wizard, vampire, or dragon fantasy novel? Decadence stresses the invalidity of structure, believing that there can be no such thing as a coherent, truly workable design in nature or society. Revolt by writing something absolutely fresh and radical. Don’t be an imitator; be an innovator.
#3 Think and write like a Romantic
The Modernists loved Romanticism. Study it as they did, to learn its lessons and borrow its timeless aspects for your own writing. Self-consciousness, self-reliance, and the imagination’s power to create are almost obsessions of Romanticism. Though concerned with the commonplace—what’s natural, simple, real—Romantics sought the absolute by transcending the actual. It’s ironic that the Modernists, like the Romanticists, searched for the “Ideal.” Lace your story together with that paradoxical thread—characters realistically seeking what’s idealistic—and you’ll have a winner that will captivate readers.
#4 Experiment with what were then new notions of the nature of consciousness
Freud and Jung were Modernists who posited that consciousness is multiple; that the past is always present and coloring one’s present reaction; and that people are their memories. In literature, these ideas were manifested in Faulkner’s “stream of consciousness” style and Hemingway’s “iceberg principle.” Writers developed a new kind of reality, one preoccupied with the inner life, the subjective.
#5 Play with the then new views of time itself
Thanks to the Modernists Einstein and Bergson [there sure were a lot of monumentally great Modernists, weren’t there?], time was beginning to be seen not as a series of chronological moments in sequence, but as a continuous flow in the consciousness of the individual, with the ‘already’ merging into the ‘not yet.’ Read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying andSlaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut (a 60’s post-Modernist) for what can be done with time-out-of-joint writing. You do not have to write in a chronological order.
The Modernists were a great bunch of artists and personalities. Writers would do well to consider how to incorporate or use for inspiration these five aspects of Modernism in their own work.