An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

September 25, 2019

Anderson: Postmodern Artistry / Medievalist Fiction

Earl R. Anderson: Postmodern Artistry in Medievalist Fiction: An International Study. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2018

Reviewed by Jesse Swan ( 

There is much to appreciate and admire about Earl R. Anderson’s compendious detailing of “medievalist fiction.” Although Anderson draws on much pre as well as post-medieval literature, his best contributions to learning come in his discussion of twentieth-century work. Most admirably, he reads in multiple languages and expresses perspicacious knowledge and judgment about important translations. This multilingualism inspires confidence throughout the many expositions, expositions served especially adeptly by remarkably expert and incisive summaries. The student new to medievalist fiction will benefit most from this feature. The concentration on the “artistry” of postmodern medievalist fiction is meant to ground the exposition in objective and rhetorical features of the essentially abstract, amorphous, and ephemeral literary phenomenon. This concentration is forthrightly presented as a heuristic, and as such, it functions well, particularly, no doubt, for the reader more accustomed to modern protocols over pre or postmodern literacies. And his presentation of central problems, notably of the distinctions between the modern and the postmodern, as sorites, or problems of rhetorical structure, like his imaginative recourse to the concept of “Daimon” (9), drawn from Angus Fletcher (Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode), to characterize the composite features giving power to a work, is clever and useful.

About drawbacks of his study, Anderson himself tries to present a sort of justification and explanation in the Postscript. “One reviewer” of the manuscript, Anderson reports, notes that Anderson “is in a position to draw important conclusions about medievalist fiction and postmodernism’s legacy” (191). The reviewer further exclaims, “I’d recommend taking that opportunity” (191). Declining to heed the reviewer’s advice, Anderson says that he favors leaving such intellectual contributions to “younger scholars” (191). Although he declines to make original contributions to the intellectual history of medievalism and postmodernism, he does offer a rudimentary quantitative analysis of references in the Modern Language Association International Bibliography, which he calls a “’Pareto experiment’” (192), and three exhortations for those who might attempt to take his manuscript reviewer’s advice. The “’Pareto experiment’” Anderson derives from the Pareto effect, which is derived from the engineer and early economist, Vilfredo Pareto. Paralleling artistic accomplishment with material productivity of industry, the latter Pareto’s concern, Anderson endeavors to show that most of the productivity of postmodern artistry with medievalism comes from very few authors and is recognized by even fewer critics, scholars, and literary historians. The three exhortations to intellectuals who attempt to make various sorts of conclusions about postmodernism and medievalisms are as follows: “First, pay attention to artistry. . . . Second: more literature, with less theory. . . . Third: pay attention to serious authors who seem to be unfairly neglected in academic criticism” (191).

The Introduction to the book is much more promising than the book as a whole, in terms of providing critical, theoretical, and literary historical or historiographical judgment, judgment that seems, again in the introduction, both susceptive and penetrating. Anderson’s over-reliance on the equational grammar of linking verbs – usually “is” – can provide the feeling of simplicity, clarity, and substance, but by the middle of the first chapter of the body of the book, it becomes clear that the grammar controls the thinking and the mode. This is unfortunate, implicitly, for the manuscript reviewer referenced in the Postscript as well as, explicitly, for this reviewer. It surprises, given Anderson’s obvious intelligence, breadth of knowledge, polyglotism, and expressed preference for the postmodern over the modern. In considering the “mantra” that “’postmodern’ does not mean ‘better,’” Anderson decides, “I disagree. In my research I encountered a handful of weak novels in the ‘postmodern’ category. Postmodern storytelling options offer no guarantee of superior artistry – but usually these coincide” (9).

As Anderson points out, features generative of the postmodern challenge modern modes by mixing and participating, mixing forms of knowledge and genres and participating in past and future works and readings. He prefers these postmodern medievalist works, such as Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosaand Italo Calvino’s Il cavaliere inesistente, yet he refuses to engage them on their terms. This is probably why he recommends drawing upon “less theory,” since the criticism, scholarship, and literary history that he considers “theory” does participate with the literature on the literature’s own, postmodern terms. Anderson, instead, treats the literature in stabilized, mechanical, modern terms. For example, in discussing the postmodern medieval artistry of Eco, Calvino, and Laura Esquivel, in terms of their engagement of semiotics, Anderson explicates them in relation to Augustine and Roger Bacon. In the usual way of homogenizing the past according to one’s own present, Anderson modernizes Augustine and Bacon as well as Eco, Calvino, and Esquivel. An approach that would match the postmodern authors he promotes would do as they do. To use Anderson’s own apt words, a postmodern appreciation of the postmodern medievalist works would resist a stabilizing, mechanical modernity: “In the context of authority and hierarchy, postmodernism says ‘no’ but then follows up with a positive assertion of its own” (142). An important “no” postmodern scholarship asserts is the rejection of the tight synchronic linearity of modernity. Postmodern scholarship does this by noticing and appreciating distinctions that disrupt as much as it notices features that seem to build. With Augustine, one might be sure to bring to bear his theology and, with Bacon, one might keep foregrounded his scholasticism. Both Augustine’s theology and Bacon’s scholasticism are very different from Eco, Calvino, and Esquivel’s post-secularisms, even as there are connections among the five. Anderson’s manner of thinking about the literature and style of writing about medievalism and postmodernism occludes such important nuances in favor of blunter assertions of connections.

While some readers will wish the obvious intelligence and admirably broad knowledge informing this study would have provided critical, literary, and historiographical conclusions about postmodern medievalism, all readers will be rewarded by the expert summary and presentation of major works of literature and criticism forming recognized and less recognized instances of literary medievalisms of the twentieth century.

Jesse Swan
University of Northern Iowa