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Your Pocket Guide to 10 Literary Movements

From The Harlem Renaissance to Flarf Poetry.

Literary Hub

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Literary movements are the kinds of things you learn about in school, then maybe join, or just steal from, or decide to hate for a while, and then . . . usually forget about. But it’s useful to know about them, in case it ever comes up at an Important Literary Dinner Party (do those still exist?) or your next job interview (do those still exist?) or pop quiz (run). Whatever the circumstance, you can now use this handy pocket guide (your phone is in your pocket, after all) to 10 literary movements. NB that these are not all the literary movements you should know, of course, but honestly? They’re some of the most fun to discuss at parties.

James Joyce and Nora Barnacle


Origins: Less an organized movement than an era, literary modernism emerged in England around 1910 as a reaction against Romanticism in the wake of the First World War.

Prevailing principles: According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature, “what connects the modernist writers—aside from a rich web of personal and professional connections—is a shared desire to break with established forms and subjects in art and literature.” That often meant a rejection of “realistic representation” and traditional forms. Modernist literature is characterized by stream-of-consciousness narration, a focus on psychological investigation as opposed to plot, and a blend of high and low language.

Figures of importance: Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot

What to read first: Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

What to say at your next literary dinner party: “Hey guys, remember that time Virginia Woolf wore blackface? Yikes.”

Langston Hughes

The Harlem Renaissance

Origins: In the early part of the 20th century, African Americans, faced with legal segregation, rampant racism, lack of economic opportunities, and unchecked violence, began moving to Northern states in large numbers, and New York’s Harlem was particularly popular. This led to a cultural and intellectual surge in Harlem, and what James Weldon Johnson called a “flowering of Negro literature.” At the time, it was often referred to as “The New Negro Movement” or “The New Negro Renaissance,” after an anthology of African American work edited by Alain Locke and titled (you guessed it) The New Negro. Most people consider the Harlem Renaissance to have begun in the late 1910s and ended around 1930.

Prevailing principles: According to the Academy of American Poets, though there was no overall set of “principles,” the Harlem Renaissance was characterized most distinctly by lyricism, formal innovation, and (importantly) an examination and celebration of African American life and identity.

Figures of importance: Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, Angelina Weld Grimké, Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston

What to read first: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes

What to say at your next literary dinner party: Did you know that Langston Hughes is buried under the floor of the Schomburg Center?

Theo van Doesburg


Origins: Dadaism is an art and literary movement that began in Zürich around 1915 as a reaction against traditional, realist (and capitalist) aesthetics. As the German writer Hugo Ball wrote in 1916, “The image of the human form is gradually disappearing from the painting of these times and all objects appear only in fragments. . . The next step is for poetry to decide to do away with language.”

Prevailing principles: Irreverence, nonsense, randomness.

Figures of importance: André Breton, Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball

What to read first:To make a Dadist poem,” Tristan Tzara

What to say at your next literary dinner party: Surprise me.

David Foster Wallace


Origins: Postmodernism is even less well-defined than modernism, and in fact the two are very similar. It may have emerged in the 1940s, but you can see examples of it as it is now defined much further back than that. Perhaps postmodernism has always been and always will be.

Prevailing principles: Postmodernism is notoriously difficult to define, but in the broadest sense, it tends to refer to literature that uses a self-aware playfulness as a central theme, and that in some way is tackling literature itself as its project as well as its presentation. Carolyn Kellogg identified a few postmodern qualities (for a good list of 61 essential postmodern reads that I still reference often)—a postmodern novel might have all or any of these elements: author as a character; self-contradicting plot; disrupts/plays with form; comments on its own bookishness; plays with language; includes fiction artifacts, such as letters; blurs reality and fiction; includes historical falsehoods; overtly references other fictional works; more than 1,000 pages; less than 200 pages.

In his 1967 essay “The Literature of Exhaustion,” John Barth wrote:

My ideal Postmodernist author neither merely repudiates nor merely imitates either his 20th-century Modernist parents or his 19th-century premodernist grandparents. He has the first half of our century under his belt, but not on his back. Without lapsing into moral or artistic simplism, shoddy craftsmanship, Madison Avenue venality, or either false or real naiveté, he nevertheless aspires to a fiction more democratic in its appeal than such late-Modernist marvels as Beckett’s Texts for Nothing… The ideal Postmodernist novel will somehow rise above the quarrel between realism and irrealism, formalism and “contentism,” pure and committed literature, coterie fiction and junk fiction…

Figures of importance: David Foster Wallace, Kathy Acker, Roberto Bolaño, William Faulkner, William Gaddis, William H. Gass, David Markson

What to read first: In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, William H. Gass

What to say at your next literary dinner party: “Hell hath no fury like a coolly received postmodernist.” (Whether you admit that you’re quoting David Foster Wallace will, of course, depend on your current intellectual project.)

Hal Chase, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, 1944

The Beat Generation

Origins: According to Allen Ginsberg himself, “the phrase “Beat Generation” rose out of a specific conversation with Jack Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes in 1950-51 when discussing the nature of generations, recollecting the glamour of the ‘lost generation.'”

Kerouac discouraged the notion of a coherent “generation” and said, “Ah, this is nothing but a beat generation!” They discussed whether it was a “found” generation, which Kerouac sometimes referred to, or “angelic” generation, or various other epithets. But Kerouac waved away the question and said “beat generation!” not meaning to name the generation but to un-name it. John Clellon Holmes then wrote an article in late 1952 in the New York Times magazine section with the headline title of the article, “This is the Beat Generation.” And that caught on.

Prevailing principles: The Beats’ writing can be generally characterized by an anti-establishment sensibility, a looseness of form, rejection of the rules of language and of traditional academic constraints (indeed a “general liberation,” as Ginsberg put it), a filterless immediacy of language, and a nigh-debilitating interest in drugs and sex.

Figures of importance: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso

What to read first: Howl, Allen Ginsberg

What to say at your next literary dinner party: “Cheers to Gary Snyder—who is actually still alive somewhere.”

Meeting of Oulipo in Bologne, Archives Pontigny-Cerisy


Origins: This experimental French literary movement was founded in 1960 by François Le Lionnais (a mathematician) and Raymond Queneau (a writer). The name is an acronym for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature).

Prevailing principles: According to the Poetry Foundation: “Oulipo rejects spontaneous chance and the subconscious as sources of literary creativity. Instead, the group emphasizes systematic, self-restricting means of making texts.” Oulipo literature is characterized by its use of constraints to create texts—for instance, the n + 7 technique, in which a writer takes an existing poem or prose sample and replaces every noun with the noun 7 entries after it in the dictionary (there is a very amusing widget that will do this for you online), and the snowball, in which every word in a poem must be one letter longer than the word it follows. They also used palindromes, math problems, and lipograms—works that leave out certain letters—the most famous of these being Georges Perec’s 1969 novel La Disparition (A Void, tr. Gilbert Adair), which omits the letter e.

Figures of importance: Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Anne F. Garréta, Marcel Duchamp

What to read first: Life: A User’s Manual, Georges Perec

What to say at your next literary dinner party: “Oh, n+1? I much prefer n+7.”

Amiri Baraka, Gary Settle/The New York Times

The Black Arts Movement

Origins: The Black Arts movement is the aesthetic arm of the Black Power movement, and is generally considered to have been launched by poet Amiri Baraka in the 1960s.

Prevailing principles: In his 1968 essay on the Black Arts Movement, Larry Neal defines it this way:

The Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Art is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America. In order to perform this task, the black Arts Movement proposes a radical reordering of the Western cultural aesthetic. It proposes a separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology. The Black Arts and the Black Power concept both relate broadly to the Afro-American’s desire for self-determination and nationhood. Both concepts are nationalistic. One is politics; the other with the art of politics.

He goes on to assert that the Black Arts Movement is not about protest literature but about speaking “directly to Black people,” creating a new and specific “black aesthetic,” asserting an African American cultural identity in place of the racist “Western” one. He writes:

It is the opinion of many Black writers, I among them, that the Western aesthetic has run its course: it is impossible to construct anything meaningful within its decaying structure. We advocate a cultural revolution in art and ideas. The cultural values inherent in Western history must either be radicalized or destroyed, and we will probably find that even radicalization is impossible. In fact, what is needed is a whole new system of ideas.

In practice, as the Academy of American poets pointed out, this meant “a black voice that drew on African American vernacular, songs, and sermons in free verse that was experimental, incorporating jazz, the blues, and many linguistic and rhythmic techniques also characteristic of the Beat movement.”

Figures of importance: Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Gil-Scott Heron, Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, Etheridge Knight

What to read first:Black Art,” Amiri Baraka

What to say at your next literary dinner party: “Poems are bullshit unless they are teeth.”

Lyn Hejinian, Graybird Images

Language Poetry

Origins: The Language Poetry movement takes its name from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, an avant-garde magazine edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews, which ran from 1978 to 1981.

Prevailing principles: As suggested by the name, Language Poetry places emphasis on the use of language to create meaning (as opposed to representing meaning via language) and, according to the Academy of American Poets, “also seeks to involve the reader in the text, placing importance on reader participation in the construction of meaning. By breaking up poetic language, the poet is requiring the reader to find a new way to approach the text.”

Figures of importance: Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Rae Armantrout, Susan Howe, Michael Palmer

What to read first:My Life, Lyn Hejinian

What to say at your next literary dinner party: “Let us undermine the bourgeoisie.”

Flarf Poetry

Origins: Flarf originated on a poetry listserv (called the Flarflist) in the early 2000s—it seems to have begun as a joke, or a series of jokes, meant to push back against the strictures of what poetry was officially supposed to be. It often made use of Google searches, applying cut-up techniques to the results, and developed into a way to make poetry out of the inherently unpoetic.

Prevailing principles: Per Gary Sullivan, who coined the term:

Flarf: A quality of intentional or unintentional “flarfiness.” A kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. “Not okay.”

Flarf (2): The work of a community of poets dedicated to exploration of “flarfiness.” Heavy usage of Google search results in the creation of poems, plays, etc., though not exclusively Google-based. Community in the sense that one example leads to another’s reply—is, in some part, contingent upon community interaction of this sort. Poems created, revised, changed by others, incorporated, plagiarized, etc., in semi-public.

Flarf (3) (verb): To bring out the inherent awfulness, etc., of some pre-existing text.

Flarfy: To be wrong, awkward, stumbling, semi-coherent, fucked-up, un-P.C. To take unexpected turns; to be jarring. Doing what one is “not supposed to do.”

Sullivan goes on to say: “I was never 100 percent sure what it meant—something akin to “campy,” but with somewhat different resonances. More awkward, stumbling, “wrong” than camp. The flarf “voice” in my head was that of my father, a transplanted Southerner who likes to pontificate, and who has a lot of opinions that kind of horrify me.”

Figures of importance: Gary Sullivan, Drew Gardner, Jordan Davis, Nada Gordon, Mitch Highfill, Kasey Mohammad

What to read first: Jacket Magazine‘s Flarf feature is a good place to start

What to say at your next literary dinner party: There’s no point in parodying the news when it’s already flarf—and not the good kind.

Alt Lit

Origins: Alt Lit reared its weird little head in 2011, and was dead, or perhaps undead, by 2014, in part due to a slew of allegations of rape, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse by its authors.

Prevailing principles: In an interview with Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Stephen Tully Dierks described it as “a way to label and create shorthand for a preexisting online literary scene that started (to my knowledge) with a number of personal blogs, gained something of a nexus with the group blog HTMLGIANT.” Noah Cicero called it “a rejection of the 90s and early part of last decade,” including The Paris Review, “writing like beatniks or punks and slam poetry,” Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, and David Foster Wallace. But essentially, it was a bunch of writers experimenting with forms—as well as socializing and publicizing their work—on the Internet (before everyone was doing that), working in reaction to the “lit” scene.

It was also characterized by a studied artlessness (g-chats presented as poetry, for instance), pretty intense misogyny (see above—the work bears it out), and lots of fairly boring and infantile work that perhaps was simply a growing pain of the Literary Internet. And just to be fair, here is a description from someone who liked it: “It didn’t seem to obey any rules, other than a seeming faithfulness its own recurring obsessions: sex, drug use, depression, loneliness, community. It collapsed lived experience into art, with a boldness that made you wonder whether there ever needed to be a difference in the first place.”

Figures of importance: Tao Lin, Blake Butler, Mira Gonzalez, Megan Boyle, Marie Calloway

What to read first: Shoplifting From American Apparel, Tao Lin (the ur-text of the movement); There is No Year, Blake Butler (if you prefer to read someone who has not been accused of sexual misconduct).

What to say at your next literary dinner party: Did you hear Tao Lin has a new book out? . . . No?

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This post originally appeared on Literary Hub and was published April 5, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.