Humanism Postmodernized?: Popular Culture in the Fiction of William Trevor
Prof. Hugh Ormsby-Lennon.
In his contemporary Anglo-Irish fiction, William Trevor makes brilliant, but unobtrusive, use of popular culture. To films, to pop songs, to TV shows, to romance novels, and to the detritus of advertising Trevor makes abundant allusion. Such allusions do not, however, threaten to become an end in themselves, as might be said of some of Trevor’s other contemporaries like Helen Fielding, Nick Hornby, and even Salman Rushdie. Instead Trevor–who has been acclaimed as the world’s greatest living writer of short stories--subordinates “the shock of the (often meretricious) new” to humanistic depictions of unheroic characters caught in the trammels of individual psychology and social circumstance.
The background against which Trevor limns his characters is always richly detailed, and the author’s detailing often enjoins a meticulous attention to the popular culture which has, since the 1960s, become the medium in which so many aesthetic messages are transmitted. That the use of popular culture is no novelty creators from Aristophanes and Petronius to Brueghel and Hogarth can testify. But popular culture has now, post-controversially, become mass culture and its vehicles and its effects are omnipresent. Like us, many of Trevor’s characters have to find their bearings in this new world. Trevor’s use of popular culture goes beyond mere documentary backdrop. In his allusions, the plots of transient films, the lyrics of half-remembered songs, even the brand names of products now dropped are all carefully chosen to flesh out his characters and to evoke the challenges they face. Trevor catches his readers as well as his characters between memory and desire. His ostensibly old-fashioned literary style has drawn some criticism, but I shall show how, amidst the passing trivia of popular culture, Trevor has fashioned experimental narrative techniques for describing postmodernity. Sometimes dismissed, unfairly, as little more than an updated Chekhov, Trevor weds his humanistic explorations of our unchanging human lot to a gift for using innovative cinematic techniques. Trevor approaches our pop-cultural world as a humanist but he leaves it, on paper, as a writer who has learned the latest lessons of deconstruction.
Prof. Hugh Ormsby-Lennon (United States)
Associate Professor of English
Hugh Ormsby-Lennon has published many essays on Jonathan Swift’s excursions into religious heterodoxy, commonplace books, and popular culture. He has also published essays on Rosicrucian Linguistics, on Quaker sociolinguistics, on cargo cults, and on pornography. Fools of Fiction: Reading William Trevor’s Short Fiction is forthcoming from Academica Press.
Person as Subject
(30 min. Conference Paper, English)