John Gardner’s work is often classified as postmodernist. In the early part of the century, writers such as T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce experimented with an idea that came to be known as modernism, characterized by experimentation with new, nontraditional forms of expression. These modernist writers discarded 19th-century writers’ emphasis on realistic, authoritative narration in favor of a style that was more subjective and impressionistic, focusing more on how people look at the world than on what they actually see.

As experimentation with modernism developed, boundaries between literary genres began to break down, and writers explored ideas of fragmentation and discontinuity in both subject matter and stylistic form. Modernist pieces often display an acute sense of meta-awareness, meaning they are conscious of their status as artistic works—representations of reality rather than reality itself. Many modernist authors use these techniques to convey a mournful nostalgia for a world they perceive as having passed. Postmodernism, on the other hand, celebrates fragmentation rather than mourning its necessity: postmodern works frequently find liberation and exhilaration in the breakdown of what are seen as outdated, claustrophobic categories.

Though Gardner and his contemporaries—who included William Gass, John Barth, and Donald Barthelme—wrote highly inventive, genre-bending works of literature in the 1970s, Gardner was never a career postmodernist. In fact, he frustrated many critics because of his seemingly arbitrary use of postmodern techniques, which factored heavily in some of his novels but disappeared entirely from others. Critics could never seem to agree whether Gardner was a traditionalist masquerading as an innovator or vice versa. Gardner himself rejected the postmodern label, as he associated it with a school of writers he considered too harsh and cynical.