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In literature, the term avant-garde refers to poetry or prose that pushes the boundaries and is experimental.

Avant-garde literature rejects the standard practices of other writers and instead looks for what’s new and exciting. Innovation is at the heart of avant-garde work. Sometimes, avant-garde writing is radical, hard to comprehend, and more often than not, rejected by contemporary readers. Sometimes it takes decades for writers who engaged with avant-garde themes to be recognized for their contributions. In other instances, avant-garde literature becomes mainstream and incredibly popular. 

Avant-garde prononciation: ah-vahnt guard

Avant-Garde literary definition and examples

Definition of Avant-garde

Avant-garde literature encompasses the work of authors that fall under the specific genres of magic realism and dirty realism, as well as those who worked within movements like the Beats and more.

Today, much of this literature may not seem particularly extreme or revolutionary. But, at the time in which it was written, it pushed the boundaries of what people thought was possible, appropriate, and worth doing in the literary world. 

Examples of Avant-garde Literature 

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez is the most popular and well-known work of the magical realism genre. This novel tells the story of seven generations of the Buendia family who hail from the fictitious town of Macondo in Colombia. It was first published in 1967 in Buenos Aires and has since been translated into thirty-seven languages. Here are the famous opening lines of the novel: 

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. 

These lines help convey Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s style of writing. He addresses the absurdity of his fictional world with a clear voice. The major themes are inevitability and the repetition of history. It is considered Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece. 

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce 

Finnegans Wake is an ideal example of what avant-garde literature can be like. The novel is regarded for its experimental style and has a reputation as one of the most difficult books in the English language. For most readers, the novel presents a serious challenge. This is in part due to its lack of a cohesive narrative. It is one part a collection of fables and another part an analysis/deconstruction. There are neologisms, nonce words, and examples of sesquipedalian writing. He used words that are up to 100 letters long. Here is a notorious passage from the book: 

The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur — nuk!) of a once wallstraitoldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan … one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev-linsfirst loved livvy.

The examples of nonsense language from this passage are meant to represent the sound of a thunderclap, one that’s connected to the fall of Adam and Eve. Throughout, readers will also find examples of stream of consciousness writing and numerous allusions that present yet another challenge to readers. 

Read poetry by James Joyce.

Howl by Allen Ginsberg 

‘Howl’ is one of Ginsberg’s best-known poems. It was published in 1956 in Howl and Other Poems. The first part of the poem is the most commonly read. When speaking about this work, Ginsberg said that he wanted the poem to express the pent-up frustrations of his generation and the artistic possibilities that were met and lost.  Here are a few lines from the first part of the poem: 

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

Readers are likely to recognize these opening lines as they have featured in other literary works as well as in television and film. This poem is a perfect expression of what avant-garde literature is supposed to do. The poem pushed the boundaries of what poetry could do and what it could address. 

Read more poetry from Allen Ginsberg.


Why is avant-garde literature important? 

Avant-garde literature is important because it is now new styles and genres develop. If writers did not push the envelope of what is possible, literature would remain stagnant and unchanged. It’s only due to those who are willing to take a chance that literature takes great leaps and bounds forward. 

What are the characteristics of avant-garde literature? 

Experimental style, challenging syntax, and plot structures. Writers might experiment with new structures, such as arranging lines in a shape, refusing to use certain letters, writing in two different languages within the same story or novel, and more. There are no limits to what avant-garde literature can be except that it needs to push back against what’s normal. 

Who are famous avant-garde writers?

Some of the best-known avant-garde writers of their time are James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Guillaume Apollinaire, Antonin Artaud, and Hugo Ball. These writers explored the limits of their various genres and forms. 

What is avant-garde art? 

Avant-garde art is visual art that pushes the boundaries of what viewers understand as art. Artists like Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Wassily Kandinsky, and Georges Braque are all considered to be avant-garde in that they sought new ways of creating and understanding art. 

What is an example of the avant-garde? 

An example is a creator, such as a writer or an artist, who uses a novel technique in their work. Or someone who addresses a radical new topic or is willing to push the boundaries of their art or writing in a new way. It is hard to define what avant-garde is because it has so many possibilities. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Literary Modernism: originated in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It was mainly focused in Europe and North America.
  • Metafiction: refers to stories in which the characters, author, or narrator acknowledge the fact that they’re parts of a fiction. 
  • New Woman Movement and Writing: a feminist ideal that was profoundly influential on 19th and 20th-century literature, as well as broader feminist beliefs.
  • Poem Subject: might also be called the main idea, goal, or thing about which the poem is concerned.
  • Realism: a literary movement that portrays everyday life exactly how it is.
  • Sesquipedalian: the use of words that are overly long and have multiple syllables. Sometimes, they are neologisms.
  • Surrealism: a movement of literature, art, and drama in which creators chose to incorporated dreams and the unconscious, and fuse reality and pure imagination.

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