Modernist literature was a predominantly English genre of fiction writing, popular from roughly the 1910s into the 1960s. Modernist literature came into its own due to increasing industrialization and globalization. New technology and the horrifying events of both World Wars (but specifically World War I) made many people question the future of humanity: What was becoming of the world?
What are characteristics of Modernist literature, fiction in particular?
Writers reacted to this question by turning toward Modernist sentiments. Gone was the Romantic period that focused on nature and being. Modernist fiction spoke of the inner self and consciousness. Instead of progress, the Modernist writer saw a decline of civilization. Instead of new technology, the Modernist writer saw cold machinery and increased capitalism, which alienated the individual and led to loneliness. (Sounds like the same arguments you hear about the Internet age, doesn't it?)
To achieve the emotions described above, most Modernist fiction was cast in first person. Whereas earlier, most literature had a clear beginning, middle, and end (or introduction, conflict, and resolution), the Modernist story was often more of a stream of consciousness. Irony, satire, and comparisons were often employed to point out society's ills. For the first-time Modernist reader, this can all add up to feel like the story is going nowhere.
A short list of some of famous Modernist writers includes Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, E.E. Cummings, Sylvia Plath, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and Gertrude Stein.
From the above list, two specific works that epitomize Modernist literature are Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.