Metafiction, also known as romantic irony in the context of Romantic works of literature, uses self-reference to draw attention to itself as a work of art, while exposing the "truth" of a story. "Metafiction" is the literary term describing fictional writing that self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self-reflection. It can be compared to presentational theatre, which does not let the audience forget it is viewing a play; metafiction does not let the reader forget he or she is reading a fictional work.
Metafiction is primarily associated with Modernist literature and Postmodernist literature, but is found at least as early as Homer's Odyssey and Chaucer's 14th century Canterbury Tales. Cervantes' Don Quixote, published in the 17th century, is a metafictional novel and so is James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner published in 1824. The novels of Brian O'Nolan, written under the nom de plume Flann O'Brien, are considered to be examples of metafiction. In the 1950s several French novelists published works whose styles were collectively dubbed "nouveau roman". These "new novels" were characterized by the bending of genre and style and often included elements of metafiction. It became prominent in the 1960s, with authors and works such as John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, Robert Coover's "The Babysitter" and "The Magic Poker", Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and William H. Gass's Willie Master's Lonesome Wife. William H. Gass coined the term “metafiction” in a 1970 essay entitled “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction”. Unlike the antinovel, or anti-fiction, metafiction is specifically fiction about fiction, i.e. fiction which self-consciously reflects upon itself.
Various devices of metafiction
Some common metafictive devices in literature include:
- A story about a writer creating a story; e.g. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien, Stephen King's Misery and Secret Window, Secret Garden, Ian McEwan's Atonement, The Counterfeiters by André Gide, John Irving's The World According to Garp, Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea by Michael Morpurgo, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, Oracle Night by Paul Auster, More Bears! by Kenn Nesbitt, and Cy Coleman's 1989 Tony Award best musical, City of Angels.
- A story about a reader reading a book; e.g. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian and The Princess Bride by William Goldman.
- A story that features itself (as a narrative or as a physical object) as its own prop or MacGuffin; e.g. Cornelia Funke's Inkheart (which also plays a role in the sequels); The Dark Tower by C. S. Lewis; Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin's The Jamais Vu Papers. Ira Levin's play Deathtrap is an extreme example.
- A story containing another work of fiction within itself; e.g. The Laughing Man, The Dark Tower, The Iron Dream, The Crying of Lot 49, Sophie's World, A Clockwork Orange, Pale Fire, The Princess Bride, Houdini Heart, The Island of the Day Before, Steppenwolf, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Man in the High Castle, Heart of Darkness, The World According to Garp, "The Fault in Our Stars", Percival Everett's Erasure.
- A story addressing the specific conventions of story, such as title, character conventions, paragraphing or plots; e.g. Lost in the Funhouse and On with the Story by John Barth, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, Ursula K. Le Guin's classic short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, or Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods.
- A novel where the narrator intentionally exposes him or herself as the author of the story; e.g. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Razor's Edge, Mister B. Gone, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Breakfast of Champions, The Plague, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, The BFG, O Tempo e o Vento, The Museum of Innocence, Ishmael Reed's Japanese by Spring, The French Lieutenant's Woman, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Samuel R. Delany's Nova.
- A book in which the book itself seeks interaction with the reader; e.g. Willie Masters' Lonely Wife by William H. Gass, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, or Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems.
- A story in which the readers of the story itself force the author to change the story; e.g. More Bears! by Kenn Nesbitt.
- Narrative footnotes, which continue the story while commenting on it; e.g. Nabokov's Pale Fire, House of Leaves, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, Alan Moore's From Hell, Cable & Deadpool by Fabian Nicieza, An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer, many books by Robert Rankin, and the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett.
- A story in which the characters are aware that they are in a story; e.g., Redshirts by John Scalzi, Sophie's World, the Henry Potty parody series, and various works by Robert Rankin.
Films which use metafictive devices include Adaptation, which wraps metafictively around the real-world non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, and Barton Fink, as well as the thrillers The Usual Suspects, Memento and Inception. Examples of other media which take part in metafictiveness are Al Capp's Fearless Fosdick in Li'l Abner, the Tales of the Black Freighter in Watchmen, or the Itchy and Scratchy Show within The Simpsons, as well as the computer game Myst in which the player represents a person who has found a book named Myst and been transported inside it.
The theme of metafiction may be central to the work, as in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759) or as in Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man, Chapter XIV, in which the narrator talks about the literary devices used in the other chapters. But as a literary device, metafiction has become a frequent feature of postmodernist literature. Examples such as If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino, "a novel about a person reading a novel" is an exercise in metafiction. Paul Auster has made metafiction the central focus of his writing and is probably the best known active novelist specialising in the genre. Often metafiction figures for only a moment in a story, as when "Roger" makes a brief appearance in Roger Zelazny's The Chronicles of Amber.
It can be used in multiple ways within one work. For example, novelist Tim O'Brien, a Vietnam War veteran, writes in his short story collection The Things They Carried about a character named "Tim O'Brien" and his war experiences in Vietnam. Tim O'Brien, as the narrator, comments on the fictionality of some of the war stories, commenting on the "truth" behind the story, though all of it is characterized as fiction. In the story chapter How to Tell a True War Story, O'Brien comments on the difficulty of capturing the truth while telling a war story. In Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, King himself appears as a pivotal character set with the task of writing The Dark Tower books so that the main characters can continue their quest. Other Stephen King books, and characters from them, are mentioned in the narrative. In an afterword to the series finale (The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower), King details why he chose to include himself in his novel. And in James Patterson's Alex Cross series, Along Came a Spider is both the book written by Patterson and a book written by Cross about the events depicted in the book.
One of the most sophisticated treatments of the concept of the novel in a novel occurs in Muriel Spark's debut, The Comforters. Spark imbues Caroline, her central character, with voices in her head which constitutes the narration Spark has just set down on the page. In the story Caroline is writing a critical work on the form of the novel when she begins to hear a tapping typewriter (accompanied by voices) through the wall of her house. The voices dictate a novel to her, in which she believes herself to be a character. The reader is thereby continually drawn to the narrative structure, which in turn is the story, i.e. a story about storytelling which itself disrupts the conventions of storytelling. At no point does Spark as author enter the narrative however, remaining omniscient throughout and adhering to the conventions of third-person narration.
According to Patricia Waugh "all fiction is . . . implicitly metafictional," since all works of literature are concerned with language and literature itself. Some elements of metafiction are similar to devices used in metafilm techniques.
Film and television
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- Seinfeld uses this extensively in episodes revolving around the production of a show titled Jerry.
- Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman often uses this narrative technique. In the film Adaptation., his character Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) tortuously attempts to write a screenplay adapted from the book The Orchid Thief, only to come to understand that such an adaptation is impossible. Many plot devices used throughout the film are uttered by Kaufman as he develops a screenplay, and the screenplay, which eventually results in Adaptation itself. In Kaufman's film Synecdoche, New York, stage director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) endeavors to create a vast theatrical project about the world around him, with actors playing himself and everyone in his life. Thus the film Synecdoche, New York, a portrayal of the narrative of Caden's life, tells the story of a portrayal of the narrative of Caden's life.
- Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is a 2006 British comedy directed by Michael Winterbottom. It is a film-within-a-film based on a book-within-a-book, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It features actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing themselves as egotistical actors during the making of a screen adaptation of Laurence Sterne's 18th century novel Tristram Shandy, which is a fictional account of the narrator's attempt at writing an autobiography. Gillian Anderson and Keeley Hawes also play themselves in addition to their Tristram Shandy roles.
- Some episodes of the Star Trek series use the holodeck (or its Ferengi equivalent, a "holosuite") to tell a "story-within-a-story". The Deep Space Nine episode "Far Beyond the Stars" tells a similar story without such a high-tech plot device, as basically a work of metafiction, using the DS9 regular characters to tell a mid-20th century story, set in a science fiction publishing house in New York City. Similarly, the regular cast of Northern Exposure play other characters in two episodes set during the early days of the village of Cicely, the series's setting.
- A film in which a character reads a fictional story; e.g. The Princess Bride, Disney Channel's Life is Ruff, Bedtime Stories.
- A film or television show in which a character hums, whistles, or hears (on a radio, etc.) the show or film's theme song; e.g. the final scene of "Homer's Triple Bypass", from The Simpsons; when Sam Carter hums the theme from Stargate SG-1 during the episode "Chimera"; the second Collector from Demon Knight; when Bulma hums "Romantikku Ageru Yo", the closing theme of Dragon Ball, in the shower during the episode '"Midnight Callers"; when Mr. Incredible whistles theme music from The Incredibles; when all the characters in the film Magnolia begin to sing the background music - "Wise Up" by Aimee Mann; in Almost Famous, when one character begins to sing the background music - "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John - and all of the other characters around him immediately pick it up and sing along as well; the moments when Sam Lowry of Brazil hums/listens to/sings the film's self-titled theme song; when Daryl Van Horne whistles theme music from The Witches of Eastwick; in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone when Rubeus Hagrid is briefly heard playing the main theme on a recorder; when Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson (as B.A. Baracus) hums the A-Team theme in the trailer for the A-Team movie (2010); the only music in Urusei Yatsura is the theme song.
- Directly referencing another work that internally references the first work; e.g. "Weird Al" Yankovic, whose songs sometimes reference The Simpsons, has appeared on The Simpsons.
- Characters who do things because those actions are what they would expect from characters in a story; e.g. Scream, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Last Unicorn, The Long Goodbye.
- Characters who express awareness that they are in a work of fiction; e.g. Stranger Than Fiction, The Great Good Thing, Puckoon, Spaceballs, the Marvel Comics character Deadpool, Illuminatus!, Uso Justo, 1/0. Bob and George, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the character Guy Fleegman in Galaxy Quest, who asks incredulously, about the dangers facing minor characters in the TV series come-to-life within the movie, "Didn't you guys ever watch the show?"
- Characters in a film or a television series who mention and/or refer to the actors or actresses that portray themselves; e.g. Beatrice "Betty" Pengson from I Love Betty La Fea; Bea Alonzo, who played the role of the protagonist, also played herself as an Ecomoda model; coincidentally in the show, Betty wants to meet Bea Alonzo in person, an act of self-reference. In Ocean's Twelve, Tess, played by Julia Roberts, disguises herself to look like Julia Roberts. The other characters ironically recognize that she is in disguise. In Last Action Hero, the title character of the inner movie Jack Slater IV comes to the 'real' world and tells his portrayer, Arnold Schwarzenegger, "You've brought me nothing but pain." In His Girl Friday, the character Bruce Baldwin, played by Ralph Bellamy, is described as "[looking] like that actor, Ralph Bellamy." Additionally, Cary Grant's character, Walter Burns, responds to a comment with "the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat." Archibald "Archie" Leach is Cary Grant's given name.
- A real pre-existing piece of fiction X, being used within a new piece of fiction Y, to lend an air of authenticity to fiction Y, e.g. A Nightmare on Elm Street is discussed extensively in Wes Craven's New Nightmare, while actors from the former star as "themselves" or Scream 3 and Scream 4, where characters discuss and know of films that are about the previous films' events; likewise are The 1001 Nights put to use within If on a winter's night a traveler.
- A story where the author is not a character, but interacts with the characters; e.g. She-Hulk, Animal Man, Betty Boop, Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck, Breakfast of Champions, Excel Saga television shows.
- A story where the narrator is a character in the story, and interacts with himself as a different character; e.g. The Emperor's New Groove.
- A story within which that story (or a story based on it) is a work of fiction; e.g. Stargate SG-1's "Wormhole X-Treme!" or Supernatural's Supernatural novels.
- Acknowledging the tropes of the Horror genre; e.g. Funny Games.
- The acclaimed TV sitcom Arrested Development is widely recognised as a seminal work of televised metafiction; it not only is framed like a reality television show (when in fact it is anything but), but also is highly self-reflexive and intertextual. Examples of this include allusions to the series's own struggle for ratings, its competition with Sex and the City and the reduction of the second season from 22 to 18 episodes.
- The TV sitcom Community uses metafictional elements to use and subvert standard television and film tropes and genres. Episodes like "Cooperative Calligraphy" and "Paradigms of Human Memory" draw attention to the bottle episode and clip show standard episodes of sitcoms, respectively. Thematic references and meta indicators are often provided by Abed Nadir, who sees the world through a lens of television, movies, and other media.
- "Clark: A gonzomentary" (2012), an independent gonzo mockumentary uses metafictional techniques.
- The Cabin in the Woods (2012), a horror movie written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, was critically lauded for its metafictional elements.
- Rubber (2010) includes an audience with binoculars who watch the movie as a live performance. The sheriff character knows he is in a movie, and there is a monologue in the beginning about how many elements in movies are for no reason and that their film will be a tribute to this. There is a subplot about the sheriff working with the audience's host to poison and kill them, and when he thinks the audience is dead, he tries to convince the other characters in the movie that nothing is real and they can stop now.
Use in popular culture
Other examples of the use of metafiction in popular culture:
- "These Words", a song by Natasha Bedingfield ("These words are my own, From my heart flow.").
- "Best Song Ever", a song by One Direction ("And we danced all night to the best song ever.").
- "You're So Vain", a song by Carly Simon ("You're so vain, I bet you think this song is about you.").
- "Your Song", a song by Elton John ("My gift is my song and this one's for you. And you can tell everybody this is your song.").
- "An Elpee's Worth of Toons", a song By Todd Rundgren
- "The Worst Band in the World", a song by 10cc
- "Someone Else's Song", a song by Wilco ("I know it sounds like someone else's song from along time ago.").
- "Cosmic", a song by Kylie Minogue starts with the line "I wanted to write a song called 'Cosmic'"
- The Bard's Tale (2004 video game), an action role-playing game by InXile Entertainment which satirizes the narrative conventions of role-playing video games and frequently breaks the fourth wall by addressing the narrator directly.
- "The Monster at The End of This Book", Episode 18, Season 4 of the television series Supernatural (U.S. TV series). (An entire episode dedicated to Metafiction).
- "Glass Onion" by The Beatles. A song from their 1968 self-titled album The Beatles known colloquially as "The White Album", which alludes to previous works by the band.
- The song "Escape From Tralfamadore" by "Optimen and the Sterries".
- Engler, Burnd (17 December 2004). "Metafiction". The Literary Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2010-04-27.
- Waugh, Patricia (1988). Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction. New York: Routledge. p. 148. ISBN 0-415-03006-4.
- Townley, Roderick, The Great Good Thing
- Heginbotham, Thomas "The Art of Artifice: Barth, Barthelme and the metafictional tradition" (2009) PDF
- Hutcheon, Linda, Narcissistic Narrative. The Metafictional Paradox, Routledge 1984, ISBN 0-415-06567-4
- Levinson, Julie, “Adaptation, Metafiction, Self-Creation,” Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture. Spring 2007, vol. 40: 1.