Metafiction

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For the album by Vic Mignogna, see Metafiction (album).

Metafiction is a literary device used self-consciously and systematically to draw attention to a work's status as an artifact. It poses 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 forces readers to be aware that they are reading a fictional work.

History[edit]

Metafiction is primarily associated with Modernist literature and Postmodernist literature, but is found at least as early as Homer's Odyssey, Chaucer's 14th century Canterbury Tales, and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1756). Cervantes' Don Quixote, published in the 17th century, is a metafictional novel[citation needed] and so is James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner published in 1824. Russian author Nikolai Gogol implements a limited, self-referencing narrator in his novel, Dead Souls published in 1842. The novels of Brian O'Nolan, written under the nom de plume Flann O'Brien, are considered to be examples of metafiction[citation needed]. 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[citation needed]. 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, John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, 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"[citation needed]. Unlike the antinovel, or anti-fiction, metafiction is specifically fiction about fiction, i.e. fiction which deliberately reflects upon itself.[1]

Devices[edit]

Common metafictive devices in literature include:

  • A story about a writer who creates a story; for example, John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor, a thoroughly fictional account of the life of real person Ebenezer Cooke, a Maryland colonist who in 1708 wrote the real satirical poem The Sotweed Factor. Barth's Cooke is a naive innocent who sets out to write a heroic epic, becomes disillusioned and ends up writing a biting satire.
  • A story that features itself as a narrative or as a physical object; a notable example is Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, which is ostensibly a 999-line poem of the same name, but with a foreword, index and extensive commentary in footnotes, from which so much detail is revealed of the lives of both poet and editor that a plot gradually emerges.
  • A story containing another work of fiction within itself; e.g. Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
  • Narrative footnotes, which continue the story while commenting on it; e.g. House of Leaves
  • A story that reframes or suggests a radically different reading of another story; for example, Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, which retells the story of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre from the point of view of the madwoman in the attic; or J. M. Coetzee's Foe, which recounts a battle of wills between Daniel Defoe and a castaway survivor over the writing of the story that would be eventually become Robinson Crusoe.
  • A story addressing the specific conventions of story, such as title, character conventions, paragraphing or plots; e.g. The Secret Series
  • A novel where the narrator intentionally exposes him or herself as the author of the story; e.g. Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, in which the first-person narrator—presumably Vonnegut himself, since he even shares Vonnegut's birthday—regularly reminds the reader that the characters in the novel are fictions of his own creation:
    "I do not know who invented body bags. I do know who invented Kilgore Trout. I did.
    I made him snaggle-toothed. I gave him hair, but I turned it white. I wouldn't let him comb it or go to a barber. I made him grow it long and tangled.
    I gave him the same legs the Creator of the Universe gave to my father when my father was a pitiful old man. They were pale white broomsticks. They were hairless. They were embossed fantastically with varicose veins.
    And, two months after Trout received his first fan letter, I had him find in his mailbox an invitation to be a speaker at an arts festival in the American Middle West."
  • A story in which the authors refers to elements of the story as both fact and fiction; for example, in Joseph Conrad's Author's Preface to Nostromo, most of which provides a factual account of how he came to write the novel, Conrad states "My principal authority for the history of Costaguana is, of course, my venerated friend, the late Don Jose Avellanos, minister to the courts of England and Spain, etc., etc., in his impartial and eloquent 'History of Fifty Years of Misrule.'" Thus Conrad, in a putatively factual context, attributes his intimate knowledge of the fictional country in which his story is set, to a fictional book written by one of his book's characters.
  • A book in which the book itself seeks interaction with the reader, such as Art Spiegelman's picture book Open me, I'm a dog!
  • A story in which the readers of the story itself force the author to change the story
  • A story in which the characters are aware that they are in a story
  • A story in which the characters make reference to the author or his previous work

These elements of metafiction are similar to devices used in metacinematic techniques.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Engler, Burnd (17 December 2004). "Metafiction". The Literary Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2010-04-27. 

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.
  • O'Brien, Tim "The Things They Carry" (1990)