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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.
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 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. 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, 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". Unlike the antinovel, or anti-fiction, metafiction is specifically fiction about fiction, i.e. fiction which deliberately reflects upon itself.
Common metafictive devices in literature include:
- A story about a writer who creates a story
- A story that features itself (as a narrative or as a physical object) as its own prop or MacGuffin
- A story containing another work of fiction within itself
- A story addressing the specific conventions of story, such as title, character conventions, paragraphing or plots
- A novel where the narrator intentionally exposes him or herself as the author of the story
- A book in which the book itself seeks interaction with the reader
- A story in which the readers of the story itself force the author to change the story
- Narrative footnotes, which continue the story while commenting on it
- 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.
This can be related in O'Brien's book, The Things They Carried, in the section entitled "How to Tell a True War Story".
- Engler, Burnd (17 December 2004). "Metafiction". The Literary Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2010-04-27.
- 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)