Although implicit in many other types of fictional works, self-reflexivity often becomes the dominant subject of postmodern fiction. In 1970, William H. Gass wrote an essay in which he dubbed the novel’s self-reflexive tendency “metafiction” (Waugh 2). Critics of postmodern metafiction claim that it marks the death or exhaustion of the novel as a genre, while advocates argue that it signals the novel’s rebirth. Devotees claim that other genres have undergone the same critical self-reflexivity and that the definition of the novel itself “notoriously defies definition” (Waugh 5). Patricia Waugh further comments that, “contemporary metafictional writing is both a response and a contribution to an even more thoroughgoing sense that reality or history are provisional: no longer a world of external verities but a series of constructions, artifices, impermanent structures” ( 7). Explicit use of metafictional technique, as Waugh describes it, stems from modernist questioning of consciousness and reality. The following terms are often used to describe contemporary metafiction: self-conscious, introspective, introverted, narcissistic or auto-representational (Currie 14). (See Magical Realism, Booker Prize, Nobel Prize)
Attempting to defend twentieth century metafiction, theorists link metafictional technique to older literary works. Some supporters trace self-reflexivity as far back as Miguel Cervantes’ fifteenth century novel, Don Quixote. Hamlet’s references to acting in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Jane Austin’s mention of writing the novel by her narrator in Northanger Abbey (1817) are also often cited as instances in which classic works display metafictional tendencies. Waugh goes so far as to claim that, “by studying metafiction, one is, in effect, studying that which gives the novel its identity” (5). Similarly, Linda Hutcheon says that “in overtly or covertly baring its fictional and linguistic systems, narcissistic narrative transforms the authorial process of shaping, of making, into part of the pleasure and challenge of reading as a co-operative, interpretative experience” (154).
Some critics charge that employing the term “metafiction” to refer to modern works that are radically self-reflexive as well as to works that contain only a few lines of self-reflection actually creates critical imprecision or ambiguity. In her review of Patricia Waugh’s Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction (1984), Ann Jefferson argues that “the trouble is that Waugh cannot have it both ways, and present metafiction both as an inherent characteristic of narrative fiction and as a response to the contemporary social and cultural vision” (574). Other theorists often employ the same double definition of metafiction, which makes it difficult to know whether the definition refers to contemporary metafiction or to all works containing self-reflexivity. John Barth concisely defines metafiction as a “novel that imitates a novel rather than the real world” (qtd. in Currie 161).
Patricia Waugh also provides a comprehensive definition by describing metafiction as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality” (2). Metafictional works, she suggests, are those which “explore a theory of writing fiction through the practice of writing fiction” (2). Mark Currie highlights current metafiction’s self-critical tendency by depicting it as “a borderline discourse, a kind of writing which places itself on the border between fiction and criticism, which takes the border as its subject” (2). Yet, he too encompasses works that are marginally metafictional by proposing that, “to see the dramatized narrator or novelist as metanarrative devices is to interpret a substantial proportion of fiction as meta-fiction”(4). (See Mimicry, Ambivalence and Hybridity)
Despite the differences between their definitions, most theorists agree that metafiction cannot be classified as a genre nor as the definitive mode of postmodern fiction. They suggest that metafiction itself displays “a self-reflexivity prompted by the author’s awareness of the theory underlying the construction of fictional works,” without dividing contemporary metafiction from older works containing similar self-reflective techniques (Waugh 2).
Spectrum of Metafictional Technique
Patricia Waugh identifies three types of contemporary metafiction. John Fowles’ subversion of the role of the ‘omniscient narrator’ in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) exemplifies the first type, which Waugh describes as upsetting a particular convention of the novel. Within the second type, she includes works that present a parody on a specific work or fictional mode. John Fowles’ Mantissa (1982) for example, presents a metafictional parody of metafiction (Ommundesen 1-2). The third type includes works that are less overtly metafictional. Like Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America (1967), these works attempt to create alternative linguistic structures or to merely imply old forms by encouraging the reader to draw on his or her knowledge of traditional literary conventions (Waugh 4). (See Language)
Ommundeson also makes efforts to differentiate between aspects presenting metafiction. She divides metafiction according to its use of three common allegorical plot devices. The first plot allegory is use of a sexual act as a metaphor for creating fiction. She describes the second common metaphor as the use of the detective to serve as a model for the reader’s activity. The third common allegory she cites is the use of game structures to represent codes of fictional systems.
Some contemporary metafiction can also be called surfiction, antifiction, fabulation, neo-baroquefiction, post-modernist fiction, introverted novel, irrealism, or the self-begetting novel (Waugh 13).
Although characteristics of metafiction vary as widely as the spectrum of technique used within them, a pattern of several common traits can be traced. These techniques often appear in combination, but also can appear singularly.
Metafiction often employs intertextual references and allusions by: examining fictional systems; incorporating aspects of both theory and criticism; creating biographies of imaginary writers; presenting and discussing fictional works of an imaginary character.
Authors of metafiction often violate narrative levels by: intruding to comment on writing; involving themselves with fictional characters; directly addressing the reader; openly questioning how narrative assumptions and conventions transform and filter reality, trying to ultimately prove that no singular truths or meanings exist.
Metafiction also uses unconventional and experimental techniques by: rejecting conventional plot; refusing to attempt to become “real life”; subverting conventions to transform reality into a highly suspect concept; flaunting and exaggerating foundations of their instability; displaying reflexivity (the dimension present in all literary texts and also central to all literary analysis, a function which enables the reader to understand the processes by which they read the world as a text).
The Purpose of Metafiction
Proponents believe that the metafictional novel gains significance beyond its fictional realms by outwardly projecting its inner self-reflective tendencies. Ironically, it becomes real by not pretending to be real. Mark Currie posits that metafiction allows its readers a better understanding of the fundamental structures of narrative while providing an accurate model for understanding the contemporary experience of the world as a series of constructed systems (7). In reflecting on the significance of metafiction, he goes so far as to say that it provides an “unlimited vitality: which [while] once thought introspective and self-referential is in fact outward looking” (2). Waugh further states that:
Far from ‘dying’, the novel has reached a mature recognition of its existence as writing, which can only ensure its continued viability in and relevance to a contemporary world which is similarly beginning to gain awareness of precisely how its values and practices are constructed and legitimized. (19)
Linda Hutcheon differentiates the terms “metafiction”and “historiographic metafiction.” She says that “historiographic metafiction, in deliberate contrast to what I call late modernist radical metafiction (American surfiction), attempts to demarginalize the literary through confrontation with the historical, and it does so both thematically and formally” (289). Works are dubbed “historiographic metafictions” because of their conscious self-reflexivity and concern with history. The earliest histories contain fictional elements. They are implicit amalgamations of fact and myth. The composition of the word “history” itself contains the word “story.” Yet, as realism took root, history came to represent objective fact and the novel came to represent subjective fiction.
Modernist and postmodernist questioning challenged the authority of histories by acknowledging that the fact presented is the author’s subjective interpretation. Historiographic metafictions are “novels that are intensely self-reflective but that also both re-introduce historical context into metafiction and problemitize the entire question of historical knowledge” (Hutcheon 285-286). Historiographic metafictions bridge the fissure between historical and fictional works by recombining the two genres. They employ “a questioning stance through their common use of conventions of narrative, of reference, of the inscribing of subjectivity, of their identity as texuality, and even of their implication in ideology” (Hutcheon 286).
Beyond reconnecting history and fiction, Linda Hutcheon remarks that “postmodern fiction suggests that to re-write or to re-present the past in fiction and in history is, in both cases, to open it up to the present, to prevent it from being conclusive and teleological” (209). To accomplish this re-presentation of the past, historiographic metafiction, “plays upon the truth and lies of the historical record. Certain known historical details are deliberately falsified in order to foreground the possible mnemonic failures of recorded history and the constant potential for both deliberate and inadvertent error” (Hutcheon 294).
Through its play upon “known truth” historiographic metafiction questions the absolute “knowability” of the past, specifying the ideological implications of historical representations. In its process of redefining “reality”and “truth,” historiographic metafiction opens a sort of time tunnel which rediscovers the histories of suppressed people such as women or colonized natives. Good examples of metafictional works are Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and The Moor’s Last Sigh, John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, B.S. Johnson’s Traveling People, Raymond Federman’s Double or Nothing, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. (See also Postcolonial Novel)
- Currie, Mark, ed. Metafiction. New York: Longman, 1995.
- Jefferson. Ann. “Patricia Waugh, Metafiction The Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction.” Poetics Today. 7:3 (1986): 574-6.
- Hutcheon, Linda. “”The Pastime of Past Time”: Fiction, History, Historiographic Metafiction.” GENRE XX (Fall-Winter 1987).
- Ommundenson, Wenche. Metafictions?: Reflexivity in Contemporary Texts. Australia: Melbourne UP, 1993.
- Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction. London: Methuen, 1984.
- Barth, John. “The Literature of Exhaustion.” Metafiction. Ed. Mark Currie. New York: Longman, 1995. 161-172.
- Dipple, Elizabeth. “A Novel which is a Machine for Generating Interpretations.” Metafiction. Ed. Mark Currie. New York: Longman, 1995. 221-245.
- Hutcheon, Linda. Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox. London: Methuen, 1980.
- McCaffery, Larry. “The Art of Metafiction.” Metafiction. Ed. Mark Currie. New York: Longman, 1995. 181-193.
- Scholes, Robert. “Metafiction.” Metafiction. Ed. Mark Currie. New York: Longman, 1995. 21-38.
Author: Victoria Orlowski, Spring 1996
Last edited: October 2017