Metafiction

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Metafiction [met-uh-fik-shuhn], also known as Romantic irony in the context of Romantic works of literature, is a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion. Metafiction uses techniques to draw attention to itself as a work of art, while exposing the ‘truth’ of a story.

It 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 theater’ 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 and Postmodernist literature, but is found at least as early as Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ and Chaucer’s 14th century ‘Canterbury Tales.’ Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’ is a metafictional novel published in the 17th century, 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 (experimental fiction that avoids the familiar conventions of the novel), metafiction is specifically fiction about fiction, i.e. fiction which self-consciously reflects upon itself.

Some common metafictive devices in literature include: a story about a writer creating a story (e.g. ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ by James Joyce); a story about a reader reading a book (e.g. ‘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; a story containing another work of fiction within itself (e.g. ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ by Thomas Pynchon); a story addressing the specific conventions of story, such as title, character conventions, paragraphing or plots (e.g. 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 Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera); 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 (e.g. ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace); a story in which the characters are aware that they are in a story; and an autobiographical fiction in which the main character, by the last parts of the book, has written the first parts and is reading some form of it to an audience.

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,’ in which the narrator talks about the literary devices used in the book. 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. Contemporary author Paul Auster has made metafiction the central focus of his writing and is probably the best known active novelist specializing 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, discussing 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 describes the difficulty of capturing the truth while telling a war story.

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. Charlie Kaufman is a screenwriter who 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. A similar device is used in Kaufman’s film ‘Synecdoche, New York.’ In the film, 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. (synecdoche refers to when a part of something represents the whole, or vice versa.)

‘Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story’ is a 2006 British comedy directed by Michael Winterbottom 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 in 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.

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