Metafiction: the Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction

A definition from Monika Fludernik, An Introduction to Narratology(2009) p.156

Metafiction(al) :

A narrative strategy or a comment on the part of the narrator is metafictional if it explicitly or implicitly draws attention to the fictionality (fictitiousness or arbitrariness) of the story and the narrative discourse. *Frames and embedded stories (*mise-en-abyme) are implicit metafictional strategies; comments by the narrator to the effect that s/he could have written the story differently are explicitly metafictional. The term ‘metafiction’ is sometimes used to refer to particularly metafictional postmodern texts, for example those known as surfiction, where the main protagonist is an author and reports on the difficulties he has with composing the story we are reading.

In other words, any kind of reference in a story to the fact that the story is a construction is a metafictional strategy. So Gwyna drawing attention to the fact that we are reading her version of Arthur which is the truth makes us aware that there is another version of the story we are about to read. This makes us question how much we can really trust  any version of Arthurian legend. Metafictional strategies also include comments about different ways of telling a story. Gwyna comments that she can’t tell us stories about the women so will tell us about Peredur instead. This is metafictional and draws attention to the role of stories in the oppression of women. Similarly, in Dying to Know You, the narrator says ‘I won’t describe my performance at the reception and performance at the conference. It has nothing to do with Karl’ (p160). He draws attention to the fact that he could tell us things but he wants his story to be about Karl so consciously selects information to include and rejects other bits, He also gives us both versions of Karl’s words: what Karl says or writes, and how he rewrites it for Fiorella. This makes us aware that words are powerful in how we shape our perceptions of people and how we can use them to influence opinion, and how words even shape our own self-image. It creates critical readers!

Waugh, Patricia, Metafiction: the Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, London: Methuen 1984.


‘Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. In providing a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text’ (Waugh 2).
‘The present increased awareness of ‘meta’ levels of discourse and experience is partly a consequence of an increased social and cultural self-consciousness. Beyond this, however, it also reflects a greater awareness within contemporary culture of the function of language in constructing and maintaining our sense of everyday ‘reality’. The simple notion that language passively reflects a coherent, meaningful and ‘objective’ world is no longer tenable. Language is an independent, self-contained system which generates its own ‘meanings’. Its relationship to the phenomenal world is highly complex, problematic and regulated by convention. ‘Meta’ terms, therefore, are required in order to explore the relationship between this arbitrary linguistic system and the world to which it apparently refers. In fiction they are required in order to explore the relationship between the world of the fiction and the world outside the fiction’ (Waugh 3).
Metafiction is a tendency or function inherent in all novels (Waugh 5)

‘The novel assimilates a variety of discourses, (representations of speech, forms of narrative) — discourses that always to some extent question and relativize each other’s authority. Realism, often regarded as the classic fictional mode, paradoxically functions by suppressing this dialogue. The conflict of languages and voices is apparently resolved in realistic fiction through their subordination to the dominant ‘voice’ of the omniscient, godlike author. Novels which Bakhtin refers to as ‘dialogic’ resist such resolution. Metafiction displays and rejoices in the impossibility of such a resolution and thus clearly reveals the basic identity of the novel as genre’ (Waugh 6).
‘Metafictional novels tend to be constructed on the principle of a fundamental and sustained opposition: the construction of a fictional illusion (as in traditional realism) and the laying bare of that illusion. In other words, the lowest common denominator of metafiction is simultaneously to create a fiction and to make a statement about the creation of that fiction. The two processes are held together in a formal tension which breaks down the distinctions between ‘creation’ and ‘criticism’ and merges them into the concepts of ‘interpretation’ and ‘deconstruction’’ (Waugh 6).Although this oppositional process is to some extent present in all fiction, and particularly likely to emerge during ‘crisis’ periods in the literary history of the genre (see Chapter 3), its prominence in the contemporary novel is unique. The historical period we are living through has been singularly uncertain, insecure, self-questioning and culturally pluralistic. Contemporary fiction clearly reflects this dissatisfaction with, and breakdown of, traditional values. Previously, as in the case of nineteenth-century realism, the forms of fiction derived from a firm belief in a commonly experienced, objectively existing world of history. Modernist fiction, written in the earlier part of. this century, responded to the initial loss of belief in such a world. Novels like Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (1927) or James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) signalled the first widespread, overt emergence in the novel of a sense of fictitiousness: ‘a sense that any attempt to represent reality could only produce selective perspectives, fictions, that is, in an epistemological, not merely in the conventional literary, sense’ (Pfeifer 1918, p.6?)’  (Waugh 6-7).’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 eternal verities but a series of constructions, artifices, impermanent structures. The materialist, positivist and empiricist world-view on which realistic fiction is premised no longer exists. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that more and more novelists have come to question and reject the forms that correspond to this ordered reality (the well-made plot, chronological sequence, the authoritative omniscient author, the rational connection between what characters ‘do’ and what they ‘are’, the causal connection between ‘surface’ details and the ‘deep’, ‘scientific laws’ of existence)’ (Waugh 7).

The analysis of frames: metafiction and frame-breaking

‘A frame may be defined as a ‘construction, constitution, build; established order, plan, system. . . underlying support or essential substructure of anything’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Modernism and post-modernism begin with the view that both the historical world and works of art are organized and perceived through such structures or ‘frames’. Both recognize further that the distinction between ‘framed’ and ‘unframed’ cannot in the end be made. Everything is framed, whether in life or in novels. Ortega y Gasset, writing on modernism, pointed out, however, that ‘not many people are capable of adjusting their perceptive apparatus to the pane and the transparency that is the work of art. Instead they look right through it and revel in the human reality with which the work deals’ (Ortega y Gasset :948, p. 31). Contemporary metafiction, in particular, foregrounds ‘framing’ as a problem, examining frame procedures in the construction of the real world and of novels. The first problem it poses, of course, is: what is a ‘frame’? What is the ‘frame’ that separates reality from ‘fiction’? Is it more than the front and back covers of a book, the rising and lowering of a curtain, the title and ‘The End’?’ (Waugh 28). ‘What both Goffman and metafictional novels highlight through the foregrounding and analysis of framing activities is the extent to which we have become aware that neither historical experiences nor literary fictions are unmediated or unprocessed or non-linguistic or, as the modernists would have it, ‘fluid’ or ‘random’. Frames are essential in all fiction. They become more perceptible as one moves from realist to modernist modes and are explicitly laid bare in metafiction’ (Waugh 30). ‘Although the intrusive commentary of nineteenth-century fiction may at times be metalingual (referring to fictional codes themselves), it functions mainly to aid the readerly concretization of the world of the book by forming a bridge between the historical and the fictional worlds. It suggests that the one is merely a continuation of the other, and it is thus not metafictional.’ (Waugh 31-2).

Play, games and metafiction

‘All art is ‘play’ in its creation of other symbolic worlds; ‘fiction is primarily an elaborate way of pretending, and pretending is a fundamental element of play and games’ (Detweiler 1976, p.51). Without necessarily accepting the Freudian notion that art and literature act as compensatory forms of gratification replacing for an adult the lost childhood world of play and escapism, it can be argued not only that literary fiction is a form of play (if a very sophisticated form) but that play is an important and necessary aspect of human society’ (Waugh 34)

Worlds of words: history as an alternative world

‘Metafictional novels allow the reader not only to observe the textual and linguistic construction of literary fiction, but also to enjoy and engage with the world within the fiction. For the duration of the reading at least, this world is as ‘real’ as the everyday world. Such novels reveal the duality of literary- fictional texts: all fiction exists as words on the page which are materially ‘real’, and also exists in consciousness as worlds created through these words: ‘the aesthetic object belongs to the ideal but has its basis in the real’ (Ingarden 1973, p. xxx). The reader is made aware that, in the fiction-reading process, an act of consciousness creates an ‘object’ that did not exist before. However, the reader is further reminded that this act cannot create anything that could exist outside the dialectic of text and consciousness (anything that has what Ingarden calls ‘ontic autonomy’, or demonstrates what Searle refers to as the ‘principle of identification’).In The Literary Work of Art (i7), Ingarden suggests how realist texts are concretized, or produced, by readers. As in all literary fiction, the author projects, through quasi-judgemental statements, the ‘states of affairs’ which form the imaginary world. If the work were a ‘real’ historical or documentary account, the reader would match these with determinate individual states of affairs existing historically. However, in realism, the reader matches them with a general type, based on the particulars of a given historical time but not coincidental with them. Because of the similarity in the processes of constructing historical texts and realistic fictional texts, the practice is open to abuse. It could be argued that in realism one of these potential abuses is the appropriation and reduction of historical particularity for the support of assumptions about a timeless ‘human nature’ or a ‘Plus ça change. . .‘ philosophy.There is a sub-category of metafictional novels which are particularly effective in foregrounding such abuses. In the midst pf their overtly fictional or ‘alternative’ worlds, these novels do present the reader with ‘perfect matches’. They offer not ‘general matches’ (as realism) but historically determinate particulars. Such novels suggest that history itself is a multiplicity of ‘alternative worlds’, as fictional as, but other than, the worlds of novels. They suggest this by Inserting real historical events or personages into an overtly fictional context’ (Waugh 104). ‘Discussing the development of narrative, Scholes and Kellogg have argued that the novel emerged as a resynthesis on the one hand of the ‘empirical’ components of epic (history/mimesis) and on the other hand of its ‘fictional’ components (romance/fable). They go on to argue that the novel is at present breaking down into its original components but reverting to the purely ‘fictional’ (Scholes and Kellogg 1966). David Lodge has suggested that ‘it would be equally possible to move in the opposite direction — towards empirical narrative and away from fiction’ (Lodge, 1977b, p. go). And certainly ‘non-fiction’ novels like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965), the collection in The New Journalism (i7) by Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson, or more recently Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark (1982) remind us that, as one critic has said: ‘the longest lasting and most incestuous of the novel’s many marriages and affairs has been with journalism’ (Raban 1970, p. 71).Novels like E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (i,) and Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977) are both ‘non-fiction’ and metafictional novels, ‘empirical’ and ‘fictional’. Mas’ud Zavarzadeh has, in fact, suggested that both ‘non-fiction’ and the metafictional novel anyway share ‘a radical refusal to neutralize the contingent nature of reality by transforming it into a safe zone of unified meaning’ (Zavarzadeh 1976, p. 41). Non-fiction novels suggest that facts are ultimately fictions, and metafictional novels suggest that fictions are facts. In both cases, history is seen as a provisional construct.Historical writing matches a determinate individual object with a direct representation of a determinate individual object (remaining within Ingarden’s terms). Fictional writing matches an imaginatively constructed fictional object with a general class of possibly real objects. Fiction is thus always incomplete, always to be completed by a reader. Fictional characters, for example, are not epistemologically indeterminate in the way of ‘real’ people (because the words on the page are the people in fiction). As part of an imaginary world they are always ontologically indeterminate, always uncertainly awaiting completion’ (Waugh 105).

Act III: Some characters in search of an author

‘Until this point on our necessarily somewhat arbitrary scale, metafiction maintains a finely balanced tension between awareness of its literary-fictional condition and its desire to create imaginative realities, alternative worlds, in which the reader can still become absorbed. From here on, however, texts slip further and further away from the construction of worlds whose ‘meaning’ is finally dependent on reference to everyday contexts. They slide more and more towards the pure assertion of not only their own linguistic condition but also that of this ‘everyday world’’(Waugh 131).‘A last, desperate strategy before the game is handed over entirely to language is to admit that one is telling a story, creating an alternative world. Such an admission functions, however, merely to assert more emphatically that ‘one’ exists, ‘one’ is the source of this world, ‘one’ is an author. However, once ‘one’ is recognized as itself a construction produced through textual relationships, then worlds, texts and authors are subsumed by language. From this point, the tension breaks down, the balance between the construction of realistic illusion and its deconstruction gives way; the metafictional tension of technique and counter-technique is dissolved, and metafictional elements are superseded by those of surrealism, the grotesque, randomness, cut-ups and fold-ins’ (Waugh 131)..‘For some metafictional novelists, an alternative to rejecting a simplistic concept of mimesis (the belief that verbal constructions can somehow directly imitate non-verbal ones) is to assert the opposite narrative pole of diegesis: ‘telling’ instead of ‘showing’. All metafiction draws attention to the fact that imitation in the novel is not the imitation of existing objects but the fabrication of fictional objects which could exist, but do not. For some writers, however, the text may be a fictional construction, but the author is not. All else may be ontologically insecure and uncertain, but behind the uncertainty is a lone Creative Figure busily inventing and constructing, producing the text from His (sic) position in the Real World. And the text, it is usually asserted, is finally the author’s’ (Waugh 131). ‘While modernism pursued impersonality (‘showing’), such contemporary metafictional texts pursue Personality, the ironic flaunting of the Teller. They reveal, in Genette’s words, that, ‘“montrer”, cc ne peut étre qu’une facon de raconter’ (Genette 1972, p. 187). The appearance of mimesis, of ‘showing’, is produced, however, by constructing an ostensibly autonomous reality through maximum information and minimum narratorial presence. Metafictional novels which hang on to the concept of author as inventor of the text, which aim to show there are only ‘degrés de diegesis’ (‘degrees of telling’; Genette 1972, p. 186), exaggerate authorial presence in relation to story or information. Very often the Real Author steps into the fictional world, crosses the ontological divide. Instead of integrating the ‘fictional’ with the ‘real’ as in traditional omniscient narrative, he or she splits them apart by commenting not on the content of the story but on the act of narration itself, on the construction of the story’ (Waugh 131). Alternatively, novelists may introduce friends or fellow writers into their work.‘Occasionally authors may wish to remind the reader of their powers of invention for fear that readers may assume fictional information to be disguised autobiography.In fact, third-person narrative with overt first-person intrusion allows for metafictional dislocation much more obviously than first-person narratives (whether the intruding ‘I’ is the ‘real’ author or not). In first-person narration the ‘telling’ is realistically motivated because produced by a personalized figure who is given a spatio-temporal dimension within the fictional world. In third-person/first-person intrusion narratives (such as Slaughterhouse-Five and The French Lieutenant’s Woman), an apparently autonomous world is suddenly broken into by a narrator, often ‘The Author’, who comes explicitly from an ontologically differentiated world’ (Waugh 132-3).‘The author attempts desperately to hang on to his or her ‘real’ identity as creator of the text we are reading. What happens, however, when he or she enters it is that his or her own reality is also called into question. The ‘author’ discovers that the language of the text produces him or her as much as he or she produces the language of the text. The reader is made aware that, paradoxically, the ‘author’ is situated in the text at the very point where ‘he’ asserts ‘his’ identity outside it. As Jacques Ehrmann argues, ‘The “author” and the “text” are thus caught in a movement in which they do not remain distinct (the author and the work; one creator of the other) but rather are transposed and become interchangeable, creating and annulling one another’ (Ehrmann 1971, p. 32)’ (Waugh 133). Roland Barthes has made familiar the concept of ‘the death of the author’. It is a paradoxical concept, as metafiction shows’ (Waugh 133). ‘The more the author appears, the less he or she exists. The more the author flaunts his or her presence in the novel, the more noticeable is his or her absence outside it. Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a fictional completion of Barthes’s statement:that the death of the author makes possible the birth of the reader (Barthes 1977b, pp. 142—9). It is suggested that the narrator, the traveller, is an ‘I’ who is possibly the ‘I’ of the author addressing his readers (‘by the very fact of writing “I” the author feels driven to put into this “I” a bit of himself’; If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, p. 15). He is also an ‘I’ who talks to the characters in the novel, and therefore exists at the level of story and at the level of discourse. Finally, as an ‘I’, he becomes part of the reader’s own subjectivity (‘because I am called “I” . . . this alone is reason enough for you to invest a part of yourself in the Stranger “I”‘;p. 15)’ (Waugh 134).’By breaking the conventions that separate authors from implied authors from narrators from implied readers from readers, the novel reminds us (who are ‘we’?) that ‘authors’ do not simply ‘invent’ novels. ‘Authors’ work through linguistic, artistic and cultural conventions. They are themselves ‘invented’ by readers who are ‘authors’ working through linguistic, artistic and cultural conventions, and so on’ (Waugh 134).‘There are an increasing number of metafictional novels which similarly play with the relations between story and discourse. A common strategy is to begin a novel in the first person and then to shift to third-person narration and then back again. The first person, ‘I’, is a member of a grammatical category of words referred to as ‘shifters’ or ‘indexical deictics’ — words that can be defined or situated only in relation to their immediate linguistic context or discourse.’° ‘I’ is always at the same time both a universal category and a specific speaker defined in relation to a specific speech event. In most first- person narratives (Jane Eyre, Great Expectations) the narrating subject is non-problematically at one with the narrated subject (Jane Eyre, woman, recounting her experiences as Jane Eyre, child), both situated in the fictional world created through the speaker’s discourse’ (Waugh 134).’Metafictional novels which shift from the personal form ‘I’ of discourse to the impersonal ‘he’ of story remind the reader that the  narrating ‘I’ is the subject of the discourse, and is a different ‘I’ from the I’ who is the subject of the story. And finally, of course, there is yet another level of subjectivity, for behind the whole discourse is the authorial ‘I’, a subjectivity (as the examples in this section have shown) present only in terms of its real absence’ (Waugh 134-5)


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