William H. Gass coined the term “metafiction” in a 1970 essay entitled “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction.” Some of us that are more familiar with the works of Raymond Federman might also call it Surfiction. What is metafiction? It is fiction about fiction.

Some forms of metafiction in use today are so horribly clichéd that the author often is branded as a hack without further analysis. Do we really need another secret diary found in a mayonnaise jar on the back porch at Funk and Wagnalls? Other forms of metafiction are make your eyes cross and your head hurt. Two of my favorites are At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien and Take It or Leave It by Raymond Federman. In At Swim there are several levels of reality that are populated by several layers of characters, sort of a telescoped fiction. In Take It the characters in the novel being written relax in the next room when they’re not in a scene of the fiction and even go AWOL at times when tired of waiting for the author to get to the scenes where they resume their job as fictional characters.

I ran across a rather extensive list of the different flavors of metafiction in Wikipedia. Look carefully; is it complete?

  • A story about a writer creating a story; e.g. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien, Stephen King’s Misery and Secret Window, Secret Garden, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, The Counterfeiters by André Gide, John Irving’s The World According to Garp, Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea by Michael Morpurgo, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, Oracle Night by Paul Auster, More Bears! by Kenn Nesbitt, and Cy Coleman’s 1989 Tony Award best musical, City of Angels.
  • A story about a reader reading a book; e.g. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and 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; e.g. Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart (which also plays a role in the sequels); The Dark Tower by C. S. Lewis; Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin’s The Jamais Vu Papers. Ira Levin’s play Deathtrap is an extreme example.
  • A story containing another work of fiction within itself; e.g. The Laughing Man, The Dark Tower, The Iron Dream, The Crying of Lot 49, Sophie’s World, A Clockwork Orange, Pale Fire, The Princess Bride, Houdini Heart, The Island of the Day Before, Steppenwolf, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Man in the High Castle, Heart of Darkness.
  • A story addressing the specific conventions of story, such as title, character conventions, paragraphing or plots; e.g. Lost in the Funhouse and On with the Story by John Barth, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, or 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 Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Razor’s Edge, Mister B. Gone, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Plague, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, The BFG, O Tempo e o Vento, The Museum of Innocence, Ishmael Reed’s Japanese by Spring, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Samuel R. Delany’s Nova.
  • A book in which the book itself seeks interaction with the reader; e.g. Willie Masters’ Lonely Wife by William H. Gass, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, or Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems.
  • A story in which the readers of the story itself force the author to change the story; e.g. More Bears! by Kenn Nesbitt.
  • Narrative footnotes, which continue the story while commenting on it; e.g. Nabokov’s Pale Fire, House of Leaves, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, Alan Moore’s From Hell, Cable & Deadpool by Fabian Nicieza, An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer, many books by Robert Rankin, and the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett.
  • A story in which the characters are aware that they are in a story; e.g., Redshirts by John Scalzi, the Henry Potty parody series, and various works by Robert Rankin.
  • 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: Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin, Anathem by Neal Stephenson.

I’m sure we can all identify many other works of fiction that meet these criteria. Off the top, I don’t see any Richard Federman listed.

One thought on “Metafiction

  1. If you are looking for a good metafictional experience in the cinema, I recommend viewing the 2006 British comedy, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. This is a film-within-a-film based on a book-within-a-book, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Actors play themselves and also play their characters in Tristram Shandy.

    And speaking of Steve Coogan, another wonderful example is Hamlet 2.


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