Meta-Fiction Revisited

Julie Proudfoot posted an interesting list of metafiction by female authors on her weblog Proud Foot Words. Rather than just reblog I decided to repost the list and add some additional commentary concerning Meta-Fiction.

First, Julie indicates that Wikipedia defines Metafiction as a form of fiction in which the text—either directly or through the characters within—is ‘aware’ that it is a form of fiction. There’s an interesting problem even in this definition since it implies that the fictional characters are somehow separate from the text of the fiction. Does this make the definition itself meta? If you really want to expand on this theme, I recommend you read almost anything by Raymond Federman but specifically Take It or Leave It (Julie recommends Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, which of course is one of the classics of metafiction).


Perhaps a more comprehensive definition from Wikipedia is:

Metafiction is a literary device used to self-consciously and systematically 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.

According to Wikipedia the devices used to turn fiction into meta-fiction 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.

Meta-Fiction is mostly identified with postmodernism but don’t make the mistake and confuse the two. Many postmodern (or even a few modern) works have an element of meta in the fiction: the theme of being aware of the fiction is definitely in common. But just because a stuffy old 19th century didactic romance references “Dear Reader” or steps across the fictional barrier to toss in some authorial commentary, doesn’t make the work a meta-fiction and definitely doesn’t qualify it as early postmodernism.

Tristram Shandy

Unless it’s Tristram Shandy.

Look over Julie Proudfoot’s excellent list and see if you remember why those titles you have already read are examples of meta-fiction and also make note of the titles you definitely want to read as soon as you can. Also, do you see any titles that, to be argumentative, might not qualify as metafiction?

  • Debra Adelaide (Australia) The Women’s pages (2015)
  • Thea Astley (Australia), Drylands (1999)
  • Jane Austen (U.K.), Northanger Abbey (1817)
  • Margaret Atwood (Canadian), The Handmaid’s Tale (1985); The Blind Assassin (2000)
  • Christine Brooke-Rose (U.K.), Between (1968)
  • Geraldine Brooks (Australian) People of the Book (2007)
  • Brigid Brophy (U.K.) Flesh (1962) In Transit (1969)
  • Annie Barrows (U.S.) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008)
  • A. S. Byatt, Possession: A Romance. (U.K., 1990); The Game (1967)
  • Lauren Child (U.K.) Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book (Children’s) (2005)
  • Susanna Clarke (U.K.), Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004)
  • Katie Cleminson, Otto the Book Bear (Children’s) (2011)
  • Lydia Davis (U.S) The End of the Story (1995)
  • Joan Didion (U.S), Democracy (1984)
  • Margaret Drabble, The Waterfall (U.K. 1969)
  • George Eliot, Adam bede (U.K. 1859)
  • Jennifer Egan (U.S) The Keep (2006)
  • Valerie Frankel (U.S.), Henry Potty Series (Childrens) (2005-2008)
  • Deborah Freedman, The Story of Fish and Snail (2013); By Mouse and Frog (2015) (Children’s)
  • Cornelia Funke, Inkheart trilogy (Y.A. (German, 2003-2007)
  • Nadine Gordimer, July’s People (Sth African, 1981)
  • Elizabeth Jolley, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance (Australian, 1983)
  • Jesse Klausmeier (U.S.) Open This Little Book (Children’s) (2013)
  • Elizabeth Kostova (U.S.) The Historian (2005)
  • Nicole Krauss (U.S.) The History of Love (2005)
  • Dinah Lee Kung, A Visit from Voltaire ( U.S. 2004)
  • Ursula K. Le Guin (U.S.), Lavinia (2008)
  • Doris Lessing (U.K.), The Golden Notebook (1962); The Four-Gated City (1969); Briefing for a Decent Into Hell (1972); The memoirs of a Survivor (1974)
  • Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger (U.K., 1987)
  • Ki Longfellow, Houdini Heart (U.S., 2011)
  • Lois Lowry (U.S), The Willoughbys (2008)
  • Valeria Luiselli (Mexico) Faces In The Crowd; The Weightless Ones (2011)
  • Melina Marchetta, Jellicoe Road. (Y.A.) (Australian, 2006)
  • Carole Maso, The Art Lover
  • Toni Morrison (U.S.), Jazz
  • Iris Murdoch (U.K.), Under the Net (1954; A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970); The Black prince (1973); A Word Child (1975)
  • Amelie Northomb (Belgian), Hygiene and the Assassin (1991)
  • Helen Oyeyemi (U.K.) Mr. Fox (2011)
  • Ruth Ozeki (U.S.) A Tale for the Time Being (2013)
  • Grace Paley (U.S.), A Conversation with my Father (1994)
  • Linda Sue Park (U.S.) Project Mulberry (children’s) (2005)
  • Carolyn Parkhurst, The Nobodies Album (U.S. 2010)
  • Marisha Pessl (U.S.) Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006)
  • Marge Piercy (U.S.) Woman on the Edge of Time (1976); Braided Lives (1982)
  • Ann Quin (U.K.), Passages (1969)
  • Alice Randall, The Wind Done Gone ( U.S. 2001)
  • Francesca Rendle-Short, Bite Your Tongue (Australian, 2011)
  • Penny Russin, Only Ever Always (YA) (Australian, 2011)
  • Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (U.K., 1966)
  • Rainbow Rowell (U.S.) Fangirl (2013)
  • Nathalie Sarraute (French) The Golden Fruits (1965); Between Life and Death (1968).
  • Dianne Setterfield (U.K.), The Thirteenth Tale (2006)
  • Mary Ann Shaffer (U.S.) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008)
  • Elena Mauli Shapiro (U.S.) 13 rue Thérèse (2011)
  • Muriel Spark, The Comforters (1957); Memento Mori (1959); The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1975);The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie ( 1961); The Girls of Slender means (1963); The Public Image (1968); The Driver’s Seat (1970); Not to Disturb (1971); The Hothouse by the East River (1973); The Abbes of Crewe (1974); Loitering With Intent (Scott, 1981)
  • Kathryn Stockett, The Help. (U.S., 2009)
  • Janet Tashjian, The Gospel According to Larry and Vote for Larry (YA) (U.S., 2001, 2004)
  • Aritha Van Herk, Restlessness (Canadian, 1998)
  • Margaret Wander Bonanno, Strangers from the Sky (U.S. 1987 – A Star Wars story)
  • Mélanie Watt (Canada), Chester (Children’s)(2010)
  • Fay Weldon, (U.K.) Praxis (1979)
  • Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry (1989), The Powerbook (2000) Gut Symmetries (1997) (U.K.)
  • Christa Wolf, No Place on Earth (German, 1982)
  • Virginia Woolf (U.K.) Mrs. Dalloway (1925); Orlando: A Biography (1928); To The Lighthouse (1927); The Waves (1931)
  • Diana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock (U.K., 1985)
Fight Club

Like the unreliable narrator, many kinds of meta-fiction are beginning to grow long beards of been-there-done-that. Once the darlings of literature, both of these techniques can be a red flag suggesting boring and derivative writing. You found an old manuscript in a Mason jar someone left on your back porch? It might be an important and exciting manuscript but prefacing the fiction with such a tired old saw might tend to have me skipping to another book that seems more original, imaginative and fresh.

The film version of Tristram Shandy, referenced as a cock and bull story, adds even more layers of fiction since it is a film about making the film of a decidedly meta novel titled The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Definitely read Tristram Shandy and see the very insider-funny movie but also read authors as suggested by Julie Proudfoot. My favorite meta-fiction is still that which was written by the late Raymond Federman: you know, the one where a few of the characters take a day trip to the beach since they don’t appear in the next two chapters.

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