The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Weihsin Gui

Metafiction is often used to describe avant-garde works by American and British writers published from the 1960s up to the early 1990s, and is considered an important component of postmodernist literary style. The term was introduced by American novelist William H. Gass to describe writing “in which the forms of fiction serve as the material upon which further forms can be imposed” (25). Elaborating on Gass's definition, Patricia Waugh glosses metafiction as 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” (2). The increasing presence of metafiction in literature during this period is connected to sociopolitical changes in the U.S. and Britain, such as the civil rights and feminist movements and the introduction of French structuralist and poststructuralist theories of language and signification into the Anglo-American academy (see STRUCTURALISM), as well as the translation into English of works by South American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges's Ficciones (1944, Fictions) and Gabriel García Márquez's Cien años de soledad (1967, One Hundred Years of Solitude). Some features of metafiction include self-reflexiveness about the writing process, anxiety and uncertainty regarding the authenticity of representation, and playfulness and irony in narrative voice, as well as the authorial manipulation of linguistic signs and systems. Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton (1987), John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), William H. Gass's Omensetter's Luck (1966), Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince (1973), and Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire (1962) are important examples of metafictional novels from this period.

However, some of these metafictional features are found in narratives written before the twentieth century, such as Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's Don Quixote (1605, 1615) and Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759—67). This anachronism points to metafiction's analytical usefulness that extends beyond the time period described above. As a critical term, metafiction interrogates the boundaries between literary fiction and scholarly criticism, foregrounds yet circumscribes authorial power, implicates the reader in the production of the text's narrative, and questions the novelistic conventions of linearity and realism that became predominant during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Linda Hutcheon discusses a specific form of historiographic metafiction that combines both descriptive and analytical aspects; novels such as J. M. Coetzee's Foe (1986), Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981), and Graham Swift's Waterland (1983) blend historical realism with metafictional qualities to suggest “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” (110). In African American literary studies, metafiction often marks writers' self-conscious negotiations with the history of colonialism and slavery as well as American and African folklore and cultural myths, evidenced by novels such as Rita Dove's Through the Ivory Gate (1992), Charles Johnson's Middle Passage (1990), and Toni Morrison's Tar Baby (1981). Metafiction is also an important mode of writing in modern Spanish novels, ranging from Cervantes's Don Quixote to Miguel de Unamuno's Niebla (1914, Mist) and Juan Goytisolo's Juan sin Terra (1975, Juan the Landless), with a gradual transformation from narratorial intrusion and the demystification of fictional conventions into a self-referential commentary on the power of the authorial imagination and the art of creating fiction.


1. Gass, W.H. (1970), Fiction and the Figures of Life.

2. Hutcheon, L. (1988), Poetics of Postmodernism.

3. Jablon, M. (1997), Black Metafiction.

4. Marshall, B. (1992), Teaching the Postmodern.

5. McCaffery, L. (1982), Metafictional Muse.

6. Scholes, R. (1979), Fabulation and Metafiction.

7. Spires, R. (1984), Beyond the Metafictional Mode.

8. Waugh, P. (1984), Metafiction.