The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Metafiction: Self-reflexive fiction that examines the nature and status of fiction itself and often seeks to test fiction as a form. (As a word, metafiction means something like “fiction about fiction.”) The term, coined by American writer and critic William H. Gass in “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction” (1970), was popularized by American literary critic Robert Scholes, who characterized it in his essay “Metafiction” (1970) as “assimilat[ing] all the perspectives of criticism into the fictional process itself” and “tend[ing] toward brevity because it attempts, among other things, to assault or transcend the laws of fiction.” Subsequent critics have tended either to emphasize self-awareness as key to metafiction or to characterize it in connection with literary criticism. For instance, in Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (1984), theorist Patricia Waugh described metafiction as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality”; Mark Currie, by contrast, described it in Metafiction (1995) as “writing which places itself on the border between fiction and criticism, and which takes that border as its subject.”

Most metafictions cannot be easily classified as realism or romance and in fact flout the rules and conventions of these genres. Common techniques include writing about someone who is writing or reading a story, making the author a character in the narrative, making characters aware of their status as such, incorporating another piece of writing within the narrative, and directly addressing the reader. Metafiction is heavily associated with — but not limited to — postmodernist works.

EXAMPLES: Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (part 1, 1605; part 2, 1615); Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (9 vols.; 1759—67); John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse (1968); John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969); Yasutaka Tsutsui’s Samba of Escape and Pursuit (1971); Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose) (1980); and Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995). Fowles’s Mantissa (1982) is a metafictional parody of metafiction.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop” (1852), in which a witch transforms a scarecrow into a man, contains the metafictional commentary: “Shall I confess the truth? At its present point of vivification, the scarecrow reminds me of some of the lukewarm and abortive characters, composed of heterogeneous materials, used for the thousandth time, and never worth using, with which romance writers (and myself, no doubt, among the rest) have so overpeopled the world of fiction.” Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire (1962) consists of a 999-line poem written by a fictional poet, John Francis Shade, and a 200-page commentary written by his equally fictional friend Charles Kinbote, who advises the reader in a foreword to consult his commentary and index first since “without my notes Shade’s text simply has no human reality at all.” Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles (1994—95) contains a chapter titled “No Good News in This Chapter.” Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) features characters who are writing books of their own.