Metafiction is a literary term for a type of fiction that systematically and self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, including the relationship between fiction and reality and the uses of irony and self-reflection.

Metafiction is primarily associated with Modernist and Postmodernist literature, but is found at least as early as the 9th century One Thousand and One Nights, Cervantes' Don Quixote and Chaucer's 14th century Canterbury Tales.

In the 1950s, several French novelists published works whose styles were collectively dubbed "nouveau roman." These "new novels" were characterized by their bending of genre and style and often included elements of metafiction. It became prominent in the 1960s, with authors and works such as John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, Robert Coover's The Babysitter and The Magic Poker, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, and William H. Gass's Willie Master's Lonesome Wife.

Various devices of metafiction

Some common metafictive devices include:

Contemporary author Paul Auster has made metafiction the central focus of his writing and is probably the best known active novelist specialising in the genre.

Metafiction may figure for only a moment in a story, as when "Roger" makes a brief appearance in Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber, or it may be central to the work, as in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

As a literary device, metafiction is frequent feature of post-modernist literature. Examples such as If On a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, "a novel about a person reading a novel" as above, can be seen as exercises in metafiction.

It can be used in multiple ways within one work. For example, novelist Tim O'Brien, a Vietnam War veteran, writes in his short story collection The Things They Carried about a character named "Tim O'Brien" and his war experiences in Vietnam. Tim O'Brien, as the narrator, comments on the fictionality of some of the war stories, commenting on the "truth" behind the story, though all of it is fiction. Likewise, in the story chapter How to Tell a True War Story, O'Brien comments on the difficulty of capturing the truth while telling a war story. According to Paul de Man all fiction is metafictional, since all works of literature are concerned with language and literature itself. Some elements of metafiction are similar to devices used in metafilm techniques.


Charlie Kaufman is a screenwriter who often uses this narrative technique. In the film Adaptation, his character Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) tortuously attempts to write a screenplay adapted from the book The Orchid Thief, only to come to understand that such an adaptation is impossible. Many plot devices used throughout the film are uttered by Kaufman as he develops a screenplay, and the screenplay, which eventually results in Adaptation itself.

See also


  • Hutcheon, Linda, Narcissistic Narrative. The Metafictional Paradox, Routledge 1984, ISBN 0-415-06567-4
  • Waugh, Patricia, Metafiction. The Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction, Routledge 1988, ISBN 0-415-03006-4

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