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
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:
- A work of fiction within a fiction (e.g. Hamlet, "The Laughing Man", The Crying of Lot 49, the play "The King in Yellow"'s existence as a work of fiction referenced in the real-world short story collection named The King in Yellow)
- A novel about a writer creating a story (e.g. Secret Window, Secret Garden, At Swim-Two-Birds, Atonement, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Counterfeiters, The World According to Garp, Barton Fink, Adaptation, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man).
- A novel about a reader reading a novel (e.g. Neverending Story, If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, the computer game "Myst" in which the player represents a person who has found a book named Myst and been transported inside it).
- A novel within the novel (e.g. Sophie's World, The Princess Bride).
- A story addressing the specific conventions of story, such as title, paragraphing or plots. (e.g. Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth)
- A novel in which the book itself seeks interaction with the reader and asks the reader to stroke the pages of the book to see the book itself as a "living entity" (e.g., House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski or Reflections in a Prism by David Lempert).
- A non-linear novel, which can be read in any order other than from beginning to end (e.g. The Unfortunates by B. S. Johnson, Rayuela by Julio Cortazar, Finnegans Wake by James Joyce).
- Narrative footnotes, which continue the story while commenting on it (e.g. Pale Fire, House of Leaves, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace) and Cable & Deadpool by Fabian Nicieza.
- A novel wherein the author (not merely the narrator) is a character (e.g.The Dark Tower, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Life of Pi, Everything Is Illuminated, The People of Paper, Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse Five, Time and Again, Song of Susannah, Lanark, JPod, The Monkey Wrench Gang, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues)
- A movie in which a character reads a fictional story (e.g. The Princess Bride, Donnie Darko, Disney Channel's Life is Ruff)
- A movie or television show in which a character begins humming, whistling, or listening to (on a radio, etc), the show or movie's theme song (e.g. the final scene of "Homer's Triple Bypass", from The Simpsons, or when Sam Carter hums the theme from Stargate SG-1 during the episode "Chimera", or the second Collector from Demon Knight or when Mr. Incredible whistles theme music from The Incredibles).
- A parallel novel which has the same setting and time period as a previous work, and many of the same characters, but is told from a different perspective (e.g. The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, Wicked (novel) by Gregory Maguire, The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys,Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard, Grendel by John Gardner, Foe by J.M. Coetzee, Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card).
- A work of fiction directly referencing another work that internally references the first work. (e.g. Weird Al Yankovic appearing on The Simpsons, when he himself sings songs that reference The Simpsons.)
- A story that anticipates the reader's reaction to the story.
- Merging characters or elements from diverse works of fiction into a new fictional scenario (e.g. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).
- Characters who do things because those actions are what they would expect from characters in a story. (e.g. Scream, Who Framed Roger Rabbit , The Last Unicorn).
- Characters who express awareness that they are in a work of fiction (e.g. Stranger than Fiction, " The Great Good Thing", Puckoon, Spaceballs: the Movie, Deadpool, Illuminatus!, Uso Justo, 1/0. "Bob and George")
- A real pre-existing piece of fiction X, being used within a new piece of fiction Y, to lend an air of verisimilitude to fiction Y, e.g. A Nightmare on Elm Street is referenced extensively in Wes Craven's New Nightmare, while actors from the former star as "themselves".
- A story where the author is not a character, but interacts with the characters. (e.g. She-Hulk, Animal Man, Betty Boop, Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck, Breakfast of Champions)
- A dialogue between two characters who interact within the dialogue with the author himself, who enters the dialogue he is writing as a character created by him. (Gödel, Escher, Bach)
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.
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
- 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