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"Metafiction... is when a novel imitates a novel rather than the real world"

-John Barth

Metafiction is a bit tricky to define. In today’s current use, popularized by literary critic Robert Scholes, metafiction usually refers to the presence of a radical self-reflexive nature in post-modern novels or short stories. Depending on how it’s seen, it can be either a great marker of the death of the novel as a literary convention, or a sign of its rebirth. However, this current definition is not perfect for many reasons, one of which is that many literary and artistic works (not just novels and short stories) before the emergence of post-modernism are metafiction. So what exactly makes something metafiction?

Metafiction is fiction that self consciously examines fiction by refering to itself. It rides the borderline between a piece of art and criticism of the very art form it’s trying to be. It’s writing about writing, drawings about drawings, poetry about poetry, movies about movies, plays about plays. Disrupting conventional modes of story telling (such as John Barth breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing his audience) is a tell tale sign. Parodying either specific works or entire fictional modes qualifies as well (Don Quixote comes to mind). Making the readers or audience employ their own knowledge and assumptions about literary or artistic conventions by using them in unusual ways can also be considered metafiction (like the excessive style in the battle at the end of Kill Bill: Volume 1). The importance of metafiction is somewhat paradoxical. Through its self referential nature, it examines fiction, genre, narrative and the entire process of what it means to write something.

Things you might find in a piece of metafiction:

  • The creation and discussion of fictional works by fictitious characters
  • The use of literary criticism or literary theory imbedded in the story
  • Authors intruding to add comments on their writing or to interact with their characters
  • Questions directed directly at the readers
  • A rejection of normative plot structure or genre, or, exaggerated parody of normative plot structure or genre
  • Self reference of varying degrees
  • Attacks on the concepts of the narrative, convention, universal truths and reality

Examples: Historical, Recent and E2

All this semi-scholarly jargon doesn’t really mean much until it’s applied to things, and examples are always a good place to start. Also, sometimes metafiction talks about metafiction so metafiction itself is a good source to learn about metafiction. Understand? Readers can probably can achieve a better understanding through the examples themselves as opposed to dry explanations of theory, anyway. So here they are. If you feel I've missed an important one, please /msg me.

  • Historical:
    • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes- Cervantes mocks the shoddy writing of his times in his preamble to Don Quixote’s crazy adventures by writing about how to write poorly. He occasionally even engages in the overly sappy style of his contemporaries to mock them. This is considered the first work to employ metafiction.
    • Hamlet by William J. Shakespeare- Ok, first you have an actor. Then you have Hamlet, being played by the actor. Then, in the play, Hamlet starts talking about acting. Thus, the actor is acting about acting. Oh yeah, that’s pure unadulterated metafiction we’re talking about right there.
  • Recent (aka post-modernist):
    • The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles- I’ve never read it, but evidently it has a parody of metafiction by using metafiction. So, it’s meta-metafiction.
    • Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty- These games actually address the players in the middle of their convoluted plot twistings to tell them things like, “Plug your controller in the Player 2 port!” or, “Ah, you haven’t saved your game yet, you must be a brave one!” or just, “Set the controller down.”
    • Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut- Although Cat's Cradle reads as though his narrator John (or should we call him “Jonas”?) was the person that wrote it, traces of Vonnegut himself appearing in the writing are very obvious. This sets up a layer of metafiction set up that firmly entrenches Vonnegut in the story to give his wry, fatalistic commentary on the state of US politics, the dark nature of humanity and the possibly of its self annihilation. kthejoker informs that "A more blatant Vonnegut example would be Breakfast of Champions, wherein he actually appears in the book and tells his characters to not do things, but then makes them do them anyway. He's the author, you know."
    • Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth- Lost in the Funhouse is probably the definitive short story example of metafiction. Actually, it’s probably definitive short story example of just about anything post-modern. It’s crazy. If you haven’t read it, go do so right now.
    • Kill Bill: Volume 1- There’s a twenty minute long fighting scene that seems to serve little or no purpose except to show off the style and extreme, superfluous violence of about a hundred freaking dudes get limbs hacked off by a chick with a sword. At the same time, the tone of the movie doesn’t try to make the audience believe this is real or accurate. Rather, through its self awareness it mocks the conventions of other ninja death fight scenes like it. Also, through the obvious implication of its foundation being built on these other action movies, it forces the audience to question the validity of action movies as a genre.
    • The Lion King- I felt I had to include an example of METAFICTION GONE WRONG. Bad metafiction is flat out the most painful, embarrassing stuff to read, or in this case, watch. As if forcefully burning this movie into a generation’s subneural beta patterns wasn’t bad enough, Disney also commits the crime of bad, bad metafiction. During the Hakuna Matata song & dance sequence, there’s that part where Pumba is about to sing a line about flatulence. Something like, “I got down hearted/ every time that I—“ and before he can say “farted,” Timone covers his mouth, looks directly at the camera and says, “Not in front of the kids!”, hence addressing the vacantly staring audience who more than likely didn’t think it was at all too funny.
    • And many, many more examples including but hardly limited to:
  • Everything 2:

    If you consider E2 to be a grand, twisting narrative, then I suppose the somewhat taboo “Noding about noding” could be herded under the larger definition of metafiction.* In the E2 FAQ: What NOT to do, we are given another great example of how fast metafiction/noding about noding can go wrong, and why we aren’t supposed to do it:

    “Imagine reading a really good book, and every other chapter was about the book itself. You know what I mean? The plot is getting thick and the good guy is about to fight the evil bastards who have kidnapped his best girl, or something like that. And you turn the page and get this:
    ‘This book is soooo cool, man. You won't believe how cool this next chapter is, man. My friend, Josh; he says that his bestest most favorite part is what comes next. . . Just wait, man! . . . Signed: Dim:)Wit’”

    Yes. That would indeed be bad metafiction. As mentioned earlier, there's really nothing worse than this, hence it is completely understandable and respectable to discourage it. Fortunately, there are many examples of great metafiction on E2 as well. Several of them are fiction about E2, but not all of them are necessarily noding about noding. So, in an effort to help promote understanding of this concept, I urge you all to read these pieces and perhaps glean further insight.

*This sentence is noding about noding about noding. Now if this was a fictious story, then THAT would be some serious metafiction, my friends. Sources: http://www.emory.edu/ENGLISH/Bahri/Metafiction.html Murfin, Ross. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston, MA: Beford, 1998. And of course, the metafictitious stories themselves, which can contain a great deal of information about metafiction.