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 This page Metafiction is part of the meta series. Illustration: Reverse Side of a Painting (1670) by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, an example of metapainting.
This page Metafiction is part of the meta series.
Illustration: Reverse Side of a Painting (1670) by Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts, an example of metapainting.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
endless knot

Metafiction is a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion. Metafiction uses techniques to draw attention to itself as a work of art, while exposing the "truth" of a story. "Metafiction" is the literary term describing fictional writing that self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually using irony and self-reflection. It can be compared to presentational theatre, which does not let the audience forget it is viewing a play; metafiction does not let the reader forget he or she is reading a fictional work.



Metafiction is primarily associated with modernist literature and postmodernist literature, but is found at least as early as Homer's Odyssey and Chaucer's 14th century Canterbury Tales. Cervantes' Don Quixote is a metafictional novel published in the 17th century, and so is James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner published in 1824. The novels of Brian O'Nolan, written under the nom de plume Flann O'Brien, are considered to be examples of metafiction. In the 1950s several French novelists published works whose styles were collectively dubbed "nouveau roman". These "new novels" were characterized by the 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, Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and William H. Gass's Willie Master's Lonesome Wife.

Unlike the antinovel, or anti-fiction, metafiction is specifically fiction about fiction, i.e. fiction which self-consciously reflects upon itself.


William H. Gass coined the term “metafiction” in a 1970 essay entitled “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction”.

Various devices of metafiction

Some common metafictive devices in literature include:

Films which use metafictive devices include Adaptation, which wraps metafictively around the real-world non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, and Barton Fink, as well as the thrillers The Usual Suspects, Memento and Inception. Examples of other media which take part in metafictiveness are Al Capp's Fearless Fosdick in Li'l Abner, the Tales of the Black Freighter in Watchmen, or the Itchy and Scratchy Show within The Simpsons, as well as the computer game Myst in which the player represents a person who has found a book named Myst and been transported inside it.

The theme of metafiction may be central to the work, as in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759) or as in Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, Chapter XIV, in which the narrator talks about the literary devices used in the other chapters. But as a literary device, metafiction has become a frequent feature of postmodernist literature. Examples such as If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino, "a novel about a person reading a novel" is an exercise in metafiction. Paul Auster has made metafiction the central focus of his writing and is probably the best known active novelist specialising in the genre. Often metafiction figures for only a moment in a story, as when "Roger" makes a brief appearance in Roger Zelazny's The Chronicles of Amber.

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 characterized as fiction. 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. In Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, King himself appears as a pivotal character set with the task of writing The Dark Tower books so that the main characters can continue their quest. Other Stephen King books, and characters from them, are mentioned in the narrative. In an afterword to the series finale (The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower), King details why he chose to include himself in his novel. And in James Patterson's Alex Cross series, Along Came a Spider is both the book written by Patterson and a book written by Cross about the events depicted in the book.

One of the most sophisticated treatments of the concept of the novel in a novel occurs in Muriel Spark's debut, The Comforters. Spark imbues Caroline, her central character, with voices in her head which constitutes the narration Spark has just set down on the page. In the story Caroline is writing a critical work on the form of the novel when she begins to hear a tapping typewriter (accompanied by voices) through the wall of her house. The voices dictate a novel to her, in which she believes herself to be a character. The reader is thereby continually drawn to the narrative structure, which in turn is the story, i.e. a story about storytelling which itself disrupts the conventions of storytelling. At no point does Spark as author enter the narrative however, remaining omniscient throughout and adhering to the conventions of third-person narration.

According to Patricia Waugh "all fiction is . . . implicitly 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.

Film and television

metafilm, metatelevision


metatheatre, Six Characters in Search of an Author, play-within-a-play

'Metatheatre' can also include the use of the play within a play, which provides an onstage microcosm of the theatrical situation, and such techniques as the use of parody and burlesque to draw attention to literary or theatrical conventions, and the use of the theatrum mundi trope.

Some more examples of metafiction

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Metafiction" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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