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"The term metafiction appears to have been coined in English by William H. Gass in his 1970 essay “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction” while the term metapainting appeared in English perhaps for the first time in the 1978 essay "Levels of Reality in Literature" by Italo Calvino." --Sholem Stein

"I remembered too that night which is at the middle of the Thousand and One Nights when Scheherazade (through a magical oversight of the copyist) begins to relate word for word the story of the Thousand and One Nights, establishing the risk of coming once again to the night when she must repeat it, and thus on to infinity…" --"The Garden of Forking Paths" (1941) Jorge Luis Borges

"In fact, in the discussion to follow here, Tristram Shandy will indeed sit alongside Don Quijote as the major forerunner of modern metafiction." --Narcissistic Narrative (1980) by Linda Hutcheon

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.
Don Quixote (c. 1868) by Honoré Daumier
Don Quixote (c. 1868) by Honoré Daumier

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Metafiction is a narrative technique and a genre of fiction, wherein a fictional work (novel, film, play, etc.) is self-conscious or openly draws attention to the fact that it is imaginary. Metafiction poses philosophic and critical questions about the relation between fiction and reality, usually by applying irony and self-reflection. As a genre, metafiction is comparable to presentational theatre, which continually reminds the audience that they are viewing a play; metafiction continually reminds the reader to be aware that he or she is reading or viewing a fictional work.



Metafiction is primarily associated with late modernist and postmodernist literature, but is found at least as early as Homer's Odyssey, Chaucer's 14th century Canterbury Tales, and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1756). Cervantes' Don Quixote, published in the 17th century, is a metafictional novel and so is James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner published in 1824. Russian author Nikolai Gogol implements a limited, self-referencing narrator in his novel, Dead Souls published in 1842. The novels of 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, John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and William H. Gass's Willie Master's Lonesome Wife. William H. Gass coined the term "metafiction" in a 1970 essay entitled "Philosophy and the Form of Fiction". Unlike the antinovel, or anti-fiction, metafiction is specifically fiction about fiction, i.e. fiction which deliberately 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.

More on devices

Common literary devices of metafiction:

  • A story about a writer who creates a story; for example, John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor, a thoroughly fictional account of the life of real person Ebenezer Cooke, a Maryland colonist who in 1708 wrote the real satirical poem The Sotweed Factor. Barth's Cooke is a naive innocent who sets out to write a heroic epic, becomes disillusioned and ends up writing a biting satire.
  • A story that features itself as a narrative or as a physical object; a notable example is Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, which is ostensibly a 999-line poem of the same name, but with a foreword, index and extensive commentary in footnotes, from which so much detail is revealed of the lives of both poet and editor that a plot gradually emerges.
  • A story containing another work of fiction within itself; e.g. Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
  • Narrative footnotes, which continue the story while commenting on it; e.g. House of Leaves
  • A story that reframes or suggests a radically different reading of another story; for example, Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, which retells the story of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre from the point of view of the madwoman in the attic; or J. M. Coetzee's Foe, which recounts a battle of wills between Daniel Defoe and a castaway survivor over the writing of the story that would eventually become Robinson Crusoe.
  • A story addressing the specific conventions of story, such as title, character conventions, paragraphing or plots; e.g. The Secret Series
  • A novel where the narrator intentionally exposes him or herself as the author of the story; e.g. Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, in which the first-person narrator—presumably Vonnegut himself, since he even shares Vonnegut's birthday—regularly reminds the reader that the characters in the novel are fictions of his own creation:
    "I do not know who invented body bags. I do know who invented Kilgore Trout. I did.
    I made him snaggle-toothed. I gave him hair, but I turned it white. I wouldn't let him comb it or go to a barber. I made him grow it long and tangled.
    I gave him the same legs the Creator of the Universe gave to my father when my father was a pitiful old man. They were pale white broomsticks. They were hairless. They were embossed fantastically with varicose veins.
    And, two months after Trout received his first fan letter, I had him find in his mailbox an invitation to be a speaker at an arts festival in the American Middle West."
  • A story in which the authors refers to elements of the story as both fact and fiction; for example, in Joseph Conrad's Author's Preface to Nostromo, most of which provides a factual account of how he came to write the novel, Conrad states "My principal authority for the history of Costaguana is, of course, my venerated friend, the late Don Jose Avellanos, minister to the courts of England and Spain, etc., etc., in his impartial and eloquent 'History of Fifty Years of Misrule.'" Thus Conrad, in a putatively factual context, attributes his intimate knowledge of the fictional country in which his story is set, to a fictional book written by one of his book's characters.
  • A book in which the book itself seeks interaction with the reader, such as Art Spiegelman's picture book Open me, I'm a dog!
  • A story in which the readers of the story itself force the author to change the story
  • A story in which the characters are aware that they are in a story
  • A story in which the characters make reference to the author or his previous work; for example, in Paul Auster's City of Glass, the main character is an author of detective novels who writes under a pseudonym, and identifies closely with his own main character. He receives a phone call from someone seeking a detective named Paul Auster, and ends up posing as Paul Auster so as to take the case. Paul Auster is later found to be an author, not a detective.

These elements of metafiction are similar to devices used in metacinematic 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

endless knot

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 research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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