One of the things that fascinated me throughout my time studying English Literature in an academic fashion was metafiction. For those who don’t know, metafiction is the idea that literature can be in some way self-conscious; that authors can use techniques that draw attention to its own artifice. My fascination culminated in me writing my dissertation on just that, focusing primarily on the work of Kurt Vonnegut and Ian McEwan, two great writers in my opinion. I think one of the lovely things about a dissertation is that though you conclude, my conclusion brought up more questions than it tied up, and there’s something delightfully satisfying about that.
What I like most about the idea of metafiction, is that it brings into question that the reading process is more than just about what’s down on the page. It rouses issues that previous theorists have discussed, such as Roland Barthes’ age old ‘Death of the Author’. Is it the author speaking in a novel, and does it even matter? Do we view things differently if we know the writer is a ‘celebrity author’, and is that right if we do?
I love the idea that reading is about more than just the words on the page, but includes the cover, the way we interpret things, and the way in which historically ‘correct’ facts relate to the actual facts themselves. Novels by Kurt Vonnegut playfully have author’s drawings on the dedication pages, something that brings into question what we actually consider to be the story – is it just from Chapter One, or does it start from the moment we open the cover?
I’d love to say I had the answer to all these questions, but personally, I’m more bothered that they even exist for us to discuss. What an exhilarating that Salman Rushdie, for example, might be talking directly to us in his self-conscious novel Shame. Or that we somehow play a part in the ending of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Do we have the power over whether Briony atones at all?
One of the most interesting pieces of clear metafiction I’ve ever read was Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller… It’s a crazy book, jerky and disjointed, but it demonstrates the form, if you can call it that, perfectly. What’s the best piece of metafiction you’ve ever read?
For further reading on metafiction, Patricia Waugh’s Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Writing and Linda Hutcheon’s Narcissistic Narrative: Metafictional Paradox are both riveting investigations of the subject.