What Is Metafiction, Anyway?

  • Patricia Waugh defines metafiction as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.
  • “Its relationship to the phenomenal world is highly complex, problematic and regulated by convention.” (I like that phrase ‘phenomenal world’ to what I’ve always problematically referred to ‘the real world’)
  • Why do we need words for talking about metafiction? To distinguish between the world within fiction and the world outside it.
  • This distinction is more important now that more and more writers are deliberately violating logic and using language for its own sake.
  • Although metafictional elements can be found in pretty much any work of fiction, metafiction as a literary device is relatively new in Western literature — perhaps 40 years old. (I adjusted from 20 years in a book which is 20 years old.)
  • Examples of metafiction in children’s literature first occurred from the 1980s.
  • There are two main types of metafiction.
    1. The first is to parody a well-known work of literature.
    2. The second is to consciously discuss the art of writing.
  • Metafiction is prevalent in experimental post-modern literature, but shouldn’t be regarded as only an experiment for experiment’s sake.
  • The message of a metafictional story is often that the world itself is artificial, constructed, man-made. It asks the question: What is the boundary that delimits fiction and reality?
  • In books for young readers, polyphony is one example of a metafictive device. Polyphony is “multi-voicedness”.
  • Metafiction isn’t a genre. It’s a trend within a genre.
  • Metafiction in children’s books is different from metafiction in books for adults. This is because metafiction always relies on past experience of the reader. Young readers don’t have much experience.
  • In children’s literature, metafiction is sometimes obvious to both the child and the adult co-reader, but often it is obvious only to the adult co-reader, resulting in a story which can appeal to all ages.
  • Daniel Handler is a good example of a modern metafictive children’s author. His books are written by ‘Lemony Snicket‘, and he even continues this gag with him to his stage presentations. Adult readers know that the Series Of Unfortunate Events wasn’t written by one of the characters from inside, that a publishing world exists, with a real-world author behind the name. As for picture books, Mo Willems is a good example.
  • A Pack Of Lies by Geraldine McCaughrean, Fade by Robert Cormier and Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers are also metafictive in that their endings make the reader wonder how much of it is really true. The Monster At The End Of This Book is another example for younger readers. (You can read that here.)
  • Directly addressing the reader is a type of metafictive narrative device. Maria Gripe used it in her books about Elvis, and it has been developed by many modern Scandinavian children’s writers in particular.
  • A metafictional work has: the writer (e.g. Daniel Handler), the implied writer (e.g. Lemony Snicket), the narrator (the “I” of the novel), the implied reader (“you”) and the real reader. Other (non-metafictional) works might have the writer, the narrator and the reader. Simple.
  • “As long as anything can happen in a book it can also happen in real life, since it always happens more in real life.” – Tormod Haugen, “A Novel About Merkel Hanssen, and Donna Winther, and The Big Escape (1986), a metafictional YA Norwegian book
  • It could be argued that adult fantasy is by default metafictive, since the reader is aware of entering a different kind of world. But in children’s fantasy, that awareness is not necessarily there on the part of the child reader, so it’s hard to argue the same case.

Reference: Maria Nikolajeva’s Children’s Literature Comes Of Age and The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature, and I included a couple of more up-to-date examples of my own.

Poetry, unlike music, is a meta-art, and relies upon non-physical structures for the production of its effects. In its case, the medium is syntax, grammar and logical continuity, which together form the carrier-wave of plain sense within which its deeper meanings are broadcast.

Don Paterson, The empty image: new models of the poetic trope (Is it possible that all children’s verse is a meta-art, simply because the language draws attention to itself?)

What about a pop-up book, in which the card moves, drawing the reader’s attention to the workings of the book? Is it possible to read a pop-up book and be so immersed in the story that you don’t really notice the engineering of the paper?

Bridget from A Very Curious Blog points out that:

It’s harder (but not impossible) to find metafiction in intermediate and young adult fiction. Would Dianne Wynne Jone’s The Dark Lord of Derkholm count? How often do characters in a book reveal the fact that they know they are characters? And how do young readers respond to this revelation?

and also links to a video by Philip Nel called Metafiction For Children, in which we are warned not to call this trend ‘post modern’ because metafiction has been around since the early 1600s. It is also pointed out that ‘a metafictional book can also be interactive’, though I would go one step further (actually I have) and ask if not all interactive books (and therefore book apps) are metafictive precisely because interaction requires the reader be pulled out of the story and into the ‘mechanics’ of the printed book or software.

Suggestions in the comments section of the above video lead to a list More Metafiction For Children.

Metafiction In Children’s Picturebooks from What Do We Do All Day is another, overlapping list.

Meta Children’s Books from Romper

Header photo by Frank Okay