I’ve been thinking a lot about metafiction recently, so much so that a couple of weeks ago I wrote my very first metafictional story. As luck would have it, this story has already been accepted for publication and is now online. It’s called ‘Back Talk’ and you can find it right here.
My reasons for writing it are long and complicated and are actually a part of the story itself, so I don’t really want to spoil the surprise. Suffice to say, metafiction is a genre that’s been on my mind. Much like science fiction, it can sometimes be hard to describe and define, and yet is usually easy to identify. We story-lovers tend to know it when we see if, even if the reasons why can be difficult to translate. The Cambridge Dictionary describes it as “writing about imaginary characters and events in which the process of writing is discussed or described,” while the Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions and traditional narrative techniques.” There’s a lot of wriggle room in the space between these definitions – if metafiction can be something as simple as a piece of fiction where the act of creating fiction, no matter how opaque or unimportant, is a part of the narrative, then any story that ever featured a writer or an analogue thereof discussing their work could be classified as such. An obvious example: John Cusack’s character in Roland Emmerich’s disaster-porn epic 2012 (2009) is a writer, and so by the first definition this makes the film metafictional – Cusack’s character’s fiction is occasionally discussed, and ends up having a small impact on the film’s resolution. But to call it metafiction is a stretch too far – 2012 may be many things, but it would probably be the last story I would use an example of the genre.
If we instead mull over the second definition, everything starts to make sense. “An author self-consciously alluding to the artificiality or literariness of a story” is an almost perfect summation of metafiction; to put it in more plain language, this simply means that the author is taking our suspension of disbelief and throwing it back in our faces, explicitly drawing attention to the fact that what we’re reading or watching is entirely fictional. And some of us love them for doing so. Perhaps this is because metafiction actually depends upon our engagement with it to be successful – the interpretative act that is present to varying degrees in every piece of reading is paramount in metafiction, and our appreciation and enjoyment of it is only deepened by our knowledge and understanding of the art of story writing and any specific characters, stories and/or genres used and employed to underpin the author’s metafictional explorations. If we’re in on the author’s joke, so to speak, the more fun we can have with their work.
We often and sometimes indiscriminately see in action this method of explicitly drawing attention to the fact that what we’re reading or watching is entirely fictional, and not just in the canon or in the hallowed halls but also at your local cinema, in a comic book and in the ghettoes of science fiction. The films Adaptation (2002) and Stranger Than Fiction (2006) are obvious examples: The former concerns a writer struggling to write a screenplay, and integrates into its actual plot the difficulties he has constructing a plot of his own; the latter concerns an ‘everyman’ who one day hears a voice narrating his actions, and subsequently realises that he is a both a contextually ‘real’ character and a ‘fictional’ character being written by a different ‘real’ character. Highbrow examples, perhaps, but not every piece of metafiction need be so cerebral – the TV shows Seinfeld (1989-1998), Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-2011, 2017) and Community (2009-2015) all heavily sup from the metafictional cup, employing its devices in both low and high ways. And then there are films like Galaxy Quest (1999), for instance – it runs with its central idea, has a lot of fun with it, and is ultimately both entertaining and smart without being so intellectually-obsessed and trickily-constructed as to put-off a general audience.
Comics and graphic novels are another form riddled with metafictional ideas. Mainstream comics produced by the likes of Marvel and DC are indulging in the genre each time their creators decided to reboot a title or introduce a character from a parallel world – such devices, after all, depend on the constructed nature of a character for their success, as well as the reader’s prior knowledge of the characters in question – while certain titles use the genre’s tropes and techniques as the glue binding their narratives together: Alan Moore’s Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Warren Ellis’ Planetary and Nextwave, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, Bill Cunningham’s Fables series and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. And then there’s science fiction, a genre that for certain authors has proved an ideal foundation for metafictional explorations. The vast majority of works by authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams and Phillip K. Dick wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for metafiction, and neither would specific works such as John Scalzi’s Redshirts, Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection, Brian Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo, Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream and J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. Hell, even the otherwise ‘straight’ narrative of House of Cards (2013-2017) has its metafictional moments: Every time Francis Underwood address the camera he is throwing our suspension of disbelief in our face, and a standard political thriller becomes something else entirely, even if only for a moment.
This method of integrating philosophical ideas relating to the act of creating fiction with the actual narrative and plot of a story is incredibly old, older than Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, older than Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, stretching all the way back to The Arabian Nights and The Bible. However, as we often see, it still in use today and can still be a riotous and successful romp or an indulgent and unsuccessful mess – it seems like there’s no middle ground when it comes to metafiction.
And so I hope that my metafictional story Back Talk falls within the former category, rather than the latter. But that is, of course, something that only you can decide…