When I tell people I’m obsessed with metafiction, I often hear “What’s metafiction?” So here you go: Metafiction defined.
According to the dictionary…
Metafiction is “fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions (esp. naturalism) and traditional narrative techniques.” (That’s from my computer’s built-in dictionary.)
Merriam-Webster’s definition: “fiction which refers to or takes as its subject fictional writing and its conventions.”
Wikipedia’s definition: “a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion. It 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 irony and self-reflection.”
Which definition is better?
They all are. Personally, I take a very broad view of metafiction. My “meta generosity,” if you want to call it that, stems from my background as a student of fiction, nonfiction, travel writing and journalism. I like to think I’m a writer who takes risks in her work, whether structural or by mixing genres.
By necessity, structural experimentation dovetails with metafiction, as a work’s structure can often reveal the story’s “storiness” or “fictionaliy.” In the same vein, I think genre-bending or juxtaposing two genres together (not blending them as in a sci-fi western, but using them side-by-side) also dovetails with metafiction. If you blend short story with memoir, you are by necessity going to have think about reality versus fictional reality.
Both structure and genre exist in a fuzzy area between metafiction and “normal” fiction, and depending on the interpretation and the context, I think works that walk that line can go either way, as metafiction relies heavily on structure and often on genre blending/genre juxtaposition to deliver its message.
The writing becomes metafictional (in my mind) when the reader is taken outside of the story and is forced to look in on it from the outside—normally to comment on the craft of writing, society at large, or some other issue, though commentary is not strictly necessary.
What about stories-within-stories?
The story-within-a-story is perhaps the most recognizable form of metafiction. Don Quixote is an early and excellent example. This form of story is inherently metafictional, because to tell a story about telling a story must in some way comment on the storytelling process.
Notice I used the word “tell” rather than “write” up there. I do not restrict metafiction to writing, nor to fiction. Because of that, the distinction between “write” and “tell” is important. You can tell a story in an infinite number of ways. Writing is only one of those ways, albeit an incredibly powerful one.
My “meta” definition
I think it’s necessary to define meta in terms of a broader context than fiction for this blog, since I discuss more than fiction. That being said…
A work of any genre or style is “meta” if the author of the work purposefully and self-consciously draws attention to the work’s structure, genre or existence as fiction/nonfiction for any purpose, or if the author of the work unintentionally uses a structure or other technique that draws attention to the work’s structure, genre or existence as fiction/nonfiction.
Hopefully this brief discussion helps you put my articles and commentary (and fiction!) in context. Please feel free to add your own definitions, thoughts, or reactions in the comments! I’m sure this is a topic I’ll return to, because metafiction can be such a shady area. But that’s why I love it!
A version of this post appeared first in April 2010 on my now-defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog.