The Strange Mysteries of Meta-Fiction


For many years now, I’ve been fascinated by meta-fiction. Meta-fiction is a form of fiction which emphasises itself — in other words, it is written in such a way that it continually reminds readers to be aware that they are reading or viewing a fictional work, directly or indirectly drawing attention to its own status as a created thing. Meta-fiction is frequently used to parody literary conventions as well as to explore the relationship between literature and reality, life, and art. It’s part of the ‘post-modern movement’ in literature, but its use can be traced back to much earlier works of fiction. Geoffrey Chaucer introduces himself as a character in Canterbury Tales (1387) for example. Other instances include Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759), and William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1847).

In the 1960s, it became prominent with authors and works such as John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, into which the author introduces himself as a character — who not only observes events, but changes the ending of the novel.

‘Meta-fiction’ as a term was coined by William H. Gass in 1970 in his book Fiction and the Figures of Life, in which he describes how a better understanding of fiction writing was leading changes in approaches to fiction. An increasing number of novelists were rejecting the notion of communicating about the world through fiction: reality itself became regarded as a construct instead of an objective truth, paralleling to some extent what was happening in quantum physics and psychology. Meta-fiction began to explore the question of how human beings constructed their experience of the world. The whole movement generated mixed responses, with some calling it the 'death of the novel’, while others saw the potential of using meta-fiction to gain a deeper understanding of the medium and new ways of innovation.

I think what interests me is the ‘layers’. One can write a story and present it to a reader easily enough: but what if the story is presented through a number of relay points, each of which is to some degree ‘fictional’. We can see an embryonic version of this in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, where the actual events of the story are removed from us by several tiers — we only see what ‘happens’ through the lenses of Lockwood and Nelly. But Brontë wasn’t intentionally writing meta-fiction — this was her narrative strategy to create a greater sense of realism in what might be considered ‘unrealistic’ events. What’s the difference? I think it’s probably a difference of degree. Had Brontë played with the narrative layers a little more — made the reports less reliable, or contrasting, or somehow twisted askew, so that the reader’s experience of events was even less direct, the story would have become more of a puzzle: instead of finding out what happened through several ‘vias’ or relay points, the reader might end up not being sure of what happened at all, as in the book Life of Pi or the film The Usual Suspects.

I think the whole process is intriguing, partly because all fiction is to some degree ‘meta’. Think of it like this: when you last watched a James Bond film and the hero introduced himself as ‘Bond, James Bond’, didn’t a tiny part of you wonder why the other characters didn’t break out in ironic laughter? ‘Sure,’ they might have responded, ‘like the guy in the films?’ Or when you last saw an episode of Doctor Who, were you not at least partly startled why no one in the vicinity of the Police Box runs up to it and says ‘Wow! It’s the TARDIS!’

Track with me here: obviously, when watching a James Bond film we automatically ‘edit out’ the reality of James Bond as a fictive creation in our world. So Ian Fleming’s novels and the films create worlds in which pretty much everything is a parallel of our own world, except for the characters and events of their story. Similarly, Doctor Who, when it’s set on 21st century earth at least, features a world which resembles ours in almost every detail — except for the alien invasions or whatever it is that is happening in the story.

Any piece of fiction set in ‘our world’ creates a world, in other words, which has to be an almost exact replica of our own, minus the story being told.

That’s sort of weird, isn’t it?

Jane Austen’s novels take place in a Regency England which is evoked convincingly, but must lack the presence of Jane Austen and her novels; many of Charles Dickens’ stories take place in what is suppose to be London — except it’s a London without Dickens; the Marvel Cinematic Universe films take place in a modern America — but one which contains no trace of Marvel Comics or Stan Lee (except as a meta-fictional cameo). You get the idea? It was fascinating that in the film Logan, the superhero Wolverine at one point actually brandishes an X-Men comic and says ‘It was all made up!’

Worlds collide every time we pick up a story which features recognisable human beings in recognisable environments (which is pretty much all stories). The worlds we enter are designed to resonate with our own, but must of necessity be missing the elements of the narrative with which we enter them. Forster’s India has no Mrs. Moore; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s America has no Gatsby; Joyce’s Dublin has no Leopold Bloom. Their worlds are created minus the creation, if you see what I mean.

It’s as though there’s a formula: Created world - narrative events and characters = reader experience. If Jane Austen introduced herself into one of her novels, there’d be a kind of feedback loop which would happen in our heads; if Charles Dickens walked into A Christmas Carol, something in our minds would short-circuit; if the Marvel Cinematic Universe suddenly featured the offices of Marvel Comics, something in us would explode.

Creators have to remove themselves and their creations from the work even as they create it; they have to convince us that we are entering a viable reality, but that viable reality mustn’t contain them or their creations. In the world of Doctor Who, Doctor Who the TV show never existed; in the world of James Bond, Ian Fleming’s books and the films that were made from them never got made.

But that borderline is a fascinating one, worth exploring.

Stay tuned.

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