The Conventions of Unconventionality: An Overview of Metafiction

An overview of major themes I found while studying metafiction for the Metaclass, a self-study course for a masters of literature at San Francisco State University. This summary will also serve as a guide to the posts I have written over the last four months (with notes about a few others I intend to write). It is not meant to be a comprehensive list of meta conventions, but an addition to the the list found under Meta-Meta and Metafiction. (Nor is this intended to be a summary of themes I developed about writing and teaching, the metaclass aspect. Those themes may be found in Putting It All Together: Collaborative and Integrated Reading and Writing.)

The Lying Truth / The Truthful Lie

Meta shows that non-fiction and naturalism are artificial constructs that disguise their fictionality, truths told in a dishonest way; therefore, they are the lying truths. In contrast, metafiction is the truthful lie. Because it admits it is a lie by exposing its artificiality, it can speak truthfully.

The Artificiality of Non-fiction

Miguel de Cervantes questioned “history” and its so-called truthfulness in Don Qujote. (Read more about it in my post, Don Quixote: The Impossible Truth and La Mancha: The Stain of Truth.) Laurence Sterne showed in Tristram Shandy how difficult it is to tell a story fully and accurately unless you are endlessly digressing (Progressive Digressions in Tristram Shandy). In “Dangerous Editors” (an upcoming post) I will examine how Pierre Choderlos de Laclos plays fiction against truth by having a publisher’s note that claims the letters contained are part of a novel, but it is followed by an introduction that claims the letters are authentic. Note, introduction and letters were all written by Laclos. I demonstrate the impossibility of comprehensively recording events in my posts  A Not Not-True Tale of a Short, Simple Morning, Where is Truth?” I Ask You, and It’s All Fiction: Another Attempt to Tell the Story. I discuss the abundance of possible truths in an analysis of a simple story my father told me to demonstrate absolute truth in The Truthiness of Apples in a Basket. I expose realism as an artifical genre, like any other (including dictionary entries) in A Realistic Story of a Little Girl with Dimples.

Imaginary Writers and Readers

Metafiction (and writing about metafiction) makes readers aware of the invention of a speaker, who can never be as complex as the person writing. I write about constructed speakers and readers in Who is /Writing This? (two versions), A Not, Not True Blog of a Short, Simple Morning, “Where is Truth?” I Ask You, It’s All Fiction: Another Attempt to Tell the Story, and I am the One the Writer of This Sentence is Referring to. I will develop this topic further in the upcoming post, “Ron Richardson, Author of ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.'” Writing also requires the invention of an imagined reader, otherwise there would be no need to describe people, places or events. Often narrators of metafiction will seek direct interaction with the (imagined) reader, addressing them directly, as happens many times in Tristram Shandy. (Look for “The Reader as Character in Tristram Shandy.”)

Metafiction troubles the distinction between narrator, author, and person. In Who Wrote Don Quixote? and La Mancha: The Stain of Truth, I discuss the multiple levels of writers: Don Quixote himself, who wrote his life by living it like a book, the first anonymous chroniclers, the Moorish writer, the Spanish translator, the narrator (who does not always seem to be the translator), Cervantes as a character, and whoever Cervantes really was. I write about authors who included characters of themselves in  their work (as mentioned above in Don Quixote) in The Decameron: With and Without a Frame and Chaucer: A Bad Poet and a Didactic Bore. Diego Velasquez also included himself in his famous painting described in Las Meninas: A Metapainting. In “Dangerous Editors,” I will examine how Pierre Choderlos de Laclos plays with authorship, playing the parts of publisher, editor and letter writers. Throughout the book characters often give advice on how to write and read certain types of letters, and the main characters even take over sometimes from the minor characters, writing their letters for them (“Dangerous Editors”). Readers and writers also create an imaginary writer, the famous personor in Foucault’s terms, the author function, as I discuss in Ronosaurus and I Present “Borges and I.

Whenever a reader or viewer reads a text, they take on a reader’s role, although this is not always the role the writer intended. This is equally true for viewers of film, as when I was trying to recreate the suspense in my third viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (“Rewriting Vertigo“).

The Reality of Fiction

Art works exist in the same way that everything exists, as material objects and physical events, as I demonstrate in The Magic Trick: Fiction is Reality! and  Believe Everything: It’s All True. Meta calls attention to the materials the art work is made of. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy draws attention to paper and ink (as I point out in Tristram Shandy ****s Up the Page and The Stuff That Dreams are Made of: Paper, Ink, Letter, Word).Charles Dickens refers constantly to ink, paper and documents of all kinds throughout Bleak House (see Meta Bleak House). Many modern paintings often make the viewer examine the paint as paint. Other metapaintings refer to frames, as does Las Meninas (Las Meninas: A Metapainting). My upcoming post “What is This Text is Made of?” will describe the physical components of a computer screen and the way letters and images are produced. (In the meantime think about the contradiction “liquid crystal.”

Metafiction draws your attention to the symbols a text is composed of. Tristram Shandy makes you aware of the alphabet, other alphabets, typography, and punctuation (Tristram Shandy ****s Up the Page, The Stuff That Dreams are Made of: Paper, Ink, Letter, Word). I played around with binary code, letters and words in Me Tab Log Once I Rex Wrote Metafiction on Ronosaurus. I also brought attention to the symbol in my analysis of the letter “I” in Where Did I Come From? In Grab Your Ledgers: Writing is Accounting, I discussed how writing began in Mesopotamia as a system of accounting.

Metafiction also employs non-verbal communication. Laurence Sterne uses many types of non-verbal symbols in Tristram Shandy, like hand signals, swirling lines and symbols which replace offensive words but do not erase the concept (Tristram Shandy ****s Up the Page). I discuss how gesture precedes the word and how animals interpret and employ symbols in The Tale a Tale Tells. In Hunters, the First Readers to Write a Story, I argue, along with Carlo Ginzburg, that the examination of animal tracks led to symbolic thought. The first narratives were created as hunters “read” the tracks: “A young, wounded deer passed this way.”

Metafiction asks readers to be conscious of the words themselves. Laurence Sterne invented words and exposed the absurdity of translation in Tristram Shandy (The Stuff That Dreams are Made of: Paper, Ink, Letter, Word). Sterne’s book talks a great deal about the slipperiness of words, as I hope to show in the upcoming post “Locating the Wound in Tristram Shandy.” Metafiction makes readers aware of the power of words. I explain how Egyptians thought a life could be preserved in words and how in the Torah and the Christian bible God is a word (or words) and words have the power of creation (The Early History of Metafiction). In an upcoming post, “Penetrate the Power of Words,” I will show how our words form our reality. What if, I suggest, the principal word for sex were “engulfment” instead of “penetration”? How would this change the structure of society?

Levels of Reality

Meta reminds us that we are looking at art works, and not reality. In If Not a Pipe, Then What?, I look at Rene Magritte’s, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” which reminds us we are not looking at a pipe, but a painting (or a reproduction on a computer screen) and not a pipe. Meta makes readers, viewers and audience aware of the process of making the art work, as in Las Meninas: A Metapainting, in which we see the artist at work and the various personages preparing for the sitting. Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy often discusses the writing process, for example the use and formation of chapters (This is not the title of another post about Tristram Shandy).

Meta works are often about the art form they are. The Thousand and One Nights is a story about stories and the power of stories to save and enrich lives, as I write about in Eros and The Arabesque: The Serial Proliferation of Life in The Arabian Nights, 1001 Ways to Save Your Life: Shahrazad and The Arabian Nights, The Power of Stories to Change the World: Another Arabian Night. Don Quixote, for example, is about to power of books to drive somebody mad and, perhaps, to save him (La Mancha: The Stain of Truth).  The Decameron is also a story about stories ( The Decameron With and Without a Frame), as is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Chaucer: A Bad Poet and a Didactic Bore). John Barth’s short story “Night Sea Journey” talks about the continuation of our cultural heritage through literature (and our genetic heritage through sperm, Our Cultural and Genetic Heritage: John Barth’s Night Sea Journey).  Las Meninas: A Metapainting is a painting about paintings. Meta Jokes are jokes about jokes. Why Read Spense When Allegory Invites Despayr? is an allegory of allegory.

Metafiction often plays with levels of reality, obscuring the boundary between fiction and nonfiction, art and life, performance and reality. A blending of frame stories and tales in The Arabian Nights ties the work together as whole (see list in the previous paragraph). The principal characters learn of the first book about them in Don Quixote: When Don Quixote and Sancho Panza Hear of Their Book and a reader enters the book in When a Reader Enters a Book: Sampson and Quixote. The painting Las Meninas is set in a gallery much like the one Velasquez must have imagined his painting would hang in. Now it is the Prada, but the repetition of paintings, frames, and gallery space both inside and outside the painting blur the border of reality. Las Meninas also includes itself within the frame, as the painting Velasquez is working on is Las Meninas: A Metapainting. In the short film, Futurestates: A Metafilm, the viewer moves up and up through a whole series of realities, without knowing in the end what was the real real. A new invention tracks the eyes when reading, offering definitions and explanations if a reader pauses over a word, as I discussed in  Books That Read Your Gaze.

Exposing Conventions

Meta exposes conventions of the artform. Don Quixote plays out in the “real world” the conventions of romance novels, and he parodies the conventions of academic writing, still valid today, of quoting famous authors and including impressive bibliographies, which you can read about in How to Sound Like an Author of Great Reading, Learning and Eloquence: A  Quixotic Preface. Almost every aspect of Tristram Shandy is a breaking of conventions: a marbled page, usually a fly leaf, appears in the middle, included in the text; in chapter twenty of volume 3 you can find the preface; a dedication appears in chapter 8 of the first volume, then in the following chapter, Tristram offers to sell the dedication for 50 guineas, promising to print the buyer’s name in all succeeding editions. Rather than repeating the posts I have already mentioned several times, I will refer you to the previous paragraphs. In The World’s Shortest Novel? Snoopy’s It was a Dark and Stormy Night I look at how this very brief piece of fiction is in fact a novel because it succeeds at the literary tradition of an epic treatment of life.

(A bibliography of books mentioned can be found under the syllabus, Hop on the Silly-Bus, or under the individual posts.)

1 thought on “The Conventions of Unconventionality: An Overview of Metafiction”

  1. there you r! I don’t have FB anymore, so now I’m stuck reading your blog about metafiction. (phooey!) 🙂 Hope all is well in SF – survived pride and the pink party random shooting. talk about metafiction! ILY! Dave

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *