A playful and pretentious prefix! Use it today and impress your friends.
From the Greek μετά, meaning ‘with’, ‘after’, ‘between.’ The Oxford English Dictionary says, “The earliest words in English beginning with meta- are all derived ultimately from Greek (frequently via Latin or French); in most the idea conveyed by meta- is that of ‘change,’” as in metamorphosis, metaphor and metaplasm. English formations with meta- meaning ‘beyond’ (and that is the sense that will concern us here) appeared in the first half of the 17th century, as in metatheology. Scientists from the 19th century onwards also used the prefix to mean “behind,” as in metaphrenum, “situated between,” as in metasomatome, and “after,” as in metasperm (I like that one).
Many new academic disciplines began using the prefix, especially in the social sciences, with the sense of “beyond,” or dealing with second-order questions, questions about the nature of the field itself. It has even become a common word online. The blog program I am using, WordPress, has a heading called, “Meta,” where I can see meta-data, or data about the data, how many people have visited this blog, for example. (So there really are real people out there reading this! Thanks for joining me. Don’t forget to comment.)
The OED defines “meta-” so: “Prefixed to the name of a subject or discipline to denote another which deals with ulterior issues in the same field, or which raises questions about the nature of the original discipline and its methods, procedures, and assumptions.” The last part of this definition is particularly appropriate for our purposes, because I want to raise questions about the nature of fiction itself and its “methods, procedures and assumptions” (as well as language, blogs and classes).
The Oxford English Dictionary defines metafiction as “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 narrative techniques.” Here the OED makes a point of contrasting metafiction with naturalism. Naturalism is the convention of pretending that the writing you are doing is natural by leaving out imaginary things, focusing on more somber topics, and including details which give the illusion that readers are reading a real, particular story, rather than an invented one.
(By the way, who is the speaker in the dictionary? Nobody? Well, I can tell you something about the nobody who wrote the definition above. He or she was not a professor or student of literature. These days, a literary scholar would have said, “the narrator self-consciously alludes to the artificiality….” rather than “the author.” The writer does not distinguish between author and narrator, and so we can get a hint of his or her own perspective. We have caught the nobody speaker being somebody. Using a “nobody” speaker is a common convention in dictionaries and many other kinds of academic writing, but it is a convention, a rhetorical technique to make information seem unbiased, true. Don’t be fooled.)
All writing is fiction, so all writing is a lie. Unless that fiction is metafiction. The fiction that admits that it is fiction. Then, oh then, it is true! The truest story is the story that lays its own self bare and says, “Look at me! I am a cheat and a liar. This is what I am and I have a story to tell and the story is about you and the story goes that you are a story, a cheat and a liar, and yet somehow we share a dream, not the same dream, but a parallel one and that dream can change us both. For everything, everything, religion, music, art, science, philosophy, manga, porn, fanfics, blogs, and text messages are all stories we tell. We are the stories we tell about ourselves. And the story goes something like this….
Even metafiction, which questions the conventions of fiction, has its own set of conventions. What are the conventions of unconventionality? You can find the themes that I have come across in my post: The Conventions of Metafiction. See also a list of metafiction and metafictional works. Read more about metafiction and my theories in my book Narrrative Madness, available at narrativemadness.com and on Amazon.