What is Metafiction?

Meta:

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).

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Don Quixote: The Origin of Modern Realism and Metafiction


tilting-at-windmillsAdapting genres, Cervantes created two new ones: realism and metafiction, says Robert Alter in Partial Magic (1979). The “juxtaposition of high-flown literary fantasies with grubby actuality” established realism, while the “zestfully ostentatious manipulation” of the artifice of literary creation set precedent for “all the self-conscious novelists to come” (Alter 3 – 4). Realism and metafiction were born on the same day and became, almost immediately, rivals. Metafiction is the elder brother, however, since realism was a metafictional technique Cervantes created to parody the conventions of romance. Most fiction since Cervantes, says Alter, can be classified under one of these two headings.

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Actors Playing Themselves

What does it mean when stars portray themselves? Are we getting a glimpse of  “the real person”? Far from it! We learn instead that the actor and the image are not the same person. Few performances are as artificial as those in which actors play themselves.

In an interview with the acclaimed actor Michael Cain, Michael Parkinson said, “Yours is the most impersonated voice in the business.” Cain responds, “Oh yeah, everyone– I– I can do it.”

“Can you do it?”

“Yeah, yeah . . . ‘Ello, My name is Michael Cain.” (When he says his name, it sounds like “my cocaine.”) The interviewer and the studio audience laugh. Michael Cain does not. He says, rather seriously, “I sound like a bloody moron.” What does it mean when an actor criticizes his own image?

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Metamucil: Making Meta-Shit Happen

(Photo borrowed from the hysterical website de-motivational.com.)

If metafiction is fiction about fiction and metapainting is painting about painting, “Metamucil” must be mucil about mucil, right? But what is mucil?

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Like This!: The Liking of the Liking of Liking

I just liked a new Facebook page called, “Liking.” I liked it before I liked it and I still like it. You should like it too. Why not?

The “Like” button on Facebook has changed the verb. Before Facebook, “like” was a positive emotion one felt towards a person or object, but now “liking” means pressing a button. Doing so means you like something in the traditional sense, so the like button refers back to the furry and friendly emotion. The button hasn’t replaced the feeling, so there is no reason not to like it.

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Don’t Invalidate My Existence: A Meta-Dream

Sometimes I realize I am dreaming. Once, my college friend Robert Lochner and I were in line at the check-out counter of a grocery store. I told Robert I was dreaming as the cashier began to ring me up and that everyone in my dream was a figment of my imagination and that they would cease to exist as soon as I woke up. Robert, who was familiar with my philosophical posturing, rolled his eyes, but kept quiet, waiting for his turn at the register. The cashier, however, got very upset.

“I don’t care what you believe,” she said, pointing at me, “but don’t you invalidate my existence! You hear me? You can think whatever you want–I don’t care–but it is extremely, extremely rude to tell someone they don’t exist. How would you feel if I told you were just a character in my dream? A figment of my imagination? How would you like that?”

That is all I remember. I woke up. My friend Robert survived the dream although I haven’t heard from him in years. I was about to say that the cashier did not survive, but I have told this story several times and now I have written it down and sent it out into the cloud. The cashier doggedly continues her existence in spite of my insensitive comments. She exists. She is real.

(To read more about the reality of fiction, read my book Narrative Madness, available at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon.)

Watching the Watcher: McMenamy x M.A.C., a Meta-Movie

In this short metafilm by Miles Aldridge, the viewer watches supermodel Kristen McMenamy, “the cosmetics muse,” watching a movie. We never see what she is seeing. We only see her face (and bold makeup, hair and clothing). We are the watchers that watch the watcher. We enjoy her enjoyment and get off on her catharsis.

McMenamy x M·A·C on Nowness.com.

(Read more about metafilms in this post by Omar Rodriguez Rodriguez: Metafilms: An Introduction.)

Hisstory Repleats Herself: James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake

One of the most metafictional books: a story about a story that is repeated endlessly, the one story that is all stories at once, the cyclical story of the rise and fall of humanity.

Joyce essentially invented his own mishmash of languages, making the book notoriously difficult to read, but if you drink several glasses of Irish whiskey, smoke a few bowls and squint a lot the book becomes more readable . . . even funny! You should think of the novel as a great collection of puns.

Here is the first line: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” Joyce packs in meaning by using puns and allusions (which are themselves a kind of pun). On a cursory count I find at least fourteen. “Past,” for example, is the preposition as in “the river flows past the church.” It also refers to the past, a central theme of the work. It can also be a homonym for the past tense of the verb “to pass”: passed. A Reader’s Guide to Finnegan’s Wake by William York Tindall explains some of the allusions: “‘Riverrun,’ the first word is the central word of the book; for Anna Livia’s Liffey, the feminine creative principle, is the river of time and life. The Liffey flows past the church of Adam and Eve (reversed here to imply temptation, fall, and renewal) and into Dublin Bay, where . . . it circulates up to Howth, the northern extremity of the bay. ‘Eve and Adam’s’ unites Dublin with Eden and one time with another” (Tindall 30).

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Understanding is Making Up Stories about Chaos

(An extract from my book Narrative Madness, which can be acquired at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon.)

We, as language-users, constantly name ourselves, others, settings, actions, and events in an order that makes sense to us. We may not always use Don Quixote’s romantic language nor share his chivalric plot line, but he is only doing what all of us do: trying to make sense of the noise and confusion of life through narrative language. (Actually, you may think that you do not participate in the world of the chivalric romance, but I know you as you are: a furtive romantic, a closet hero.)

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The Artificial “I”

(From my book Narrative Madness, which can be acquired at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon.)

All names are fictions, including the one that is closest to myself, that intimate name of names, my name for myself. For even the precious word “I” – which rises like a monolith above my head, promising singularity and unity – is an invented word, not a natural concept.

“I” is not a person. “I” is a letter. “I” is a word. Letters and words carry with them traces of their history, tracks that lead back in time, in the shapes of the letters and the derivations of the words. Our letter comes from the Egyptian pictogram of an arm, representing the long-”A” sound, later incorporated into the proto-Semitic language because their word for arm started with that sound (as ours does). Perhaps we can read a connection here between self and action. A derivation of the letter can be found in most Semitic alphabets. The letter Yud – Yodh, Yod, Ye or Jodh – is the tenth letter in Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Persian and Arabic. In Hebrew, two Yud in a row represent Adonai, a name of God. Mystical significance is attached to this divine name because it is formed from the smallest letter.

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