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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inside gertrude stein: A Meta-Prose Poem by Lynn Emanuel

inside gertrude stein

Right now as I am talking to you and as you are being talked to, without letup, it is becoming clear that gertrude stein has hijacked me and that this feeling that you are having now as you read this, that this is what it feels like to be inside gertrude stein. This is what it feels like to be a huge typewriter in a dress. Yes, I feel we have gotten inside gertrude stein, and of course it is dark inside the enormous gertrude, it is like being locked up in a refrigerator lit only by a smiling rind of cheese. Being inside gertrude is like being inside a monument made of a cloud which is always moving across the sky which is also moving. Gertrude is a huge galleon of cloud anchored to the ground by one small tether, yes, I see it down there, do you see that tiny snail glued to the tackboard of the landscape? That is alice . . .

Because someone must be gertrude stein, someone must save us from the literalists and realists, and narratives of the beginning and end, someone must be a river that can type. And why not I?

(Quoted in David Bartholomae’s Writing in the Margins (Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2005).

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Don Quijote: The Impossible Truth

Don Quijote de la Mancha is the impossible truth: the book is a fiction, a lie, and yet it is true. Truer than a non-fiction biography of Cervantes. We would only read such a bio because we love our mad knight-errant and his earthy squire, Sancho Panza. The novel tells us much more about the real Cervantes than any bio could every do: valet, soldier, ransomed by pirates, soldier, tax collector, convict (jailed for discrepancies  in the accounts while tax collector), poet, playwright, and the first modern novelist.

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A Realistic Story of a Little Girl with Dimples

Is this a realistic narrative? A little girl with dimples and pink ribbons gets the puppy she wanted for her birthday, even though her mother has said they couldn’t afford it. The girl wraps her pudgy arms around her mom’s neck and whispers, “Thanks, Mommy-cakes. I love you so much.”

Not very realistic? Why not? Such things don’t happen? Or does the tale sound like the type of story that makes people smile and feel good. It may be “heart-warming,” but it isn’t what we call “realistic.”

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