Don Quixote: The Origin of 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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The Danger of Meta: Centre George Pompidou and David Foster Wallace’s “Octet”

Centre Georges Pompidou demonstrates the danger of meta:


(Image from

The Parisian art museum built in 1977 is meta-architecture because it exposes elements of a building that are usually hidden, placing them on the exterior. It teaches us to see a building as a material object made up of structure, support, pipes, wires. In the picture below some pipes are painted different colors, suggesting different systems, thus “exposing the device,” showing us how the building works. Very interesting, no doubt. So what’s the problem?
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