Do You Like the Story So Far?: Metafiction in Barthelme’s Snow White

snowwhite1When Donald Barthelme took popular characters (Batman and the Joker) and placed them in unusual, postmodern situations in his short story “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph” (1967), he was doing something new: taking an old, familiar story and turning it inside out. He did something as daring when he reinvented the story of Snow White in his 1967 novel of the same name.

The importance of these literary experiments can be seen in the influence they have had on generations of writers. Now reinventions of popular stories (such as the inversion of the superhero comic in Alan Moore’s Watchmen) and retellings of fairy tales (like Gregory Maguire’s Wicked) are as common as a cold, but when my paperback edition of Snow White was reprinted in 1971, the experiment was unusual enough to warrant this statement on the back: “Donald Barthelme’s Snow White is not the fairy tale you remember. But it’s the one you will never forget.”

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The Constructed Reader

Every text constructs a reader for itself. (You, my friend!) Whenever writers write, it is with the assumption that they are addressing others who do not know what they are explaining. Each time a narrator “recounts facts which he knows perfectly well,” writes Barthes, we find “a sign of the reading act, for there would not be much sense in the narrator giving himself information” (“An Introduction” 260).

Let’s test this assertion by considering a couple of potential exceptions. How about a note to self, like “Don’t forget to call Dad on Father’s Day”? Wouldn’t that be a “narrator giving himself information”? Actually, I would be writing to a future me who may have forgotten, therefore, a constructed reader who does not know.

T310 PL 52-53

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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 Reader as Screenwriter, Producer, Director, Set Designer, Lighting Designer, Casting Director, Costume Designer and Actor (Part I)

(A condensed version of this study appears in my book Narrative Madness, which you can acquire at or on Amazon.)

I know a very talented individual who adapts literary works, produces and directs them, designs staging, lighting and costumes, casts the characters, plays every last one of them and sometimes adds music and special effects. This whirlwind artist accomplishes all this effortlessly, while sitting around the house in underwear and a t-shirt. That genius, my friend, is you!

When a writer walks away from a text, she vanishes. Roland Barthes calls this “The death of the author.” The death of the author, however, is the birth of the reader! So, let me be the first to congratulate you as you step in for the author and rewrite everything, animate the work and perform the text. A piece of writing, like a music score, is a set of mute symbols until it is played. Only then does it come alive.

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