Top Twenty One Metafictional Works: The Story That Swallows Its Tale

Fiction about fiction is metafiction, which allow writers and readers to examine the trickiness of storytelling. Here are the best works of metafiction in chronological order. For a much longer list, see my post 111 Best Works of Metafiction.

1. Cervantes, Miguel. Don Quixote. 1605.

Parodying chivalric romance by contrasting the lofty story-lines with the hard-edge of reality, Cervantes established two genres: metafiction and realism. Often called the first modern novel, it could also be called the first post-modern novel. It’s a book about books and the effects they have upon our lives, especially when we try to live out our fictions in the real world. Cervantes challenges the notion of objective history and blurs the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. The events are told by a series of authors nested one within the other like Chinese boxes, which draws attention to how stories are told and how each teller alters the tale. In the second volume, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza hear of the publication of the first. They meet a reader and talk to him about their own book. Don Quixote, expecting a heroic romance, is angered by his portrayal as a deluded, old fool, thus becoming a critic of his own book. (Learn more about this funny and insightful novel in my book Narrative Madness and my many posts about it.)

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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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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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This is not the title of another post on Tristram Shandy

because I am still considering what title I want to use. Although I have already written about the play of form in Laurence Sterne’s book (Tristram Shandy ****s Up the Page, Progressive Digressions in Tristram Shandy, and The Stuff That Dreams are Made Of), there is so much more to say! I feel I could go on exploring metafictional elements in Tristram Shandy for years and never get to the bottom of the book. So here are just a couple of additions to my earlier observations of metafiction in Laurence Sterne’s masterpiece.

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The Stuff That Dreams Are Made On: Paper, Ink, Letter and Word

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In Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne draws the reader’s attention to the stuff a book is made of: the pages, the spaces, the ink, the letters, and the words. I have already written about this in “Tristram Shandy ****s Up the Page,” but much more could be said about the earliest and still most complete metafictional novel ever written.

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Progressive Digressions in Tristram Shandy

In my copy of Tristram Shandy, pages 23 to 68 came loose and I joked about mixing them up and reading them in a random order, but it doesn’t work. There is order to the disorder, organization to the chaos.

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Tristram Shandy ****s Up the Page

Shockingly audacious even today, Tristram Shandy was printed in installments from 1759 to 1769, about two hundred and fifty years ago. Laurence Sterne misuses the stuff novels are made of — the ink, the symbols, the pages, the fly-leafs — to make readers aware of the materiality of the book. Flipping through the novel you will come across a totally black page, front and back. I say totally black, but only the part of the page where the text normally appears is blacked out. The block of ink is framed by normal margins and includes page numbers (33 and 34 in my edition). The motivation for this famous black page is the exclamation “Alas, poor YORICK!”, which appears twice on the previous page.

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