"Introduction" to Metafiction
from Currie, Mark, ed.  Metafiction.  New York : Longman Group, 1995.
Presented by Joyce Liu, 29 October, 1998

Thesis: Presenting and discussing metafiction as a borderline discourse, as a kind of
writing on the border between authors and readers, fiction and criticism, or art
and life in the 20th century.


I. Definitions and Marginal Cases

A. Old Definitions

  1. In the late 1960s, metafiction is ¡§somehow about fiction itself.¡¨ (William Gass)
  2. In the 1970s, metafiction is ¡§fiction with self-consciousness, self-awareness, self-knowledge, ironic self-distance.¡¨
B. Three problems (1)
  1. The idea of self-consciousness is strangely inconsistent with most postmodern literary theories.
  2. According to the term ¡§self-consciousness,¡¨ it is not enough for metafiction to know it is fiction; it must also know that it is metafiction.
  3. ¡§Self-consciousness¡¨ is neither new nor meaningful ¡§self¡¨ consciousness.
C. Metafiction¢wplacing itself on the border between fiction and criticism
  1. The relationship between fiction and criticism. (2)
    1. The borderline between fiction and criticism has been a point of convergence where fiction and criticism have assimilated each other¡¦s insights, producing a self-conscious energy on both sides.
    2. For criticism, this has meant an affirmation of literariness in its own language, an increased awareness to which critical insights are formulated within fiction.
    3. For fiction, it has meant the assimilation of critical perspective within fictional narrative, a self-consciousness of the artificiality of its constructions and a fixation with the relationship between language and the world.
2. Self-consciousness

¡´ A ¡§mode of interestedness ultimately turns outwards.¡¨ (John Updike)

3. The inseparability of fiction and criticism¢wwriter and critic are the same
person (3)

    1. Novelists often depend on financially or intellectually on employment as critics.
    2. Academic literary critics have been increasingly successful as novelists, leading to a high level of critical awareness within their fictional productions.
    3. The writer/critic is thus a dialectical figure, embodying both the production and reception of fiction in the roles of author and reader in a way that is paradigmatic for metafiction.
  1. It could be also the boundary between art and life. (3-4)
Lodge¡¦s Small World Fowles¡¦s The French Lieutenant¡¦s Woman
Takes the world of professional literary criticism as its fictional object without explicitly highlighting the artificiality of the fictional process Highlights the artificiality of its construction without reference to literary criticism
The academic ¡§criticism¡¨ within the novel evokes implicitly the critical judgements that will be made of the novel. An intrusive authorial voice appropriates in self-commentary a less academic critical perspective to make a reader only as an addressee.
Dramatizes the critic more explicitly than Fowles¡¦s Allows the critic no explicit self-conscious or illusion-breaking dramatic function
Seems pertinent to the boundary between fiction and criticism. Articulates a critical perspective on the boundary between art and life.
  1. This difference illustrates an important preliminary distinction in the way (that metafictions dramatize the boundary between fiction and criticism,) either as illusion-breaking authorial intervention or as integrated dramatization of the external communication between author and reader.
  2. In both cases it is often through an internal boundary between art and life that the novel develops the self-commentary that gives it critical self-consciousness.
  3. This dramatization of the fiction/criticism boundary allows for marginal cases.
  4. ex. Conrad¡¦s Heart of Darkness.

  5. Two contradictory problems
    1. It implies that metafiction might not be as a generic category, but a funtion inherent in all novels.
    2. It also implies that metafiction in some cases is not inherent, but an objective property of the literary text.
II. From Modernism to New Historicism
  1. Two principal sources of linguistic self-consciousness in the 20th century
  1. Saussurean linguistic (6)
    1. It considers that referential function of languages is implicitly also self-referential because it depends upon the hidden system of differences, systemic and contextual, which give each sign its value.
    2. Language hides the conditions which permit meaning production, and the task of the structuralist analysis is therefore to make those conditions explicit.
  1. Literary modernism
    1. Transparent and invisible verbal structures are transformed into defamiliarised and visible techniques, so that referential meaning is articulated alongside a self-reference to the conditions of its own possibility.
    2. These tendencies in modernist fiction led critics in the first half of the century towards a formalist or language-based analysis.
  1. Literary formalism¢wthe convergence of Saussurean linguistic & Literary modernism
[Post-Structuralist Theories]
  1. Barthes¢wa key figure for the history of self-consciousness in criticism. (8)
  1. The conflation of reading and writing points the idea that literary structure is a function of reading, or that critical metalanguage project its own structure onto the object text in exactly the same way that language projects its structure onto the world.
  2. Fiction and criticism share a condition, that the role of the critical text is to articulate the self-consciousness that either the realist text lacked or that is immanent in the modernist text, and that at the same time the critical text must acknowledge reflexively its own structuration or literariness.
  1. Derrida¢wparamount for any analysis of the borderline of fiction and criticism in late 1960s and in the 1970.
  1. His questioning to Joyce affirms the literariness of criticism, he also affirms the metafictional critical functions of intertextuality, parody and anti-reference.
  2. His rejecting to Saussure on the assumption that spoken language is somehow closer to the signifying mind than writing.
  3. His problems with ¡§history¡¨ (11-12)
  1. Derrida and his American disciples are perceived as formalists who showed scant regard for the material historical processes which shape language and literature.
  2. He asserts that ¡§language was no more within history than history was within language.¡¨
  1. Foucault¢wreturning to historical writing as a strategic opposition to the values of traditional history (12-13)
  1. The ¡§structure of exclusion¡¨ of an historical explanation represented the structure of power and authority which sought to rearrange and efface the difference of events to produce a stable, centred narrative.
  2. His revised historicism is a refusal to efface the ¡§multiplicity of force relations,¡¨ and a turn towards the notion of history¡¦s complex plurality to trace a line, a causal sequence or a tradition through a completely different past.
  3. New Historicism¢wmoving away from the language-based analysis of deconstruction in the 1980s towards a self-conscious, textualist historicism.
  1. Post-formalist historiography (13-14)
  1. Self-conscious historiography
  1. Self-conscious novel
  1. In the act of telling a story, the novel is kind of history.
  2. It has the power to explore not only the conditions of its own production, but the implications of narrative explanation and historical reconstruction in general.
  1. Historiographic metafiction
III. Metafiction and Postmodernism
  1. The relationship between metafiction and postmodernism (15)
  1. Metafiction is not the only kind of postmodern fiction, and nor is it an exclusively postmodern kind of fiction.
  2. Metafiction cannot be defined without proposing a categorical separation of literary types and critical construction; and postmodernism is equally undefinable without some authority that could arbitrate between its meanings as a kind of art, an historical period, or some total ideological and political condition.
  1. Two categorical difficulties in metafiction (16-17)
  1. A metafictional novel cannot appropriate its own critical response by any amount of reflexivity.
  1. It formulates possible interpretation of the fiction by itself.
  2. It is still necessary to distinguish between appropriated critical perspective represented in Nicholas¡¦s quest, and the actual critical responses of external readers.
  1. Metafiction is not a type of fiction
  1. Tom Wolfe¡¦s idea about a novel and a metafictional novel
    1. Novel¡¦s most important energy is social realism, the ability of fiction to portray the real world
    2. Metafictional self-reference to the godlike power of the author, appropriation of critical prospective and endless intertextual cross-referencing are only decadent forms of self-absorption which deprive the novel of that important energy.
  1. Wolfe¡¦s The Bonfire of the Vanities
  1. Metafiction can be located at the conscious and the unconscious level of the text.
  1. Actually, ¡§postmodern fiction can generally be regarded as conscious metafiction, postmodern readings can also identify metafiction as an aspect of the unconsciousness level of the text.¡¨
  2. In other words, postmodernist fiction and criticism both aim to articulate the unconscious, and in particular the unconscious self-referentiality of non-metafictional fiction.
  1. The postmodern context is not one divided neatly between fictional texts and their critical readings, but a monistic world of representation in which the boundaries between art and life, language and metalanguage, and fiction and criticism are under philosophical attack. (17-18)
  1. Do you agree that a metafictional novel has no real reader, who can freely ¡§construct the text from some other critical perspective not appropriated by the text itself¡¨ ?
  2. How do you think about Tom Wolfe¡¦s assertion that a metafiction novel is not a type of fiction? Do you think that metafiction lack the contact with the reality?