Metafiction Essay - Critical Essays




The following entry presents criticism on authors and works of Metafiction.

Metafiction is a term applied to works of fiction that are concerned with the nature of fiction or the process of writing fiction in order to explore questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. Proponents of metafiction reject the concept that language reflects a coherent and objective world; instead, they assert that language is a complex, arbitrary system that can create its own forms and meanings. Their work intends to analyze the relationship between this linguistic system and the outside world. Metafiction rests on the principle of a fundamental dichotomy: the creation of a work of fiction and the stripping away of fictional illusions. Moreover, commentators have noted that metafiction gains popularity in times of crises and political and cultural uncertainty. The term itself seems to have originated in 1970 by the American novelist and critic William H. Gass in his collection of essays Fiction and the Figures of Life. Although metafictional elements can be found in all literary genres, it is predominant in the contemporary novel. Critics have traced the practice back to such early authors as Miguel de Cervantes, Henry Fielding, and Laurence Sterne. With the dawn of the twentieth century, metafiction emerged as a self-conscious, experimental form that reflected the seriousness and insecurity of the historical period; furthermore, it is perceived as a type of writing within the broader movement known as postmodernism. Modernists such as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Virginia Woolf wrote important metafictional works that reflected the breakdown of traditional values and influenced more recent authors. Considered the best-known contemporary practitioner of metafiction, John Barth has produced many prominent and self-referential works, such as his Lost in the Funhouse (1968) and Chimera (1972). Another well-known example of metafiction is John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), which self-consciously examines the use of the omniscient narrator and breaks the framework of the story in order to destroy the illusion of reality. James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) utilizes and parodies several different narrative styles. In If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (1979), by Italo Calvino, characters in the book read about their own fictional lives. Spanish metafiction is considered an influential sub-genre of Spanish literature and has attracted much attention from literary scholars. In fact, the entire classification of metafiction has emerged as a rich area for study and literary analysis over the past few decades, and some critics assert that every serious work of fiction is to some extent metafictional.

Representative Works

Sherwood Anderson
“Death in the Woods” (short story) 1933

John Barth
The Floating Opera (novel) 1956
The Sot-Weed Factor (novel) 1960
Giles Goat-Boy (novel) 1966
Lost in the Funhouse (short stories) 1968
Chimera (novel) 1972

Donald Barthelme
City Life (short stories) 1970

Samuel Beckett
Malone muert [Malone Dies] (novel) 1951
Molloy [Molloy] (novel) 1951
L'Innommable [The Unnamable] (novel) 1953

Jorge Luis Borges
Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (short stories) 1962

Italo Calvino
Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore [If on a Winter's Night a Traveler] (novel) 1979

Camilo José Cela
La Familia de Pascual Duarte [The Family of Pascual Duarte] (novel) 1942
La colmena [The Hive] (novel) 1951
Mazurca para dos muertos (novel) 1983

Miguel de Cervantes
El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha [Don Quixote of the Mancha] (novel) 1605

Aidan Chambers
Breaktime (novel) 1978

Robert Coover
Pricksongs and Descants (novel) 1969
The Public Burning (novel) 1977

Alvaro Cunqueiro
Un hombre que se parecía a Orestes (novel) 1969

William Faulkner
The Sound and the Fury (novel) 1929
Absalom, Absalom! (novel) 1936

Henry Fielding
Joseph Andrews (novel) 1742
Tom Jones (novel) 1749

John Fowles
The French Lieutenant's Woman (novel) 1969

Benito Perez Galdós
“La novela en el tranvía” [“The Streetcar Novel”] (short story) 1871
La incógnita (novel) 1889
Realidad: Novela en cinco jornadas (novel) 1890

William H. Gass
Omensetter's Luck (novel) 1966
Fiction and the Figures of Life (essays) 1970
The World Within the Word (essays) 1978

André Gide
Les Faux-Monnayeurs [The Counterfeiters] (novel) 1926

Luis Goytisolo
Recuento (novel) 1973
Juan sin tierra [Juan the Landless] (novel) 1975

Peter Handke
Wunschloses Unglück [A Sorrow beyond Dreams] (novella) 1972

B. S. Johnson
Travelling People (novel) 1963
Albert Angelo (novel) 1964

James Joyce
Ulysses (novel) 1922

Doris Lessing
The Golden Notebook (novel) 1962

Malcolm Lowry
Under the Volcano (novel) 1947
Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid (novel) 1968
“Ghostkeeper” (short story) 1973

George MacDonald
Phantastes (novel) 1858

Alice Munro
Who Do You Think You Are? (short stories) 1978; also published as The Beggar Maid, 1979
The Moons of Jupiter (short stories) 1982

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire (novel) 1962

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49 (novel) 1966

Francisco de Quevedo
Historia de la vida del Buscón (novel) 1626

Laurence Sterne
Tristram Shandy (novel) 1760

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester
Don Juan (novel) 1963
Fragmentos de apocalipsis (novel) 1977

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Slaughterhouse-Five (novel) 1969

Gordon Weaver
“The Parts of Speech” (short story) 1984

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Randall Craig (essay date spring 1984)

SOURCE: Craig, Randall. “Reader-Response Criticism and Literary Realism.” Essays in Literature 11, no. 1 (spring 1984): 113-26.

[In the following essay, Craig analyzes the relationship between reader-response theory and metafictional literature.]

Wolfgang Iser's study of the reader in the English novel and Robert Alter's survey of self-conscious fiction follow curiously similar paths, intersecting at Fielding, Sterne, and Thackeray, by-passing the major literary realists of the nineteenth century, and arriving safely in the compatible country of Joyce and Beckett.1 The similar itineraries suggest an affinity between the critical perspective of...

(The entire section is 6705 words.)

Stefano Tani (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Tani, Stefano. “The Metafictional Anti-Detective Novel.” In The Doomed Detective: The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction, pp. 113-47. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Tani provides an overview of the metafictional anti-detective novel and reviews the major works of the sub-genre.]

Metafictional anti-detective novels belong only in a general way to anti-detective fiction. In innovative anti-detective fiction the stress was on social criticism and on a solution without justice; in the deconstructive category I emphasized the nonsolution, the ambiguous perception of...

(The entire section is 13471 words.)

Patricia Waugh (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Waugh, Patricia. “What Is Metafiction and Why Are They Saying Such Awful Things about It?” In Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, pp. 1-21. London: Methuen, 1984.

[In the following essay, Waugh defines the genre of metafiction and asserts that “this form of fiction is worth studying not only because of its contemporary emergence but also because of the insights it offers into both the representational nature of all fiction and the literary history of the novel as genre.”]


The thing is this.

That of all the...

(The entire section is 6636 words.)

Linda Hutcheon (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Hutcheon, Linda. “Metafictional Implications for Novelistic Reference.” On Referring in Literature, edited by Anna Whiteside and Michael Issacharoff, pp. 1-13. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Hutcheon traces the implications of metafiction on the literary genre of the novel.]

The critical acceptance, not to say canonization, of contemporary metafiction—postmodernist, neobaroque,1 or whatever it is eventually to be named—has led to a rethinking of many of the traditional assumptions about the novel as a mimetic genre. In other words, the actual forms of the fictions themselves have brought about a...

(The entire section is 6854 words.)

Geoff Moss (essay date summer 1990)

SOURCE: Moss, Geoff. “Metafiction and the Poetics of Children's Literature.” Children's Literature Association Quarterly 15, no. 2 (summer 1990): 50-2.

[In the following essay, Moss explores metafictional children's texts.]

My starting point is the question: “Do metafictional texts have any place in children's literature?”—This is a little like asking: “should children be exposed to post-modernism … ?” To which the answer from children's literature circles might be either, “what on earth are you talking about?” or more likely, “Not bloody likely!” However, there is a Chinese proverb which goes like this: “If you draw your sword against the...

(The entire section is 2908 words.)

Criticism: Spanish Metafiction

David K. Herzberger (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Herzberger, David K. “Metafiction and the Contemporary Spanish Novel.” In Selected Proceedings 32nd Mountain Interstate Foreign Language Conference, edited by Gregorio C. Martin, pp. 145-54. Winston-Salem, N.C.: Wake Forest University, 1984.

[In the following essay, Herzberger perceives the maturation of contemporary Spanish metafiction “as a condition of intrinsic literary factors.”]

In its simplest and most common form, metafiction is fiction that reflects upon the nature of its own being: it is fiction used as an instrument of investigation into the nature of fiction. This kind of narrative generally casts aside the tenets of mimetic...

(The entire section is 3086 words.)

Robert C. Spires (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Spires, Robert C. “Violations and Pseudo-Violations: Quijote, Buscón, and ‘La novella en el tranvía’.” In Beyond the Metafictional Mode: Directions in the Modern Spanish Novel, pp. 18-31. Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

[In the following essay, Spires examines the early precursors of Spanish metafiction: Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote, Francisco de Quevedo's Historia de la vida del Buscón, and Benito Perez Galdós's “La novela en el tranvía.”]

As I begin this examination of the precursors of the Spanish metafictional mode with works of Cervantes, Quevedo, and Galdós, I confess to a certain...

(The entire section is 6377 words.)

Robert C. Spires (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Spires, Robert C. “Rebellion against Models: Don Juan and Orestes.” In Beyond the Metafictional Mode: Directions in the Modern Spanish Novel, pp. 58-71. Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

[In the following essay, Spires charts the development of the Spanish metafictional novel in the 1960s.]

The so-called “art for art's sake” movement of the 1920s and 1930s came to an abrupt end with the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Although it would be an exaggeration to say that novelistic activity ceased completely during the war years,1 most of the works emerging from that period are significant for historical rather...

(The entire section is 6272 words.)

Manuel Durán (essay date summer 1986)

SOURCE: Durán, Manuel. “Fiction and Metafiction in Contemporary Spanish Letters.” World Literature Today 60, no. 3 (summer 1986): 398-402.

[In the following essay, Durán underscores the influence of Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote on contemporary Spanish fiction and identifies several important Spanish authors.]

Slowly but steadily the Spanish novel has been changing course during the last decade. The trend is toward a more complex, less realistic narrative, one in which the author is often obviously present, pulling the strings and organizing the scene. We may call this new Spanish novel a “self-referential novel,” as does Robert Spires,1...

(The entire section is 4252 words.)

David K. Herzberger (essay date March 1988)

SOURCE: Herzberger, David K. “Split Referentiality and the Making of Character in Recent Spanish Metafiction.” Modern Language Notes 103, no. 2 (March 1988): 419-35.

[In the following essay, Herzberger analyzes the characters of the Spanish metafictional novel of the 1970s and 1980s.]

Character in fiction is an invention. Even when real people from outside the text are admitted to its created world, or when known historical events are used to designate time, place, or incident, readers are aware that the characters of a novel are not beings of flesh and blood, but fictional entities made of words. In many instances, however, and particularly in the case of the...

(The entire section is 7182 words.)

Linda M. Willem (essay date March 1990)

SOURCE: Willem, Linda M. “Turning La incógnita into Realidad: Galdós's Metafictional Magic Trick.” Modern Language Notes 105, no. 2 (March 1990): 385-91.

[In the following essay, Willem considers the complementary relationship between Benito Perez Galdós's La incógnita and Realidad.]

La incógnita holds a unique position within Galdós's literary production: it is the only novel which deliberately is left incomplete and requires a companion text, Realidad, to bring it to resolution. As Stephen Miller has pointed out, other interrelated Galdosian texts such as Tormento and La de Bringas or Nazarín and...

(The entire section is 3160 words.)

Criticism: Studies Of Metafictional Authors And Works

Barry Wood (essay date winter 1978)

SOURCE: Wood, Barry. “Malcolm Lowry's Metafiction: The Biography of a Genre.” Contemporary Literature 19, no. 1 (winter 1978): 1-25.

[In the following essay, Wood contends that Lowry's short story “Ghostkeeper” reveals insights into his creative process and acts as a model for his later work.]

The 1973 publication of “Ghostkeeper” in American Review made available one of the most tantalizing of Malcolm Lowry's later stories. Most commentators who have mentioned it note that it exists only in a first draft with inserted notes for revision; and Margerie Lowry includes an apologetic footnote to this effect in her Psalms and Songs version...

(The entire section is 9885 words.)

Ulrich Wicks (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Wicks, Ulrich. “Borges, Bertolucci, and Metafiction.” In Narrative Strategies: Original Essays in Film and Prose Fiction, edited by Syndy M. Conger and Janice R. Welsch, pp. 19-36. Macomb, Ill.: Western Illinois University, 1980.

[In the following essay, Wicks places the work of Jorge Luis Borges within the metafictional tradition of Miguel de Cervantes, Laurence Sterne, André Gide, and John Barth.]

Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or...

(The entire section is 9621 words.)

Inger Christensen (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Christensen, Inger. “John Barth's Metafictional Redemption.” In The Meaning of Metafiction: A Critical Study of Selected Novels by Sterne, Nabokov, Barth, and Beckett, pp. 57-79. Bergen, Norway: Universitetsforlaget, 1981.

[In the following essay, Christensen provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of John Barth's metafictional novels The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy.]

One of the stories in John Barth's fifth book Lost in the Funhouse (1968) is called “Petition”. It is written in the form of a letter to the King of Siam from a man who is a Siamese twin. The petitioner implores the King's help to be parted from his twin brother....

(The entire section is 11344 words.)

Raymond A. Mazurek (essay date spring 1982)

SOURCE: Mazurek, Raymond A. “Metafiction, the Historical Novel, and Coover's The Public Burning.Critique 23, no. 3 (spring 1982): 29-42.

[In the following essay, Mazurek views Robert Coover's The Public Burning as a metafictional historical novel.]

Robert Coover's The Public Burning (1977), a fictionalized account of the Rosenberg case told largely from the point of view of Richard Nixon, combines metafictional techniques with a critique of American history and ideology. Among the many recent examples of serious historical fiction, Coover's novel seems unusual in the extent of its satire and the bitterness of its vision. As the often...

(The entire section is 5015 words.)

Paul M. Hedeen (essay date winter 1985)

SOURCE: Hedeen, Paul M. “A Symbolic Center in a Conceptual Country: A Gassian Rubric for The Sound and the Fury.Modern Fiction Studies 31, no. 4 (winter 1985): 623-43.

[In the following essay, Hedeen discusses William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury as a work of metafiction, and explores the affinities shared between Faulkner and William Gass.]

Generally reflecting critical trends, most recent criticism of William Faulkner's fiction shares one general characteristic. It has moved away from reconciling his works with mimetic emphases on character, plot, and theme and has moved toward formalistic analyses that seek to place his works within his...

(The entire section is 9785 words.)

Jerry A. Varsava (essay date winter 1985)

SOURCE: Varsava, Jerry A. “Auto-Bio-Graphy as Metafiction: Peter Handke's A Sorrow beyond Dreams.Clio: A Journal of Literature, History and the Philosophy of History 14, no. 2 (winter 1985): 119-35.

[In the following essay, Varsava surveys metafictional elements in Peter Handke's A Sorrow beyond Dreams.]

Typically, contemporary metafiction has primarily dealt with a world of fictive events. The author—either directly or through a persona—reflects on the “made” or “constructed” quality of his fictional realm, dispelling notions of narrative omniscience and epistemological apodicticity as his fiction progresses. The reader infers that his own...

(The entire section is 7043 words.)

Thomas E. Kennedy (essay date summer 1987)

SOURCE: Kennedy, Thomas E. “Fiction as Its Own Subject: An Essay and Two Examples—Anderson's ‘Death in the Woods’ and Weaver's ‘The Parts of Speech.’” Kenyon Review 9, no. 3 (summer 1987): 59-70.

[In the following essay, Kennedy examines two little-known works of short metafiction—Sherwood Anderson's “Death in the Woods” and Gordon Weaver's “The Parts of Speech.”]

The terms “metafiction” and “self-reflexive fiction” have been used to denote fiction's deliberately self-conscious employment of technique to bolster the deteriorated equipment of more conventional methods with which the art is concealed. Thus, for example, Barth employs...

(The entire section is 6212 words.)

Michael Dunne (essay date fall 1987)

SOURCE: Dunne, Michael. “Stardust Memories, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and the Tradition of Metafiction.” Film Criticism 12, no. 1 (fall 1987): 19-27.

[In the following essay, Dunne finds parallels between John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse and Woody Allen's film The Purple Rose of Cairo.]

Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) has the same relation to romantic film comedy as radical post-modern writing such as John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse (1967) has to traditional prose fiction. The chief parallel stems from the fact that, faced with outmoded conventional forms, Allen—like Barth—ironically raises doubts about the...

(The entire section is 4812 words.)

John Pennington (essay date spring 1988)

SOURCE: Pennington, John. “Phantastes as Metafiction: George MacDonald's Self-Reflexive Myth.” Mythlore 14, no. 3 (spring 1988): 26-9.

[In the following essay, Pennington asserts that George MacDonald's Phantastes “anticipates modern metafictional techniques.”]

G. K. Chesterton called George MacDonald “a spiritual genius” whose “fairy tales and allegorical fantasies were epoch-making in the lives of multitudes, children and parents alike …” (p. 1) W. H. Auden considered him “pre-eminently a mythopoeic writer,” and “in his power … to project his innerlife into images, events, beings, landscapes which are valid for all, he is one...

(The entire section is 3857 words.)

Katherine Fishburn (essay date summer 1988)

SOURCE: Fishburn, Katherine. “Wor(l)ds within Words: Doris Lessing as Meta-Fictionist and Meta-Physician.” Studies in the Novel 20, no. 2 (summer 1988): 186-205.

[In the following essay, Fishburn identifies and discusses the work of Doris Lessing as a metafictional writer.]

—A book which does not contain its counterbook is considered incomplete.

—Jorge Luis Borges

Although Doris Lessing is probably best known as the author of The Golden Notebook, I think it is safe to say that most critics would not characterize the bulk of her fiction as formally experimental or even up-to-date. In...

(The entire section is 10390 words.)

Molly Hite (essay date fall 1988)

SOURCE: Hite, Molly. “(En)gendering Metafiction: Doris Lessing's Rehearsals for The Golden Notebook.Modern Fiction Studies 34, no. 3 (fall 1988): 481-500.

[In the following essay, Hite examines the origins of Lessing's metafictional The Golden Notebook.]

Metafiction—fiction that is in some overt way about fiction—is one of the few literary genres that has managed to provoke and sustain controversy throughout its history.1 Not merely individual works of metafiction, but metafiction itself is regularly stigmatized or applauded as “subversive,” to the point where subversion might be called its defining feature. But the subversion presumed...

(The entire section is 9328 words.)

Helen Hoy (essay date summer 1989)

SOURCE: Hoy, Helen. “‘Rose and Janet’: Alice Munro's Metafiction.” Canadian Literature 121 (summer 1989): 59-83.

[In the following essay, Hoy traces the complicated publication history of Alice Munro's collection of short fiction Who Do You Think You Are? and discusses stylistic and thematic aspects of her stories.]

“‘That Rose you write about? Is that supposed to be you?’”1


Before Alice Munro's Who Do You Think You Are? appeared in the fall of 1978, her anticipated new collection of stories was...

(The entire section is 11688 words.)

Further Reading


Borland, Isabel Alvarez. “An Approach Using History, Myth, and Metafiction.” In Approaches to Teaching García Márquez's “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” edited by María Elena de Valdés and Mario J. Valdés, pp. 89-96. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1990.

Explores the historical, mythical, and metafictional dimensions of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Brienza, Susan D. Samuel Beckett's “New Worlds.” Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987, 290 p.

Full-length critical study of Beckett's metafictional work.

(The entire section is 81 words.)