Metafiction in the 1960's Analysis

The Movement

Because traditional literary forms did not adequately reflect the social upheaval of the 1960’s, experimental authors chose to go beyond the idea that fiction should mimic reality. Instead, postmodernist writers embraced a kind of self-conscious fiction that examined the very process by which fiction is created. Few notable examples of metafiction existed before the late 1950’s. One rare early model is Tristram Shandy (1759-1767) by Laurence Sterne. André Gide’s seminal novel The Counterfeiters (1926) uses a predecessor to postmodernist experimentalism, the mise-en-abyme method (a method in which a continual internal duplication exists within a literary work). Metafiction in the United States was inspired by work in nonliterary artistic fields. In visual art, cubists, Dadaists, and expressionists provided impetus for metafictional writers by seeking to obliterate the paradoxical falsity of reality in their art, just as metafictional writers wanted to tear away facades in their fiction. In philosophy, eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant’s suggestion that humanity’s relationship to the world is defined by subjective sensory perceptions and that humans create their own reality prompted writers to diverge from traditional realistic fiction. Epistemological theories based on Kant pointed out that empirical evidence cannot exist, and thus life itself becomes a form of metafiction. These ideas impelled European authors such as Franz Kafka,...

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The experimental writers once shunned by the academic mainstream soon found their way into the traditional intellectual community. Once established as a legitimate genre, metafiction merged with other experimental techniques and with traditional literary methods. New structural devices in fiction—the use of typography as a literary tool, the portrayal of accepted reality as fantasy, the inclination of authors to freely exhibit their fictional natures, and the introduction of multiple and paradoxical viewpoints—became more conventional. This medley of literary styles generated a resurgence of romanticism and renewed dependence on personal insight for creative inspiration.

Subsequent Events

Metafiction retained its popularity throughout the 1970’s. Experimental writers who had first published in the 1960’s continued to contribute to the growing canon of metafiction. Gass objectified some ideas about the nature of metafiction in his Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), a text that legitimized the innovative fiction techniques of the 1960’s and became an important reference for critics of self-reflexive fiction. Pynchon published another experimental novel, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew (1979) portrayed the author as a character surrounded by other writers who were aware that they were characters in that novel. Coover’s controversial The Public Burning (1977) examined the association between humankind’s fictional schemes and reality. The general openness to new literary ideas in the 1960’s spawned creative output in the decades thereafter.

Additional Information

A study of modern experimental fiction with an emphasis on metafiction can be found in Fabulation and Metafiction (1979), by Robert Scholes. Larry McCaffery’s The Metafictional Muse (1982) focuses specifically on the works of Coover, Barthelme, and Gass. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (1990), by Chris Baldick, and A Handbook to Literature (1992), edited by C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon, offer basic definitions of metafiction.