A guest-post by K. Alan:
“When authors refer to their own writing, is it metafictional or just silly?”
I’ve become a bit choosy about my metafiction. I find myself wading through piles of recommended readings that are meant to be metafictional, only to find that the author appears in his own story, or pulls it apart at the end sometimes detracting value from the themes.
Even, my own attempt at writing a metafictional short story, Metavoice, ends in a “cheat;” while my protagonist solves a mystery by listening to what the narrator is saying, I couldn’t bear to leave it at that in my ending.
That is, nonetheless, the essence of metafiction: blurring the lines between the readers’ world, and the worlds that we read. It’s the literary equivalent to the theatre breaking down that infamous “fourth wall,” but without the benefit of having an audience right there in the room. Readers need to feel that they are intersecting with a story that is on the page.
It’s ironic that the best example I can use to illustrate has illustrations. One of the earlier entries in a surge of popular metafiction was Grant Morrison’s now-legendary revival of Animal Man, a formerly silly superhero published by DC Comics in the late 1980s.
In Morrison’s graphic novel (dare I say, ‘comic books’?) the protagonist, Buddy Baker, comes home to find his family brutally murdered, and—perhaps like most of us—can not accept this as reality. Consequently, he becomes sensitive to clues that his world is fiction—the heroes never age, nobody ever stammers, bathroom breaks are rare—so he uses his superpowers to break out of the frames surrounding his artwork, and into the studio of Grant Morrison himself. Buddy objects that Morrison has no right to ‘play God’ with his family, so Morrison alters the story to restore them to life… and they all live arbitrarily ever after, with Buddy no longer concerned about the reasons they are alive.
Of course, more went on in the story than this; like any good superhero comic, it is filled with… well, ‘superheroics.’ Those details, however, don’t matter right now. The point is that this was metafiction with a purpose: the reader is forced to question the value we place on free will, and whether we abandon that value at times when we happen to approve of controlling powers. It’s a startling realization that confronts us about our gods and our governments.
Startling realizations are a good reason to use any technique: even metafiction.
Of course, critics have panned literature like this again and again, and, based on my reading, I can see why. Asimov, by his own admission, wrote himself into Murder at the ABA because he needed something fun to get it finished in time. Even respected works, such as Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale trouble me, because readers of the story undo it completely in the epilogue: they step in to make sure that we stop suspending our disbelief.
On the other hand, Amis’ masterpiece, Time’s Arrow, uses metafiction without us realizing it, resulting in a shared value being shaken to its core. He does not do it because it’s ‘cool’ (even though it is) but to amplify the themes of his work. Read it. Read it now.
I think that’s as effective a definition as any of good metafiction: fiction that blurs the lines between realities in order to amplify the themes of a piece. I’m not convinced, however, that 90% of the “metafiction” out there attempts to achieve this.
That reaction makes me very cautious about attempting it myself. I softened the ending of Metavoice because I realised that I’m still waiting for that truly metafictional inspiration to strike.
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