Thursday, April 12, 2012

Two types of metafiction

One might think: if philosophy speaks of the use of the word "philosophy" there must be a second-order philosophy. But it is not so: it is, rather, like the case of orthography, which deals with the word "orthography" among others without then being second-order.

I've been thinking about two types of metafiction, or at least metafictional moments: the type we're all too familiar with in recent years, where the metafiction is the point, and the (what to call it?) target fiction is in its service, and another more common, more exhilarating type (as I have come to think), where metafictional moments are actually in service of the story itself.

The first type - let Susanna Moore or Charlie Kaufman, or Borges, or Philip Roth or K. Dick stand for its practitioners - keeps you checking on its coherence. Does the level of self-reflexivity interact coherently with the other level, that which it self-reflexively circles or twists back into and out of? I guess all the paradoxes of time-travel SF form a subset of this kind of metafiction. It's a game, and the game is to see how the first-level fiction can unfold with at least some of its characters, and some putative or plausible audience members, unaware of its metafictional, metaphysical determinants. The fun is to get it, to see how well or how cleverly it works. And that is fun, but only one kind of fun. Of course in Roth or Nabokov or Dick, there are other kinds of fun as well. But somehow the metafictional perfection of their metafictional narratives subordinates all other aspects of those narratives to the self-reflexive theme.

The result is a kind of defensive irony, or at least the knowingness of an endlessly self-aware irony to which all events, characters, hopes, recognitions, resolutions reduce. Nothing really matters as its own moment: it's all the fulfillment of the typological structure of metafiction. The tone wears thin after a few decades of this.

The other kind of metafiction is exuberantly undefensive. Cervantes or Shakespeare "Nay, then, God be wi' you, an you talk in blank verse") are two obvious examples, but we could add Austen (especially Northanger Abbey), Melville, Thackeray, Marías, Bolaño and the more recent work of Steve Erickson (right now I am thinking in particular of These Dreams of You) to the list. There the metafiction is just a quick, convenient, fun, and pre-eminently local part of the fiction. The fiction isn't dragooned into serving the metafictional demonstration; the metafiction forms part of the series of events or incidents that the fiction delights in displaying.

So I guess this is really a post about fictional delight. It takes a long time to learn or relearn to read, and probably to write, fiction which knows about all the ways that it can be made to thematize itself, without being much concerned to show its mastery of such things. It's got other fish to fry - it's got fish to fry, is the point, and metafiction is one fish among others, tasty enough in convenient quantities in a varied diet, but not (as Blake said Swedenborg believed of himself) "the single one on earth that ever broke a net."


  1. If I may comment, "Eugene Onegin" immediately comes to mind as a prime example of the second kind -- playful, biting, deep metafiction, but still not an end in itself, far from it.

    1. Yes, I think you're right. Absolutely part of the charm. Thanks for this.

  2. Replies
    1. I really like that idea. I wonder if it's like Water Burns (Cary Grant) saying, in His Girl Friday, that the nondescript Bruce (Ralph Bellamy) "looks just like that fellow in the pictures, you know the one... Ralph Bellamy." Which is as affectively right as it gets.

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