Wednesday, September 12, 2012


 I learned something new last weekend. I learned the term metafiction which some have described as fiction looking at itself. Here's how it happened.

 While I was at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival, I made a special point of going to Tony Earley's reading. (I've mentioned Tony before and how much I love his writing.) He read an unpublished story about Jack -- that Jack, the Jack of the Jack Tales,  -- Jack the Giant Killer, Jack and the Beanstalk -- you probably know Jack.

The Jack Tales are simple folk tales that came over from England and have been told throughout the Appalachians. The author Richard Chase collected a good many. In these tales, Jack is sometimes simple-minded but always victorious. And the other characters -- the millers, the giants, the maidens, the old man on the road -- are stock one-dimensional characters.

 In Tony's delightful story, the stock characters rebel against their assigned roles. The maidens (oh! those maidens) have a lot to say about Jack's treatment of them in the old stories.  

I was entranced. And when the reading was over, I asked Tony to let me know when the story was published so I could get a copy. 

"It's going to be in The New Yorker sometime soon," he said.

Now, Tony has had stories in this august publication before but I expressed surprise that The New Yorker would be interested in a Jack Tale.

"Well," he explained, "it's because it's metafiction."

"Oh, ahh," I said, nodding and trying to look wise, "metafiction."

(As it happened, I had to hurry off to another event and I wasn't forced to betray my woeful ignorance.)
As well as being a graduate of a MFA program, Tony is professor of creative writing at Vanderbilt. He knows this stuff. My last encounter with literary academia was about forty years ago and I have a real feeling this term wasn't in use then.

So I went to Mr. Google and quickly found some good definitions: Oxford English Dictionary says that metafiction is fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions and traditional narrative techniques.

Another source speaks of a book, either directly or through the characters, being 'aware' that it is a form of fiction. A book looking at itself in a mirror, as I said.

I also learned that many of my favorite books fall into the category of metafiction -- Tristram Shandy and Northanger Abbey to begin with -- metafiction before there was the name.  Here's a short list of some more:

 Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut
Sophie’sWorld - Jostein Gaarder
Possession – A.S. Byatt
French Lieutenant’s Woman - John Fowles
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell – Susannah Clarke
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

There are several excellent links that explain metafiction at length but I'll leave it to those of you who're interested to ask Mr. Google. Me, I'm just tickled to have learned a new and useful word!


Ms. A said...

Ummmm, I don't think I know much more than when I started. Yep, I'm obviously quite dim... but your photos are great, as always!

Poetry24 said...

Hmm, the word is new to me, too. Interesting post, Vicki.

Brian Miller said...

pretty cool...seems i have heard that prior but was not familiar...i know some of those books you list but not all so...hmmm...

Wayfarin' Stranger said...

Reading fiction is like drinking wine; simply enjoy it without getting all New Yorker-ish about it.

Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

I'm tickled to learn a new word too. As one of my friends would say - way cool.

Frances said...

Vicki, having read most of those books you cite, I've been aware of meta wotsit for a while. When done well, it makes for great reading. I have read other examples that weren't that great.

Maybe it's a bit like conceptual art, not as easy to succeed, as an observer might think. I look forward to seeing the Jack tale in a future issue of The New Yorker.


Darla said...

Thanks for this ... I've learned something new, too!

Juliet said...

I love a new word too, and this one is fascinating. It opens doors. Love the way you've told the story of how you discovered it. Thank you.

Deanna said...

What a colorful word. No metafiction comes to mind, but now I'm going to have to check out some of the ones you mentioned. Thanks for the edjumacation!

katy gilmore said...

And I'm happy to be warned so I can act very knowing when I encounter this story in the New Yorker!

katy gilmore said...

And I'm happy to be warned so I can act very knowing when I encounter this story in the New Yorker!