Metafiction and Contemporary Fiction
- Ezra FeldmanEzra FeldmanWilliams College Department of English
William Gass coined the term “metafiction” in 1970 to get a handle on then-recent and innovative fictions by Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and Vladimir Nabokov, among others. In the critical context of the early 21st century, however, the term should be understood to name any fiction exhibiting a concern with the process, philosophy, and consequences of fiction-making. The history of metafiction is longer than that of the English-language novel. Metafictions dating from the last decade of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st typically concern themselves with the situation of discourse: they portray their characters awash in language that is potent because its origins and effects are myriad. Such metafictions ask how, why, and from where literary or narrative discourse stages its arrival on the page. In contrast, the major innovations of postmodernist, mid-20th-century metafictions are rightly characterized by Brian McHale as “ontological”; they urgently question the nature of reality as their language transports authors, narrators, readers, and characters among the different existential frames of history and fiction, past and present, and textual and corporeal reality. As a result of this difference, there is a gap between metafictional practice of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and the work of metafiction’s most influential critics: Gass, Robert Scholes, Linda Hutcheon, and Patricia Waugh, all of whom studied the varieties of metafiction in the 1970s and 1980s.
As contemporary metafictions attend to the situation of discourse, they dramatize how pieces of language move—not just across pages, but across plots, cultures, and philosophies. Various motives drive this contemporary interest in dramatizing how language moves and touches, including the influence of Deconstruction in the American academy. Deconstruction, like Marxist and psychoanalytic criticism, writes drama into the very making of meaning.
Contemporary ideas and materials—from Twitter narratives to viral memes to massively multiplayer online role-playing games—have mobilized discourse in new ways and transformed many of the philosophical puzzles of mid-20th-century metafiction into aspects of lived reality. Contemporary metafiction, consequently, puts metafictional devices and concerns into a new relationship with representation (mimesis). The world has caught up with metafiction, if it ever really lagged behind, and new forms of metafiction are being developed now to activate metafiction’s older questions anew.