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date: 23 April 2024



  • Jerome Klinkowitz


  • North American Literatures

Metafiction is a style of prose narrative in which attention is directed to the process of fictive composition. The most obvious example of a metafictive work is a novel about a novelist writing a novel, with the protagonist sharing the name of the creator and each book having the same title. Such an approach defies both the tradition of the novel itself, which for over two hundred years has insisted that the form be a representative account of doings in the world, and aesthetic theory, dominant since first expounded late in the eighteenth century by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that the reader of such work will participate in a willing suspension of disbelief. The very term “novel” derives from the Italian word for “new,” and after initial experiments by eighteenth-century English novelists involving formats such as letters (Samuel Richardson) and direct authorial comment (Laurence Sterne), a mainstream developed in which the role of writers both in Britain and in the United States was to make their novels reflect, in an illusionistic manner, the persons, places, and things of a recognizable time and place.

Although some American writers of the mid-nineteenth century (most notably Nathaniel Hawthorne in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables, published in 1851) argued that conditions in the young United States were more favorable to the romance (with its privileging of the imagination over the reason), the American novel developed with the same disposition toward realistic representation that had come to dominate the form. Even such a grandly romantic work as Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851) rested on a solid grounding of verifiable information about the people and materials involved in the whaling industry. And while succeeding eras would alternately stress and deemphasize such a factual bias—realism and naturalism in the later nineteenth century emulating an almost sociological and scientific accuracy, modernism in the twentieth century replacing it with a new mythological and psychological interest—novelists and readers shared a common expectation for the form. In the 1930s and 1940s, the social realism of John Steinbeck and Richard Wright offered works heavy on implied commentary, and from the 1950s on, stylists of morals (Flannery O'Connor, Saul Bellow) and manners (John Updike, John Cheever) would anchor their fiction in accounts drawn from an easily recognized, commonly inhabited world.

It was into this world, with its comfortably stable tradition for reality-affirming fiction, that the metafictive impulse asserted itself in the 1960s. Its motives run directly counter to the values that had defined the novel to date, placing a much greater emphasis on the act of making such a work of art and implying that representing news about the world was not a very important part of fiction's business at all. Literary theories, such as deconstruction and the death of the novel, contributed to this new style of writing, but its most important stimuli for innovation were the cultural changes evident at this time. The 1960s in America was a time of countercultural revolution, and a heady sense of revolt characterizes the work of emerging metafictionists. Political parties were changing, and so were allegiances to values and traditions that had been unquestioned for generations. The nation was at war (in Vietnam), and a sizable proportion of the population opposed that war. New attitudes toward sexuality and sexual behavior were expressed and took hold. Mainstream culture now seemed less dominant than a new multicultural mix. Men alone no longer served as the index to importance. Challenging old assumptions about fiction seemed just one more step in reformulating beliefs.

The Motive for Metafiction

It is a high irony in the history of the novel that metafiction's strength may derive, at least in part, from the conventional novel's self-perceived weakness. The moment for this insight came in 1960, during the “death of the novel” controversy in which critics were complaining that the novel, an eighteenth-century form, might no longer be adequate to express the transformed nature of reality. The transformations in mind were scientific and philosophical, involving such ideas as relativity in physics, uncertainty in scientific method, and any number of philosophies that challenged the centrality of human intellect in the world's doings. Yet it was a novelist, Philip Roth, who in looking at the topical nature of his time's realities first expressed despair at representing them. As collected in his Reading Myself and Others (1974), Roth's complaints to a 1960 symposium on the novel's future capture the discomfort that realists of his era felt when faced with the nature of life as it had recently evolved.

What was Roth's problem with the just completed 1950s, in which he had struggled to locate his first two novels? “Simply this: that the American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality.” To Roth, young and imaginatively vibrant as he was, the current scene was eclipsing conventional attempts at representation. “It stupifies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's meager imagination,” he lamented. “The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist” (Reading Myself, p. 120). His immediate provocation was the way a local newspaper had reported a murder case, picturing the victims like comic strip characters and stationing a correspondent on the bereaved mother's front porch, generating human interest columns that sustained readership as loyally as had installments of a Charles Dickens novel one hundred years before. Press conferences were held to keep the material freshly spiced, and a popular song turned the event into a minstrel epic. Charitable contributions came in, enabling the mother to buy new kitchen appliances and a pair of matched parakeets, which she named after her murdered daughters.

From local interest to national issues (involving colorful characters and events from the last years of the Eisenhower administration), Roth regaled the symposium with material eclipsing any past, present, or future possibilities in fiction. Did this mean that the novel was indeed dead? If creating characters that test (but never exceed) credibility and spinning narratives that capture a quality of life as customarily lived are the necessary criteria, then its capacities may well have been exceeded by the enormities of current life. Roth's own response was to go ahead and include such apparently preposterous content anyway; from the excesses of President Richard Nixon's presidency in Our Gang (1971) to the uninhibited sexuality of Portnoy's Complaint (1969), he would emulate the black humor school of fiction (pioneered by such satirists as Terry Southern and Bruce Jay Friedman) in order to let the shock value of his material distract from any concerns for literary form. Form itself would be left to the metafictionists, soon to appear among the ranks of even newer novelists who would in time expand fiction's boundaries sufficiently for even a mainstream novelist like Roth to introduce experiments with technique.

Literary theorists also began checking in around this time with their own objections. The early 1960s were the years when Americans first took heed of the critical practice known as deconstruction. Popularized in France with social and cultural essays written by Roland Barthes and literary analyses drawn by Jacques Derrida, deconstruction examines the unstated assumptions that stand behind conventional beliefs. The traditional novel would prove especially vulnerable to such a practice that could unmask its presumptions and undercut the viability of their basis. Deconstruction's favorite target is conventional fiction's totalizing effect, its assurance (to readers who have willingly suspended their disbelief) that the world it depicts is sufficiently manageable to be contained in a narrative under the author's absolute control. Such conditions are essential for the illusionistic novel to do its job, but these are the very assumptions most easily deconstructed. For Barthes in particular, classic fiction would prove especially illustrative of the novel's power to deceive; his analysis of Balzac's Sarrasine demonstrates just how such a work depends upon unquestioned assumptions. Not that writing novels is evil—just that the habits they encourage allow readers to be misled by similar uninterrogated manipulations in politics and social practice.

Deconstruction does more than disassemble statements in order to uncover hidden principles. It also provides a way of reading all human activities by interpreting them as signs. By looking back to the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, theorists could see that just as language is generated by a grammar for the combination of linguistic signifiers, so all human activity could be understood in terms of the exchange of signs. The problem this caused for the traditional novel was that Saussure's method describes not identities but differences—cat, for instance, indicates not a certain animal but the way this term differs from other alphabetical constructions, such as bat, hat, sat, dat, and so forth through all possible permutations. Although the cat certainly exists, what matters for the system referring to it is how it differs from other linguistic constructions—how it is a different sign. Therefore, if one were to construct a system of representations, be it in language or in artistically conceived social practice, emphasis would need to be on the artifice of differences rather than on the thing in itself. Such a theory is anathema to the illusionistic business of conventional fiction, but is made to order for metafiction. It is no accident, then, that metafiction made its first major appearance in the 1960s, just as deconstruction arrived on American shores.

The Challenge for Metafiction

“It seems a country-headed thing to say: that literature is language, that stories and the places and people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes of cloth or metal tubes.” So writes William H. Gass in 1970, his Fiction and the Figures of Life helping readers understand the challenges being faced in his own work and by any number of innovative novelists emerging in the middle to late 1960s. “Still, we cannot be too simple at the start,” he allows, “since the obvious is often the unobserved.” Yet to call such notions into question is alarming. “It seems incredible,” he grants, “the ease with which we sink through books quite out of sight, pass clamorous pages into soundless dreams.” Becoming aware of such practice can make for a rude awakening. “That novels should be made of words, and merely words, is shocking, really. It's as though you had discovered that your wife were made of rubber; the bliss of all those years, the fears…from sponge” (p. 27).

Metafiction—fiction that not only acknowledges the materials of its own composition but also makes that act of composition its own subject—broke onto the literary scene like so many other events of the American 1960s: brashly, even shockingly, but with an exuberance that conveyed a sense of joy rather than of malice. Yes, its practitioners would sweep away the conventions of traditional fiction, though for the most part it would happen with a great sense of humor. One of their points was that older novelists had taken the form too seriously, using it for ponderous moral statements or deadeningly meticulous descriptions. Fiction could do this, of course, but there was so much more that could be accomplished if writers would set aside the seriousness for a moment and have the fun that artistic creation provides.

Such playfulness typifies Richard Brautigan's novel Trout Fishing in America (1967), a work whose organization seems nothing more than the writer's fancy with language and the things it can do. Its many short chapters are given whimsical titles such as “Sea, Sea Rider,” “The Shipping of Trout Fishing in America Shorty to Nelson Algren,” and “The Cleveland Wrecking Yard,” and most are self-apparent regarding their ingenuity (the Shorty in question is such a stereotypical character of gritty social realism that Brautigan ends up putting him in a box and sending him to the author of A Walk on the Wild Side and The Neon Wilderness). The novel's final piece is called “The Mayonnaise Chapter.” Why? Simply because the author has always wanted to write a book that ends with the word “mayonnaise.” Because Trout Fishing in America is a work of metafiction, proudly proclaiming its own artifice, Brautigan is free to do so. Yet even here he makes it a trick, concluding with a banal letter of condolence replete with trite phrasing and meaningless sentiment, followed by the non sequitur of an apologetic P.S. that says “Sorry I forgot to give you the mayonaise” (p. 112; sic). The joke is doubled when readers see that thanks to the misspelling, Brautigan has yet to achieve his goal—and that, as Saussure and the later deconstructionists would argue, it's the word, and not the condiment, that's of substance here.

Playfulness on the page is a frequent feature of metafiction, serving as a friendly reminder that this new type of novel is less a representation of reality to be projected in the reader's mind than it is an event happening on the page. In Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife (1968) William H. Gass takes almost every step physically possible to emphasize the manufactured nature of his narrative: using different typefaces in different sizes, adding footnotes until they threaten to chase his story off the page, directing the publisher to use different colored paper for the book's successive sections, leaving the stained imprint of his coffee cup on the page, and, as a desperate attention-getter for the solid reality of his words, screening them across a woman's naked body. In the deliberately misspelled title of Steve Katz's novel The Exagggerations of Peter Prince (1968; sic) can be found another way typography draws attention to language's artificiality. Words do not happen naturally, but are made, Katz suggests; and sometimes they can be made incorrectly. The same goes for fictive narratives: they are made of words, and one narrative has no better claim to authority than another. Hence a second one soon appears in a rival second column, and then a third. Sometimes pages are crossed out but let allowed to stand, still easily legible, as a record of the author's process.

An important feature of the metafictive impulse is its delight in showing readers what can be done with the form. Robert Coover's 1968 novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is a fine demonstration of metafiction's ability to instruct, starting as it does with a conventional narrative that by easy steps turns into a full-blown example of the new style. J. Henry Waugh doesn't write a novel, but he does create a universe of representations: a card table baseball game that he plays with cards and dice. Such practice has long been a metaphor for God's operation of worldly existence, and at the beginning Coover has his fun with this notion. But soon Waugh becomes less of an omnipotent creator than a prisoner of the game he has devised. This happens because of his desire not just to throw the dice (of action) and turn the cards (for probabilities of occurrence) for the teams in his imaginary league, but also to keep records of each game and compile many years of league history (easily done, as an entire season can be played in a week or less, given the dice-thrower's time). Even more like a conventional novelist, he invents fully realized characters to go with the names on his roster. Again, this is a familiar enough property of real life, part of the baseball lore Coover absorbed as a child:

You roll. Player A gets a hit or he doesn't, gets his man out or he doesn't. Sounds simple. But call Player A “Sycamore Flynn” or “Melbourne Trench” and something starts to happen. He shrinks or grows, stretches out or puts on muscle. Sprays singles to all fields or belts them over the wall. Throws mostly fastballs like Swanee Law or curves like Mickey Halifax. Choleric like Rag Rooney or slow and smooth like his old first-base rival Mose Stanford. Not easy to tell just how or why.

(p. 47)

Henry Waugh seems in control of this, having both created the names and continuing to throw the dice. But he realizes that if he were to cease playing, a whole world would go out of existence, including his own role as creator of it. Once thrown, the dice dictate the action. In the meantime, Waugh develops his own favorites, including a rookie pitcher so talented (read: so lucky with Waugh's throws) that he's likely to break all records. But then a terrible probability comes up, a one-in-a-million chance that nevertheless rules the existence being played out in this game: the character is struck and killed by a line drive.

Here is the novel's crisis, not just in the fictively portrayed action but also in the narrative's own metafictional being. The pitcher's death will be a tragedy for both the game's participants and its maker, and so the maker intervenes, setting the card aside and choosing another. At this point a transition begins; slowly but steadily, the point of view shifts from Henry Waugh above the table to the action taking place on it—a literal version of the aesthetic behind the equivalent of metafiction in painting, the abstract expressionism of such midcentury artists as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, for whom the canvas was no longer a surface upon which to represent but an arena within which to act. To explain the pitcher's sudden salvation, the players devise a myth, one that comes to be acted out year after year in ritual fashion, as they struggle to participate in the sense of their own creation. From time to time they glance at the sky, especially at its shining source of illumination, a globe bearing a manufacturer's name and its wattage rating. And their life, inevitably, goes on, just as does the life of their creator, J. Henry Waugh, proprietor of the Universal Baseball Association, Inc.

Coover, born in 1932, is just a year older than Philip Roth, and is a graduate of the same University of Chicago master's program in English. However, service in the U.S. Navy delayed his schooling just long enough for him to graduate into a new generation of fiction writers, ones for whom Roth's fear about an increasingly preposterous style in American life was a provocation rather than an intimidation. Coover's teaching career had a significant start, at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop as a colleague of both Kurt Vonnegut, at the time writing early drafts of Slaughterhouse-Five (to be published in 1969), and Robert Scholes, whose critical study The Fabulators (1967) was the first to proclaim a new age of metafiction for the American novel. From these beginnings Coover continued as a quasi-metafictionist, using the style's principles and techniques as thematic material in his own narratives that draw equal strength from the materials of popular culture. As baseball helps locate Coover's metafictive doings within a commonly shared lore, so does politics (as another spectator sport) provide a familiar scene within which to enact a basically metafictive story. The author uses it several times, for both very long and relatively short (novella-length) works, creating what critic Linda Hutcheon has called historiographic metafiction, in which the historical record itself is shown to be quite an artificial construction.

The Public Burning (1977) is Coover's major work in this vein. It approaches the semiology that had paved the way for this new novelistic theory from another direction, using the textual nature of signs in a culture as elements in its essentially fictive nature. As if to answer Philip Roth's complaint about the absurdity of the American 1950s, Coover locates his narrative squarely within the sociopolitical doings of those years, including minor (yet colorful) scandals of the Eisenhower administration and the figments of popular imagination stirred by Cold War hysteria. Historically, the execution of atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg motivates the narrative, but more deeply characterizing it are the signs and symbols of Americana, from Uncle Sam (carrying on like a Yankee peddler in marketing his country's myths) to Richard Nixon, behaving in cartoonish form as an enfiguration of liberal anathemas. Anticommunist rages by such people as Senator Joseph McCarthy and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover are indeed challenges to the novelist's powers of creativity; Coover agrees with Roth that it would be hard for a fiction writer to imagine them, and even harder to be believed when presenting them as characters. But instead of using such materials for ludicrous satire, as Roth does in Our Gang, the author of The Public Burning addresses the issue of how they had been created. Americans themselves are the perpetrators of such spectacle, given their need to dramatize their concerns with melodramatic effects. In this novel Richard Nixon is less of a politician with his own agenda than a creation of the popular culture, expressing its fears and its hopes in a way so artificial as to broadcast his nature as a creature of image.

The Public Burning was a best-seller, as was E. L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime (1975), another work that uses history as just one more fictive construct among the many available to the writer. Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America gained currency among the era's counterculture and became a staple of academic criticism as well, together with the fiction and commentary of William H. Gass that provided scholars with the philosophical background so helpful in justifying metafiction's role. Popular as this body of work is, it simply dallies with certain techniques of the new style, offering quotations of metafictive principles rather than wholeheartedly employing them as the artistic essence of its being. All are examples of metafiction emerging as a general trend in fiction during this cultural era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. More purely metafictive novels would remain within the province of the avant-garde, never attracting wide popular readership and limited in appeal to only a segment of critics, largely academic in nature, and even then having to fight off neoconservative arguments from scholars alarmed at the new form's presumed implications for morals and social manners. In time, a battle of the books would develop; and, after that, a purported resolution of the problem in the forms of satire and parody.

Innovation as a Credo of Improvement

Because they have written important works of critical commentary that articulate the cause they expose in the reformation of fictive theory, Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Federman enjoy an influence as novelists disproportionate to the extent of their mass audience. While Thomas Pynchon may well be the greatest selling yet popularly unread author of his generation, Sukenick and Federman have exerted an innovative pressure on literary history well in excess of their books' marketing successes. As high-profile academics in an age when serious fiction was increasingly nurtured by the universities, the pair found themselves at the center of discussions and debates regarding the form's future. Not surprisingly, their work—both novels and supporting commentary—became the first choice for conservative critics eager to refute metafiction's disruption of tradition.

Each writer made his debut with a work of serious scholarship. Not surprisingly, because each had begun his career as an academic, these books are revised versions of their doctoral dissertations: for Federman, with his Ph.D. in French from the University of California, Los Angeles, a study titled Journey to Chaos: Samuel Backett's Early Fiction, published by the University of California Press in 1965; and Sukenick, who'd written a thesis on the great modernist poet for J. V. Cunningham and Irving Howe at Brandeis University, a scholarly book called Wallace Stevens: Musing the Obscure, issued in hardcover and paperback by the New York University Press in 1967. Beckett and Stevens are helpful in understanding metafiction's advance, thanks to problems they saw modernist writers facing, yet not completely solving. For Beckett, the challenge would forever be to produce a work that was not about something, but which was that something itself. Given that fiction was made of words, and that words by nature refer to things beyond themselves, the task would seem impossible. With Stevens, the issues are more philosophical, yet relate just as centrally to the writer's relationship with his work and with the world. Writing doctoral dissertations on these authors and then putting the problems they faced to the test in thoroughly new novels allowed both Sukenick and Federman to establish metafiction on a solid basis.

Sukenick's debut as a writer happened almost simultaneously on three fronts. His book on Wallace Stevens appeared only shortly before his first novel, Up (1968), and by the turn of the decade he was making frequent appearances on discussion panels and in the commentary sections of literary quarterlies. Many of these critical pieces are collected as In Form: Digressions on the Act of Fiction (1985), with the emphasis on “act,” not “art,” because whether in his fiction or in proposing a new theory for this form, Sukenick shifts emphasis from the literary nature of the product to the activity of its making, stressing the process of how a work is made and then functions in communication with the reader. Fiction is not about experience, he argues, but is more experience, on both ends of the artistic exchange. Rather than fiction presenting the news, it should present a response to the news. Lest this be considered idle impressionism, Sukenick called in Wallace Stevens to show how neither impressionism nor its more dignified cousin idealism is involved.

“Adequate adjustment to the present can only be achieved through ever fresh perception of it,” Sukenick suggests, describing a credo for all genres of writing (and in fact for art in general). Looking at Stevens's project, he finds that “A fiction is not an ideological formulation of belief but a statement of a favorable rapport with reality” (p. 3), the challenge he describes at the start of Wallace Stevens: Musing the Obscure. The imagination is, for Stevens and Sukenick alike, one's most personal power for organizing the vast array of external reality into something freshly appealing. This is the quality of mind that does not project a reality and certainly does not impose ideas upon it, but instead works by “discovering significant relations within it” (p. 12). Here is the proper way for the world to take its part in the novel: not as a subject transcribed but as a circumstance made pertinent to the writer's concerns. The process is a rewarding one, for “When, through the imagination, the ego manages to reconcile reality with its own needs, the formerly insipid landscape is infused with the ego's emotion; and reality, since it now seems intensely relevant to the ego, suddenly seems more real” (pp. 14–15).

In Up a writer named Ronald Sukenick is writing two books: the one at hand and another for an academic requirement, presumably the Stevens book, though it is never cited. Why he is writing the novel at all can be explained by Stevens's own credo, because what passes for the reality of his life is indeed insipid. Part of metafiction's appeal to an academic audience is the way in which its concerns emerge from specific conditions of academic life, especially for those just entering the field. These include difficulties of employment, low pay, hard and often uninspiring work, substandard living conditions, and a pressure to publish or perish, certainly the only way writing in American society can be given such a possibly fatal edge. At the same time, these same conditions of life expose the author to the most exuberant forms of the counterculture taking hold in the 1960s. There are reenforcements between art and life, then, that allow the two to blend into one. Such is the method of Up, where not just the author but even the reader may wonder whether an experience is being drawn from life or invented on the page. Occasionally the writer-protagonist will meet with characters from his novel. Are these people originals for his creations, or are they facets of characterization projected into reality? Because Sukenick's method is metafictive, the distinction doesn't matter, for the ultimate reality is the book itself. It doesn't matter if the characters are drawn from life or birthed into it; the point is that their activities are taking place on pages the writer is producing for the audience to read. The challenge is to live a life that allows the work to be produced, and the only measure of success is whether or not the novel is completed.

If there is a world described in Ronald Sukenick's Up, it is a life as it is being experienced by so many of its readers at the time: recent graduates from doctoral programs with theses on the great works of modernism and hopes to produce postmodern work of their own. In creating his novel, Sukenick lets his metafictive writer create within a full knowledge of the literary tradition. The book opens with a sense of prison narrative worthy of Solzhenitsyn, though within a page it becomes clear that the privations being suffered are not those imposed by a ruthlessly collective state but rather by a heat-stingy landlord. Other amorphous threats have their Kafkaesque nature, but are symptoms of teaching composition on a terminal contract. On the other hand, there are sexual delights (or at least fantasies of them) that run the gamut from D. H. Lawrence to Henry Miller. This literature is certainly real for the writer in Up, just as it is for the writer of Up, for each has been devoting his professional life to it through years of university training. Yet no example is allowed to exert its influence without being interrogated—a natural and expectable act, given the circumstances, and one in which the reader (by virtue of his or her knowledge of the canon) is invited to participate. The entire affair makes metafiction seem not an abstruse theory but rather the most likely way the person who is Ronald Sukenick and the people who are his readership can engage in the experience known as writing and reading a novel.

As Sukenick explains in In Form, “An essentialized narrative is still at the heart of fiction—it embodies the progression of the mind as it confronts and affects experience” (p. 14). This act is not a form of autobiography, nor is it a form of self-expression. Instead, such works as Up and Steve Katz's The Exagggerations of Peter Prince are examples of ways that those forms are, among others, “ways of incorporating our experience into fiction on the same level as any other data” (p. 24). Ultimately, the impulse to write fiction is the same as to take control of one's life. Creation of a future and not just recording of a past is what Sukenick sees as the higher calling of metafiction. Raymond Federman's mentorship by Samuel Beckett creates an even stronger link with the problems of modernism awaiting solution in postmodern forms. As a postwar teenage immigrant to the United States and as a young man striving to write in an adopted language, Federman appealed to Beckett's own style of making a career in literature; and as the author of Journey to Chaos worked at becoming the author of a metafictive novel, Double or Nothing (1971), Beckett offered encouragement to the point of becoming a friend. In the older writer's fiction, Federman finds an emphatic rejection of what the traditional novel tries to achieve. “Most works of fiction achieve coherence through a logical accumulation of facts about specific situations and more or less credible characters,” he observes at the start of his study. “In the process of recording, or gradually revealing mental and physical experiences organized into aesthetic and ethical form, these works progress toward a definite goal: the discovery of knowledge” (Journey to Chaos, p. 4).

In Beckett's work, Federman finds, nothing of the sort happens. Here fiction cannot represent reality. Instead, novels such as Watt and Molloy exist as illusions that cannot reach the world, tempered only by moments in which the world itself seems too illusory to be captured in the hard materiality of fiction. At best, the author's characters, “like incurable poker players, are committed to their mise en jeu, and, win or lose, they cannot withdraw from the game until all the cards are played, all the while knowing that the deck of fictional cards can be dealt and redealt endlessly” (Journey to Chaos, p. 202). Federman's innovation is to address these conditions as a metafictionist, taking what are for the modernist writers problems in the human dilemma of existence and turning them into opportunities for creation. And not just for artistic play, because in his own case Raymond Federman faces a history that not even Samuel Beckett could have devised. By hiding in a closet during the deportation of Jews from his native Paris, Federman as a youngster escaped the Holocaust. His father, mother, and two sisters did not, and their absence generates almost every narrative he has written since. His masterpiece, the novel Double or Nothing, has all the play of metafiction, as a young immigrant to America locks himself into a room with enough provisions to last a year, the time he has calculated it will take him to write his book. The calculations, of course, soon become their own subject, just as the typescript, reproduced photographically from the manually typed pages, reflects its own materiality. In that typescript are four X's, such as any typist might have used to indicate deletions, whose recurrent theme is the center of this novel: the loss of the writer's family members, the enormity of which defies articulation but whose absence remains the essence of his text, the meaninglessness that the other letters of the alphabet surround.

The Uses of Metafiction

Born as it was during the cultural turbulence of the 1960s, American metafiction proved useful to writers who wanted to vent their animosity against tradition and settle old scores. Yet after the dust of these confrontations settled, the metafictive impulse continued as talent for enriching even conventional narratives with an appreciation of language's creative power. In each case, readers are left with a better understanding of fiction's effect.

Gilbert Sorrentino's experience with metafiction characterizes how writers of other persuasions have been able to use this theory of the novel as a technique in works directed to other purposes. Primarily a poet following in the steps of William Carlos Williams and associated with the Black Mountain Group so heavily influenced by Charles Olson, Sorrentino began his novelist's career with The Sky Changes (1966), a conventionally modernist work that projects its narrator's psychological depression onto a bleak southwestern landscape that is experienced by means of a tedious auto journey. By the early 1970s, envying the success of younger metafictionists and disgusted with the commercial inhibitions of New York publishing (in which he had worked as an editor for Grove Press, publishing American editions of the Beckett novels that had inspired Raymond Federman), Sorrentino was adopting the fragmentation of this new style in his novel Steelwork (1970) and relishing his self-apparent presence as author in its companion, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971). This latter novel reads much like Sorrentino's vitriolic critical essays of the period (collected in 1984 as Something Said), where illusionistic fiction (especially as written by John O'Hara and lived in parodic fashion by some of Sorrentino's own hapless characters) is mocked for the way it lets fiction writers dodge their proper work (bringing their creative abilities to bear on the imaginative qualities of their material) while pandering to readers' comfortable familiarity with what they already know.

A user of metafiction can also become an abuser of it, which is how Sorrentino concluded his flirtation with the technique in Mulligan Stew (1979). Here he takes a deliberate look back at Irish writer Flann O'Brien's novel At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), a journalist's satire of self-reflective tendencies in modernist literature, and uses its slapstick narrative structure to make fun of the metafictional devices he had borrowed for his own work of the 1970s. As in the Irish classic, an author creates characters for unsavory purposes, abusing their own superior morals. In time they revolt, making the writer a prisoner in his own narrative. As in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, cultural pretensions of the art world are mercilessly satirized. The difference is that instead of driving the novel, metafictive practices are described secondhand and are made objects of ridicule.

Other writers less closely associated with the metafictive movement drew on its artistic philosophy more positively. In his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut solves his own problem in articulating the speechless horror of an undefended city's firebombing by making his struggle with form part of the novel's plot. Clarence Major, writing Reflex and Bone Structure in 1975, found a way to make the format of a detective novel come alive by making its focus of investigation the nature of language itself, especially the way language involves a person's deepest emotions, as in this passage where the narrator grieves for his dead wife and finds solace in the words for the experience:

I am standing behind Cora. She is wearing a thin black nightgown. The backs of her legs are lovely. I love her. The word standing allows me to watch like this. The word nightgown is what she is wearing. The nightgown itself is in her drawer with her panties. The word Cora is wearing the word nightgown. I watch the sentence: The backs of her legs are lovely.

(p. 74)

In a similar manner, Grace Paley drew on a metafictive orientation to resolve issues in her story The Long Distance Runner from her 1974 collection Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. The narrative situation is somewhat unconventional, involving a mother's decision to take off on a long-distance run that keeps her away from her household for three full weeks. At first aimless, her run brings her across two New York boroughs to the neighborhood where she had lived as a child, now a nearly hopeless slum. Here she's sheltered by a woman living in what used to be the runner's family apartment; after three weeks of sharing experiences, the women part friends, the runner having solved what psychologists would call a midlife crisis of identity. But how to explain this? So that readers will understand her purpose, the narrator devises a metafictional encounter at the story's end, where she arrives home to find herself unmissed and her adventure of no real interest to her lover and teenage sons. She reports that she tells them the story—twice!—without any of them grasping its point. And so she becomes a metafictive author, for the reader's benefit retelling a twenty-page story in one short paragraph that concludes her tale:

Because it usually isn't so simple. Have you known it to happen much nowadays? A woman inside the steamy energy of middle age runs and runs. She finds houses and streets where her childhood happened. She lives in them. She learns as though she was still a child what in the world is coming next.

(p. 198)

In the years since it burst on the scene in the 1960s, American metafiction has become much like other innovations from that decade of radical change. No longer a surprise, its techniques have become less of a confrontational challenge to tradition than a helpful supplement to it. This is possible because in the course of literary history, metafiction has been accepted less as a destructive tendency that must overthrow mainstream fiction (or cease to exist itself) and more as a corrective to what had become a monological tendency among novelists to write fiction in only one way. By the turn of the twenty-first century, metafiction had become less of a strident policy than a reminder that novelists have a vast array of techniques at their disposal, and that readers can be trusted to appreciate approaches involving modes other than simple realism.

See also Doctorow, E. L.; Paley, Grace; Roth, Philip; Stevens, Wallace; and Vonnegut, Kurt and his Slaughterhouse-Five.

Further Reading

  • Brautigan, Richard. Trout Fishing in America. San Francisco, 1967.
  • Coover, Robert. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. New York, 1968.
  • Coover, Robert. The Public Burning. New York, 1977.
  • Federman, Raymond. Journey to Chaos: Samuel Beckett's Early Fiction. Berkeley, Calif., 1965. Early evidence of Federman's fictive principles.
  • Federman, Raymond. Double or Nothing. Chicago, 1971.
  • Gass, William H. Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife. Evanston, Ill., 1968.
  • Gass, William H. Fiction and the Figures of Life. New York, 1970. Critical commentary on the aesthetics of metafiction.
  • Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism. London, 1988. Explains historiographic metafiction.
  • Katz, Steve. The Exagggerations of Peter Prince. New York, 1968.
  • Klinkowitz, Jerome. Literary Disruptions: The Making of a Post-contemporary American Fiction. Urbana, Ill., 1975. A literary history of metafiction's introduction into contemporary American fiction.
  • Klinkowitz, Jerome. Structuring the Void: The Struggle for Subject in Contemporary American Fiction. Durham, N.C., 1992. What fiction writers write about when subject matter is denied them.
  • Major, Clarence. Reflex and Bone Structure. New York, 1975.
  • Paley, Grace. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. New York, 1974.
  • Roth, Philip. Reading Myself and Others. New York, 1974.
  • Scholes, Robert. The Fabulators. New York, 1967. Early look at key metafictive innovators in terms of their attention to the storytelling art.
  • Sorrentino, Gilbert. The Sky Changes. New York, 1966.
  • Sorrentino, Gilbert. Steelwork. New York, 1970.
  • Sorrentino, Gilbert. Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. New York, 1971.
  • Sorrentino, Gilbert. Mulligan Stew. New York, 1979.
  • Sorrentino, Gilbert. Something Said. San Francisco, 1984. Critical essays on the need for metafiction.
  • Sukenick, Ronald. Wallace Stevens: Musing the Obscure. New York, 1967. Roots for Sukenick's interest in metafictive theory.
  • Sukenick, Ronald. Up. New York, 1968.
  • Sukenick, Ronald. In Form: Digressions on the Act of Fiction. Carbondale, Ill., 1985. Critical essays on the theory of metafiction.
  • Thiher, Allen. Words in Reflection: Modern Language Theory and Postmodern Fiction. Chicago, 1984.