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.
Daniel P. Gunn
In free indirect discourse (FID), the narrative discourse of a text incorporates the language and subjectivity of a character, including emotional coloring, deictics, judgments, and style, without an introductory attributing frame like “she thought that” and without shifts in the pronouns or the tense sequence to accord with the character’s perspective. By combining the immediacy of direct quotation and the flexibility of indirect discourse, FID allows for the seamless integration of a character’s thought or speech, with all of its distinctive markers, into the narratorial discourse. Because FID occurs in the context of narratorial discourse and allows for a fluid movement back and forth between narratorial and figural subjectivities, it characteristically entails a mixture or interplay of two voices—the narrator’s and the character’s—in the same utterance, as in parody or mimicry. The evocation of a character’s thought or speech through FID and its relation to narratorial commentary and report can be subtle and nuanced, and identifying and making sense of FID sentences requires significant interpretive activity on the part of the reader. FID has been a crucially important technique for the representation of consciousness in the English novel, particularly in the tradition which runs from Jane Austen through George Eliot to Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce, which concerns itself increasingly with the imagined thought-lives of characters. Depending on the context, FID passages can be presented sympathetically, inviting the reader to immerse herself or himself unreservedly in the character’s thought or speech, or ironically, with the language of the character creating a dissonant effect against the background of the narrator’s discourse and the novel’s design. FID is also sometimes referred to as style indirect libre, free indirect style, represented speech and thought, or narrated monologue.