The world outside fiction

Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction, and reality. In providing a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text […]. The term […] itself seems to have originated in an essay by the American critic and self-conscious novelist William H. Gass. However, terms like ‘metapolitics’, ‘metarhetoric’ and ‘metatheatre’ are a reminder of what has been, since the 1960s, a more general cultural interest in the problem of how human beings reflect, construct and mediate their experience of the world. Metafiction pursues such questions through its formal self-exploration, drawing on the traditional metaphor of the world as book, but often recasting it in the terms of contemporary philosophical, linguistic or literary theory. If, as individuals, we now occupy ‘roles’ rather than ‘selves’, then the study of characters in novels may provide a useful model for understanding the construction of subjectivity in the world outside novels. If our knowledge of this world is now seen to be mediated through language, then literary fiction (worlds constructed entirely of language) becomes a useful model for learning about the construction of ‘reality’ itself.


“The present increased awareness of ‘meta’ levels of discourse and experience is partly a consequence of an increased social and cultural self-consciousness. Beyond this, however, it also reflects a greater awareness within contemporary culture of the function of language in constructing and maintaining our sense of everyday ‘reality’. The simple notion that language passively reflects a coherent, meaningful and ‘objective’ world is no longer tenable. Language is an independent, self-contained system which generates its own ‘meanings’. Its relationship to the phenomenal world is highly complex, problematic and regulated by convention. ‘Meta’ terms, therefore, are required in order to explore the relationship between this arbitrary linguistic system and the world to which it apparently refers. In fiction they are required in order to explore the relationship between the world of the fiction and the world outside the fiction.

“In a sense, metafiction rests on a version of the Heisenbergian uncertainty principle: an awareness that ‘for the smallest building blocks of matter, every process of observation causes a major disturbance’, and that it is impossible to describe an “objective” world because the observer always changes the observed. However, the concerns of metafiction are even more complex than this. For while Heisenberg believed one could at least describe, if not a picture of nature, then a picture of one’s relation to nature, metafiction shows the uncertainty even of this process. How is it possible to ‘describe’ anything? The metafictionist is highly conscious of a basic dilemma: if he or she sets out to ‘represent’ the world, he or she realizes fairly soon that the world, as such, cannot be ‘represented’. In literary fiction it is, in fact, possible only to ‘represent’ the discourses of that world. Yet, if one attempts to analyse a set of linguistic relationships using those same relationships as the instruments of analysis, language soon becomes a `prisonhouse’ from which the possibility of escape is remote. Metafication sets out to explore this dilemma.

“The linguist L. Hjelmslev developed the term ‘metalanguage’. He defined it as a language which, instead of referring to non-linguistic events, situations or objects in the world, refers to another language: it is a language which takes another language as its object. Saussure’s distinction between the signifier and the signified is relevant here. The signifier is the sound-image of the word or its shape on the page; the signified is the concept evoked by the word. A metalanguage is a language that functions as a signifier to another language, and this other language thus becomes its signified.’

“In novelistic practice, this results in writing which consistently displays its conventionality, which explicity and overtly lays bare its condition of artifice, and which thereby explores the problematic relationship between life and fiction – both the fact that ‘all the world is not of course a stage’ and `the crucial ways in which it isn’t’. The ‘other’ language may be either the registers of everyday discourse or, more usually, the ‘language’ of the literary system itself, including the conventions of the novel as a whole or particular forms of that genre.”

Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Concious Fiction. London/New York: Methuen. 1984. pp 2-4.

Image: RIBA Robot Nurse Bear


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