Forms and Functions of Metafiction

Seminar Paper, 2005

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Definition of metafiction

3. Markers, devices and functions of metafiction
3.1. Themes
3.2. Frames and Structure
3.3. Narration and Style

4. Conclusion

Works cited


The Greek preposition μετά (“meta”), which in this context takes on the meaning of “about”[1], and the literary term “fiction”, which refers to literary work based on imagination, together constitute the term “metafiction”. From the start metafiction has been described as fiction “somehow about fiction itself”[2]. First mentioned at the end of the 1950s, it was further defined throughout the following three decades. Although the term has only been coined in the second half of the 20th century, it is not new to literature. The fiction described can already be found in much older works, such as Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”, Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and massively in Laurence Sterne’s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman”. Today, metafiction is also common in other creative genres and is primarily associated with postmodernism, which came up during the 1960s. Self-reflexive narrators especially appear in works of postmodern writers such as Vladimir Nabokov, John Fowles, B.S. Johnson, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Jorge Luis Borges, or Julian Barnes. The typically metafictional “Selbstbespiegeln der Literatur im Verein mit dem ständigen illusionsbrechenden Hervorkehren [der] Fiktionalität”[3] represents an alternative to the continuation of realism, which, as postmodernist writers believe[4], has become impossible. Critics of metafiction deny it the ability to portray the real world because of its “decadent forms of self-absorption”[5]. Behind the paramount purpose of metafiction, which is to lay bare its own status as fiction, a variety of metafictional devices emerged. Although most commonly found in novels, such devices are not unusual in short stories, as this seminar paper attempts to show.

My examples are mainly taken from David Lodge’s “Hotel des Boobs” and John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse”, though other stories will be examined, too. The most important parts of the repertoire of metafiction will be examined on the basis of examples taken from these two short stories. At the beginning of the main body I will give a definition of metafiction and go on to analyze the different markers and devices of metafiction in the areas theme, structure as well as narration and style. Finally, I will approach a wider context and give examples of related forms of self-consciousness in other contemporary forms of art.


Generally speaking, metafiction is self-conscious fiction and can be described with terms such as “self-awareness, self-reflection, self-knowledge and ironic self-distance” (Currie 1). Metafiction is not a genre though. It rather underlies all fiction and can be located at the conscious and the unconscious level of a text.[6] Patricia Waugh gives a more precise definition of metafiction:

[It is] 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.[7]

Accordingly, metafiction can be located on the dividing line between fiction and literary criticism, exploring the relationship between these two worlds. Thus, the mimetic illusion literature creates is often undermined or even destroyed. From the point of convergence comes a self-conscious vigour that influences both criticism and fiction. The latter assimilated a “critical perspective within fictional narrative, a self-consciousness of the artificiality of its constructions and a fixation with the relationship between language and the world” (Currie 2).[8] This critical perspective empowers metafiction to voice commentary on other fiction and at the same time enables insights which critical discourse usually develops externally.

Monika Fludernik observes: “the term metafiction has been used randomly in English critical prose to refer to all sorts of techniques that explicitly or implicitly ‘break’ what is called the mimetic illusion generated by fictional narrative”[9]. Furthermore, “in its current usage in English the term metanarrative has little terminological bite and […] no distinction is made between metanarrative and metafiction” (Fludernik 14). Consequently, Fludernik pleads for a subdivision of ‘metafiction’ into further, more precise terms.[10]


3.1. Themes

The thematic concern of a story alone can indicate metafiction. Themes bearing on the relation of fiction and reality[11] stimulate the reader’s awareness of the artificiality of a story, as is the case in David Lodge’s “Hotel des Boobs”. It begins as a story about Harry and his wife Brenda, who are on holiday in France. Halfway through the text, the narrative is interrupted abruptly and another story takes over: A nameless author, sitting at a pool in France, writes the story of Harry and Brenda, which is clearly inspired by his own situation. In the following the reader gets to know how the story about Harry and Brenda will end by witnessing the nameless author’s discussion of the plot with his wife.

Lodge’s story is celebrating the freedom of imagination which enables the transcendence of reality. In this transcendence lies its metafictional character. A completely coherent world that absorbs the reader is set up only to later uncover its pattern in order to look into the relation of ‘fiction’, ‘reality’ and ‘pretence’.[12] By pointing the reader towards the process of the creation of the story, he or she might end up developing insecurity about the relationship of fiction and reality, or even question his or her own reality. As Federman put it, “…to create fiction is, in fact, a way to abolish reality, and especially to abolish the notion that reality is truth”[13]. This is exactly what metafiction exposes. It is achieved by the thematic concern with the creation of a fictional piece of writing. The embedded story reproduces the boundary between art and life within the fiction by placing the story on the dividing line between fiction and criticism.[14] However, according to Currie, these thematic concerns are only marginally metafictional, since they are “implicit about their relation to criticism or their own artificiality” (4).

The idea of metafiction is less a property of the primary text than a function of reading and consequently depend s very much on the reader. In “Hotel des Boobs”, the authorial intervention is not wholly illusion-breaking, but allows the reader to find himself in another illusion, that of the (surrogate) author writing the embedded story. During the conversation between the author and his wife, she comments on his ideas: “How crude”, “How improbable”, “Worse and worse” or “call it ‘Hotel des Boobs’”[15]. In taking the role of a surrogate reader, the wife represents a critical view within the story. Taking this as an “integrated dramatisation of the external relationship” (Currie 4) between Lodge and his readership, it allows “complex articulations of self-consciousness and metafictional appropriations of readers’ responses” (Currie 2). In fact, these kinds of surrogate author and reader can be found in many writings, and to consider all of them as metafiction would mean interpreting a considerable amount of fiction as metafiction.[16]


[1] See Jeff Aronson, “When I Use a Word: Meta­”, BMJ 27. Apr. 2002, 16 May 2005

[2] The American literary critic William H. Gass coined the term in: "Philosophy and the Form of
Fiction."Fiction and the Figures of Life. New York: Knopf, 1970: 3-26.

[3] Werner Wolf, “Metafiktion. Formen und Funktionen eines Merkmals postmodernistischen Erzählens. Eine Einführung und ein Beispiel: John Barth, ’Life Story’.“ Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 30.1, 1997: 46.

[4] See David Lodge, “The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism” (London: Poutledge and Kegan Paul, 1971) and John Barth, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” Atlantic Monthly 220.2, 1967: 29-34.

[5] Mark Currie, ed. Metafiction (New York: Longman, 1995) 17.

[6] Currie 17-8.

[7] Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theories and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction (New York: Methuen, 1984) 2.

[8] Theoreticians such as Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man and Jacques Lacan scrutinized this relationship, seeking to make obvious the conditions of meaning production.

[9] Monika Fludernik, “Metanarrative and Metafictional Commentary: From Metadiscursivity to Metanarration and Metafiction.“ Poetica 35.1-2, 2003: 11.

[10] Although I agree to the necessity of developing a lucid and consistent terminology, an analysis according to these suggestions goes beyond the scope of this paper. My understanding of ‘metafiction’ therefore sticks to the more general (and still widespread) Anglo-American use of the term.

[11] „Reality“ is a problematic term. For further discussion see Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Anchor Books, 1966). According to them, there is not one single reality but a web of interrelating, multiple realities between which we unconsciously move. Nevertheless, for reasons of simplification and space I will not immerse further in this field but stick to the imprecise, universal use of the term.

[12] Waugh 40-1.

[13] Raymond Federman, Surfiction: Fiction Now … and Tomorrow (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1975) 8.

[14] Currie 4-5.

[15] David Lodge, “Hotel des Boobs,” The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories, ed. Malcolm Bradbury (London: Penguin Books, 1988) 332-3.

[16] Currie 4.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Forms and Functions of Metafiction
Free University of Berlin
Modern and Contemporary Short Stories
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Forms, Functions, Metafiction, Modern, Contemporary, Short, Stories
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Theresia Knuth (Author), 2005, Forms and Functions of Metafiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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