Literary Devotional: Metafiction

I’m catching up on the three literary devotionals I’ve skipped the past few weeks. Be prepared for some serious knowledge.

Writers in both academia and popular culture throw around the world meta with alarming frequency.  Either standing alone or used as a prefix, it has become the intellectual word du jour and has thus entered the realm of reckless overuse.  But the term’s recent trendiness belies the fact that the literary genre of metafiction is concrete and well established—and arguably one of the most fascinating and fruitful arenas of twentieth century literature.

From the Greek prefix meta, meaning “after” or “beyond,” metafiction refers to fiction that is about fiction itself—its creation, devices and outcomes.  Many works of metafiction revisit previous fictional works from new perspectives, introducing new themes and shedding new light on existing material.  Others focus on the process of writing, illuminating the relationship between the author and the text that he or she creates.  As a result, metafiction tends by its nature to be self-referential and ironic, calling attention to its own artifice and unreality.

James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922), arguably the first major work of twentieth century metafiction, recasts the hero of Homer’s Odyssey in the guise of an ad salesman in 1904 Dublin.  In doing so, the novel investigates the definition of heroism in the modern world. Meanwhile, by tinkering with genres and language in the novel’s various chapters, Joyce also explores the authorial process and the relationship between form and content.

Many postmodern authors followed Joyce’s lead in reimagining older works. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) tells the backstory of Bertha Mason, the Creole madwoman locked in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  John Gardner’s Grendel (1971) retells the Ango-Saxon epic Beowulf from the perspective of the monster, recasting Grendel as a lonely, philosophical creature who is arguably more human than Beowulf.  Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967) delves into the lives of two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Other works of metafiction focus on the process of writing and reading fiction. Milan Kundera’s Immortality (1990) inserts the author as a character in his own work, commenting on his creation.  Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998) explores Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway through three different stories, depicting Woolf herself writing the novel in 1923, a housewife reading the novel in 1949 Los Angeles, and a woman unwittingly reliving the events of the novel in New York in the late 1990s.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale

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