Chat about meta-fiction novels

At Swim-two-birds
At Swim-two-birds

— at its simplest and most basic, meta-fiction is fiction, about fiction —

(See below for an incomplete list of elements that make a work meta-fiction)

One of my greatest loves is a good ol’ meta-fiction novel. Meta-fiction refers to fictional works that draw attention to the fact that they are a work of fiction.

Wikipedia’s definition: ‘Metafiction is a form of fiction in which the text – either directly or through the characters within – is ‘aware’ that it is a form of fiction.’

I’ve begun a list of female meta-fiction authors here, as mentors for my own writing.

My favourite meta-fictional work, At-Swim-Two-Birds, is a meta-fiction-feast – a story within a story within a story within a story within a story. And my favourite section of AS-T-B has the characters of one story give the writer a good beating. It’s not so much the thrashing I love, but that the characters take revenge on the author. It’s a scenario that I’d love to include in my own novel one day.

And I couldn’t help myself, I’ve written my own little meta-fictional work, but it doesn’t have an author beating. At present it’s doing the rounds of agents, so wish it luck will you? The main character, a homeless man, (male mental health is a theme that runs through all my books to date)  befriends a woman who is a struggling author. She steals his life story to use as a novel, and as the story unfolds, it becomes apparent this story is the novel itself.

Over the years I’ve read a few meta-fictional works that I’ll list elsewhere on this blog. I’m gradually adding the notes that I made at the time of reading, not reviews of the books, but simple notes that I made with no intention of blogging – at the time there was no such thing as blogging, let alone an internet.

As a bit of a guide to understanding meta-fiction Wikipedia lists these common meta-fictive devices in literature:

  • A story about a writer who creates a story
  • A story that features itself (as a narrative or as a physical object) as its own prop or MacGuffin
  • A story containing another work of fiction within itself
  • A story addressing the specific conventions of story, such as title, character conventions, paragraphing or plots
  • A novel where the narrator intentionally exposes him or herself as the author of the story
  • A book in which the book itself seeks interaction with the reader
  • A story in which the readers of the story itself force the author to change the story
  • Narrative footnotes, which continue the story while commenting on it
  • A story in which the characters are aware that they are in a story
  • A story in which the characters make reference to the author or his previous work

A related genre is the self-reflexive novel: a fictional work in which the author refers to themselves in the work, and/or refers to the work itself.

And then there is the anti-novel which is better described as a more experimental work. Dictionary.com defines anti-novel as, ‘a literary work in which the author rejects the use of traditional elements of novel structure, especially in regard to development of plot and character.’ Wikipedia defines the anti-novel as, ‘any experimental work of fiction that avoids the familiar conventions of the novel, and instead establishes its own conventions.’

Of course, a novel can be one or all of the above, makes definitions complicated, doesn’t it.

The Nouveau Novel In All Its Forms

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Writers absorb the world around them and churn out thoughts through their fingers and onto the page (or screen). As we speak we are waist deep in a communication revolution that is transforming the way we think about the production of the novel.

Perth Writers Festival’s recent Twitter Novella is a perfect example of this new era of novels. Fifty writers (including yours truly) contributed two tweets each to a work read out at the festival, and tweeted via the @PWFNovella twitter handle. Writers were asked not to spend too much time on the work but be instantaneous, keeping with the essence of twitter, so the end result was vibrant if not a little bit strange. The work itself is a pure example of new ways of writing taken from the world around us. You can watch the event here with authors Annabel smith and Andy Griffiths presenting.

The Twitter Novella (which may have been done first by David Mitchell) is a completely modern kind of work, but authors are also blending tradition with innovation. Recently an author invited me to write a long form review of her novel, a book that I had read and reviewed previously in preparation for a panel at the Bendigo Writers Festival. The elements within the novel that called out to be recognised were the use of new ways of communicating – text messaging, tweets, chatroom transcripts – that you won’t find in a traditional novel. You can read the full review at its home with Tincture Journal here.

Annabel Smith’s novel, The Ark, is a perfect example of our world naturally influencing the entire structure of novels. With its use of various messaging systems including emails, and encrypted messaging programs to construct the novel. I love nothing better than to curl up in bed and turn the yellowed pages of a classic, but taking on board the ways people communicate as they go about their normal day, to incorporate in written work, engages people in reading and writing in a way that they want to be interacting, and in the process it has created a whole new genre.

There are whole areas devoted to the discussion of alternative-text within written works (Google Alt-Lit), and it comes with vast and detailed real life involvement, but that  is another blog post.

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