Skip to main content

Metafiction or the Self-Conscious Narrative

Anaya is a long-time online writer who holds a degree in literature.


What is Metafiction?

Metafiction is a narrative technique in which the work self-consciously calls attention to itself as a work of fiction. Similar to breaking the fourth wall in theater, metafiction suspends the disbelief of the reader by specifically addressing the reader or discussing its own status.

Metafiction is created in many different ways but always includes an awareness within the fiction that it is indeed just that, a work of fiction.

Common techniques of metafiction include:

  • addressing the reader
  • a story within a story
  • a story about someone reading or writing a book
  • characters that are aware that they are taking part in a story
  • commenting on the story while telling it, either in footnotes or within the text
  • a story with a narrator that exposes himself as both a character and the narrator

Metafiction has emerged as a literary subgenre in and of itself, commonly regarded as an offshoot of the Postmodern literary movement. Using various techniques that emphasize the story’s status as a fictional enterprise, the reader thus becomes more engaged, as an active participant, through a heightened sense of awareness regarding the relationship between reader and story.

Metafiction often uses traditional oral storytelling technique, in which the teller embodies the specific role of the narrator, and is awarded certain liberties, for example, commenting upon the tale or changing it to suit the intended purpose or audience.

When the author presents a work of fiction is presented as just that, a fictional construct (rather than an exercise in realism), they are allowed more liberty in departing from conventional ideas as to the form and function of such work. The reader is then left often to draw his or her own conclusions, challenge assumptions, or in other ways become drawn into the narrative process.

In addition, metafiction provides a mode in which many multi-cultural and female or feminist writers can include aspects of traditional storytelling, mythology, and folk tales within the sphere of Western literature, facilitating cultural expression within what was previously conceived of as a more rigid and exclusive domain.

Self-Conscious Narratives

  • Margaret Drabble - The Radiant Way
  • The Brief and Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  • The Princess Bride by Arthur Goldman
  • The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
  • Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse
  • Works by Tom Robbins, best known for Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  • The World According to Garp by John Irving
  • Secret Window, Secret Garden by Stephen King
  • The Crying of Lot 49 by Stephen Pynchon
  • Terri Pratchett's Discworld Novels
  • Short stories by Jorge Luis Borges
  • Democracy by Joan Didion
  • Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen

Examples of Metafictional Novels

  • Vladimir Nabokov - Pale Fire
  • Haruki Murakami - Kafka on the Shore
  • Jazz - Toni Morrison
  • Many of Milan Kundera's works, best known for the Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • Life of Pi - Yann Martell
  • Lunar Park - Bret Easton Ellis
  • Works by Umberto Eco such The Name of the Rose, Foucalt's Pendulum
  • J.M. Coetzee - Slow Man
  • The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Orlando - Virginia Woolf
  • Chuck Palahniuk - Diary, Fight Club, Haunted
  • Running in the Family - Michael Ondaatje
  • Naked Lunch - William S. Burroughs

Further Reading on Metafiction

Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction - Patricia Waugh

(New York: Routledge, 1984.)

Reference to this book can be found in almost every article on Metafiction, making it an important source for anyone seeking to understand or study this genre. Bernd Engler says that Waugh’s “definition of metafiction is nowadays ubiquitously quoted whenever critics deal with metafiction.”

The book is a useful treatise on the genre, its associated literary technique, and the historical, political, and socio-economic factors that gave rise to its prominent position in contemporary literature. Even beyond an explanation of the phenomenon, however, Waugh’s work was instrumental in creating the current parameters through which metafiction is commonly evaluated or understood, providing distance from the previous terminology such as postmodern irony. Includes an extensive list of works cited, useful for further research.

Metafiction - Bernd Engler.

The Literary Encyclopedia. 17 Dec. 2004

Web page presented by The Literary Encyclopedia, an authoritative and accredited source for information relating to authors, topics, and works written by field experts. The entry on metafiction is written by Bernd Engler, a chair of American Literature and Culture at Eberhard-Karls University in Tuebingen, Germany.

This is a broad, informative, and clearly articulated study on the history and debate regarding the usage of the term metafiction and its associated literary devices. Engler discusses the impact of metafiction on both writers of fiction as well as readers, providing a synopsis and critique of a sample of works considered to be metafiction, as well as works on metafiction as a subject. Engler also provides a discussion of Patricia Waugh’s book on metafiction, a work often cited yet rarely critiqued.

"Mind over meta: a narcissistic prefix" - William Safire

The New York Times. 26 Dec. 2005: OPINION

This short newspaper article briefly explains the popularity of the term metafiction and its base meta by Safire, a journalist, author, and notably a Pulitzer-winning longtime contributor to the New York Times. Safire is well known for his series on the etymology of popular words and phrases.

While intended towards the casual reader interested in the linguistic theory behind popular phrases, a bit of interesting insight into, as well as quotes regarding, the connotations related to the term are provided, both positive and negative. The claim is made that the terms meta and metafiction are vehicles primarily created by literary critics, though only as an opinion.

Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way: Feminist Metafiction - Pamela Bromberg

Novel: A Forum on Fiction 24.1 (Fall 1990): 5-25

Bromberg, a Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Simmon’s College and the Director of their graduate program in English, has written this article as a critical analysis of Drabble’s book The Radiant Way, though other women authors such as Woolf and Austen are referenced.

The article provides an informative study of metafiction through a feminist lens for those who have not read Drabble’s book. Bromberg articulates a key precept of metafiction, the notion that metafictional stories are a “struggle to narrate stories that are true, rather than the stories we have been taught to expect by the weight of literary convention and tradition” (Bromberg). The article seeks to build an understanding of the genre of metafiction since constructs of metafiction serve as a tool with which to analyze Drabble’s work.

Bromberg's article would be useful to those seeking to better understand metafiction and its function, especially as it may apply to women writers; however, the academic slant may make this better for the scholar or student. It also provides an extensive list of works cited, both fictional novels and literary analyses, that would be useful for further reading. You will need access to JSTOR to read the full article.


Chuck on August 23, 2018:

Deadpool is a great example of this in film

Lauren Wills on August 13, 2015:

‘Chiliad’ by Simon Otius, at unhappened dot com, is metafiction, but an immensely difficult yet rewarding read, requiring great patience.

Ken Taub from Long Island, NY on June 26, 2013:

I guess we could add Borges here too, si? What an intelligent voice, Anaya. Shall we follow each other? best, Ken

Jamie Lee Hamann from Reno NV on January 20, 2012:

Your "examples of metafiction" book list covers the five books on my "these books have changed my world view" list. "The unbearable Lightness of Being","The Handmaids Tale","Life of Pi","Fight Club", and "Naked Lunch". Thank You. Jamie Wait the list goes on. What in incredible booklist!

Ashitha on November 25, 2011:

Very nice

Rose West from Michigan on October 29, 2011:

Well done, Anaya! This was a very interesting article! I really enjoyed it and learned something new - which is always a good thing :)

katrinasui on October 26, 2011:

This is a very well written hub. I learned a lot from this.

FloraBreenRobison on October 24, 2011:

This automatically made think of Hamelet and The Taming of the Shrew being made into Kiss Me Kate.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on October 24, 2011:

Thanks for the introduction ti Metafiction, a term I was unfamiliar with.

Cathy from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri on October 23, 2011:

This was a good well-written and well-organized hub of information. I love learning in the hubs! Thank you so much for such useful and informative advice. Big thumbs up!