Metafiction or the Self-Conscious Narrative

Updated on February 1, 2018

Metafiction is a narrative technique in which the work self-consciously calls attention to itself as a work of fition. 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 a 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

Source

Commonly regarded as an offshoot of the Postmodern literary movement, metafiction has emerged as a literary sub-genre in and of itself. 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 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 assumption, 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 are able to include aspects of traditional storytelling, mythology, and folk-tales within the sphere of Western literature, facilitating cultural expression within a what was previously conceived of as a more rigid and exclusive domain.


  • 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 “defenition 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 among 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 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 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 provides a brief explanation of 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 woman 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 understanding of the genre of metafiction, inasmuch as constructs of metafiction serves 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 a better for the scholar or student. Also provides an extensive list of works cited, both fictional novels and literary analysis that would be useful for further reading. You will need access to JSTOR to read the full article.

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    • profile image

      Lauren Wills 

      3 years ago

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

    • Kenja profile image

      Ken Taub 

      5 years ago from Long Island, NY

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

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 

      6 years ago from Reno NV

      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!

    • profile image

      Ashitha 

      6 years ago

      Very nice

    • Rose West profile image

      Rose West 

      6 years ago from Michigan

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

    • katrinasui profile image

      katrinasui 

      6 years ago

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

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 

      6 years ago

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

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

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

    • ytsenoh profile image

      Cathy 

      6 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

      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!

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