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ADITYA MANI JHA  15th Feb 2014

The What

Works of fiction that acknowledge or draw attention to their status as a work of fiction can be clubbed under the blanket term "metafiction". In 1970, the American writer William Gass coined the term in a highly influential essay called Philosophy and the Form of Fiction. Another American, John Barth had a short and sweet definition of the metafictional novel: "a novel that imitates a novel rather than the real world." Barth is one of the most-imitated practitioners of the genre: Giles Goat-Boy, his 710-page satire on academic life, is considered to be one of the central texts of American postmodernist literature. A radical interpretation of the theory supposes all books to be extrapolations of preceding texts, but perhaps that's best untouched by dummies, yes?



The How

There are several ways in which a novel can refer to its own fictional world — Don Quixote, for instance, refers to its own earlier chapters in its second half. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov pretends to be a 999-line poem in four parts, written by the protagonist John Shade, along with annotations and commentaries on the text. The act of reading the novel becomes a plot point in Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler.

The Who

A section of American writers in the '60s and '70s became influential practitioners of metafiction. These included Gass, Barth and also Robert Coover, William Gaddis and Kurt Vonnegut. Later day writers who owe a debt to these include David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Michael Chabon, J.M. Coetzee and Junot Diaz. Wallace and Diaz are notable, also, for their extensive usages of footnotes and endnotes to underline the fiction/reality "continuum" of the novel. Coetzee took this idea to a whole new level with the novel Diary of a Bad Year, which almost read like two parallel books that were bifurcated on every page. Notable Indian examples of metafictional novels are Charu Nivedita's Zero Degree and Indira Goswami's Pages Stained With Blood.

The Why

Why metafiction? That's an excellent question, actually. The simplest way to answer it is to consider the current era, where the rate of information dispensation (thanks to the Internet) has meant that fiction has lost its hallowed status as a window to an unknown world. Facts, most facts, in any case, are a few keystrokes away today. As a fiction writer, therefore, it is prudent to be hyper-aware of a work's "fictive status", and how that status is indivisible from the act of reading the work. A story that is aware of its limitations vis-à-vis journalistic truth can, in fact, transcend hard, cold facts — such is the power of the well-written metafictional novel.

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