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08/23/2004

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Stuart Greenhouse

Great post on a great topic.

I'd like to add/ask one thing. You say: "These books of course themselves show the influence of various precursors in the work of, among others, Borges, Beckett, and Nabokov, but finally they are the books that brought together most explicitly those characteristics of all previous fiction that work against simply producing transparent realism, that point the reader away from the unfolding narrative and toward the artificial devices by which all literary narratives are constructed and embellished."

It's funny, just two days ago I was thinking of Barth's "LITF" and how it was probably the most important short story to me as a writer (as opposed to as a reader, for which I'd probably choose Joyce's "The Dead"), and how much it owes to Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." And then remembering being taught the debt Joyce's novel owed Pater's "The Child in the House." So I'd like to throw that in, my little contribution.

And also Coover's debt regarding myth to Joyce & his "Finnegans Wake." SO, I guess I'd title this comment 'me sticking up for Joyce.'!

Wouldn't mind hearing more regarding metafiction in the future, if you have it in you.

Dan Green

Stuart: When I referred to "those characteristics of all previous fiction that work against simply producing transparent realism" I had Joyce prominently in mind.

derik

Interesting post, Dan. I think this statement: "Most importantly, Barth and Coover went about this without sacrificing fiction's "entertainment" quotient." is a very important factor, that is too often overlooked. Those stories and novels are really enjoyable to read.

Nick

If I could be given the indulgence (since I am not a lit historian), I would wonder if metafiction could be labeled a piece, a subset, in the overall postmodern impulse. The initial abstraction of the process brought into the work itself. For if the height of modernism is seen as an excess in expression, then postmodernism went one better and moved into a realm of step-backed, artistic self-exploration. (Let's say Kerouac at the final edge of modernism, Burroughs on into the postmodern).

Meta-fiction does not seem to require a social understanding, for the self-reference is inherent to the story (am I right about that?). Whereas postmodernism can only be understood in the context of the social climate. (If I could make an analogy to painting: any human in the world should possess the prerequisites to understand a Pollack (if they let themselves), and even though it's illusionary, most people who have seen a regular drawing before, should be able to understand the meta-tricks of MC Escher, but only a person immersed in our culture could understand the point of a enlarged Warhol soupcan (otherwise they'd be appreciating merely the original CampbellSoup-employed artist)).

[Modernism->Meta->PostModernism]?

I'm pretty interested in these differentiations. (In fact, I wrote an metaphorical story to this effect: http://www.hoplit.net

And since I trackbacked to this website last week, I thought maybe you'd already read it. If not, please do. I'd definately appreciate it.)

Amardeep

Thanks for an insightful post. I've never read Coover, but after reading this I'll start looking around for him in my local used bookstores.

Though I agree with your characterization of metafiction, I think there might be more to the line between Borges & Nabokov and the American metafictionists than you say here... (I'm guessing you edited it out for reasons of length.) I'd be curious to read the full argument. Did you publish the diss., or part of it?

Dan Green

Amardeep: I did publish a couple of pieces from it, but not the whole thing. You are, of course, correct about the influence of Borges, et. al. Borges's influence on Barth, for one, was profound, and Borges's fiction is certainly metafiction, although some might say that in his case that is a fairly constrictive label.

R. A. Rubin

These writers, these yuck Moderists have turned off more readers than Nazi suppression. Lit will come back when the High Moderns are revered again.

Leonard Bast

I'm in complete agreement that much of the best metafiction is highly entertaining (I, too, love Barth's LITF and most of the pieces in Chimera). And to the extent that it encourages a finer craftsmanship, self-consciousness about art is not to be deplored. (Why not think of metafiction as something like the eighteenth-century heroic couplet--a form equally "artificial" and self-conscious in many respects?) But I can't deny that despite this, metafiction often does become self-indulgent (I see very little entertainment or artistic ingenuity in most of Barth's post-LETTERS work, for instance--just the same bag of tricks over and over). How does one know when metafiction has ceased to do what it set out to do? My initial suspicion is that we need to preserve a distinction between the work of art (the finished form, clearly a thing of artifice, in contradistinction to the "real" world) and the process of art (which goes on endlessly and is real). No matter how self-reflexive or thought-provoking a work of metafiction is, it has to stand or fall by its integrity as a thing. Coover's "The Babysitter" is undeniably well made. When fiction becomes not an artifact, but an amorphous stream of association without beginning or end (again, recent Barth seems to me a good example), it is self-indulgent. I'm not sure that's a distinction I can absolutely defend, but it seems a good place to begin an evaluation of the kind you're recommending.

Furthermore, it seems clear to me that what many people dislike about metafiction is the fact that it doesn't wear its moral or ethical values on its sleeve and often seems nihilistic in its celebration of aesthetic highjinks above all (John Gardner's On Moral Fiction is of course the classic example of this assessment). I'd say this is a false dichotomy, because metafiction can be interested in questions of ethics and morals as well as aesthetics. It's just that in their desire to defend themselves against philistinism, not many practicing metafictionists seem to have drawn attention to their engagement with such questions.

Ray Davis

As you recognize with your later mention of Fielding and Sterne, archly applied self-awareness was a standard technique of virtuoso storytellers long before Borges or even Joyce. Barth and Coover helped bring it back into fashion in the tepid and extremely constricted genre of mid-century middlebrow mainstream American fiction. How much attention they deserve for that accomplishment surely depends on the importance one attaches to that genre.

Dan Green

Ray: If you mean to say that Barth and Coover were themselves working in "middlebrow mainstream American fiction," I can't agree with you about that at all.

Bling

Lost in the funhouse should be read by all. If you are remotely interested in literature then Barth's self reflexive strategies will compliment your literary knowledge well.

Dan Birnbaum

Can Flaubert's Madame Bovary be considered a metafictional piece?

james hoepker

yes madame bovary can msot definetly be considered a metaficitonal work

ameer ali

why don't you include THE ARABIAN NIGHTS which can be considered as greatest of every METAFICTIONS.

Nick

"Not only was this strain of American fiction..."

It is interesting that you cite metafiction as a predominantly American literary tradition. I agree that since its emergence it has been used more widely by American writers, although to my mind, the stand-out piece of metafictional work is O'Brien's 'The Third Policeman'. Have you read it and, if so, what did you think?

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