Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

45. Metafictions and experimental work

 

Robyn McCallum

 

The term ‘metafiction’ is used to refer to fiction which self-consciously draws attention to its status as text and as fictive. It does this in order to reflect upon the processes through which narrative fictions are constructed, read and made sense of and to pose questions about the relationships between the ways we interpret and represent both fiction and reality (Waugh 1984: 2). Although they are not interchangeable, there is considerable overlap between contemporary categories of metafiction and experimental fiction. Texts which are experimental are often also metafictive, and vice versa. As categories of fiction both are, to some extent, context bound, definable in relation to other forms of narrative fiction - the category ‘experimental’ changes through time, socio-historical context, and critical conceptions of what constitutes the mainstream. With children’s literature this category can shift between ‘literary’ and popular, neither of which is exempt from experimentation, depending on which aspects of a text are the focus of attention: the discursive and stylistic techniques, narrative technique and structures, content, social, ideological, intellectual and moral concerns and so on.

A key distinction between metafictive and experimental texts and the majority of fiction written for children lies in the kinds of narrative and discursive techniques used to construct and inscribe audience positions within texts. Briefly, the narrative modes employed in children’s novels tend to be restricted to either first-person narration by a main character or third-person narration with one character focaliser (Stephens 1991: 63). Texts tend to be monological rather than dialogical, with single-stranded and story-driven narratives, closed rather than open endings, and a narrative discourse lacking stylistic variation (Moss 1990; Hunt 1988). These are strategies which function to situate readers in restricted and relatively passive subject positions and to implicitly reinforce a single dominant interpretive stance. Restrictions on narrative point of view in particular frequently have the effect of restricting the possible interpretive positions available to implied readers (Stephens 1991: 63; 1992b: 27).

Metafictive and experimental forms of children’s writing generally use a broader range of narrative and discursive techniques: overly obtrusive narrators who directly address readers and comment on their own narration; disruptions of the spatio-temporal narrative axis and of diegetic levels of narration; parodic appropriations of other texts, genres and discourses; typographic experimentation; mixing of genres, discourse styles, modes of narration and speech representation; multiple character focalisers, narrative voices, and narrative strands and so on. These are strategies which distance readers from a text and frequently frustrate conventional expectations about meaning and closure. Implied readers are thereby positioned in more active interpretive roles. By foregrounding the discursive and narrative structuring of texts, metafictions can show readers how texts mean and, by analogy, how meanings are ascribed to everyday reality.

 

Metafiction and readers

 

Although the use of metafictive and experimental narrative forms in children’s fiction has recently received positive criticism (Moss 1985; Lewis 1990; Moss 1990, 1992; Hunt 1992; Stephens 1991, 1992b, 1993; Mackey 1990), the genre can still generate resistance and scepticism. A common response is that it is too difficult for children. Metafictive texts often draw attention to their own artifice through the parody or inversion of other texts, genres and discourses. These strategies depend upon a reader’s recognition of the parodied text, genre or discourse, and hence assume certain levels of literary and interpretive competence. As inexperienced readers, children may not have learned the cultural and literary codes and conventions necessary to recognise metafictive devices. However, as Hunt has observed, ‘it may be correct to assume that child-readers will not bring to the text a complete or sophisticated system of codes, but is this any reason to deny them access to texts with a potential of rich codes?’ (1991: 101). Furthermore, Mackey argues that metafictive children’s texts can ‘foster an awareness of how a story works’ and implicitly teach readers how texts are structured through specific codes and conventions (1990: 181).

The instructive potential of metafiction has been emphasised by many theorists (of both adult and children’s texts). Hutcheon’s description of the activity of a reader of metafiction also aptly describes the activity of an inexperienced child reader: that is, ‘one of learning and constructing a new sign-system, a new set of verbal relations’ (1980: 19). By involving readers in the production of textual meanings, metafictions can implicitly teach literary and cultural codes and conventions, as well as specific interpretive strategies, and hence empower readers to read more competently: more explicit forms often seek to teach readers conventions and strategies with which to interpret metafictions as well as other more closed texts.

There are two main aspects of metafiction which are important for reading development. First, developmental studies suggest that mature readers ‘read with a more reflective and detached awareness of how the processes of fiction are operating as they read’ (Mackey 1990: 179). Metafictive narratives construct a distance between an audience and the represented events and characters and can potentially foster such an awareness (Stephens 1991: 75). Second, there is a demonstrated relationship between play-oriented activities, such as verbal puns, jokes and rhymes, role play and story-telling, and the acquisition of language and of complex cognitive and social skills (Vygotsky 1934/1962; Britton 1970/1972). Underlying much metafiction for children is a heightened sense of the status of fiction as an elaborate form of play, that is, a game with linguistic and narrative codes and conventions. Janet and Allan Ahlberg exemplify this kind of writing for quite young children, by producing narratives which are parodic reversions of familiar childhood texts (for example Allan Ahlberg’s Ten in a Bed (1983).

A second objection to metafiction (for children and adults) is that as a radically selfreflexive and playful genre it is ultimately self-indulgent and solipsistic. To assume that fiction can be self-reflexive in any simple way, however, is to confuse the signifying and referential functions of the linguistic signs that constitute a text - that is, it is indicative of a failure to distinguish between signs and things. It is precisely this distinction that theorists such as Britton see as important in the encouragement of an ‘openness to alternative formulations of experience’ associated with the move out of egocentricism (1970/1972: 86), and which metafictions frequently foreground and exploit. We use language and narrative to represent, mediate and comprehend reality, as well as to construct fictions. By ‘laying bare’ the artifice through which fictional texts mean, metafictions can also lay bare the conventions through which what we think of as ‘reality’ is represented and ascribed with meanings.