Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


45. Metafictions and experimental work


Robyn McCallum


Defining metafiction


Metafiction tends to be defined in two main ways: as a distinctive sub-genre of the novel, defined in opposition to literary realism; or as an inherent tendency of the novelistic genre (Ommundsen 1989: 266). Waugh (1984) and Lewis (1990) both stress the relation between metafiction and the classic realist text. Metafictions appropriate and parody the conventions of traditional realism in order to construct a fictional illusion and simultaneously expose the constructedness of that illusion (Waugh 1984: 6). Our understanding of a metafiction will depend to some extent upon the conventions and intertexts which it parodies, but more specifically upon assumptions about the verbal sign inscribed within these conventions. The narrative conventions of realist fiction work to mask the gap between linguistic signs and their fictive referents and to construct an illusion of an unmediated relation between signs and things. In doing so, these conventions obscure the fictionality of referents and imply a reading of fiction as if it were ‘real’. In metafiction, however, the ontological gap between fiction and reality is made explicit; that is, the fictionality of the events, characters and objects referred to is foregrounded.

While the relations between metafiction and literary realism are important, to define one in opposition to the other excludes from consideration a vast number of (often ostensibly ‘realist’) texts which have self-reflexive elements but which are not ‘systematically self-conscious’ (Ommundsen 1989: 265), as well as early forms of metafictive writing. Hutcheon has stressed that the use of self-reflexive narrative strategies is part of a long novelistic tradition: ‘Art has always been “illusion” and it has often, if not always, been self-consciously aware of that ontological status’ (1980: 17). Anita Moss’s (1985) inclusion of early writers such as Nesbit and Dickens acknowledges this tradition in children’s literature.

Much of the critical discourse around children’s metafiction has been situated within a theoretical frame which opposes metafiction and realism and has focused on recent and unambiguously ‘metafictive’ examples. However, an approach which proceeds from an opposition between mainstream children’s writing and ‘counter texts’ - texts which don’t fit unproblematically into the category of children’s literature - excludes all but the most explicitly self-conscious forms and, by implication, suggests a simplistic correlation between metafiction and subversion (for example, Moss 1990: 50). On the other hand, to over-emphasise the novelistic potential for self-reflexivity at the expense of specific identifiable metafictive narrative techniques and discursive strategies is to reduce the possibilities of critical insight and analysis. In other words, both aspects need to be taken into account: the specific strategies through which metafictions play with literary and cultural codes and conventions, and the historicity and conventionality of these metafictive textual practices.