Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


45. Metafictions and experimental work


Robyn McCallum


Metafictive and experimental narrative techniques


Though we can make broad distinctions between implicit and explicit forms of metafiction and between texts which reflect on their own narrative processes and those which reflect on their linguistic construction, metafictive strategies tend to be used in combination, which means that individual texts have a curious habit of refusing classification. For this reason, rather than attempting to classify texts, I have organised the discussion which follows around specific metafictive and experimental strategies.


Intertextuality and parody

The term intertextuality covers the range of literary and cultural texts, discourses, genres and conventions used to construct narrative fictions. In metafictions these are often foregrounded so as to heighten their conventionality and artifice. Intertexts include specific literary texts, as well as generic and discursive conventions - such as Leon Garfield’s parody of nineteenth-century narrative genres in The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris (1971) - and cultural texts and discourses - such as Terry Pratchett’s parodic appropriations of department-store jargon in Truckers (1989). The relationship between the focused text and its intertexts in metafiction is frequently parodic, though not always - for example, references to the work of John Fowles in Caroline Macdonald’s Speaking to Miranda (1990) indicate interpretive possibilities to readers (McCallum 1992). A common metafictive strategy is the production of a re-version of a specific text - such as Jan Needle’s Wild Wood (1981), a re-version of The Wind in the Willows - or of well-known fairy stories, or folk tales. Overt forms of intertextuality have three main effects: they foreground the ways in which narrative fictions are constructed out of other texts and discourses; they work to indicate possible interpretive positions for readers, often distancing readers from represented events and characters; and they can enable the representation within a text of a plurality of discourses, voices and meanings.


Narratorial and authorial intrusions

There is a strong tradition of intrusive narrators who, by drawing attention to their storytelling function, seek to validate the status of their narrative as ‘truth’. A common self-reflexive narrative strategy is to use narratorial intrusions to comment on the processes involved in story-telling and to implicitly or explicitly foreground the fictionality of the narrative. In implicit forms of metafiction, such as Edith Nesbit’s The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), the narrator draws attention to the act of narration through direct address to readers, discussion of narrative choices about material, tone, register, diction and order, self-conscious parody of conventionalised narrative discourses, and references to the relations between ‘life’ and fiction. Anita Moss (1985) argues on these grounds that the novel is an explicit form of metafiction. However, although the narrative is self-reflective and readers may go on to infer the status of Nesbit’s text as a literary artefact, this is not a position constructed within the text. More explicit forms of metafiction, such as Terry Jones’s Nicobobinus (1985), Gene Kemp’s Jason Bodger and the Priory Ghost (1985) or Aidan Chambers’s Breaktime (1978), overtly parody the intrusive narrator so as to break the fictional illusion. In the final paragraph of Nicobobinus, the narrator, Basilcat, discloses that the whole narrative - including himself - is a fiction. Anachronistic narratorial intrusions in Jason Bodger also break the fictional frame by alerting readers to the gap between the time of narration and the time of the story.

In experimental fictions narratorial and authorial intrusions often function quite overtly to position readers in relation to a text. An authorial note at the end of Kemp’s I Can’t Stand Losing (1987/1989) almost demands that readers take a moral stance in relation to the text. Kemp morally censures the behaviour of the main character, thereby confirming the implied reader position constructed through the novel and implicitly undermining the contrived fictionality of the ending of the novel. Jan Mark’s Finders Losers opens with a note addressed to a narratee which describes the relationship between the narrative and the narratee (and by analogy the text and its readers) in terms which constitute the story and its meanings as being constructed by the narratee rather than as being artefacts of the text: ‘By the time you have read all six [stories] you will know exactly what happened on that day, and why, but you’ll be the only one who does’ (1990: 6). The second-person pronoun usually refers to a narratee, but is also used to directly address an implied reader (as in ‘choose your own adventure’ novels). When it is used more extensively - as it is in Peter Dickinson’s Giant Cold (1984) and the opening of Peter Hunt’s Backtrack (1986) - its referential function can be more ambiguous, having a disruptive effect on the relations between text and reader.


Narrative forms: mystery, fantasy, games and readers

Hutcheon describes specific narrative forms which can function as internalised structuring devices to represent reading positions and strategies (1980: 71-86). The mystery is a common device whereby a character’s quest to solve a central mystery is represented as analogous to a reader’s struggle with the text (Stephens 1993: 102). Combined with an extensive use of character focalisers whose viewpoints are limited, partial and selective and who consistently misinterpret events, this strategy can be used to construct implied readers in a position of superior knowledge, as in Garfield’s parody of Conan Doyle in the character Selwyn Raven, in The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris. Further, Stephens has shown how Mayne uses these strategies in Salt River Times (1980) and Winter Quarters (1982) to express an ‘analogy between interpreting human situations and reading fictions’ (1993: 102). A variation on this structuring device is the construction of a mystery which remains unsolved, for example Hunt’s Backtrack or Gary Crew’s Strange Objects (1990). The focus becomes, not so much the mystery itself, but the interpretive processes and discourses through which characters attempt to produce solutions.

Fantasy and game genres are also used as internalised structuring devices which point to the self-referentiality of a text. A fantasy text constructs an autonomous universe with its own rules and laws. Metafictive fantasies draw attention to the temporal and spatial structuration of this world - its geography, history, culture - and the role of readers in the act of imagining it and giving shape to the referents of words (Hutcheon 1980: 76). In this way, the reading of metafictive fantasies is ‘emblematic’ of the reading of fiction in general (81).

The ‘choose your own adventure’ novel is a relatively recent popular genre which explicitly constructs readers as ‘players’ in a fictional game and as active participants in the construction of the story. Readers construct characters from an assortment of traits and roles, and at each narrative juncture readers are offered a choice, usually from two or three possible narrative paths leading to a range of possible endings - see for example Steve Jackson’s and Ian Livingstone’s The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982). This is a highly conventionalised and codified genre, which can potentially teach its readers specific narrative conventions, as well as implicitly reinforce social codes. It is not, in itself, particularly metafictional, though it does clearly have a metafictive potential which has been exploited by writers such as Gillian Rubinstein and Pratchett. In Beyond the Labyrinth (1988) Rubinstein’s main character attempts to transpose the rules and conventions of the Fighting Fantasy fiction which he is reading on to life. In Only You Can Save Mankind (1992) Pratchett inverts and parodies the conventions of computer games. Both writers are concerned with the interrelationships between the ways in which we perceive, think and behave in game fictions and in life. Pratchett’s novel implicitly suggests that the modes of action and interpretation used in both fiction and life are very similar; Rubinstein makes more clear-cut distinctions between them.


Narrative disruptions and discontinuities

Disruptions to the causal, logical or linear relationships between narrative events, characters and narrators, and between primary and secondary narratives, have the effect of foregrounding the narrative structuring of texts. There are two main strategies for disrupting narratives: narrative metalepsis, and the representation of heterotopias. Metalepsis refers to the transgression of logical and hierarchical relations between different levels of narration (Genette 1980: 234-5; McHale 1987/1989: 119); heterotopias are fictional ‘spaces in which a number of possible orders of being can coincide’ (Stephens 1992a: 52).

A classic example of narrative metalepsis occurs in Browne’s Bear Hunt (1979). By literally drawing his way out of each predicament, Bear functions as both a character constructed within the text and an authorial figure who actively creates and changes the discourse of the text. By transgressing his narrative function, Bear disrupts the conventional hierarchy of relations between character, narrator and author. A more subtle use of metalepsis occurs in Diana Wynne Jones’s The Spellcoats (1979) where, through the process of narrating her story, Tanaqui realises that the act of narration is itself a performance which can influence events in the world. Implicit here is an awareness that any narration of a past simultaneously re-constructs (and fictionalises) that past, but Tanaqui’s narratorial role literally shifts from scribe to that of author. What begins as retrospective narration of past events (that is a secondary narrative) becomes a narrative which simultaneously shapes and changes events in the present (that is, a primary narrative).

The relationships between authors, primary narrators, secondary narrators and characters are usually hierarchical. By inverting or transgressing these hierarchical relations, metalepsis can be used to articulate questions about authority, power and freedom, such as who has control of the story and its characters - the narrator, her narratees, an author, his readers, or the socio-cultural context within and through which stories are told, heard, interpreted and appropriated. In A Step off the Path (1985) Hunt makes extensive use of metalepsis to articulate complex concerns with forms of textual and cultural appropriation and displacement. This is a multistranded novel, in which a story told by a character (Jo) in one narrative strand is a version of events occurring in another strand. The story concerns a group of knights (descendants of their Arthurian namesakes) who exist on the margins of mainstream society and culture. The novel hinges on a discrepancy between these knights and their ‘fictional’ counterparts represented in the popular medieval romance fictions of mainstream culture, out of which Jo’s narrative is constructed. Furthermore, these fictions also inform and obscure the perceptions and interpretations of other characters in the primary narrative. The point is that by appropriating the stories and culture of one social group and re-writing it as ‘romance’ (that is, fiction or myth), the dominant culture effectively writes this group out of ‘history’ and out of the present. With his representation of the knights, then, Hunt inverts the usual direction of metaleptic transgression, so that the primary narrative disrupts and transgresses the secondary narrative.

Fantastic children’s literature is characterised by widespread representation of heterotopias (Stephens 1992a: 52). Diana Wynne Jones and Peter Hunt both construct temporal heterotopias in which a number of possible time zones co-exist in order to overtly play with the relations between history and the temporal structuring of narrative. Jones’s Witch Week is premised on the possibility that parallel alternative worlds are constructed through spatio-temporal divergences which occur at decisive points in history - for example, events such as battles, ‘where it is possible for things to go two ways’ (1982/1989: 171). This works self-reflectively to represent the kinds of narrative choices which writers make in constructing fictions (Waterhouse 1991: 5). In The Maps of Time (1983) Hunt takes this idea a step further: narrative paths diverge as characters perceive and imagine events as occurring differently.

Macaulay’s picture books quite overtly play with narrative and temporal linearity. He uses a recursive narrative structure in Why the Chicken Crossed the Road (1991). Black and White (1990) is an elaborate play with perception, representation and interpretation. It consists of four narrative strands. Each is represented using different narrative and pictorial techniques, and they become visually mixed in the latter part of the text as the visual frames are broken by images which mirror and spill over into adjacent frames. The four narratives are linked by repeated images and ‘story’ elements, which imply that the four stories might constitute aspects of the same story. However, readers’ attempts to construct a single logical chronological narrative are frustrated through the confusion of logical, temporal and causal relations between the four strands. Ultimately the text refuses interpretive closure. What we get is layering of different but similar fictions, interwoven into and endlessly reflecting each other.


Mise en abyme and self-reflective devices

The term mise en abyme refers to a representation or narrative segment which is embedded within a larger narrative, and which reflects, reproduces or mirrors an aspect of the larger primary narrative (Prince 1987/1988: 53; McHale 1987/1989: 124-5; Hutcheon 1980: 54-6). It usually functions to indicate ways in which ‘the larger narrative might be interpreted’ (Stephens 1993: 105). Narrative aspects which might be reflected include: the story or themes of the primary narrative; its narrative situation - such as the relationship between the narrator and narratee; or the style of the primary narrative text (McHale 1987/1989: 124-5).

In realist novels a story, photo, painting or drawing will often function as a mise en abyme to reflect the thematic concerns of the primary narrative. For example, in Zibby Oneal’s The Language of Goldfish the main character, Carrie, executes a series of abstracted drawings based on ‘the idea of making patterns in which the real object disappeared’ (1980/1987: 31), descriptions of which are analogous with Carrie’s experience of a dissolution of selfhood which she both desires and fears as she retreats from adolescence and growing up. Lois Lowry also uses this device in A Summer to Die (1977). Self-reflective visual images, such as mirrors, paintings and intertextual quotations, are also a common metafictive strategy in the picture books of Browne and Van Allsburg, where they work to foreground the nature of the text as representation, and to blur the distinctions between textual fantasy and reality.

Stories narrated within the primary narrative by a character or a secondary narrator which reflect the story or themes of the primary frame-narrative can also function as mise en abyme devices. For example, in Paula Fox’s How Many Miles to Babylon? (1967) the stories which James tells reflect larger thematic concerns with the role of story-telling in the recuperation of the past and the construction of a subjectivity. Russell Hoban plays with the recursiveness of the ‘story-within-story-within-story’ structure in repeated descriptions of ‘Bonzo Dog Food’ labels in The Mouse and His Child (1967). Stephens has discussed the use of mise en abyme in three of William Mayne’s novels, Salt River Times (1980), Winter Quarters (1982) and Drift (1985), and where he sees the device as functioning to replicate the relations between reader and text (1993: 108). Similarly, the representation of relations between a narrator and her narratees in Hunt’s A Step off the Path replicates a range of text/reader relations.

Self-reflective images are also used to mirror the narrative processes in texts. Thus the narrator of Price’s The Ghost Drum (1987) is a cat chained to a pole around which it walks, telling stories, winding up the chain (that is, the story) as it goes. Similarly, the image of story-telling as ‘weaving’ is represented literally in The Spellcoats where the narrator’s story is literally woven into a coat.


The linguistic construction of texts and the world

There are four main strategies whereby metafictive novels can be self-conscious about their existence as language: parodic play on specific writing styles; thematised wordplay, such as puns, anagrams, cliches; variation of print conventions and the use of marginalia, footnotes and epigraphs - strategies which draw attention to the physicality of texts; and deliberate mixing of literary and extra-literary genres, such as the journal, letter, newspaper items, historical documents, and so on.

Pratchett’s Truckers is a metafictive fantasy novel about a group of ‘nomes’ who live under the floorboards of a large department store. Their social system, culture and religion is a bricolage of appropriated signs and discourses associated with department stores, mixed with parodic forms of biblical and religious discourse. Pratchett constantly plays on the slippage between signifiers and signifieds, foregrounding the gap between signs and things (in the meanings the nomes ascribe to ‘Bargains Galore’, for instance). By foregrounding the construction of the represented world and, hence, the construction of the text, Pratchett also draws attention to the ways in which representations of the world outside the text are similarly constructed and ascribed with meanings. The stories in Ahlberg’s The Clothes Horse (1987) are constructed out of a play with the literal meanings of commonplace figures of speech, such as ‘clothes horse’ or ‘jack pot’.

The combination of typographical experimentation and overt genre-mixing is widespread in recent popular children’s fiction but, as Stephens has suggested, ‘seems to be settling into its own formulaic conventions: two or three clearly delineated genres or modes ... are juxtaposed in order to suggest restricted perspective and to complicate otherwise flat, everyday surfaces’ (1992a: 53). In novels such as Libby Gleeson’s Dodger (1990) or Aidan Chambers’s The Toll Bridge (1992), the metafictive and experimental potential of genre-mixing is repressed through the combination of these strategies with an implicit authorial position and with realist conventions. The discourse is treated as a transparent medium which simply conveys information, rather than as a specific linguistic code which constructs and inscribes this information with meaning. Novels such as Hunt’s Backtrack, Chambers’s Breaktime or Crew’s Strange Objects consistently foreground their own textuality. Extra-literary genres and discourses are combined so as to effect abrupt shifts in the diegetic levels of narration, disrupt relations between fiction and reality within the textual frame, and draw attention to the discursivity of extraliterary genres.


Multistranded and polyphonic narratives

Two common experimental strategies which can also be used metafictionally are multistranded and polyphonic narration. Multistranded narratives are constructed of two or more interconnected narrative strands differentiated by shifts in temporal or spatial relationships, and/or shifts in narrative point of view (who speaks or focalises). In polyphonic narratives events are narrated from the viewpoints of two or more narrators or character focalisers. These are strategies which enable the representation of a plurality of narrative voices, social and cultural discourses, perceptual, attitudinal and ideological viewpoints. In doing so, they can work to efface or destabilise a reader’s sense of a single authoritative narratorial position, and thereby situate readers in more active interpretive positions. These are not in themselves metafictive strategies though they can be used as such, particularly in texts which use multiple narrators or focalisers to represent different versions of the same events, such as Mayne’s Drift.

One of the most common narrative structures used is interlaced dual narration. The narratives of two narrators or character focalisers are represented as two parallel strands interlaced together in alternating chapters or segments. This can work to overtly structure a novel as a ‘dialogue’ between two social, cultural, historical or gendered positions, as in Hunt’s Going up (1989), Caroline Macdonald’s The Lake at the End of the World (1988), Jenny Pausacker’s What Are Ya? (1987), Jan Mark’s The Hillingdon Fox (1991) or Dickinson’s A Bone from a Dry Sea (1992). However, like typographic and generic forms of experimentation, interlaced dual narration has also settled into its own formulaic conventions and is frequently structured so as to privilege one dominant authoritative position.

These narrative forms are at their most innovative when combined with other experimental narrative features, such as intertextuality, complex shifts in narrative point of view, and indirect and effaced modes of narration (see Stephens 1992b and Hunt 1991: 100-17). Two of the most sophisticated examples of polyphonic multistranded narration to date are Alan Garner’s Red Shift (1973) and Jill Paton Walsh’s Unleaving (1976).


Postmodernist historiographic metafictions

Historiographic metafiction refers to novels which self-reflexively mix fictive and historical modes of representation so as to pose questions about the relationships between fiction, history and reality (Hutcheon 1989: 50). Represented historical material may refer to either actual or fictive events - the texts and documents represented in Hunt’s Backtrack are almost entirely fictional, whereas those in Crew’s Strange Objects are a mixture of actual and fictive. It is the physical incorporation of the discursive style of history writing, rather than their actual historicity, that is characteristic.

Intellectual historians such as White (1987) and LaCapra (1980) have focused on the relations between representation, in particular narrative representation, and our capacity to know and understand the past. To the extent that the past is only accessible via its documents, archives and artefacts, our knowledge of that past is always mediated and determined by prior textualisations or representations. Potentially the past is, therefore, only knowable as text, and is thereby always already implicated in problems of language, discourse and representation. Historiographic metafictions highlight concerns with interpretation and representation by incorporating ‘historical’ texts and discursive conventions. For example, Hunt plays with the conventional historicist assumption that the closer an account of an event is to that event in time, the more accuracy and credibility it has, by including a transcript of an inquest report in which he steadfastly refuses to disclose information, thereby drawing attention to the discursive strategies which structure the report. The primary narrative of Backtrack centres on two characters, Jack and Rill, who investigate what caused a mysterious train crash which occurred seventy years earlier. The mystery remains unsolved and the lack of narrative resolution draws attention to the discourses whereby the mystery is constructed and whereby Jack and Rill attempt to solve it: namely, historical research, conjecture and reconstruction, and conventionalised generic narrative codes - the espionage plot, and the crime of passion plot. A subsequent blurring of the status of these discourses, as fiction and/or history, foregrounds their conventionality and the extent to which fiction and history are both culturally inscribed categories of discourse and not always easily distinguishable from each other. The narrative forms for representing and structuring events are common to both history writing and fiction, and that these are forms which impart meaning as well as order (Hutcheon 1989: 62). The possibility remains that the act of narration, in either fictive or historical writing, might construct and thereby construe its object.