Though the term metalanguage—a language that describes or analyzes another language— was in use well before the 1960s, it was around this time that theorists including Roman Jakobson (Linguistics and Poetics ) and Roland Barthes (Mythologies  and Elements of Semiology ), whose formalist/structuralist analyses of language and literature would have a significant impact on the direction of literary criticism and theory, were developing theories in which the concept of metalanguage played a central role. In Mythologies, for example, Barthes defines his concept of myth in terms of metalanguage: “myth itself, which I shall call metalanguage, because it is a second language, in which one speaks about the first” (115). More recently poststructuralist and postmodernist theorists have adopted and adapted the concept of metalanguage to discuss a variety of literary and cultural texts and phenomena. One derivative is metafiction, a term used to describe fictional works (typically but not exclusively prose fiction) that are self-consciously aware of their own fictionality and are given over largely to examinations of the elements of fiction itself. As the authors of The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms concisely put it, “metafiction means something like ‘fiction about fiction’ ” (259).
Since it was first used by American novelist William H. Gass in 1970, the term metafiction has been defined and theorized by a number of literary critics, including Robert Scholes, Robert Alter, Raymond Federman, Linda Hutcheon, Larry McCaffery, Patricia Waugh, and Mark Currie. Of the scholarship available, Waugh’s Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (1984) is one of the more accessible and useful texts. Waugh provides a concise answer to the question, What is metafiction?: “Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality” (2). Waugh also analyzes how metafictional writing challenges our understanding of “the world outside the literary fictional text” by provoking questions about representation and identity (2): “If our knowledge of this world is now seen to be mediated through language, then literary fiction (worlds constructed entirely out of language) becomes a useful model for learning about the constructions of ‘reality’ itself” (3). Clearly, as Waugh suggests, metafiction problematizes more than just the realist text.
While the term metafiction may belong to the vocabulary of poststructuralist literary theory, examples of metafiction predate the mid- to late- 20th century. As Waugh points out, nearly all fiction has metafictional properties, but some texts are more self-conscious than others. For example, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1760–67) offers a riotous send-up of the burgeoning novelistic genre, calling attention to its fi ctionality at every available opportunity, while Charlotte Brontë’s more conventionally realist narrative Jane Eyre (1847) has moments when the novel’s fictional world is interrupted by Jane’s narrating voice—as in the frequently cited line, “Reader, I married him.” By unveiling the mechanisms of fictional narrative, Brontë encourages readers to focus on the medium, however briefly. More recently—particularly since the 1950s—self-referentiality in fiction has become more and more common, often to the point that a text’s metafictionality is taken as an sign of its postmodernism. For those who find definition by example helpful, the work of writers like Vladimir Nabokov, Donald Barthelme, B. S. Johnson, Thomas Pynchon, and David Lodge, to name just a few, provides some points of reference along what Waugh calls a “spectrum” of metafiction.
Short stories, like novels, can be metafictional, foregrounding themselves as fictional artefacts—as stories. Some noteworthy examples include Virginia Woolf’s“An Unwritten Novel” (1920); Jorge Luis Borges’s collection Ficciones (1944), which features his frequently anthologized “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”; Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter” (1969); B. S. Johnson’s “A Few Selected Sentences” (1973); and David Lodge’s “Hotel des Boobs” (1986). In contrast to these stories, whose metafictional elements are quite pronounced, Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness (1902), with its self-conscious nesting of narratives, makes for an interesting debate about the politics of representation—especially in light of Chinua Achebe’s 1975 critique and its legacy.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. 1957. Translated by Annette Lavers. London: Vintage, 1993. Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self- Conscious Fiction. London: Methuen, 1984.