What is Metafiction?

In Patricia Waugh’s Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, the author quotes novelist and critic William H. Gass on “the dilemma of all art.” Waugh argues that Gass’ definition sheds light on the distinctive “tensions and oppositions” inherent to the novel as a genre, but also, and more significantly, on metafiction’s characteristically ironic attitude, its alternating play of “technique and counter-technique, of construction and deconstruction.” Gass writes:

In every art two contradictory impulses are in a state of Manichean war: the impulse to communicate and so to treat the medium of communication as a means and the impulse to (Metafiction, p.14)

Our edition of Waugh’s text was accessed through Google Books, where Gass’ quote is followed by the notice that “You have either reached a page that is unavailable for viewing or or reached your viewing limit for this book.” The interruption is unfortunate, as Gass’ quote is truncated precisely where we expect the second part of an illuminating opposition.

We assume, of course, that Gass’ quote is not purposely inconclusive or incoherent, that it does not promise to say one thing and instead say something entirely else, such as launching into a tirade about poor customer service at his local dry cleaner, a digression on how to prepare the Cajun ‘holy trinity,’ or a note for posterity about applications of his literary works to the theory of fluid dynamics. It can be assumed, instead, that Gass’ quote continues by defining the second of two “contradictory impulses”: the opposite of “the impulse to communicate” as well as the attitude toward communication that treats the latter not as a “means” but as an “end” in itself.

Whether or not this is the case, we must also assume that Waugh’s own text does not break off at this point, running a mere 14 pages before abruptly terminating with a hanging preposition and an undefined “impulse.” Of course this latter scenario would entail a highly unusual arrangement with Google Books and the publisher (Routledge), as the book’s table of contents lists four additional chapters as well as notes, a bibliography and an index, with the total page numbers running to 173. Such an arrangement would also expose Google, Amazon and the publisher to legal action on the part of its customers, who might click on Google’s “Get Print Book” and be rightfully disappointed in their purchase ($40.95 via Routledge; $49.41 via Amazon Prime).

Is it possible, though, that the book’s marketers mean to send a message to their customers, and that they chose Metafiction as the means to disseminate it? Could it be that this message is important enough to risk the reputation of publisher, e-commerce company and search engine alike, not to mention the author, Patricia Waugh? If so, the role of the Gass quote in Waugh’s book may be highly significant; Gass, after all, is the originator of the term “metafiction” itself (Waugh, p. 2). Moreover, it is worth noting that by interrupting Gass’ quote Google does not simply abolish it; rather, the search engine supplies an ambiguous, indeed contradictory message composed of unresolved alternatives (“either / or”), as if to confirm Gass’ idea of a “Manichean war” of contrary impulses in the very act of suppressing it.

We can only speculate as to the motives behind such a project. Perhaps its intention is to challenge Julio Cortázar’s metafictional portrayal of capitalist business as a sinister conspiracy of “multinational vampires.”* Perhaps, on a single point at least, in a veiled concession to their critics and in tacit sponsorship of the best of contemporary writing, the multinationals agree to send a message contrary to the idea of communication as a medium, whether as a means to amass wealth or to spend it; whether to purchase useless consumer goods or to learn from the ideas in other people’s books; whether to battle the forces of injustice and exploitation or endorse them; to suggest that instead of all this we are merely passing our eyes over arbitrary graphic marks distributed in a series of lines on the blank space of a page.

*See Julio Cortazar, Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires, David Kurnick, trans. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014).

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