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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Ubiquity of Metafiction

Posted by John Holbo on 11/12/06 at 01:39 AM

We need more fiction posts around the place, or at least stuff for those who are tired of talking about the Bérubé book. (I need a break from grading.)

A couple days ago I followed a link from Political Theory Daily, a link I am now unable to locate, to a piece on Stephen King, by James Grainger, that I am now only able to locate here. Well, that will do:

Stephen King’s esteemed place in the hierarchy of genre fiction authors is undisputed, but a more contentious question has arisen in the decade or so: Can King’s work be considered literature?

Fans, and even a few brave academics, have argued that King’s novels and stories, taken together, provide a composite portrait of late-20th-century American masculinity in crisis. They also point to his undeniable storytelling skills, his vast if somewhat lurid imagination and his gift for capturing American speech as proof of, if not literary greatness, then something more than mere hack work.

This question hit the media in a big way when King won the 2003 National Book Award for distinguished contribution to American letters. King’s supporters, many of them such “literary” authors as Michael Chabon, said that it was about time that a writer of King’s calibre was recognized by the literary establishment; many traditionalists saw the bestowing of the award on a mere horror writer as another example of the dumbing down of American culture.

There was nothing new in any of this. The literary value of genre fiction, broadly defined as work that eschews moral ambiguity, narrative experimentation, verbal nuance and depth of characterization for such “lowbrow” considerations as story, suspense and obvious readability, has vexed critics and academics of the English-speaking world since at least the late 19th century.

The author suggests that King’s new book, Lisey’s Story [amazon] is a good test of his merits. You can read the review to get a plot summary. It’s a story about the widow of a dead author ... who sounds a lot like Stephen King. So it’s sort of metafictive, but it sounds like it’s verging on fanfictive. Self-insertion problems, maybe. What do you think of King? When I was a teenager I read everything and he has profoundly shaped my literary sensiblity, for better or worse. But I haven’t read a thing by him for nigh on 15 years, I’ll wager.  So obviously I’m not going to talk about that. What do you think about genre fiction as “work that eschews moral ambiguity, narrative experimentation, verbal nuance and depth of characterization for such “lowbrow” considerations as story, suspense and obvious readability.” It’s not really a proper definition because it actually doesn’t say anything about - well, genre, which really ought to be shoehorned in somewhere. But never mind that. Even a proper definition of ‘genre fiction’ will tend to include ‘metafiction’ as a subvariety. Because metafiction addresses itself to the devices of fiction. So those must be on display. And that means we’ve got genre, plus play. But then it’s obviously inappropriate to define metafiction as even tending to eschew moral ambiguity, experimentation, verbal nuance, character, and so forth. What metafiction does is precisely attempt to realize these virtues by means of genre. The only question is whether it will be willing to leave behind the ‘lowbrow’ stuff to achieve these ends. Anyway, it strikes me that the only things I really read these days are metafictional attempts to realize the sophisticated stuff without losing the ‘lowbrow’ stuff. All my comic books are comic books about comic books. I’m bored by comic books that aren’t about comic books. I like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem because it’s all metafiction about genre fiction. I really liked Dave Moles Twenty Epics [amazon] - because it’s metafictional and fun.  It’s metafictional in that it was - its editor informs us - inspired by a piece entitled ‘how to write an epic fantasy’ that somehow did a good ‘bigger on the inside than the outside’ trick by producing the flavor of epic at only short story length. Sort of affectionate-ironic, as Moles goes on to explain: “Because we used to like epics. We used to invest untold hours in those big fat fantasy series, those brick-thick novels full of unpronounceable naming schemes, gender-segregated magic systems, color-coded conceptions of absolute good and absolute evil. But somewhere along the way they lost their charm ... “ Hence Twenty Epics. I was bored by the ones that played it straight, amused by the straight parodies, but liked best the ones that were appreciatively playful with genre constraints without bursting forth into full parody. Those seem to have a nice ‘innocence and experience’ balance. This is what you once liked, this is how you are now. Somehow you see that the child is the father of the man. That sort of thing.  Anyway, it’s what I like about Susanna Clarke, whose wonderful Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories [amazon] I just finished. It’s metafiction, because it mashes up Jane Austen and fairy tales and fantasy conventions generally. It’s hilarious but serious and sharply observant and rather sentimental. The title story - first published in 1996, before she wrote Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - gives us Strange and Norrell, their first appearance. The master and his pupil (the first and second Phenomena of the Age) engage in pedantic, mannered debate about the non-existence of the Raven King in the pages of the Edinburgh Review. Three ladies show Jonathan there might be a bit more to the Romantic side of it (which, being basically J.S. Mill plus the ability to do magic, he already knows, but feels obliged not to publish, out of deference to his Master.) Then there’s the tremendous sentimentality of a story within the story about the Raven King, when he was only a Raven Child. Lovely.

Are you, like me, exclusively addicted to genre metafiction? Do you, like me, find it satisfyingly easy to satisfy this taste with lots of pretty ok stuff? (Yes, I know. Irony is everywhere these days, the kids are all into this newfangled mood. But my point is a bit more specific than just that.)

And while I’m on the subject. Do you like those ‘series of unfortunate events’ books. I got bored with them after a while. I see the last one [amazon] just came out. Hmmm, what would be a really depressing mash-up for a children’s story. How about: Heather Has Two Wire-Mommies. (I can see the heroine as a sort of irritated teen, with these strange metallic figures trying hard to raise her within what turns out to be a laboratory. But eventually Heather gets her revenge.)

Yeah yeah, I’ve sort of written this post about twice before. So sue me. The stuff interests me. Speaking of repeating myself, this post reminds me of some other good metafiction I perpetrated long ago, in this old CT thread. Good games. Mash-ups of classic fiction. I’ll just polish up the better bits and put them under the fold. Feel free to add your own.

Long Day’s Journey Into Twelfth Night
Eugene O’Neil, cross-gartered and gin-soaked most villainously.

Mr. Sammler’s Swiftly Tilting Planet

Elderly Jew and unicorn save world from ‘Mad Dog’ Branzillo.

Farmer Giles, Goat-Boy of Ham

It’s the cultural revolution, the dragon won’t fight. One of those really 60’s-style novels. Does anyone still read them?

Sixth Sense and Sensibility
Turns out she’s a ghost.

Huckleberry Finn Family Moomintroll
Huck, Jim, Snuff, Moom, Hem, and My on the ol’ Mississip.

A Separate War and Peace
Set in a boy’s school during the Napoleonic Wars. Well, half of it.

Danny, Champion of the World As I Found It

Wittgenstein and Danny fed sleeping pills to chickens.

The Thin Man Without Qualities

Made famous by the movie, with William Powell as Ulrich and Myrna Loy as Diotima.

Little, Big Dorrit
Girl raised by fairies for reasons unknown in Victorian prison bigger on inside than outside. Dickens rails against the practice.

Room With a View to a Kill
Merchant-Ivory production, with Helena Bonham-Carter as bond girl.

Charlie and the Great Glass Menagerie
Willy Wonka hopes Charlie can help Laura snap out of it and live a little.

The Runaway Bunny Jury
John Grisham’s first book for children. “Once there was a little bunny who wanted to sue gun manufacturers for turning a blind eye to illegal distribution of their products. So he said to his mother, ‘I am suing gun manufacturers for turning a blind eye to illegal distribution of their products.’ And his mother said, ‘If you do that, they will hire flashy jury consultants and you will lose your case.’ ‘If I lose the case,’ said the little bunny, ‘I will change my identity and travel around the country trying to infiltrate juries until I win.’ ‘If you do that, they will trash your apartment,’ said his mother.

Goodnight Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Goodnight penal colony on the moon. Goodnight earth ruling over the moon. Goodnight supercomputer named Mike.

The Great Firestarter
Shirley Hazzard admits Stephen King is pretty good, after all.

The Crying of Salem’s Lot 49
Oedipa Mass and Mucho sort out legal tangles. Will vampires take over the town first?

The Lion in Winter, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet involve the Pevensies in their family trouble, via a magical wardrobe.

The Magnificent Seven Ambersons
Several generations of a snobbish midwestern family defend their town against incredible odds.

Those are just mine, mind you. Check out more from others in the linked thread. The wife suggested a whole line of Enid Blyton possibilities, for example:

The Secret Seven Sharer
Guilt-ridden sea captain must conceal six children and an excitable dog in his cabin. Will his steward catch on?

Please note how the successful entry will tend to mix high and low - specifically, childish fare with Great Literature, with a touch of the macabre. Most of what I read these days is a pretty much just understated, subtler, better versions of the same. Am I really just a mash-up addict, in some sense? (Should I worry about this, or seek treatment?)


Comments

The Playboy of the Western World of Null-A

Gilbert Gosseyn stumbles into a bar across the street from the Games Machine and announces that he’s killed his father. Little does he realize that both of them are part of an endless series of telepathic clones…

By on 11/12/06 at 05:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Because we used to like epics. We used to invest untold hours in those big fat fantasy series, those brick-thick novels full of unpronounceable naming schemes, gender-segregated magic systems, color-coded conceptions of absolute good and absolute evil. But somewhere along the way they lost their charm...”

Just to be clear--Moles is talking about himself and his target audience, meaning yourself, right John? I haven’t read any Moles, so I don’t know if he’s claiming that the faux-Tolkienesque epic itself has been exhuasted, or just isn’t interesting for people like himself anymore. I ask because, on the basis of the youth and young adult fiction which my oldest daughter and wife consume pretty regularly, the “epic” in the sense Moles is talking about is alive and well--in fact, flourishing. Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest series, Paolini’s Eragon books, etc. And really, isn’t Rowling keeping the epic alive in a non-ironic way as well?

I don’t know if I’m a mash-up fan. Cross-overs I’m okay with, the weaving together of distinct storylines into a larger, consistent epic narrative; maybe that means my inner geek is essentially “fanficky” at heart? Maybe I’m not ironic enough.

By Russell Arben Fox on 11/12/06 at 09:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Can’t speak to Paolini or that particular Wrede, but as for Rowling, I think an epic has to have the picaresque as well as the Bildungsroman. She also paints on a fairly small canvas—as does, for example, Paul Park, who does have the picaresque; but as brilliant as A Princess of Roumania is, for me it’s too intimate to be epic.

Mostly, though, what Susan and I were going for when we first wrote up the submission guidelines was stuff not like this.

By David Moles on 11/12/06 at 01:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, there are a number of things that I think may be going on here with the childish element of this, in addition to a basic postmodern love of mashups and a hipster “cool to be uncool” love of genre.

One of them is, as I can’t but help knowing from J&B Have A Blog, you have kids.  I think that it’s almost impossible to read to children day after day, or hear them listen to/sing something over and over, and not have that start to affect your interior world.  (Cf, my latest unsatisfactory religious poem, provisionally titled Oscar in Samsara.)

The other is the shared basis for culture.  For the upper class, this used to be high culture.  Now that we primarily talk to the middle class, we need something else.  Berube’s book mentions that the only shared culture he can be sure of finding within his class is _Pulp Fiction_ and _The Matrix_.  Children’s books have a similar middle-class universality.

By on 11/12/06 at 01:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

1.  Well, I liked the movie of Tristram Shandy, so I guess I’ve got the bug too.  Also, this is out of control.

2.  But yes, now that you mention it, do seek treatment.  (Admitting you have a problem, &c.)

3.  Wow, there are some truly great mashups on the CT thread.  I like Ben’s Groundwork, where the mashing-up reaches to the sentence level.  How about Lord of the Ringy-dingies (you’re not too young for this one, are you?): the fate of the world depends on the ability of one eccentric switchboard operator to make the proper connection before it’s too late.  Or Middlemarch of the Sugar-plum Fairies, where the key to all mythologies, one scholar believes, is to be found in the moves of a certain magical dance.  (Okay, I see I’ll be needing treatment too.)

By Dave Maier on 11/12/06 at 01:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oops - it’s the Tin Soldiers who do the marching, isn’t it.  Oh well - don’t ask, don’t tell, say I.

P.S.: How Bleen Was My Valley.

By Dave Maier on 11/12/06 at 03:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Goodness, the Runaway Bunny Jury made me snort my water out of my nose. Too funny!

By The Guilty Reader on 11/12/06 at 10:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you kindly, Guilty.

By John Holbo on 11/12/06 at 10:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dave, your offering needs a plot summary:

A tight-knit clan of Welsh coalminers are deeply nostalgic for how things used to be before time-t.

By John Holbo on 11/12/06 at 11:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, that thought needs to be completed: the coalminers are troubled by how, even though in a sense everything has stayed the same, everything seems different.

By John Holbo on 11/12/06 at 11:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Russell, I think of Rowling as a mash-up of Tolkien and Billy Bunter-style school books. The formula for Rowlings success is, in a way, the same as for Buffy, which is a mash-up of horror and Beverly Hills 90210. You need your life to stay ordinary - school and teen friendships and young love and worries - yet be extraordinary. The extraordinary bits end up serving, in effect, as expressive amplifications of the emotions of childhood/teenagerhood, so forth.

It may be that I’m stretching my point to make it a big tent over lots of cases. But there is something inherently spoofy and metafictionally ironic about Rowling that is absent in Tolkien and some of those other cases you mention.

By John Holbo on 11/12/06 at 11:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Russell, I think of Rowling as a mash-up of Tolkien and Billy Bunter-style school books....The extraordinary bits end up serving, in effect, as expressive amplifications of the emotions of childhood/teenagerhood, so forth....But there is something inherently spoofy and metafictionally ironic about Rowling that is absent in Tolkien and some of those other cases you mention.”

Hmm. I have to say that I’ve never had that impression of the Harry Potter books. That they’re very thoroughly informed by the whole English boarding school genre is obvious, but I think Rowling has used those tropes in a wholly earnest way; I’ve never had the sense that she’s written her characters as though they were familiar with Billy Bunter-style stories--or, for that matter, as though we, the readers, were familiar with them either, and that she had to game us to keep the story interesting.

Is a “mash-up” solely a mixing of genres? I thought, a la Susanna Clark, a mash-up was by definition (assuming it has a definition) metafictional, in that part of what is getting “mashed” into the story is an awareness of the conventions of the genre of the story. That’s the sort of thing that usually gets highlighted when two genres are put together; it’s definitely the sort of thing going on in the Unfortunate Event books. But Rowling? My irony detector is admittedly not a well-calibrated instrument, but I suspect that she takes her story every bit as naively/seriously as any of the great fantasy writers of Middle England. (Did you ever see this article, putting together Tolkien and Lewis with Kipling and Richard Adams? Good stuff.)

By Russell Arben Fox on 11/13/06 at 12:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The back-to-school shopping ritual, but instead of getting mundane things like cell-o-tape, you have spell-o-tape? The buying of boring books, which are actually wonderful-sounding magic books? I don’t think Ms. Rowling can be described as wholly in earnest about all this nonsense. There’s a low-key, steady whimsy, even as the story is genuinely thrilling. Adults are really helped to enjoy these books by the whimsy, which children don’t really get. Even adults who never read Billy Bunter - for example, me - can see how it’s funny. Mash-up means, at a minimum, ‘incongruous combination, which weirdly works’ and I think that shoe fits Rowling.

Tolkien doesn’t do whimsy (or not much). He does snug. ‘Plop! went the barrel into the river’ and all that.

By John Holbo on 11/13/06 at 12:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I don’t think Ms. Rowling can be described as wholly in earnest about all this nonsense.”

Well, sure; and there was that bit from--what, the fifth book?--when Harry is at the Weasleys at Christmastime, and there’s some horrible torch singer on whatever wizards call their radio, and she’s singing exactly the sort of crummy song that usually gets sung by drunks on late-night Christmas eve broadcasts? That’s all whimisical and fun. But is ironic? When is an incongruous combination--"man, that’s straight out of Lawrence Welk"--something where the author is poking you for a bit of a joke, and when is it just the details of an earnestly if humorously designed world? (Yep, monster books about monsters happen to bite at you.) I don’t think I’m a good enough reader to know.

By Russell Arben Fox on 11/13/06 at 01:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Stephen King seems to have really gotten into a metafictional kick late in his career.  “Desperation” and “The Regulators” (sorry, don’t know how to indent/underline in comments) are underrated experimentalist novels, and the later books of the Dark Tower series are a metafictional flourish (there are many reasons a character in “The Dark Tower” refers to a John Fowles novel).

By Joe Fischer on 11/13/06 at 12:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Okay, I’ll stop this and go read what A. C. Grayling has to say.  But you have to promise to read the new Tchaikovsky bio.  I refer, of course, to From Russia with Love in the Time of Cholera.

By Dave Maier on 11/13/06 at 06:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

http://this-space.blogspot.com/2006/11/stephen-king-on-desert-island.html

By Matt Christie on 11/20/06 at 01:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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