Revising Leah

October 12, 2008

How I Use Metafiction in My Novel

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 6:03 pm
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Photo by Stefano Castiglia

Photo by Stefano Castiglia

Metafiction is a form of writing in which the very act of writing or reading becomes the subject of the story. It’s a technique and a form that has been around almost as long as the novel itself, but it has been used more and more in the last 50 years. Some famous examples of 20th century metafictive novels include Pale Fire, Mulligan Stew, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

While Leah, as a whole, is not metafiction, I do employ some metafictive strategies here and there within the story. Leah allows for metafiction because the readers of this novel often find themselves in the odd position of reading a book about a character who is herself reading books. And although Leah Nells is the main character of this novel, we learn in chapter two that she doesn’t like novels:

She preferred to read non-fiction books-books that were dense, impersonal, and mostly uninteresting. She never read novels, except when assigned to read one for school, because when she read about lively characters and their exciting adventures, she couldn’t help but contrast their stories with her own quiet life. Novels only reminded her of how different she was from other people. Characters in novels liked to talk, they had lots of friends, and they did things-simple things-like go shopping at a garage sale without any worries at all. Leah couldn’t relate to any of those characters; their lives were not like hers. So she read books like Attracting Birds to Your Backyard because these books didn’t remind her that she was weird. These books made her feel comfortable, normal. The real birds in the trees outside might sing, but the pictures of birds in her book were as silent as Leah herself.

The irony of a main character of a novel who hates novels calls the reader’s attention to the fact that the reader is reading a story, and it suggests this novel will be a little different from the kinds of books that Leah dislikes. If only for a moment, the reader contrasts this story with other novels that the reader has read and contrasts Leah to other characters.  The part about how other characters in other books tend to speak a lot calls the reader’s attention to the fact that, by this point in the story, Leah still has not uttered a single word (and she won’t speak until the next chapter). Metafiction explicitly asks the reader to think about the story that he or she is reading and to place that story within the context of other stories and novels that one has read previously.

There’s another element of metafiction in the passage above that I should point out. The birds book that Leah is reading is a real book (I’ve linked to it’s Amazon page). In fact, all of the books that Leah reads in the course of this novel are real books. In the 1996 draft of Leah, I just made up titles, but this time I thought, why not use the titles of real books? The effect is to tie Leah to the real world and break down another barrier between the fictional world of the novel and the real world of the reader. It further supports the illusion that what we are reading might be true. This blurring of fiction and reality is another goal of metafiction.

Most of the time, though, metafiction has more to do with the act of writing than of reading. We don’t see Leah Nells doing a lot of writing in this novel, but because she’s a high school student, she does do some. Here’s a passage in which the narrator describes how Leah feels about writing and the difficulties that she faces:

Despite reading so many books on her own, Leah didn’t write very well. Communicating with pen and paper was almost as hard as communicating with spoken words. Writing was sometimes better than speaking because she could take her time constructing sentences and paragraphs, but she often found herself struggling for just the right words and she didn’t always know how to phrase those words in the best possible way. The act of writing was a more personal, solitary activity, but even though she wasn’t speaking directly to another person, she still knew that a writing assignment like this book report would have an audience — Mrs. Meyer — and that placed added pressure on her to write well. Leah tried to do the best she could, but communication is communication, no matter what the means of expression, and Leah knew that she simply could not communicate well.

I would suggest that the difficulties described in this passage are difficulties that all writers face, whether they are students or professional writers. Writing is hard, and as I learned when I tried to publish this novel the first time, a piece of writing doesn’t always turn out the way you expect it to. The 1996 edition of my novel was very poorly written, and I used to mock myself by describing Leah as a book about a girl who has trouble communicating, written by a writer who is obviously having trouble communicating, too.

Since Leah Nells is such a voracious reader, she frequently has to go shopping for more books. Over the course of this novel, we follow Leah and her mother as they visit garage sales, used book stores, and large chain bookstores in search of those long, boring books that Leah prefers to read. This gives me the opportunity to sprinkle in some criticism of the publishing and retail industry. The sharpest criticism comes when Leah makes a rare visit to a large chain bookstore at the local mall:

As she browsed, she sometimes checked the prices of the books that she picked up. Since nearly all of the books in her collection were from garage sales and the used book store where books sometimes cost less than a dollar, she was shocked to see books priced at twenty or thirty dollars — or more. Who would be dumb enough to pay that kind of money? she wondered. How could this place stay in business? Leah was fortunate that she wouldn’t have to pay for a book out of her own pocket, but because she didn’t want to ask her mother to spend too much on her, she decided that she should find a book that wasn’t very expensive.

Writers often employ metafiction just for the sake of employing it — in other words, to have fun with the text. But metafiction can serve a social and political function as well. It can be a method of criticizing or satirizing real-world institutions and customs.

Not everyone likes metafiction. Some readers and writers find it too distracting. But I like it because I think it adds an extra dimension to the story; it helps pull the reader out of the passive role that one usually assumes into a more active participation in reading and making sense of the story. I think that’s a positive thing, and while I don’t go out of my way to use metafiction (off the top of my head, I can’t think of any metafictive elements in The Spring, for example) when the opportunity to use it presents itself, I like to take advantage of it.

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