The birth was messy. Sweat, blood, tears, and cerebrospinal fluid slicked the white tile. Dirty forceps, scalpels, and fountain pens were strewn haphazardly. In a pail of ink, a half-formed idea wailed. The thought-doctors could only guess if it would make it.
–From Skull Born, the very first (and thankfully unpublished) Lacuna story
Metafiction, at its most basic, is fiction about fiction. This can take a variety of forms. Everything from John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse to Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, can be considered metafiction.
Stories about storytelling have always interested me. An early influence on my writing were Walter Moers’ Zamonia books, specifically The City of Dreaming Books. In it, he imagined a decadent, surreal wonderland of writers, publishers, and booklovers. Books and stories literally came alive and posed serious dangers to the citizens of Bookholm.
The first Lacuna story was more-or-less Bookholmian fan fiction as seen through the eyes of China Mieville. It was very metafictional, with book ideas being torn from the skulls of writers in a bizarre send-off of a birthing ritual. These idea-babies were fed books, poems, emotions; anything to make them more robust. Literary devices manifested as physical deformities on the idea-husk. They would develop into golemic mandrake roots of pulp and story. Once they became large enough, the authors would consume the idea, go into a trance-like state, and write an entire manuscript in one sitting.
Making aspects of “story” into tangible reality is not only hard to write but hard to visualize.
It’s all very confusing and convoluted. Making aspects of “story” into tangible reality is not only hard to write but hard to visualize.
Needless to say, it was never published. Besides all the metafiction, it clocked in at 12,000 words, and contained some truly cliché plot points.
Even though the story was bad, the editors I sent it to expressed interest in the idea of a city based around publishing (again: Bookholm fan fiction). However, they all had one thing to say about Lacuna: tone down the metafiction.
It took me months to figure out why they wanted me to tone down the metafiction. I mean: without metafiction, Lacuna dies. How could they be interested in Lacuna but not in metafiction?
Metafiction alienates readers, and forces the reader to confront the fact that they are engaged in the act of reading.
Here’s the thing I learned about the type of metafiction I was pursuing: it’s distracting. This is okay for a postmodernist work. Postmodernism demands a certain amount of metafiction to draw attention to the fact that what you are reading is a work of fiction. This is the last thing you want in a secondary world fantasy.
Fantasy is all about suspension about disbelief. It becomes difficult to suspend your disbelief when you are being bombarded with magical dangling modifiers, edible split infinitives, and animated motifs. No matter how good your imagination is, the lack of verisimilitude makes the story challenging to read.
Metafiction makes you feel like the story is an external construction. The narrator seems distant, as if they’re reading the story to you over the telephone. It’s hard to internalize the setting or characters, making it difficult to enjoy the work.
More than anything, metafiction alienates readers. It’s not commonly used, and for good reason. Not only does it take a master author to write it successfully, but it also forces the reader to confront the fact that they are engaged in the act of reading. They cannot place themselves into the work at any point. Even if the characters are sympathetic, a reader is not going to want to empathize with them for fear that a creature built of interrobangs will step off of the page and say, “This is not a punctuation mark.”
I striped away all references to writing, editing, publishing, et cetera. What was I left with? A city of blue class laborers making paper. Like any fantasy author, I took that little nugget — that little bit of reality — and exaggerated it.
As the months wore on and I discovered these things about metafiction, I felt like Lacuna needed to change too. It was too similar to Bookholm. I striped away all references to writing, editing, publishing, et cetera. What was I left with? A city of blue class laborers making paper. Like any fantasy author, I took that little nugget — that little bit of reality — and exaggerated it. I folded Lacuna into a paper city. Paper-making took on a transgressive, dark light with the creation of termite powered production lines and caustic pools of bleach. The simple and mundane became the dangerous and extraordinary.
I was so much happier with Lacuna 2.0. The stories started to flow with ease, spawning characters that appeared in multiple works, and themes that begged to be explored.
I sent these new stories out, and you know what? One got published. And then another. And then another. The stories were reviewed, reprinted, and shortlisted for awards.
I translated my ideas into a “readers metafiction” where paper and ink hold as much magic as wands and amulets.
Because I took the advice of editors, I made a thinly veiled fan fiction into something of my own mind; something I could be proud of. Instead of pursuing stories that typified “writers metafiction” where grammar was anthropomorphized, I translated my ideas into a “readers metafiction” where paper and ink hold as much magic as wands and amulets.
That’s where the distinction between metafiction lies for me: will this appeal to those who write or those who read? Metafiction can be brilliant, but it has to be accessible. Not everyone who reads is a writer, but everyone who writes is a reader.