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Vintage was not paying attention when they produced this book. On the front, it reads “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.” Beneath the title it says, “Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.”
But guess what the back says? “Fiction/Literature.”
Yes, a book that, on the front, is called “nonfiction” and “memoir” is meant to be shelved in the “fiction” section. I found it in the biography section of Borders, where, in my opinion, it belongs (of course I love the memoir/fiction dichotomy here).
Maxine Hong Kingston’s beautiful and wonderful account of her childhood in California and her family’s dry cleaning place is not a traditional memoir, though it does contain the confessional quality of many.
Although there are parts that are clearly not “real” or never happened, the important part is that they are clearly fictional. The “real life” parts of the book are no fuzzier than memory, and because of that, I think the book deserves to sit with other memoirs.
My favorite section, “White Tigers,” does not deal with Kingston’s life, but rather her childhood fantasy of becoming, quite literally, a woman warrior in ancient China and defending her village and family against invaders. The language stuns and amazes, and at the end of the “chapter” I felt a profound sense of having lost something for it being over.
Other parts of the memoir deal with Kingston’s mother being a doctor in China and how she dealt with many evil ghosts, as well as an imagined situation in which her aunt arrives from China and has to face her husband, who has re-married in California and become a rich doctor.
While it is these “fantasies” that get The Woman Warrior pegged as “fiction,” it is these fantasies that make the story real for the reader. Kingston shows the reader the reality of her family, but what child never indulges in fantasy? What child has a realistic view of her family?
The ghost stories and half-remembered family memories convey the feeling and emotion of this family—something that tells the reader far more about their lives than mere facts ever could. This is without a doubt a case of fiction being truer than truth.
Plus, in the sections that deal with ghosts and ghost stories, Kingston is primarily relaying stories that her mother told her, and she points that out. In relaying these stories, Kingston is showing the reader what is important about storytelling—that it be a story worth telling, and a story with meaning.
Kingston doesn’t relate these ghost stories because they are “fun.” She relates them because they show the reader the incredible difference between her mother’s life in China and her life in the United States. They highlight cultural differences, and they show us what her mother lost in coming to this new country—magic.
The books’ nontraditional structure also fascinates me. Kingston did not write traditional “chapters,” but rather five sections that could easily stand alone, but that accomplish much more together.
You could argue that the book is a collection of short stories, or you could argue it’s a complete book. I think both are correct, and the first section, “No Name Woman,” was published elsewhere first.
The disjointed sections don’t really come together to tell one singular story. Kingston peppers each section with family anecdotes among the ghost stories, and leaves it up to the reader to search out all the mundane details of her childhood and put them together, which makes the reading experience rewarding.
On a more personal note, although Woman Warrior doesn’t deal specifically with gender roles, Kingston elevates Woman in a beautiful, poignant way, and shows the reader Woman’s inner strengths and weaknesses. I think every woman, especially women who love good stories, should read this book.
This is a text, that as I write my own ghost stories and memoir, I will return to again and again for inspiration.
Also, if you’re publishing a book, make sure your genres match on both covers!
Don’t forget to enter my Slaughterhouse-Five Book Giveaway! Details here. You have until Friday to enter.
September 6, 2010 in Metaart, Metafiction, Metajournalism, Metamusic, Metanonfiction, MetaTV, Original Fiction | Tags: literary criticism, Metafiction, novel, novels, short stories | by Kelly Lynn Thomas | 6 comments
Welcome to Metafiction Week! I am excited to be celebrating all things meta, and I hope you are too!
Things are changing around here—a little bit anyway. In addition to blogging about metafiction, I’ll also be talking about storytelling in general, works that bend and blend genres and interesting structures in fiction and nonfiction.
Why? Because I think all of these things are closely linked to metafiction. Since metafiction often offers commentary on the story itself, storytelling is an important aspect. Structure is also important, as many stories rely on nontraditional structures to support commentary.
Genre bending/blending is a bit of a different topic, but I feel it fits nicely with metafiction. In some books the metafictional qualities help the author bend genres (as in The Things They Carried), while in others structure is used (as in Woman Warrior).
I will also drop in some discussions on experimental fiction as I see fit. With changes in technology, the way we experience stories is starting to change. I’m very interested in the direction novels, ebooks, choose-your-own-adventure, cell phone novels and serialized fiction will take from here.
Even if those things aren’t metafictional, they are important to the art of storytelling. So, at its heart, this is a blog about storytelling. It’s a blog about the way we look at storytelling, the way we experience stories, and how we can use storytelling for a variety of purposes. I think metafiction is an important part of that.
For that reason, I’m keeping my tag line: “Original fiction and commentary on everything meta.” Now, it might be more accurate to use something like, “Original fiction and commentary on the art of storytelling,” but meta is commentary on the art of storytelling.
I have four ultimate goals for this blog. The first and most important is:
- To expand readers’ and writers’ knowledge of and appreciation for metafiction.
Think of me as like a metafiction pastor, spreading the good word. Only I won’t shake hell in your face to convert you, I’ll convert you with damn good stories!
The other three are:
- To become the go-to resource for metafiction. (A lofty goal, I know.)
- To (eventually) showcase the best new metafiction by established and new authors, both here online and in print.
- To explore and master storytelling in my own writing.
In the near future I hope to start interviewing important authors who write metafiction, and I also hope to be able to take submissions of short stories and short creative nonfiction (and be able to offer payment for this content).
In the not so near future I hope to offer a printed companion to this blog, with in-depth critical articles as well as great metafiction, metanonfiction, and meta-art.
My reading list
These are only a small portion of the books on my reading (or to-buy) list, but they are the ones that contain metafictional elements. I am particularly looking forward to The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris (which is translated from the French, and I definitely need more translations in my life), and, of course, Don Quixote in English!
- The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leila Marouane
- The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
- The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice
- A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
- The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna by Umberto Eco
- Don Quixote by Cervantes (I’m reading this again, because I’ve only ever read it in Spanish, and it’s a difficult text to read in a second language.)
Please take the time to comment and let me know who you’d like me to interview, or what books you’d like me to review. What’s on your reading list?
Starting tomorrow, I will be celebrating metafiction with art, book reviews, original fiction, and a few surprises. Now that my life has normalized, I want to make this blog the best it can be, and the go-to resource for metafiction. So please join me this week for my meta-celebration!
Sept. 6: The “new” NitB, plus my meta reading list — what’s on your list?
Sept. 7: An examination of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (is it meta?)
Sept. 8: Meta-links and meta artworks!
Sept. 9: A new chapter of Ruby and the Moon
Sept. 10: The unveiling of a surprise (or two)!
Let me know what you’d like to see here. Or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. After this week, posting will return to normal once-a-week stuff.
There are over 200,000 books about writing listed on Amazon.com. Woah.
Recently I’ve become, ahem, fascinated by books on writing. In the past year or so, I’ve read quite a few, but they always leave me wanting something more. Perhaps I expect reading this books to make my own works magically complete themselves, but I daresay it’s something more than that.
In the year since I’ve graduated college, I’ve read The Constant Art of Being a Writer by N.M. Kelby, Fondling Your Muse by John Warner, Some Writers Deserve to Starve! by Elaura Niles, in addition to about a million books on publishing and freelance writing.
Most writers who write about writing have already published novels or memoirs or what have you, so why turn to writing a book about craft (which I would say is a bit different than a “writing memoir,” which is what ((having not read them)) I assume Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird should be classified as)?
One thing that most books on writing (that I’ve read) lack is self-awareness. You are a writer, writing about writing! Show me some emotion, let me know that you aren’t trying to stand in for a professor in a classroom (a book can never do that), give me something I can relate to!
The Constant Art of Being a Writer
So far, this is the only writing book that’s touched upon metafiction. So, Ms. Kelby, props for that, even though you got Don Quixote’s publication date wrong—it came out in the sixteenth century, not the ninth.
At any rate, while reading the sections on craft, all I could think about was whether or not Kelby was following her own advice in each section, especially the sections on voice, style and tone.
Kelby blithely ignores her chance to call attention to the fact that she’s writing about writing, and instead plays it straight. On page 94, she says, “A writer’s style is like a fingerprint, and every writer should try to cultivate a unique approach to the page—the best often do.”
How can I, as another writer (remember, writers are this book’s target audience) read that sentence without examining Kelby’s style? My conclusion is that she’s not very confident. “Every writer should try to cultivate” rather than “every writer should cultivate” and “the best often do” rather than “the best do.”
(Think of iconic writers like Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, J.D. Salinger or Jane Austen. You’d never read Hemingway and think it was Salinger, would you? No, of course not. So why the unnecessary, strength-sapping words?)
I would have said something like “Now read that last sentence again, and think about my style. Then pick up the closest book, read the first sentence, and think about that style.”
Fondling Your Muse
On the other end of the spectrum is John Warner’s Fondling Your Muse, which constantly calls attention to the fact that Warner can’t write a real book so instead he’s writing a writing advice book. I definitely appreciated Warner’s humor and honesty, and he certainly didn’t miss any opportunity to point out that he is writing about writing.
But the trade off is that this is a humor book at the end of the day, not a book on craft or style or the writing life.
Some Writers Deserve to Starve
I picked up this little bugger for $2 at Half Price Books (one of my favorite Pittsburgh book stores) thinking it would be funny, harsh and unforgiving. I was greatly disappointed.
Niles breaks her book up into “truths” about the writing industry meant to burst the happy little bubbles of author-wannabes. Unfortunately, anyone who is actually serious about writing and has done any research on it (really, any at all) and has half a brain will not be shocked, surprised, or chagrined at anything Niles says. And she’s pretty patronizing about it, to boot.
She talks about craft in an ancillary way, so I can forgive her for not being entirely self-aware. However, a bit of self-awareness and acknowledgement of the fact that she is writing about writing would have helped when those “chapters/truths” started going from New York to Tokyo via Sydney and Mexico City (in other words, all over the freaking map) when they should have been much shorter and less tangential.
Be more self aware, please
So, basically, writers shouldn’t ignore the fact that they are writing about writing. Ignoring that makes you look amateurish and pretentious, and drives the meta-crazy lady up a wall.
Why do you write about writing? What are your favorite books on writing?
April 19, 2010 in Metafiction, Metajournalism, Metamusic, Metanonfiction, MetaTV | Tags: Avellaneda, cervantes, Don Quixote, fiction, literary criticism, Metafiction, novels, storytelling | by Kelly Lynn Thomas | Leave a comment
Last week’s post talks about metafiction and what exactly it is. I argued that structures and constructions that use the story-within-the-story format are inherently metafictional because their simple existence provides commentary on the storytelling process.
Now it’s time to back up my claims! I’ll use Don Quixote as an example, because it features two of the more common story-in-story tropes.
In the second volume of Don Quixote (published about ten years after the first), the story within the story comments on Spanish society at the time, as well as defends the book against a “false” second volume released by one of Cervantes’ critics. It also draws attention to the fictional devices of the novel because the story within the story is, in fact, Don Quixote!
It’s pretty easy to see why that first trope is metafictional, so what about the second?
There’s another story within the story in the first book of the novel. “Cervantes” appears as a narrator, and delivers this tale as if it were a legend. He tells it to us in a rather conversational manner.
That first story within a story is interesting to look at, because although Cervantes appears as a character, he does not appear as a writer—in the novel he is collecting this legend and recounting it, but he is not writing it, although it is written down by an Arab historian, and he has it translated.
The fact that he has to have the legend translated by a friend does imply some form of writing, but that is overpowered by the way Cervantes recounts the story much the way one would share a story around a campfire. He draws attention to different “versions” of the story, and freely admits some things have been forgotten.
In this first book, Character-Cervantes becomes a storyteller, not a writer. And despite that, despite the fact that Cervantes does not go out of his way to shout “look at me, I’m writing a book about writing a book aren’t I so clever???” the first installment of Don Quixote does draw an incredible amount of attention to its own conventions without being obvious.
The story of Don Quixote, not the novel Don Quixote, makes fun of the Spanish obsession with novellas de caballaria, or novels about heroic knights. Author-Cervantes takes into account the way these stories are told and puts a twist on that when he tells his story, so the format/story frame does also comment on the novellas de caballaria.
Although there are two different levels of commentary in the first book, Cervantes could have achieved the same storytelling commentary had he made up another character (instead of using himself) to tell the story. Of course, Cervantes wanted to do much more than comment on storytelling.
The narrator, who speaks in first person, tells us the story of Don Quixote as if it were a legend, and brings in a proxy narrator in Cide Hamete Benengeli, the Arab historian who’s recorded the entire “legend.”
So, if you take Cervantes out of that picture, I believe the way he tells the story, and brings in Benengeli (making it a book-within-a-book, or more appropriately, a-bunch-of-scrolls-within-a-book), does in fact still comment on the storytelling and writing process.
So what does it say?
It says that people change stories, either for their own purposes or because they forget. It says that society is fascinated with larger-than-life people, whether because they are great or because (as in this case) they are “crazy,” and by extension it shows us glimpses of our voyeuristic nature.
I see all story-within-story constructions as metafictional in this way, but I will concede that not everyone will. But, I, having an unhealthy obsession with metafiction and structure, am wont to go looking for metafiction in unusual places. I love stretching the boundaries of genre, metafiction being no exception.
What do you think? Are all stories-within-stories metafictional, does it depend on the story, or am I full of doggie doo? Leave a comment and let me know!
April 12, 2010 in Metafiction, Metajournalism, Metamusic, Metanonfiction, MetaTV | Tags: fiction, journalism, literary criticism, memoir, Metafiction, news, novels, short stories, storytelling | by Kelly Lynn Thomas | 1 comment
When I tell people I blog about metafiction, I often hear “What’s metafiction?” So I thought rather than examine a particular work this week, I’d discuss metafiction and perhaps arrive at a working definition for the purposes of this blog.
According to the dictionary…
Metafiction is “fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions (esp. naturalism) and traditional narrative techniques.” (That’s from my computer’s built-in dictionary.)
Merriam-Webster’s definition: “fiction which refers to or takes as its subject fictional writing and its conventions.”
Wikipedia’s definition: “a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction, exposing the fictional illusion. It is the literary term describing fictional writing that self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually irony and self-reflection.”
Which definition is better?
They all are. Personally, I take a very broad view of metafiction. My “meta generosity,” if you want to call it that, stems from my background as a student of fiction, nonfiction, travel writing and journalism. I like to think I’m a writer who takes risks in her work, whether structural or by mixing genres you probably shouldn’t mix (such as travel memoir with short story—that’s my big project right now).
By necessity, structure dovetails with metafiction, and is something that I will more than likely discuss here in the context of a work that has an interesting structure but perhaps isn’t quite metafiction. In the same vein, I think genre-bending or juxtaposing two genres together (not blending them as in a sci-fi western, but using them side-by-side) dovetails with metafiction.
Both structure and genre exist in a fuzzy area between metafiction and “normal” fiction, and depending on the interpretation and the context, I think works that walk that line can go either way, as metafiction relies heavily on structure and often on genre blending/genre juxtaposition to deliver its message.
The writing becomes metafictional (in my mind) when the reader is taken outside of the story and is forced by the author to look in on it from the outside, normally to comment on the craft of writing, society at large, or some other issue, but commentary is not strictly necessary.
What about stories-within-stories?
The story-within-a-story is perhaps the most recognizable form of metafiction. Don Quixote is an early and excellent example. This form of story is inherently metafictional, because to tell a story about telling a story must in some way comment on the storytelling process. How stories-within-stories comment on storytelling is another post, though.
Notice I used the word “tell” rather than “write” up there. If you’ve read any of my entries on metajournalism or metamusic, you probably realize that I do not restrict metafiction to writing, nor to fiction. Because of that, the distinction between “write” and “tell” is important. You can tell a story in an infinite number of ways. Writing is only one of those ways, albeit an incredibly powerful one.
“Meta” as defined by The Narrative in the Blog
I think it’s necessary to define meta in terms of a broader context than fiction for this blog, since I discuss more than fiction. That being said…
A work of any genre or style is “meta” if the author of the work purposefully and self-consciously draws attention to the work’s structure, genre or existence as fiction/nonfiction for any purpose, or if the author of the work unintentionally uses a structure or other technique that draws attention to the work’s structure, genre or existence as fiction/nonfiction.
Hopefully this brief discussion helps you put my articles and commentary (and fiction!) in context. Please feel free to add your own definitions, thoughts, or reactions to this in the comments! I’m sure this is a topic I’ll return to innumerable times over the life of this blog, because metafiction can be such a shady area. But that’s why I love it!
Television and I have a sordid history. Mostly I don’t like it. I’ve got nothing against the devices themselves—they’re pretty cool, especially for, you know, watching movies and Bones on DVD. But I don’t have cable, and the only things I ever watch live are sports.
Of course, sports broadcasts are great times for commercials for televisions and cable companies; because everyone knows that all sports fans HAVE to giant televisions and 24-hour access to every sports channel ever. I’ve noticed a lot more lately than I have in the past, and at least two that I’ve seen utilize meta structural elements to try and sell equipment or services.
First are the television commercials for televisions. The most recent one I’ve seen was for Best Buy. I couldn’t find it uploaded anywhere (and I don’t know why anyone would want to upload it anyway), but it features a family watching a movie in a Best Buy store, and the employee or narrator saying that with this particular ginormous 1,000 inch high definition super TV you weren’t just watching the movie, you were a part of it!
With a commercial like this, you can’t help but think about the fact that you’re watching TV. The makers of said commercial are also probably hoping you look at the TV in the commercial, and at the awe on the viewers’ faces, and then look at your own TV, and then feel like your TV is woefully inadequate, and then rush to Best Buy to buy a new television.
During the Olympics, which I had to watch online because the only thing I really cared about was hockey and that was the only thing NBC didn’t broadcast (why the hell would you pick speed skating over a Team USA versus Team Canada hockey game?!). About every five minutes they would play the same three Direct TV commercials, which went something like this:
“Don’t panic! This is your TV. I unplugged your cable to show you something better. Blah blah blah blah blah. Plug me into the good stuff.” And then it would show the Direct TV logo and another similar commercial that said pretty much the same thing would start.
Those commercials aren’t quite as meta as the commercials for televisions, but they still make you think about the fact that you’re watching TV because suddenly your television is talking to you. Again the point is to make you think about your experience and hopefully make a new decision (in this case purchase Direct TV rather than regular cable).
Why, TV, Why?
I’ll be honest, I think these commercials are pretty stupid, no matter how meta they are or how much they make me think about my television experience. I rather suspect that the metafictional elements in these commercials don’t do much to sell televisions or cable plans—the most relevant and interesting information in the Direct TV commercials is all the nifty things you can do with the company, not your TV “talking” to you. These meta structural elements are nothing more than gimmicks.
In fiction and writing in general, if a section or even a sentence isn’t absolutely necessary, if it doesn’t move the plot or story along, it shouldn’t be there. Maybe commercials should follow the same formula. They’d probably be more effective and less annoying.
No one likes being lied to. Especially by a memoirist. If even one event in a memoir is made up, it makes the rest of the story suspect. In autobiographical fiction, though, it’s okay if the author “lies” to us, because we go into the reading experience expecting, well, fiction. Not real events.
A January 25th article in The New Yorker by Daniel Mendelsohn discusses the topic of falsified memoirs (ala James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces). Mendelsohn brings up the truth vs. Truth argument that Tim O’Brien addresses in depth in The Things They Carried. (Read my entry on The Things They Carried here.) He concludes that even though a falsified memoir might convey a Truth, the lie is not justified—the author could have written a novel to convey the same Truth and wouldn’t have had to betray her reader.
I agree with him. When writing nonfiction, we need to tell the truth, while at the same time expressing some Truth. In fiction, we are under no such constraints.
Mendelsohn briefly discusses the blurring between reality and fiction toward the end of the article, and brings up Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair as two journalistic examples. That part of the article ties nicely into my musings on the difference between reality and fiction, and also brings up some interesting problems.
Specifically, how far is too far? James Frey obviously crosses the line, but what about “reconstructed” dialogue in a memoir? Or what about those scenes that you can’t quite remember exactly, but you think it might have gone something like this? I think answering those questions could take up another post entirely, so I’ll save my thoughts on that for another time.
While blurring the line between reality and truth doesn’t necessarily make a novel or other work metafictional, I think that most metafiction speaks to a sort of reality-within-a-reality, usually for some specific purpose (like to decry war as Vonnegut does in Slaughterhouse-Five). In other words, it creates a layered reality to convey some Truth. In that way at least, the two topics are closely related and create an interesting dialogue.
Falsified memoirs have no place in that dialogue. Although Frey had to add something into his introduction about how parts of the book never happened, it’s still looked at like a memoir, where The Things They Carried never was and is still not, despite its autobiographical content.
In my mind, Frey missed a wonderful opportunity. Had he written autobiographical fiction instead of a “memoir,” he could have used to opportunity to say what he wanted and needed to say about addiction in a much more powerful—and genuine—manner. Same goes for any falsified memoir.
Now, I’m not saying all memoirists should suddenly switch to writing O’Brien-style autobiographical fiction, but I am saying that anyone who wants to play around with reality vs. Truth should read O’Brien, because as of yet I’ve found no more masterfully executed discussions on the topic.
Although Mendelsohn argues that the word “reality” is being degraded by things like reality TV, I think books like O’Brien’s strengthen it. By blurring the line between reality and truth, I think it makes us think about reality in terms of what actually happened and what didn’t—we separate events from how we feel about them, and this allows us to better analyze both the events and feelings, and hopefully grow as people.
Of course, that doesn’t mean memoirists should lie about what happened in their lives.
December 17, 2009 in Administrative, Metafiction, Metanonfiction | Tags: fiction, literary criticism, Margaret Atwood, Metafiction, novels, short stories, Tim O'Brien | by Kelly Lynn Thomas | Leave a comment
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and sometimes fiction is truer than truth. And sometimes, in order to tell a story the right way, you need to let the story know it’s a story.
Metafiction allows the reader to pull back the curtain on the author and see the nuts and bolts of the story laid bare. And there are times that seeing how the fiction works makes it all the more true, such as in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
O’Brien inserts himself into the story as a character, and proceeds to continually remind the reader that none of this happened, but all of it is true. He creates tension between Author-O’Brien, who wrote a book as a Vietnam War Vet, and Character-O’Brien, who is trying to write a book about being a Vietnam War Vet.
Seeing Character-O’Brien struggle to tell a coherent story—seeing how the story is put together and taken apart—makes the book all the more powerful. It forces us to see events from several different perspectives, and it forces us to think about the difference between truth, reality and fiction. And then it asks us to decide what is more important: truth or reality?
In Margaret Atwood’s short story “Happy Endings,” she tells several versions of a story about Mary and John. The structure draws attention to the way writers write short stories and the way readers read them. She starts off with scenario A, then moves on to scenario B, then C, etc. We know next to nothing about this couple, only that Atwood can’t seem to find the right ending to fit their story. At the end, she simply states:
“So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.
“That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.
“Now try How and Why.”
This story forces us to look at structure, plot and motivation. Here we have a plot in front of us, but we find it’s actually not very interesting. So we learn—we literally see in front of us—that without the “how” and “why” the story is meaningless. Not only that, but it asks us why we read.
So why do we read?
We read to be entertained, to learn more about the world around us, to relax. But more than that, we read to learn more about ourselves—even if we don’t realize that is what we are doing. And when we read fiction that knows it’s fiction, we not only are forced to think more deeply about the text itself, but about ourselves as readers.