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Growing up, I was not allowed to watch The Simpsons. My mother had a strong sense of what was and was not appropriate for young kids to watch, and The Simpsons landed squarely on the “not appropriate” scale (along with Captain Planet, Power Rangers, The X-Files, Clarissa Explains It All, and others).
As I got older, and everyone I knew watched and loved The Simpsons, I developed this weird anti-popular-culture pride in having only ever seen one episode when I was stuck on a bus going to New York City and had no option but to watch it (I had no headphones to drown out the noise).
And then I met my husband. If I’m a total Star Wars fanatic, he’s a total Simpsons fanatic (and I’ve got a giant X-Wing tattooed on my leg). We’ve made it through two seasons of the show so far, and are working our way through the third.
I love it. It’s smart, funny, socially conscious, emotionally touching and self-aware. Of course me liking it makes my husband happy and gives us something to do when we want to relax. And there are like, 37,589,042 million seasons, so we’ll probably never run out of episodes.
Perhaps the part of the show I enjoy the most, though, is the opening. First, because little details change with each episode and I appreciate how much extra time and care that takes, and second because of the social commentary it offers.
In case you’re like I was and have never seen an episode (which is truly an amazing feat considering how ubiquitous the show is), the opening portrays each member of the Simpson family finishing his or her day and rushing home by car, bike, or skateboard to plop down on the couch in front of the TV. Once everyone is in position in front of the television, the camera zooms into the TV and shows the show credits, and then the episode starts (sans the faux TV frame).
In essence, the Simpson family is sitting down to watch The Simpsons. Even if you think there’s not enough evidence for me to draw that conclusion, at the very least, the Simpson family, like you and/or your family, is sitting down on the couch to watch television.
The fact that the characters are rushing home to the couch makes fun of Americans who do the same thing, even as they are in the act of sitting on the couch watching TV. As a sitcom, The Simpsons pokes fun at the average American family anyway, but I always feel a little guilty as the opening plays. I could be reading a book, or writing, playing with my dogs, or cleaning my house, but instead I’m watching TV, and The Simpsons brings it to my attention.
No, watching a half hour or an hour of TV a few nights a week isn’t all that awful (especially not compared to the amount of time I spend on a computer every day), but I can’t help but think about it whenever I watch this show, because it does point it out, albeit in a subtle fashion.
In addition to providing social commentary and being mildly metafictional, The Simpsons opening also tells the viewer a great deal about all the characters in very, very short time. I can’t think of a single other show opening that is so revealing.
We see that Homer works at a nuclear power plant and is careless. We can gather that Marge is a stay-at-home mom since she’s doing the grocery shopping with a baby. Bart is being punished for one of a million things after school and so we know he’s a troublemaker (and his skateboard doesn’t help). Lisa, on the other hand, blows the rest of the school band away with her saxophone solo (showing us she’s a talented musician), and rides home on her bike with a stack of school books (showing us she’s studious).
The other thing the opener does is show us what kind of program it will be. We know from the fact that sequence focuses exclusively on characters that it will character, rather than plot, driven. We can expect comedy because of Homer’s carelessness and Bart’s antics, but the opener’s self awareness lets us know we can expect intelligent comedy and commentary.
The best part about it is that it looks effortless. The show doesn’t rub anything in the viewer’s face or shout “HEY LOOK AT ME I’M SELF-AWARE!” or judge the viewer for watching TV. It says what it needs to say, and that’s that.
If anything, even as it makes feel a little guilty, it makes me want to snuggle up to my husband and get nice and cozy on the couch.
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 email@example.com. After this week, posting will return to normal once-a-week stuff.
April 19, 2010 in Metafiction, Metajournalism, Metamusic, Metanonfiction, MetaTV | Tags: Avellaneda, cervantes, Don Quixote, fiction, literary criticism, Metafiction, novels, storytelling | by Kelly Lynn Thomas | Comments closed
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.
In this guest post, D.J. Swank examines why the directors of Lost opted for a ridiculously meta-episode.
ZUKERMAN. You know, you don’t need to die. We can bring you back next season.
NIKKI. Look, I’m just a guest star, and we all know what happens to guest stars.
The above dialogue is taken from a scene in the episode titled “Exposé” from Season Three of Lost. Even though there are less-formulaic episodes elsewhere in the series, “Exposé” is perhaps the most unconventional. “Exposé” features Nikki and Paulo (Kiele Sanchez and Rodrigo Santoro), two characters only introduced in Season Three even though they are survivors of the crash who have been there all along; the plot of the episode contributes little to nothing to the season’s arc; the flashbacks feature some significant scenes from previous seasons with the new characters inserted somewhat obtrusively; and it is the one episode of the series in which the writers go out of their way to be meta.
Honestly, one must almost always go out of one’s way to be meta—it’s not often something that happens accidentally nor organically. What I mean is that this episode is simply the most meta. Other episodes feature characters (usually Hurley) taking on a sort of Greek chorus role and commenting on the action of the series itself and voicing or addressing questions the audience is no doubt wondering, but “Exposé” takes the meta-ness to another level.
The dialogue quoted earlier says a lot about both this episode in particular and the series as a whole. When Nikki says “we all know what happens to guest stars,” she is of course referring to her character’s demise on the fictional television series Exposé, but the audience knows this is indeed also a reference to Sanchez’s character’s demise on Lost. The writers use the device of the television series within the television series to comment on the very television series they are writing, and, more broadly, on television series in general—that’s meta.
Zukerman’s words—“we can bring you back next season”—ring especially true for Lost. In numerous Lost DVD episode commentaries you will hear the producers talk about how some characters appear far more after they’ve died than when they were alive, and “Exposé” is nothing less than a veritable cavalcade of dead characters. Guest star credits in this episode include Ian Somerhalder (Boone), Maggie Grace (Shannon), William Mapother (Ethan), and Daniel Roebuck (Arzt), all of whom play characters that died in previous seasons. Even though using dead characters in flashbacks and dream sequences is a staple of Lost and by no means unusual, the appearance of these four characters in “Exposé” is made significant by Zukerman’s words. Their presence contributes nothing to the plot or the arc or the story, but serves primarily to illustrate what Zukerman said at the beginning of the episode, to remind the audience that he wasn’t just talking about Exposé, he was talking about Lost, too.
There is one other aspect of this episode worth mentioning, and though it is a bit of a stretch, I think it just may be meta enough to warrant discussion. I can claim no ownership of this idea because it was posited by a good friend of mine with whom I watch Lost, though I will leave it to him to post a comment if he wishes to take credit. Yet another guest star of “Exposé” is none other than Billy Dee Williams, the only actor in the series ever to play himself, which in this meta-heavy episode is certainly a calculated move to use a recognizable figure to draw even more attention to the fact that this is an actor playing a role on a television show. Now here comes the stretch: Billy Dee Williams is best known for his role in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the latter of which has been modified so that Hayden Christensen appears as Anakin Skywalker at the end of the film, much to the chagrin of Star Wars fans everywhere. It is no mean coincidence, then, that the makers of “Exposé” chose to pull a George Lucas and superimpose Nikki and Paulo into scenes from previous seasons in the same episode that features the man forever to be remembered as Lando Calrissian. The nod is subtle, but it is a nod nonetheless, and it serves to reinforce the fictionality of the story by revealing how the story changes as it progresses, and how the story is not only written but subject to being rewritten should the writers or producers see fit.
In the DVD commentary for “Exposé,” one of the writers states that Nikki and Paulo were partly an effort by the Lost creative team to address fans’ curiosity regarding the rest of the forty-two survivors who aren’t featured as regular characters (and after Nikki and Paulo were introduced, fans immediately cried “Who cares about them? We want more Jack and Kate!”). Therefore, “Exposé” may be considered as a sort of treat for the fans—a little break from the action to show how the producers are listening to what the fans want, or just something fun to provide a little levity from all the kidnappings, torturings, and deep moral/ethical/philosophical issues that are addressed in the series. It’s an unconventional episode, and it’s not necessarily among the best of the season, even, but it’s an admirable effort by a smart group of writers who respect what they do and for whom they do it.