Section 6

Albert Letchford: The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad (1897)

Lecture 6:
Metafiction (i)

The Philosophy of Being

  • "The Story of The Porter and the Three Ladies" (1990): from The Arabian Nights. Norton Critical Edition (2010): 66-148.
  • Jack Ross, "The Poetics of Stasis in The 1001 Nights" (2004): from the Course Book of Readings: 99-106.

Plot Summary:

A porter is employed by a lady to help her carry her shopping. They end up at her home, where he is invited in on one condition: "If you speak of that which does not concern you, you will hear something you do not like". Three wandering mendicants (Kalandars), the Caliph and his Wazir (disguised) all enter the house one after the other. They ask about the strange things that are going on there, and slaves promptly seize them and make ready to execute them. However, it is agreed that they will be released if they can each tell a sufficiently interesting tale about how they got to the ladies’ house.
– Adapted from The Arabian Nights (2013-15)

Richard Barbrook: Politics & Media Freedom (2012)

The Postmodern Condition

We’ve talked about the Psychology of fantastic fiction, as well as some of the Political implications of different strands of Realism. Now it’s time to move on to another important strand in contemporary thought: the Philosophy of Being (also known as Ontology).

Roz Chast: The Ontology of Icecream (The New Yorker, 1986)

But what exactly is Ontology? My online dictionary supplies me with the following:
  1. the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being
  2. a set of concepts and categories in a subject area or domain that shows their properties and the relations between them.

But how does this relate to the writing of fiction?

Any kind of fiction which is self-conscious about its nature as fiction: which foregrounds its artificial nature rather than trying to conceal it, can be referred to as metafiction. This has become so routine in contemporary popular culture than even such shows as The Simpsons or superhero movies such as Deadpool constantly step outside the bounds of their fictional world to offer ironic commentaries on the nature of the action being portrayed.

Devotees of pure realism (if there is such a thing: our discussions over the past couple of weeks may have left you in considerably doubt about that) find this kind of thing intensely irritating. They want to “lose themselves” in a story, identify with the characters as if they were personal friends. To fans of metafiction (metafictionalists? magi?), however, this kind of openly naïve receptivity is no longer an adequate response to our overfull cultural spaces. Too much has already happened – too much has been written, read, spoken, embraced, refuted, for us to treat each new media artefact as somehow “new.”

When the music cranks up and the camera moves back, we know the movie is coming to an end. So blasé have we become about it that ending your filmed drama on a silhouette set against the setting sun can now be treated only as a joke. We’ve lost the capacity to believe in such clichés. Or those of us brought up in the supersaturated mediascapes of a modern technological society have, at any rate.

Even small children have now been inoculated with narrative to such a degree by those unofficial babysitters, the TV and the video game, that they know instinctively how stories are supposed to turn out. There’s a limit to the possibilities of surprise in such a universe.

Octavio Ocampo: Don Quixote

Hence such stories as the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” In this classic parable, Borges imagines a nineteenth-century French writer who sets out to recreate Cervantes’ famous seventeenth-century novel Don Quixote, complete with windmills, Sancho Panza, and florid Spanish rhetoric.

Menard does not simply copy out Cervantes’s text, he sets out to recreate it: to make himself into a seventeenth-century Spaniard, and to write the same novel by virtue of having become the same man, subject to the same stimuli.

Inevitably, he fails. Borges quotes a short passage from Menard’s version of the Quixote (textually identical with the same passage in Cervantes’) and points out how different are its implications in the nineteenth century (the “now” of the story) and in the original. What is, for Menard, a bold and revisionist statement about the nature of history, was no more than a perfunctory piece of rhetoric for the ex-jailbird and galley slave Cervantes.

Metafiction, then, is meant for an audience who have lost their cultural innocence, who can no longer persuade themselves that this season’s crop of bestsellers is significantly different from last year’s, or (for that matter) those to be expected next year.

Like any commercial product – sausages, say – fiction must be produced for a market. Like sausages, its consumers require a certain predictability and consistency in what they are prepared to buy. They are, however, when suitably prodded by the advertising industry, prepared to give new flavours and styles a go – just as long as what they are gulping down is still, basically, a sausage (or a “novel,” if you prefer).

I myself have no quarrel with sausages. I’m very fond of them, in fact. But sausages are not all I wish to eat, no matter how ingeniously the offal they’ve been stuffed with is re-spiced and re-flavoured. The idea of a “deconstructed” menu: a re-examination of the basic constituents of bangers and mash, or pavlova, or apple pie, or any other classical dish, has therefore become increasingly popular with more sophisticated – or blasé – diners.

Metafiction, too, is associated with ideas such as deconstruction, postmodernism and post-structural literary theory. It does not depend on these concepts (since it could be argued that from its very beginning fiction has always encouraged a certain love of self-consciousness and paradox), but the form owes a lot of its contemporary popularity to the licence it gives both writers and readers to think out loud about the nature of the cultural matrix they inhabit.

Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy (1765-69)

Marvel Studios: What If? ... (2021)

Exercise 5 – What If?

“I have rewritten – often several times – every word I have ever written.
My pencils outlast their erasers.”
Vladimir Nabokov

The idea of the thought experiment is – as I’ve tried to illustrate in the sections on New Wave SF and Utopia / Dystopia in this course – basic to writing in the speculative genre.

What if? is the basic question I want you to ask yourself for this exercise. What if dragons were real? Would they be an endangered species? Would you need a licence to own one? What if you could go back in time? Would it be possible to change future history: either by accident or design? What if New Zealand had been colonized by the French instead of the English? Would we be better or worse off? (We’d probably dress better and have more bakeries …)

  • Think of a single what if? proposition which intrigues you for some reason.
  • It doesn’t have to be momentous and earth-shaking: it could be smallest, most trivial thing.
  • Try to work out in your head what the consequences would be.
  • Now write a short piece of fiction which could only take place in just that way in the new reality created by your what if?
  • Don’t tell us what that what if? is. The fun of this exercise is to see if we can guess.
  • You do have to play fair, though, and not conceal it too deeply in the fabric of the piece.

Length: no less than a page, no more than 500 words.

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