At a time when the idea of self-reflexive art has become commonplace, if not itself a kind of established convention, it may be useful to reconsider the original appearance in contemporary literature of what came to be called "metafiction." Not only was this strain of American fiction--taken up by several different writers, in slightly different ways--probably the first of all of the contemporary arts (including the popular arts) to explore the possibilities of self-reflexivity, but arguably it was this approach to fiction that initially provoked the coinage of the term "postmodern" to describe it. Since both "metafiction" and "postmodern" have by now clearly become terms of abuse as much as descriptive labels, perhaps reexamining what the writers associated with the use of metafiction believed themselves to be up to might clarify what is still valuable about their work, as well as what the literary strategy involved still has to offer current and future writers of fiction.
As I wrote my own doctoral dissertation on the "rise of metafiction," I do feel I have a familiarity with the subject that is sufficiently informed that my comments amount to more than just superficial impressions or an unexamined enthusiasm. At the same time, I am not in this relatively brief post attempting a full-blown crtical analysis of metafiction. I hope merely to suggest that granting the original metafictionists some integirty in their literary goals and methods can only remind us why many serious, accomplished writers found various self-reflexive techniques to be, collectively, an aesthetically satisfying way both to follow up on the exploration of fiction's possibilities undertaken by the modernists and to create a then-contemporary mode of fiction that would in its own way capture the tenor of the times in which it was written. Perhaps this in turn would illuminate the further possibilities of metafiction--if any--current writers might find in it as fiction itself continues to define its place among other visual/narrative arts that feature "story" as their ostensible center of interest.
In my view, the foundational works of American metafiction are John Barth's story collection Lost in the Funhouse (1968) and Robert Coover's novel The Universal Baseball Association (1968), as well as Coover's collection Pricksongs and Descants (1969). These books of course themselves show the influence of various precursors in the work of, among others, Borges, Beckett, and Nabokov, but finally they are the books that brought together most explicitly those characteristics of all previous fiction that work against simply producing transparent realism, that point the reader away from the unfolding narrative and toward the artificial devices by which all literary narratives are constructed and embellished. In so doing, Barth and Coover created a kind of "self-conscious" fiction that would decidedly--and perhaps irretrievably--alter perceptions of the role of convention in fiction.
In Barth's fiction, these conventions were challenged directly, in stories that blatantly reveal themselves to be fabrications, that examine self-reflexively the process and the tools of storytelling, that delight in all the contrivances and tricks that are involved in storytelling even as they acknowledge that such contrivances are always involved. Coover's fiction indulges in these sorts of diversions as well, although his work is perhaps more likely to explore the ways in which fiction and fiction-making incorporate, perhaps inevitably, elements of ritual and myth, as in UBA or "The Magic Poker," and to explode the conventions of realism and traditional narrative from within, to produce a kind of kaleidoscopic surrealism, as in "The Babysitter," rather than the comic anatomies of storytelling to be found in Lost in the Funhouse. (Although Barth is certainly interested as well in the mythic/ritual origins of storytelling.) But even as both Barth and Coover were seemingly set on demolishing the established conventions of narrative fiction, both also clearly revelled in storytelling and in finding new ways for stories to be "relevant" in a period of upheaval and radical change, as the 1960s clearly was.
Thus, metafiction was simultaneously an attempt to clear the ground of the remaining inherited presuppositions about the "craft" of fiction and to make possible a more unrestricted viw of what actually constitutes literary craft, to open up the ground for new practices that might expand fiction's potential range, that might even lead to a renewal of storytelling in new forms and styles. Most importantly, Barth and Coover went about this without sacrificing fiction's "entertainment" quotient. (In my opinion, at least.) The Universal Baseball Association is an engrossing read (even if you don't like baseball), "The Babysitter" an intensely compelling story despite the fact that what's "reallly going on" is impossible to determine. A story like Barth's "Menelaiad" is great fun to read, as long as you're willing to go along with its almost literally infinite regress of story-within-story. Other readers might not find them as entertaining as I do, perhaps, but that the authors meant them to be entertaining in their own way seems to me indisputable.
A list of subsequent metafiction of equal value and accomplishment would have to include William Gass's Willie Master's Lonesome Wife (1971), Gilbert Sorrentino's Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971) and Mulligan Stew (1979), as well as some of the work of Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Federman. These writers continued to ask questions not just about the conventions of fiction but about the very medium of writing, about the established usages of language itself. Gass and Sukenick play games with typography, Sorrentino adds to metafiction his outrageous humor and inveterate experimentation, Federman uses metafiction (or what he called "surfiction") to question the "reality" of reality. Taken together, they remain the literary touchstones of American metafiction. Their books may occasionally go out of print, but they will always be rediscovered because they still seem innovative despite the passage of time and the borrowing of their innovations by later writers.
By the 1980s a backlash of sorts had set in, both among other writers, who increasingly went for minimalist neorealism, and among critics, who increasingly called such fiction "self-indulgent" rather than "self-reflexive." Nevertheless, all of the metafictionists continued to write some very good books, and younger writers emerged who were clearly influenced by their earlier work. There are metafictional elements in the work of Richard Powers and David Foster Wallace, of Steve Stern and Steven Millhauser. A good deal even of Philip Roth's later work would clearly not have been the same without the prior efforts of the metafictionists. Other writers, from Michael Chabon to Ian McEwan and David Mitchell, would not necessarily be called metafictionists, but their books show a preoccupation with writing and with forms of storytelling that can be traced back to the related but different kind of preoccupation to be found in Lost in the Funhouse and The Universal Baseball Association.
However, the real promise of metafiction has not yet really been fulfilled. Its true legacy is to be found in the way it calls writers' (and readers') attention to the attributes of fiction as art, potentially making all of us more immediately aware of the limitless ways in which works of fiction can be shaped into artful verbal creations. Too often self-reflexive devices and strategies are still used simply as gimmicks, empty gestures, strategems employed by those wishing to appear clever and knowing. Not enough effort has been made to redeem the still latent possibilities of fiction when approached as an aesthetically malleable form waiting to be adapted to various imaginative purposes. (For an example of how one of the founding metafictionists is still able to do this, read Robert Coover's most recent novel, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre.) The unmitigated commercialism and careerism of the publishing "industry" as it now exists is not going to make this sort of effort more likely in the near future, nor will the disciplinary imperatives of academic creative writing, which mostly makes for the homogenization of product. But anyone who might like to strike out on a different path anyway, to understand how fiction might be freed of its encrusted layers of formula and routine, could do worse than to read (or re-read) the books and writers I have mentioned.