Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Nippon 2007: Levels and Limits of Metafictionality

This was the only panel I was on at Worldcon--and indeed my first ever. The description was exactly the same as the Bittercon panel:

"Stories about stories. When can the teller of a story successfully interact with the story, and when is it a cheat?"

This may have been a mistake--it may have attracted more people if it had been more detailed.

The panel did not start auspiciously: I was setting up in the front of the room, another panelist had just come in, there were people in the audience . . . and a con staffer came in and said the panel had been cancelled.

Err, what?

Well, two of the four panelists had to bow out (it was scheduled for 4 pm and the Hugos started at 6 pm), and so someone--not sure who--decided that the panel should be cancelled. We said, "do we have to?," and very sensibly the messenger said "of course not."

I spent the next five minutes, until my co-panelist came back from an errand and it was time to start, appealing to the audience to think of things to talk about and telling newcomers that if they were coming to see the two non-attendees, they could quietly slip out now, no hard feelings.

Despite that less than promising beginning, I think it went well. The audience was small but had a lot of good things to say, my co-panelist had some very useful and thought-provoking comments, and I don't think I said anything too stupid, talked too fast, or let dead air sit too long.

Anyway, I think we started with a bit of definition. I wanted to do this because I'd been mentally defining metafiction as "stories in which characters are aware that some aspect of the story *is* a story," but realized when talking with Scott Edelman (one of the originally-scheduled panelists) beforehand that this was overly narrow. He defined it as anything in which the reader is reminded that the story *is* a story. I think that's more useful than my definition; it's just that my definition is the subset that interests me most.

My co-panelist said that she was interested in metafiction because she teached post-colonialist literature and metafiction comes in around the edges there. Under colonialism, the colonized aren't free to fully express their identities: they are very aware of identity as a _performative_ thing. Also, traditional forms of story-telling have ritual aspects--their purpose isn't to be literally believed. Both of these lend themselves to metafiction, stories that are aware of and express their nature as stories.

(I thought this was really interesting in light of _Covering_ and mentioned that briefly before going back to literature.)

I also introduced four categories of _purposes_ or effects of metafiction that I had identified:

1. Illuminate story itself. The most obvious. Things like how stories work and the writing process.

2. Story as magic. See Discworld & the Secret Country Trilogy. (Arguably this is a subset of the other categories, but it's common enough that I thought it deserved recognition.)

3. Comment on something else. The anime _Princess Tutu_ uses the fact that the characters' stories are being written by another character to comment on comformity & complacency. Stephen King uses story to comment on addiction and duality in the Dark Tower series, among other works.

4. Working out authorial guilt. => See the _Animal Man_ example in comments to the Bittercon post, and also _Princess Tutu_ again ("Why can't I stop hurting her?!").

And from there, I stop having detailed recollections. Here's what I do remember:

* Consensus that you can do anything as long as the execution is good: not jolt the reader out of the story even though you remind them it is a story; writerly navel-gazing about the process of writing (Vonnegut's last novel; the movie _Adaptation_).

* Spinning off the mystery comment by burger_eater from last time:

** A kids' Scandinavian (sorry, I forget which country) book about two kids who have read too much Agatha Christie and play detective, and eventually find out that crime is not a fun puzzle but nasty and sordid;

** Block, _The Burglar in the Library_, where Bernie explains his reasoning by saying that he'd been thinking the crime was a cozy mystery, but when realized it was a noir, he could solve it.

* Metafictional structures are another way of setting up reader expectations. My co-panelist suggested _Hyperion_; I wondered if the switch out of the Canterbury Tales mode was a possible explanation for why _Fall_ is generally thought of as not as good. She thought yes, because changing gears on readers can lose some of them; also, the removal of structure may have not been a good thing for the author.

** Relatedly, meta on a more formal structural level can be a way of subverting expectations. Calvino's _If on a winter's night_ mentioned. (mdevnich, I think this was your comment, and I'm not sure I'm doing it justice. Help?)

* My co-panelist asked if there was anything specific to SF that lent itself to meta? Which I thought was an excellent question. Off the top of my head, I suggested that any genre which is aware of its history may find itself doing self-referential things and therefore be open to meta.

** Audience member pointed out that the Hugo-nominated episode of _Stargate SG-1_, "200", does this. Apparently the characters are watching a show, or imagining their actions as a show?

** I said, duh, _Galaxy Quest_! Except that thinking abouot it, it's both meta & whatever the inverse is, because while the human characters treat the events as a story and act according to story rules, the emotional payoff is: "It's all real."

That's all the thematic stuff I can remember.

New examples from the audience:

* _Stranger than Fiction_, recent movie w/Emma Thompson & Will Ferrell -- meta is the whole point.

* famous Scandinavian story called "How the Child Is Killed" (or similar) which is just that: this is the child that will be hit by a car, the car that will hit the child is driving down the street, etc. The inevitability is the point.

* Musical that has a mime act (? sorry, I really should have taken notes) running parallel to an opera tragedy. The non-opera performers end up interacting with the opera; the effect is to undercut the tragic self-importance of the opera.

* John Barnes, _One for the Morning Glory_. To paraphrase: one character says, stories don't end like this. Another: stories don't, but we don't know what part of the story we're in. (very close paraphrase): "There were a hundred dead princes on the thorns outside Sleeping Beauty's castle, and I'm sure many of them were splendid fellows."

Anyway, I had a really great time, for which I am *abjectly* grateful to the audience, who contributed so much and kept the conversation flowing in a way that just two panelists could never hope to do. The audience really made this panel work and I hope they enjoyed it half as much as I did.

As I said then, if anyone there has more to add, or wants to tell me what I've forgotten, please do. And I welcome further discussion from everyone else, as always. I'm temporarily turning off screening of anonymous comments to faciliatate the discussion--though from Wednesday through Friday, Japan time, I'll be offline.

Oh, and if it's a spoiler, either ROT13 it or put it between <span style="color: #999999; background-color: #999999"> </span>. Thanks.
Tags: bittercon, cons, nippon 2007, worldcon
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