The weird and wonderful world of meta has always occupied a corner in literary history. It seems perfectly full circle that the endless self-gratification the literary community constructs for itself would produce writers who write about writing itself. It’s delightfully masturbatory. But wait, there’s more. What would you say to self-conscious storytelling melded with obsessive history? Well, allow me to introduce you to historiographic metafiction.
The term itself was coined by Linda Hutcheon, a Canadian literary theorist, in a paper entitled “Historiographic Metafiction: Parody of the Intertextuality of History” published in the late 80s. In it, she discusses the existing trend of self-referential postmodernist literature and proposes the formation of a new, more specific label to acknowledge such works that specifically dapple with the concepts of history. Writers constantly are dabbling in intertextuality of literature, historians are constantly dabbling in the intertextuality of themselves, so it is not so great of a stretch to consider traipsing along both in brilliant parodic madness. The idea itself was not new, but in the moment, it gained a name.
There’s something quite pleasingly sacrilegious in the idea of experimenting with interpretations of history. History itself is seen as an immovable form. Yes, of course, we cannot change the past. But historiographic metafiction aims to remind us that history is nothing more than a record written by people, human beings with biases and agendas. Humans are flawed, so history may be too. While the text itself cannot be changed, it can absolutely be disputed. It invites experimentation in a medium that was once considered sacredly beyond experimentation.
More than that, the genre questions not only what we choose to remember about the past, but it aims to reconstruct and fill in the inevitably missing pieces with constructions of its own. The issue of historical anecdotes, for example. Like the one about Gavrilo Princip and the sandwich that started WWII . But how true is it? And why do we choose to remember it and not something else? Historiographic metafiction exists to explore these things and add fuel to the conversational fire.
Color yourself interested? There’s a few good places to start. My personal favorite, and a 30 million copy best-seller at that, is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is another similarly magic-injected history. For fans of mystery, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Ecco may tickle your fancy for historical whodunnits. If you’re looking for something a little more recent, head to my review of Lance Olsen’s Dreamlives of Debris for a taste.