What is the role of a meta narrative. When is it used effectively?
Meta narratives, which are secondary narratives outside of the main story line, serve to intentionally disrupt the main discourse.
Author and SDSU professor Stephen Paul Martin said recently that writers who use meta narratives walk a fine line between annoying the reader – forcing the reader to see the work from a new distance - and losing the reader entirely.
He said meta narratives are intentionally alienating – a reference to Bavarian playwright Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect.
Brecht used meta elements in his epic theater in the 1940s in order to discomfort his audience and wake them from the suspension of disbelief.
According author and SDSU professor Harold Jaffe, Brecht's alienation effect compelled his audience to think about what they were viewing.
"That is, it encourages the reader/viewer to be pent rather than purged in the Aristotelian sense," he wrote in an email. "The alienation works like conceptual art where thinking is privileged over feeling."
Prompted by Dr. Jaffe to delve further into the alienation effect, I reached out to Martin via email and asked him to elaborate on his comments.
Martin replied that metafiction is often called anti-fiction because it destroys the illusion that a conventional story relies on.
“Another way to think about metafiction is to think about what we mean when we praise a work for being spellbinding, for being able to hypnotize us so that we believe that black marks on a white surface are actually people in places doing things,” he wrote. “One of the crucial disruptive functions of metafiction is to break this spell, to expose the verbal machinery that allows an author to weave a spell, to show us what the spell is made of, to show us how the magician/author performs his trick, and so destroy the spell's power.”
In our modern culture, individuals spend most of their waking hours operating in virtual worlds -- at computers or in front of televisions -- being fed various fictional illusions from politics to consumer advertising. All of these are narrative fictions, said Martin.
“There are also economic, historical, scientific, anthropological, and personal fictions that cast spells on us to varying degrees, and the combination of these spells creates a consensual hallucination we've been trained to call reality,” Martin wrote.
Metafiction can help us to break this spell and create enough separation from the language of authoritative discourses for what they are -- thus neutralizing their power, he said.
"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," Martin wrote. "Metafictions show us what the man behind the curtain is doing, and how he does it. They disrupt the flow of comforting and seductive illusions.”