Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Metafiction and the 4th Wall

By Bill Ectric on Monday, July 11, 2005 10:19 am

Most "new" concepts are not really new. They come and go in various incarnations, ever growing in our mass consciousness, until they reach the critical mass known as "everyone is talking about it." Two such concepts are metafiction in literature and its TV/film equivalent, "breaking the fourth wall".

The fourth wall is the space between the audience and the actors on a stage, the first three walls being stage left, the background, and stage right. When an actor in a play addresses the audience directly, this is called "breaking the fourth wall." It is not generally done in traditional plays or movies because it would interrupt the "reality" of the story, but we can all think of exceptions to the rule.

Remember Laurel and Hardy, when Stan Laurel did something exceptionally silly, and Oliver Hardy turned his head slowly toward us and looked directly into the camera, as if to say, "Do you believe this? See what I have to put up with?" Then there was the duet between Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the movie Road to Morocco, when Hope speaks directly to Paramount Studios, beseeching them to keep making more "road movies" so he can keep his job. More recently, a wonderful take-off on Bob and Bing's road songs was featured in an episode of Fox television's animated series, Family Guy, with Brian the Dog and baby Stewie trading song verses and wisecracks. This brings us to the Fox Network and Garry Shandling.

The Fox Network came on strong in the eighties, aspirating to be on the cutting edge of television (and quite successfully, many will agree). Fox recognized something special in a TV shows on the Showtime cable network called, It's Garry Shandling's Show. Here is a quote from The Museum of Broadcast Communications web site:

Shandling's antics included 'breaking the fourth wall' --acknowledgement and direct address of the audience, both in the studio and at home, as part of the show. In one episode, Garry told the audience to feel free to use his "apartment" (the set) while he was at a baseball game. Several people from the audience (perhaps extras) left their Gary seats to read prop books and play billiards in front of the cameras as the program segued into its next scene."

When Shandling later guest starred in an episode of The X-Files, there is a great moment where agents Mulder and Scully are sitting in a darkened movie studio where, according to this episode's plotline, a movie is being made about them, with Shandling in the role of Mulder. For a brief moment, it almost seems like actors David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson have stepped out of character, giving us a glimpse through that fourth wall:

MULDER: Yeah, what about us? How are we going to be remembered now 'cause of this movie?
SCULLY: Well, hopefully, the movie will tank.
MULDER: What about all the dead people who are forever silent and can't tell their stories anymore? They're all going to have to rely on Hollywood to show the future how we lived and it'll all become... oversimplified and trivialized and Cigarette-Smoking Pontificized and become as plastic and meaningless as this stupid plastic Lazarus Bowl.
SCULLY: I think the dead are beyond caring what people think about them. Hopefully we can adopt the same attitude. You do know that there aren't real dead people out there, right? That this is a movie set?
MULDER: The dead are everywhere, Scully.

I remember being impressed because it meant that the Fox Network, Shandling, Duchovny, and Anderson were probably hip to certain writers which I admired. Kurt Vonnegut had broken the "literary fourth wall" in his novel, Breakfast of Champions, by appearing as a character in the book. Phillip K. Dick did the same thing in his novel Valis. In literature, however, it's not called breaking the fourth wall. It's called metafiction.

Metafiction is described by Wikipedia as "fiction which self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction. It usually involves irony and is self-reflective." Wikipedia says metafiction "came to prominence in the 60's" while acknowledging that the style has been around in small doses much longer. The term "metafiction" and its popularity are becoming more widespread. As usual, it takes the mainstream media a while to discover something already familiar to a relative few.

Case in point: Spanish-American author Felipe Alfau wrote a novel in English called Locos: A Comedy of Gestures and Chromos in 1936. This collection of short stories, says the Wikipedia online encyclopedia, featured "several characters that defy the wishes of the author, write their own stories, and even assume each others' roles." The book received little critical acclaim until, in 1987, an editor for the Dalkey Archive Press found a used copy of the book, liked it, and contacted the author for permission to re-release it. Alfau agreed for his book to be published again, asking that all his royalties from sales be used to help unknown writers get their books in print.

Some writers who have produced older works of metafiction are:

Jorge Luis Borges: Most famous for his short stories, Borges once said, "Whoever is reading my words is inventing them."

Vladimir Nabokov: His best known book, Lolita is not metafiction; but his second most discussed book, Pale Fire, is.

Richard Brautigan: back in my hippie days, we didn't call it metafiction, we called it "trippy."

Here are some modern examples of metafiction:

I, The Divine: A Novel In First Chapters by Rabih Alameddine: Every chapter in the book is "Chapter One" and it's like the author is trying to write a biography of herself, but she never can get past the first chapter. Each chapter is different; however, and taken as a whole, the book becomes a complete depiction of a complex character.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers: I found this book in the autobiography section of the library, but it is a mixture of reality and fantasy, with Eggers there to tell us which parts he made up and why. One character, Toph, breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the author.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski: First published in various forms on the internet, then as a book in 2000, it is a wild ride through labyrinths of texts about other texts, commentaries on documentaries, footnotes on footnotes, all while holding the reader's interest with a plot about a mysterious house which is growing bigger, longer, and deeper on the inside but staying the same size on the outside.

As I wrap up this article, it occurs to me that maybe I am not writing this at all. Perhaps you, the reader, have dreamed me up, and my existence will click-flicker fade away when you log off your computer.

6 Responses to "Metafiction and the 4th Wall"

by stevadore on

RooneyAnd who could forget Ferris Bueller's Day Off."Are you still here? Go home already. Go on. Go home."

by mindbum on

the dead are everywherearen't they?hi bill. i appreciate this one. some stuff there i havent read but it'll happen eventually. what do you think about 'choose your own adventure' books? is that meta enough for you baby? hasn't tv been knocking down walls since early on when it was all live and burns would roll his eyes at allen? not to mention all the walls they had to knock down to build on to the studios once they realised the medium was sticking to everything.like CYOA or hamlet soliloquizzing the audience ...[ham: how many dimples on a golfball folks?ham: 672.ham: no that's too many.ham: out damn spot](he forgot to talk to anyone else. he's probably at least juggling flaming chainsaws here.)and the imperative to CYOA is the second person. you you you you. you killed him in your brooks brothers suit you sonofabitch. it piles up. it feels almost accusatory. it draws a you in. if you jump to the ground turn to page 52.if you hold on turn to page 53.is most of this metafiction what they call postmodern? these things twine and twain and twist and you're left with a thousand stories and a weighty sense of irreality. just what i was looking for.

by Billectric on

That's right, I almost forgot about that one. Nowdays they do it on a lot of shows.

by Billectric on

Indeed.I actually think those choose your own adventure books are kind of cool. I don't know if I would call them metafiction; however, as there is really not a blurring of lines between the reader and the story in the strict sense. I'm thinking of doing a choose your adventure story online, but, I don't expect it to be any kind of literary achievement, just a fun exercise.And yes, metafiction is part of postmodernism, as you can see by clicking here.

by Alejandro on

Miguel de Unamuno, the spanish writer, made the same thing on his novel "Niebla" (mist), were the principal character, angry because of his destiny, travel to Unamuno house (his creator's house) and both have an interesting philosophic conversation.

by Zuma on

as much as i keep coming back to this article, it seems i should leave a kudo.

the reason i keep coming back to it is the self-recognition.

somewhere in between the 4th wall and the meta lies a lot of influences i got in the 70's -the headtohead hearttoheart conversationality of kerouac or bukowski's sighing plaints, or even the real person gonzo journalism of thompson, all authentic stuff busting down BS or at leats old forms [of it]... influences. both overt (in manner), and covert (that i came to realize here).

so this piece was a brain-mover, and touched on stuff i both hadn't consciously delved into thinking more fully out, and subconsciously intuited.

great great job, Bill. thank you muchly.

Add new comment