What is Metafiction?
It depends on whom you ask, as the term is somewhat slippery, meaning that various authors and literary critics define it differently. William H. Gass coined the term in 1970 in an essay entitled "Philosophy and the Form of Fiction". Commenting on American fiction of the 1960s, Gass pointed out that a new term was needed for the emerging genre of experimental texts that openly broke with the tradition of literary realism still dominant in post-WW II American literature. Metafiction is thus an elastic concept covering a wide range of fictions.
John Barth (Lost in the Funhouse), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale), Kurt Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions), A. S. Byatt (Possession) and Salman Rushdie (Midnight's Children) are a few authors who have either claimed to write in a metafictional style or were viewed that way by critics and literary theorists.
In The Long Song, a woman is writing a book about Miss July, the slave. That woman turns out to be Miss July herself and she periodically comments on her experience of writing the story with her son looking over her shoulder as editor. This device on Andrea Levy's part qualifies as an example of metafiction, which can include the writer intruding to comment on writing, directly addressing the reader. One or two critics found this distracting but I saw it as an entertaining way of showing how far Miss July had come in her life from slave to free woman.
What is An Unreliable Narrator?
An unreliable narrator is defined as an imaginary storyteller or character who describes what he witnesses accurately, but misinterprets those events because of faulty perception, personal bias, or limited understanding. The discrepancy between the unreliable narrator's view of events and the view that readers suspect to be more accurate creates a sense of irony.
A common unreliable narrator is a child, such as Huck Finn, David Copperfield, or Holden Caulfield, who are not in complete possession of the facts but tell the reader more than they understand precisely because they don't understand.
As it becomes apparent that the "writer" of Miss July's story is the character herself, the reader of The Long Song becomes aware that he or she is learning the history of slavery in Jamaica from a radically different viewpoint than can be found in history books, because our narrator interprets the actions of white masters and mistresses, of overseers, even of free Negroes, from a point of view which is naturally limited by her perspective and limited knowledge of wider events.
This article was originally published in May 2010, and has been updated for the
April 2011 paperback release.
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