“Who Speaks?: From Self-Fictionalising Authors to Empowered Readers” by Janet Lau

The HP Series showcases excerpts from excellent Honours Projects by students from the Department of English Language and Literature. [Read all entries here.]

Girl Reading.jpg
Picasso, “Girl Reading”

Supervisor: Dr Tammy Lai-Ming Ho

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.
― Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller

I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.
―David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

Exploring the relationship between text and reality is an important theme in postmodern texts. These are often regarded as metafictions―fictions about fiction which expose the artificiality of their fictional worlds and encourage reflection on the supposed authenticity of reality. Mark Currie defines a postmodern novel as ‘one that involves metalepsis, which is usually defined as frame-breaking, a crossing of some uncrossable boundary between different orders of reality or being […]’ (3). Different devices of frame-breaking are found in postmodern texts, such as highlighting the presence of an author or an author’s intrusion into the fictional world to interact with other characters—devices which blur the line between reality and fiction. Patricia Waugh suggests that ‘[a] metafiction draws attention to the fact that life, as well as novels, is constructed through frames, and that it is finally impossible to know where one frame ends and another begins’ (29). Postmodern metafictions, in this sense, aim to destruct the illusion of authentic reality and question the fundamental differences between reality and fiction.

Author’s self-fictionalisation

Postmodern metafictions’ frame-breaking can be achieved by the author appearing as a character in their own text, for example, having a character or characters share their name. This intrusion not only leads to reflections on the authenticity of reality, but also undermines the authority of the author, as Brian McHale remarks:

As soon as the author writes himself into the text, he fictionalises himself, creating a fictional character […], while the author himself withdraws to a further remove from the world of the text […] The penetration of the author into his fictional world is always, as Umberto Eco has put it, trompe l’œil: this ‘author’ is as fictional as any other character. (215)

When an author inserts themselves into their fiction, it is not merely to cast doubt on the notion of reality, but also aims at decreasing their influence over the fiction itself. Through depriving themselves of their own authority, the author intends to lessen the ontological difference between their authentic self and the fictional entities.

Self-conscious narrator as a fictional author

Pale FireApart from the author’s self-fictionalisation, another device of frame-breaking is the author’s creation of another fictional author, that is, when a ‘self-conscious’ narrator claims the ownership of a text. One example of such a fictional author is the narrator in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), Charles Kinbote, who states in his foreword, ‘In my notes to the poem the reader will find these canceled readings […] I must now explain how Pale Fire came to be edited by me’ (13). The narrator, in this case, explicitly declares his authorship of the narrative, asserting that the editing of the poem is his effort instead of Nabokov’s. The existence of a fictional author brings forth the question of ‘who speaks?’, which can be exemplified by the narrator in Jorge Luis Borges’s “Borges and I” (1960), who states at the end of the narrative ‘I am not sure which of us it is that’s writing this page’ (702). More importantly, a narrator who seems to have authority makes the readers wary of the subjectivity of their narration. Currie comments on the claimed authority of the narrator in John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969):

The narrator regularly interrupts his own recognisably Victorian tone with a narrative comment from the late twentieth century, or with an explicit declaration of the artificiality of the events being narrated: “The story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind.” […] The point here is that the poles of narration and narrativity combine to form a paradox, baring the device of impersonal omniscience on which the objectivity of historical narration depends by revealing it as subjective invention. (73)

The self-conscious narrator, intervening with their subjectivity and emphasising the artificiality of the narrative, renounces objective narration which is common in conventional Victorian fiction and crucial for historical narration. Hence, rather than making the narrator sound more convincing, the declared authority exposes their subjectivity in their narration to readers, drawing attention of the latter to the unreliability of their narration.

Unreliable narrator

Narrator’s subjective invention―to use Currie’s term―is often found to be unreliable in early postmodern texts. For example, in Pale Fire, ‘[w]e soon realise that Kinbote is mad, believing himself to be the exiled king of some Ruritanian country resembling pre-Revolutionary Russia. He had convinced himself that [John] Shade was writing a poem about his own history […] (Lodge 157). McHale argues that in Pale Fire, ‘[the] convention of narratorial unreliability has been pushed to the limit. Here we can be sure that the narrator is radically unreliable’ (18). The revelation about Kinbote’s madness contributes to the impossibility for all of his previous narrations standing up. Since the notion of truth is severely challenged, the narrator’s unreliability is foregrounded so as to deny any potential kind of objectivity or omniscience.

Diminished narrator

Nevertheless, the notion of the unreliable narrator is less prevalent in texts in today’s digital era, given the accelerated knowledge acquisition or even information explosion in the contemporary world. Alvin Toffler has coined the term ‘future shock’ to describe ‘the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time’ (4). He further points out that ‘[w]e have in our time released a totally new social force―a stream of change so accelerated that it influences our sense of time, revolutionises the tempo of daily life, and affects the very way we “feel” the world around us’ (18). Toffler argues that in the contemporary world, knowledge changes rapidly and capriciously and humans are prone to the ‘disease of change’. In the face of the rapidity of change and exchange of information, the objectivity and reliability of narrators, as well as the notion of truth, are no longer the primary focus in contemporary narrativity. Instead, in their place have sprouted a range of new and innovative styles. The entity of the narrator itself is interrogated in a different manner because of our different worldview, leading to the suspension of narrator’s domination over the narrative.

The reader’s increased subjectivity and the implied author

Rhetoric of FictionThe author’s decreased authority, the narrator’s unreliability as well as diminished influence lead to a high level of instability in narratives which in turn empowers the reader’s subjectivity. Matthew Francis states that ‘[w]ith so much instability introduced into the narrative, so many possibilities of going astray, it is hard for the reader to know what to believe, or, more accurately, what to accept and what to reject on the fictive plane of the text’ (164). As a result, the reader’s interpretations of the text become participatory. Rather than passively receiving details divulged in the narrative, readers need to decide which of them are trustworthy and which are misleading or even deceptive, since ‘[f]inding the solution, knowing the truth, is something we are mentally programmed to want to achieve, and we carry this instinct into the fictive world with us’ (Booth 366).

Wayne Booth suggests the idea of the implied author to examine the reader’s process of interpretation. The implied author is the product of the reader’s engagement in interpretation and can be understood as their imagining of an author-image who writes in that manner:

However impersonal [the author] may try to be, his reader will inevitably construct a picture of the official scribe who writes in this manner ― and of course that official scribe will never be neutral towards all values. Our reactions to his various commitments, secret or overt, will help to determine our response to the work. (Booth 71)

The implied author is the actual author’s ‘second self’ that is constituted during the act of reading. He is ‘responsible for the text’s ultimate verbal meanings, as well as for the value systems that undergird those meanings’ (Davis and Womack 56). Therefore, despite the varieties in influence on the reader’s interpretation brought by an unreliable narrator and a diminished one, the reader’s subjectivity is enhanced through making judgments about, but without being told, the intentions of the author in order to make sense of the narratives out of the instability.


Works Cited

Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction (2nd ed.). Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983. Print.

Borges, Jorge Luis. ‘Borges and I’. In Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. London: The Penguin Press. 1999. pp. 702-704. Web.

Currie, Mark, 1962. Postmodern Narrative Theory. 2nd ed. New York; Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Davis, Todd F., and Kenneth Womack. Formalist Criticism and Reader-Response Theory. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Print.

Francis, Matthew. ‘A Prophet as Unreliable Narrator: Rewriting Arise Evans’. New Writing 7.2 (2010): 161-71. Web.

Lodge, David. The Art of Fiction. London: Penguin Books, 1994. Print.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1987. Print.

Nabokov, Vladimir, 1899-1977, Pale Fire. London: Penguin Books, 2010. Print.

Toffler, Alvin. Future Shock. New York: Random House, 1970. Web.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. New York; London: Methuen, 1984. Print.


JanetJanet Lau is a graduate of the Department of English and Department of Education (Class of 2016). [Click here to read all entries by Janet.]

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