Theory of reflexive fiction


José Ángel García Landa

Universidad de Zaragoza, 1992

Internet edition 2004



It is difficult to write history today. In a postmodern age we have become extremely self-conscious about the artificiality of theories, and the constructedness of history. This problem also affects the historian of literature. The evolution from naturalism into modernism was well documented and theorized some decades ago: it seemed only natural that one literary movement would succeed another. But the transition from modernism into postmodernism seems far more problematic; the concept of postmodernism itself is a strongly debated one. One of the characteristics of the postmodernist era, then, is that we are not so sure that there are such things as eras, that we do not know very well what is postmodernism and whether it is really there that we are. Or what we should do once we are there.

Does the novel go anywhere in particular? It has always been difficult to answer such a question. It is even more difficult now because of our self-consciousness about the artificial and selective nature of an answer, which implies telling a narrative about the novel. Earlier critics often told such narratives. For Henry James, the novel was becoming a form of art, refining its shape and evolving towards a form of psychological drama. For the French new novelists, the novel was becoming an exploration of its own possibilities, an allegory of its own production and its use of language. There was a clear sense of evolution away from certain forms and towards others. Nowadays, there are no such clear aims which novels should fulfil in order to be at the forefront of evolution. There is a reaction against continued abstraction, and a number of mimetic and emotive elements have reasserted themselves; there is also a reaction against the view of novelistic evolution as a kind of competition in experiment. The situation seems pluralistic, in keeping with the postmodern ethos of "anything goes".

A perspective on the evolution of the novel becomes more defined if we examine the theory of fiction over the last few decades and try to discern changing emphases and new elements in the discussion. The history of the novel and the history of its criticism cannot be written apart from one another. On one hand, contemporary discourse on the novel favours certain kinds of writing, which become intellectually dominant; on the other hand, those works which do not conform to the dominant mode are neglected (this can happen to excessively original authors). These works have to be rediscovered by a later critical movement which then rewrites the history of the genre. So, for instance, structuralist criticism contributed to a reappraisal of experimental and self-conscious novels which went against the dominant mode of realism: the production of Sterne, Roussel, Kafka and Nabokov. Later, post-structuralist criticism or feminist criticism have led to different emphases and different re-discoveries (for instance women writers like Fanny Burney, Kate Chopin). Here we shall concentrate on the theory of fiction as it evolved from the earlier to the later phases of Modernism, from about 1955 to about 1975 -- a sufficient remove for the main lines of new critical conceptions to emerge with clarity.



The early theory of the novel was formulated for the most part under the realistic aesthetic of the nineteenth century. While in this century the theory of the lyric is expressive, the theory of the novel remains largely mimetic. That is, the lyric is defined as an expression of the poet's feelings, and its representative element is subordinated to this expressive function (thence the "pathetic fallacy" in which subjective passions are projected onto the landscape). Victorian theory of the novel often opposed the genres of the romance and the novel. Romance was light entertainment, and it freely used fantasy and stirring adventure. The novel, on the other hand, was on the way to becoming "serious" narrative, through its aesthetic of verisimilitude. The novel is the product of the bourgeois demythologization of the aristocratic ideals. According to Fielding, the novel is born as a comic epic poem in prose--that is, as the parodic genre which results from setting epic conventions against the prosaic reality.

A good novel needed several characteristics:

- A good construction: a coherent plot which is harmonious with the characters and provides a thread of action through the world of the novel.

- The plot is, however, secondary. It belongs with the romance. The novel uses a plot, but it is a loose one, subordinated to the mimetic aim. It is the characters and the setting which are dominant in the novel. Most theorists of the novel see deliberate plotting as a somewhat extraneous element which may distort the spontaneous revelation of the characters. The novelty of the novel is seen to lie in the representation of character. It should be a psychological study, one which reveals new truths about human feelings and relationships.

- The novel is set in a realistic setting. A credible psychology can be grounded only on a concrete and recognizable social situation. In the English novel this setting is for the most part that of the middle classes, although the naturalistic and the regional novel contributed to the exploration of other social classes and peripheral societies.

- A novel has a theme and is linked to a well-defined moral intention, an authorial stance towards that theme, which is easily identified, whether it is conveyed by direct or by indirect means. It is the moral intention of the novelists which makes realism something more than an attempt at copying nature faithfully.

The coherence of a novel, according to the realistic ethos, is then the coherence with which it portrays its setting and the psychology of its characters through a well-constructed and unobstrusive plot. Some works related to this realist aesthetics can be seen in section 1 of the bibliography.



Early Modernism

The emphasis changes as we enter the twentieth century. Section 2 of the bibliography includes works of criticism which are representative of the early phase of modernism. Henry James helped theorize the transition from Victorian realism to modernism. Reality is subjectivized: it now appears as point of view, not as solid fact. James favours the dramatic novel. Two critics, Joseph Warren Beach and Percy Lubbock, systematize and popularize these ideas. Beach coined the phrase"exit author" to describe the new dramatic autonomy of the novel, whose action was to unfold directly under the eyes of the reader, without the mediating value judgements of the narrator. We shall have a closer look at Percy Lubbock, whose book The Craft of Fiction became the official textbook of the Modernist aesthetics of indirection. Lubbock drew an opposition between two methods, "showing" and "telling":

1. The art of fiction does not begin until the novelist thinks of his story as a matter to be shown, to be so exhibited that it will tell itself. To hand over to the reader the facts of the story merely as so much information -- this is no more than to state the "argument" of the book, the groundwork upon which the novelist proceeds to create. The book is not a row of facts, it is a single image; the facts have no validity in themselves, they are nothing until they have been used. It is not the simple art of narrative, but the comprehensive art of fiction that I am considering; and in fiction there can be no appeal to any authority outside the book itself. . . . The thing has to look true, and that is all. It is not made to look true by simple statement. (Lubbock 62)

The aim of the novelist is to create a whole and full impression, to produce a controlled effect on the reader through the careful arrangement of form and subject. The aim is still to tell a story which is morally or metaphysically relevant, but the point now is that the reader must experience that story together with the character -- as a process, not as a finished product seen from the outside. What makes the story to be shown rather than told? It is a problem of composition, of the adequate treatment of the materials of the story through the use of subjective point of view and scenic presentation. The novelist must use a coherent style: the narrative mode must be the same all through the novel. If the subject matter requires transitions between different modes, the seams between the sections must be invisible; the transitions must be done smoothly, without awkwardness. Nothing must remind us of the novelist's presence. Everything that is told in a story must be motivated; it is there on account of some character's experience. Of course, in calling for a limited point of view Lubbock is also assuming a subject that is psychological in nature to start with, some kind of personal drama, not the vast social frescoes of the Victorians. Lubbock's model for such a method is, to be sure, Henry James's in The Ambassadors:

2. The Ambassadors, then, is a story which is seen from one man's point of view, and yet a story in which that point of view is itself a matter for the reader to confront and watch constructively. (CF 170)

Lubbock calls for conscious craftmanship, an attention to composition, and for the development of an adequate critical vocabulary to describe it. Similar ideas, the stress on character, point of view and composition rather than on the plot, are also found in Ortega y Gasset's theory of the novel, and in various other modernist critics.


High Modernism and New Criticism

In the twenties and thirties there is a widespread critical revolution against the aesthetics of the late romanticism. In literature this revolution is called modernism and avant-garde; in the area of critical theory we speak of new criticism or formalism. The modernist / formalist revolution will have deep consequences for the writing and criticism of all literary genres. Lubbock's ideas were representative of the transition between the classical realist novel, with its emphasis on story, setting and character, and the modernist novel, with its emphasis on writing and composition. Lubbock lays an emphasis on composition, but it is a composition designed to favour a particular emergence of character and plot: the writing of the novel is still "invisible", it does not call attention to itself. Even if compositional concerns come to the fore, the assumption of the early modernists is still classical: art must be used to hide art, not to draw attention to itself. According to Ortega,

3. la novela exige -- a diferencia de otros géneros poéticos -- que no se la perciba como tal novela, que no se vea el telón de boca ni las tablas del escenario" (IN 184).

The narrative conventions are used to erase themselves, and the author stands apart from his creation, "paring his fingernails" (to use Joyce's phrase).

The New Criticism might be seen as a step further away from mimetic considerations. The New Critics dismissed romanticism and favoured lyric poetry which was complex, ironic and intellectualized. They criticized literature in terms of its structural complexity, not in terms of its inmediate fidelity to life. That is, the aesthetic judgements of the New Critics tends to be intrinsic rather than extrinsic. A work is above all a pattern of words, a self-sufficient entity which constructs and manipulates emotions and thoughts which have only an analogical relationship to reality. A work is a structure which is self-enclosed, meaning that any element has to be judged within the pattern, taking its function into account, and not identified in an immediate way with its equivalents in the extratextual world. Originally the New Critics did not pay much attention to fiction, although later we find readings of fiction in terms of pattern, irony and balance. With the "practical criticism" developed by I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis, the novel suddenly became a "dramatic poem" -- its language suddenly became significant in terms of tension and image, like the language of poetry. Virginia Woolf claimed that modern fiction would assume the quality of a poem. She opposed fiction modelled on fact or report (like that of the naturalists). For the modernists, fiction must work through poetic suggestiveness rather than narrative.

Plot and character seemed to fade to the background as critical terms, all the emphasis falling on the overall pattern of which they are a part, together with the language and imagery of the work. This "intrinsic turn" in critical thought will favour the development of a reflexive theory of fiction, although it will take some time to be explicitly formulated in the Anglo-Saxon world. For the moment, mimetic concerns still occupy the foreground, even if mimesis has become internalized --Erich Kahler spoke in this respect of an "inward turn" of the novel. Particular attention is paid by the critics from the thirties to the fifties to the modes of representation of inner life developed by the modernist novel, by Joyce, Woolf or Faulkner. Terms such as "free indirect style", "interior monologue", "camera eye" narrative or "stream of consciousness" occupy the center of the critical stage. Some representative works are listed in section 3 of the bibliography. We shall not dwell long on this second phase of the development of modernism in the criticism of the novel, because our main concern here is with the third phase -- or rather with a third convenient cut we can make in the theory of the novel as it stood in the sixties and seventies. It is with the second wave of formalism, with structuralism, that the theory of the novel suffers a definite transformation.


Structuralism and Late Modernism

To the traditional mimetic theory of fiction, structuralist criticism opposes a reflexive theory, a theory which favours metafictional works over realistic ones, self-consciousness over conventional verisimilitude. (Non-structuralism too: Robert Alter's book Partial Magic, (in sect. 6 of the bibliography) revaluated the tradition of self-conscious novel.

It can be held that each critical school has privileged some form of literature, some particular genre, some period or some literary mood, just as it favours certain structural aspects of the literary work. A structuralist view of the communicative process may help clarify this. We may take as a reference system Jakobson's model of the functions of language:




Sender --------------------------- Message-------------------------> Receiver

Expressive . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Poetic . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Conative






If classical criticism underlined the mimetic or referential quality of the work of art and romanticism emphasized the expressive element, structuralism is associated to the metalingual function of language. It is the study of the codes which govern meaning and of the structure of the message. It is also self-conscious about the provisional and heuristic nature of those codes and of the structure discerned. Structuralism contemplates itself as a metalingual activity.

The theory of fiction in the age of structuralism will also assume this reflexive stance. Fiction is now seen not as a naive portrayal of reality, but as a structural game with the codes of literature, an exercice in new ways of meaning. What fiction comments upon is above all its own structure. This is because new meanings can only be produced by new linguistic and perceptual structures. Artistic conventionality is flaunted, it is no longer hidden, and the work unfolds as a drama of different conventions at war with each other, not as the consistent application of an invisible convention.

The new theories of the novel are initially distinctly French, just as structuralism is associated above all with French thinkers. Among professional critics, the work of Roland Barthes, Gérard Genette, Tzvetan Todorov and Julia Kristeva is most influential in developing these ideas. There are also novelists which write important essays on fiction, like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor and Jean Ricardou. Robbe-Grillet's Pour un nouveau roman can be considered to be the manifesto of the third wave of modernism in fiction, which was especially strong in France under the name of nouveau roman. Some influential works by these critics are listed in sect. 4 of the bibliography.

The French structuralists derive and further develop many ideas from the radical formalist movement which developed in Russia around the twenties. The Russian formalists had already conceived of literature as an essentially formal phenomenon, where mimetic considerations were totally submitted to the structural function of the elements in the whole: not only in the whole of the work, but in the whole of literature taken as a continuous evolution of forms, renewed through exhaustion and parody. Formalist ideas were extended in two directions: towards a linguistic structuralism in the Prague School and towards a sociological structuralism in the work of the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin. All of these influences from the east reach France in the sixties, and contribute to the formation of contemporary literary structuralism.

These views take longer to develop in England and the USA. In England, the mainstream tradition of the novel in the fifties was decidedly anti-experimental, a continuation of nineteenth-century realism concerned with typically British problems of individual spontaneity, moral dilemmas and class consciousness. During the fifties and the sixties, the novelists of the Movement (Amis, Wain, Sillitoe) dominate the scene, with an aesthetics similar to that of writers of the thirties like Orwell or Waugh. Other important novelists (Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, Graham Greene, C. P. Snow) are also classical realists. In interviews or manifestoes the writers of this tradition often dismiss experimentalism as a dead end, a passing fancy which had failed to take any roots in Britain. For Kingsley Amis, experimentalism was an "obtruded oddity", a kind of perversity in construction or language, and was relegated to the past by "recent developments" in fiction. C. P. Snow rejected experimentalism because it took human interest out of the novel. Rubin Rabinovitz described the situation in England thus:

4. The critical mood in England has produced a climate in which traditional novels can flourish and anything out of the ordinary is given the denigratory label 'experiment' and neglected . . . The greatest fear of the English contemporary novelist is to commit a faux pas; every step is taken within prescribed limits, and the result is intelligent, technically competent, but ultimately mediocre. The successful novelist in England becomes, too quickly, a part of the literary establishment. . . All too often he uses his position as a critic to endorse the type of fiction he himself is writing and he attacks those whose approach is different. (Rabinovitz, The Reaction Against Experiment in the English Novel 1950-1960, qtd. in Lodge 92)

There are, or course, transitional figures, like Iris Murdoch, Lawrence Durrell, or John Fowles, who are more attentive to the symbolic and mythical patterns of their works and to problems of representation and construction; there are also some hard-line experimentalists like B. S. Johnson or Christine Brooke-Rose, although their work is largely ignored. B. S. Johnson wrote a mixture of confessional narrative and stream-of-consciousness with abundant typographical innovations. As to Brooke-Rose, she was the closest equivalent in English of the aesthetics of the nouveau roman. Samuel Beckett, arguably the most important figure of late modernism, and an original theorist in his own right, had established himself in France and most of his post-war production was originally written in French. In criticism, the British panorama was still dominated by historicism, with Leavis's moralist version of new criticism as the only significant dissenting voice. Until well into the seventies, structuralist ideas were anathema to the British traditional establishment, which defended itself from foreign influences (in literature and criticism) with swift and ironic dismissals (Amis, Snow, Kermode). Only a few critics like David Lodge pioneer the development of structuralism in England. Sect. 5 of the bibliography lists some structuralist and avant-garde critical writings in England. The situation changed in the direction of greater openness and variety, both in writing and criticism, during the seventies, and British fiction of the eighties abounds in postmodernist experiments.

The USA has always afforded more ground to defenders of non-empiricist thought, in philosophy or criticism, and to practitioners of experimental fiction (sect. 6). From the sixties on, novelists like John Barth, Raymond Federman or William H. Gass become known for their combination of practice and theory--not surprisingly, since these novelists (and many other American experimentalists, like Robert Coover, Ronald Sukenick, etc.) are also teachers of literature or of creative writing in major American universities. They speak for a continuation of the Modernist tradition of experiment which they see themselves as embodying. William Gass coins the popular term "metafiction", fiction which reflects on its own conditions; Barth speaks of "literature of exhaustion" and "literature of replenishment"; Federman coins the term surfiction:

5. The only fiction that still means something today is that kind of fiction that tries to explore the possibilities of fiction, the kind of fiction that challenges the tradition that governs it; the kind of fiction that constantly renews our faith in man's imagination and not in man's distorted vision of reality -- that reveals man's irrationality rather than man's rationality. This I call surfiction. However, not because it imitates reality but because it exposes the fictionality of reality. (Federman 7)

Metafiction was a dominant mood in the experimental novel of the sixties in the USA, although it was already present in France in the nouveau roman of the fifties. What many Americans add is a lighter and more playful tone, a tendency to mix the high metafiction of the French with a more readable narrative line and with popular genres: romance, science fiction, pornography, thrillers (Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme). The parodic element is much more important in the American postmodernists than in the French new novelists. Barth, for instance, argues that one can very well use the old-fashioned notions of plot and character provided that one does it parodically and reflexively. Robert Scholes speaks in this respect of fabulation, another alternative to the social and psychological novel, a self-conscious return to the pleasures of romance and oral storytelling.

For David Lodge, the best novelists must be aware of these contending elements in representation --realism, journalism, fabulation-- and use them reflexively. Metafiction, the "problematic novel", is for Lodge the result of this crisis in representation:

6. There are formidable discouragements to continuing serenely along the road of fictional realism. The novelist who has any kind of self-awareness must at least hesitate at the crossroads; and the solution many novelists have chosen in their dilemma is to build their hesitation into the novel itself. To the novel, the non-fiction novel, and the fabulation, we must add a fourth category: the novel which exploits more than one of these modes without fully committing itself to any, the novel-about-itself, the trick-novel, the game-novel, the puzzle-novel, the novel that leads the reader . . . through a fairground of illusions of deceptions, distorting mirrors and trap-doors that open disconcertingly under his feet, leaving him ultimately not with any simple or reassuring message or meaning but with a paradox about the relation of art to life. (110)

Lodge encouraged novelists to use the conventions of realism as a basis for these novels. B. S. Johnson, too, believed in metafiction as the way to a greater realism:

7. I concluded that it was not only permissible to expose the mechanism of a novel, but by so doing I should come nearer to reality and truth: adapting to refute, in fact, the ancients:

Artis est monstrare artem (174)

However, in the end the tendency to fabulation was apparently stronger than the drive towards realism. It peaks in the late seventies and eighties, which are decidedly postmodern. Latin American magic realism (Rulfo, Fuentes, Cortázar, García Márquez) is a major influence in these years. Fantasy, the picturesque, local traditions, oral narrative, a concern with history, a spirit of carnival and parody, all these traits supplement the formal innovations of previous decades --since it is clear that the modernist concerns with subjective experience, varieties of viewpoints, the problems of representation, etc. are more pervasive than ever. Self-consciousness permeates even the postmodernist version of realism, the "dirty realism" of Raymond Carver or Richard Ford. Just now, metafiction has passed into the background as it is cultural identities and conflicts which seem the most visible concerns of the novel. But the inheritance of the reflexive novel has been absorbed rather than rejected, and we shall concentrate now on the aesthetics of reflexive fiction, which effected a Copernican revolution in thought about prose fiction a quarter of a century ago.


The Aesthetics of Metafiction

We shall draw now a very general panorama of the main tenets of experimental and reflexive fiction as they are formulated from the fifties to the seventies by structuralist critics or by avant-garde writers. We shall define the characteristics of the new fiction as they bear on the aspects of the novel defined by traditional or modernist criticism. The enterprise of the New Novelists is both to transform the novel and to transform critical vocabulary about the novel. When the new novelists speak of "plot", "character", "atmosphere", "message" as outdated notions (Robbe-Grillet 25), they are rejecting both a form of writing novels and a form of interpreting and criticizing them.



The author's role is diminished:

The author: that anachronistic personage, the bearer of messages, the giver of lectures to cultural bodies (Calvino 232)

Structuralist critics, of course, herald the "death of the author" (Barthes); interpretation goes far beyond intentionality, and there is no definite meaning in a work, but rather a proliferation of meanings. Meaning is a fuction of reading, it cannot be fixed. It is not under the author's control. Even notions like the "implied author" of Booth become problematic, and tied to a specific kind of fiction.


Fiction and reality

We can approach this topic through Raymond Federman's concept of surfiction. Federman argues in favour of a creative aesthetics of the novel. For the postmodernist, reality does not exist before it is created by human meaningful activity. We have spoken of two earlier phases in the theoretical development of the novel: realism and modernism. For the realist, reality is self-evident, and it must be represented in fiction which dares to be true to life, to things as they are experienced in the world. The emphasis tends to fall on public life -- manners, society, the objectively self-evident and specifiable. We have already noted the "subjective turn" in Modernism. Reality now is private, hidden, perspectival. Fictional representation must help us realize the subjective and multifarious aspect of reality, drawing our attention to phenomena which otherwise would escape unnoticed. The emphasis on the activity of fiction is greater. But the role given to fiction by the new novelists in France and America goes even further: fiction is an expansion of reality, not an imitation of things as they are (public or private) but a constitution, a construction of things as they will be from now on. Fiction is an addition to reality and a reality in its own right: it must not only mean, it must be. These are the terms used by Samuel Beckett to define Joyce's Finnegans Wake, perhaps the inagural work of postmodernism:

8. Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read -- or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself. (27)

Brian McHale provides a similar criterion to distinguish modernist from postmodernist fiction. Modernist fiction is concerned above all with questions of perception and knowledge; postmodernist fiction is concerned with the difference between reality and fiction, with its own ontological status as a fictional object, and draws attention to the constructedness of reality as a whole. This is often done through the abolition of the barriers between the real and the imaginary inside the work; the work plays with the status of the real and the fictional inside its own limits, quoting or producing fictions in the second degree and mixing them with the "real" objects of the first degree, establishing an undecidable status (e.g. Coover's "The Babysitter"). The same dissolution of barriers may work between the fictional world and the real world of the reader and author (Fowles).

It is interesting to see that Robbe-Grillet sees himself as the creator of a new realism. As he notes himself, "all writers think they are realists. None of them pretends ever to be abstract, illusionist, chimaeric, fanciful, a counterfeiter" (135). But the role of the new realists is precisely to define a new reality, to contest the version of reality which has been inherited from the past. The novel, then, does not seek to represent reality, but to construct it. Reality is not a given which can be approached more or less:

9. The novel is not a tool. It is not designed in order to accomplish a predetermined task. Its role is not to expose, to translate, things existing before itself, outside itself. It does not express, it searches for something. And what it searches for is itself. (Robbe-Grillet 137)


Story and plot

The story is one of the pillars of classical realist fiction. A good story must be interesting, credible and coherent, engaging the attention of the reader and making him suspend his disbelief and immerse himself in the fictional world. Robbe-Grillet claims that such concern with coherence and illusion shows that the real aim of the traditional novel is not so much to entertain as to give a certain version of the world, a reassuring one: the world is out there, and we know how it is. The new novel calls into question such assumptions. Federman calls for a blurring of the clear development of plots, for digression, reflection and paradox. The novelist is not a transcriber, but an inventor. If we push this axiom to the extreme, we find that his concern is ultimately not with reality, but with invention. The book tells its own story, the story of its invention, not a story about the world. Telling in a naive way has become an aesthetic impossibility. The traditional coherence of the story was based on the construction of a coherent chronology, the development of a connected plot-line, the predictability of character's attitudes to the story, the tension which connects each episode to the ending of the novel. All of these elements must be called into question. The novel can still tell a story, but it is a story which has lost its naivety, its innocence. The way the story is told becomes the real story: anecdote becomes in the long run unimportant, it is a function of style, instead of the other way round. The time of the story, for instance, is no longer a selection or compression of the time of some pre-existing fabula: it has become self-sufficient, it points to nothing other than itself, and this self-referentiality provokes endless short-circuits between the traditional narrative levels -- the represented fabula and its narrative agencing. Time no longer passes, no longer leads to a conclusion; it is not subordinated to meaning or to a human sense of destination. The artificiality of plot construction may also be revealed through the use of parodically magnified plots, such as Pynchon's paranoid conspirations. In general, the French nouveau roman and the American fabulators follow two opposite ways. While the first reduce plot to the play of discourse, many American postmodernists react against realism through an inflation of plot, incredibly complex or unrealistic plots adapted from the popular genres. The common element lies in an explicit manipulation and foregrounding of conventions, instead of the realist invisibility of conventions.



The notion of character as a being which is nearly alive, psychologically credible, engaging or picturesque, with a name, a history, a will and an objective in his life, is ideological. Representing characters like this is not "natural". Character so understood belongs to the golden age of individualism, the age intellectually dominated by the bourgeoisie. For Robbe-Grillet, our own age is less confident in the power of the individual and less anthropocentric. Characters have changed accordingly. Characters accordingly become "dehumanized": they may become impenetrable and anonymous. Many characters in contemporary fiction do not have clear goals, they are not caught in a plot of intentions, causes and effects. They may also become deliberarely allegorical, inordinately formal. In this way, they reveal themselves as fictional beings­­they may even become aware of their own fictionality and suffer existential crisis because of this.


Description and setting

As to the role of description, it is too transformed and subverted. Instead of drawing attention to significant details or creating a meaningful atmosphere, description now becomes non-significant. Instead of helping to represent the object, description now de-visualizes, problematizes it or makes it incomprehensible. The logic of its articulation within narrative is also subverted: descriptive images suddenly become narrativized, or narratives become paralyzed into descriptions. The description's motivation disappears; we often find objects described in impossible detail, or from a non-existent viewpoint which is incoherent with the story. Objects become blank, they do not seem to collaborate with the development of the story, they beome void of narrative meaning. Roland Barthes said that the new novelists murdered the classical object, emptying it of its correspondences with other objects and with human interpretation.

As happened in the case of the story, the setting of a novel may be defamiliarized taking the opposite direction: some novels do not have any setting. Events do not take place anywhere: except in someone's fantasy (the writer's, the reader's) or on the page. In Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable, the page has become the only setting which remains to a metafictional action. This direction in literary representation is perhaps the equivalent of abstraction in the plastic arts. Reflexive fiction is only the literary manifestation of the evolution towards the non-representative of other figurative arts like painting and sculpture. Abstract art should be understood as art in itself rather than as non-figurative art (Rubert de Ventós 22). Non-referentiality is a way of making the attention of the spectator focus only in the intrinsic structure of the work of art, its status as pure form.


Pattern and rhythm

Mechanic patterns and combinations are used as the generative devices of fiction, instead of being an "ornamental" or stylistic by-product. The focus of the works on their own structure, reflexivity, is part of the same game. Ihab Hassan describes Beckett's novel How It Is in these terms:

10. The reflexive quality of the narrative becomes evident in the attention each part gives to its relation to the whole, as if the work had no aims but to comment on its own pattern, its geometry. (The Dismemberment of Orpheus 234).

Literature is invaded by combinatorial games, which are intended to be a generative mechanism for the production of unexpected meanings. Rhythm, then, is no longer at the service of a pre-existing meaning. Rather, it will be used to create meaning in conjunction with the reader's activity. Structural analysis of narrative as a system of permutations and possibilities in a closed field will converge with attention to the combinatory nature of the unconscious stressed by psychoanalysis. What realist aesthetics would consider mechanic now becomes a road to exploration. Patterns should be used as artificial constraints­­a bit like the rigid sonnet form in the Renaissance, a challenge to the writer to refine his attention to words and construction. (e.g. Georges Perec, La Disparition, Walter Abish, Alphabetical Africa ).


Narration and point of view

These are the filters which transmit the story to the reader. Modernist conventions used a multiplicity of narrators and points of view, or a limited viewpoint and narrative stance, in order to stress the subjective nature of reality, its perspectival nature. Postmodernist narrative extends the use of such devices, stressing their artificiality. For instances, different styles collide in a single work, drawing attention to the artificiality of rhetorical conventions which constitute the fictional worls -- the first work in this line being, of course, Ulysses. Contradictory discourses are used and set against each other: for instance, criticism and fiction -- postmodernist fiction often absorbs or parodies critical works (Sukenick, The Death of the Novel; Nabokov, Pale Fire). Following the Formalist principle of defamiliarization, the roles given to narration and point of view are opposite to those of realist fiction. The narrator may be unable to transmit a story (Beckett) and fragmentation of point of view may dissolve the reality of the fictional world (Brooke-Rose). The parody of multiple styles, of other discourses, is a central resource of postmodernist fiction, which is the ideal place to study the structuralist concept of intertextuality (e. g. Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor).


Theme and moral outlook

In contrast to the moralizing aims of earlier doctrines, the modernist poetics of the first half of our century required a novelist to be faithful to his vision, and to refuse doctrinal distortions. The new novelists will reassert this view, pushing even further the loyalty of the artist to his writing, and discrediting the Sartrean concept of engaged literature. Didacticism is, more than ever, a heresy. Art can never be a medium; only an end in itself. Writers of the avant-garde do not fear charges of aestheticism and gladly accept the banner of "art for art's sake". The only engagement which is artistically valid is the engagement with writing and language. The artist's duty to society is to confront artistic problems seriously. This leads to a rejection of pre-determined truths. For Raymond Federman, the novel must establish its own kind of truth, a meaning which is not handed out by the author, but arrived at with the participation of the reader -- new forms are more open, in Umberto Eco's terms.

The opposition between "form" and "content" is also rejected. The content of a book is not found in its moral or in its story or its subject matter: it does not exist apart from its form. There are no two ways of writing the same subject. What people seem to perceive as "content" is for the new novelist a secretion of "form", a product of form. He thinks first of all in formal terms; if we disregard the form of a novel, we may have isolated some meaning or other, but it is not the meaning of the novel. The novel, for Robbe-Grillet, need not be more "meaningful" than a piece of music: both must justify themselves through sheer form. The most adequate "theme" for a novel is therefore itself, the play it establishes between fiction and reality,. For Jean Ricardou, new fictions can always be read as an allegory of their own functioning. They are statements about writing, rather than statements about the world.

Structuralist criticism did much to promote such conceptions. According to Barthes, all important literature of the twentieth century possesses a problematic quality: it aims at defining literature anew, creating new conventions. Literature is formal by definition, and can only live by questioning itself. Every author ought to found literature anew (Essais critiques 134). Barthes held that modern literature had become intrinsically metalinguistic and reflexive.

A radical questioning of literary conventions leads to a "non-genre literature", that is, a mode of total writing which disrupts conventional generic expectations. Instead of following the pre-established order of genres, writing dramatizes its own attempts to create order using different generic conventions. Works like those of Beckett, Federman, Butor... can no longer be called "narratives" or novels.



Avant-garde novelists are aware of the materiality of writing, they realize that the physical form of a sign contributes to its meaning. Raymond Federman and Ronald Sukenick (The Death of the Novel and other Stories) call for new principles in organizing the syntax and the page of narrative. B. S. Johnson believed that the novel should avoid competing with film, and concentrate on its own intrinsic possibilities. It should exploit in an artistic way the fact that it is a book, written language, made of pages and ink. The novel should concentrate on the use of language and the explication of the inner life, but also on the "exploitation of the technological fact of the book" (Johnson 166). In one of his novels (Albert Angelo, 1964), there are pages with holes cut into them so that the reader can see the future in advance; another novel (The Unfortunates, 1969) is a "novel-in-a-box": it was published in the form of unbound separate sections, and can be ordered by the reader any way he or she wishes.


New Emphases

We shall end by mentioning three types of narrative structures which become especially common in the age of the reflexive novel: baring the device, or the disruption of classical realistic conventions; metalepsis, or illegitimate mixture of narrative levels (as in Niebla) and mise en abyme, or the representation of the structure of the work inside the work. These new concepts emphasize the textual, parodic and disruptive nature of modern writing.


The novel as exploration: the future of the novel

For many writers the defining characteristic of contemporary literature is the exhaustion of forms. The "death of the novel" was a fashionable topic of discussion in the fifties. John Barth makes the best of this situation when he defines his own model of reflexive literature, the "literature of exhaustion". The post-modernist writer must not be discouraged by his belatedness. The new novelist must make an occasion of his belatedness and of the failure of modern literature, make a literature which is an interrogation of its own possibility in this context. The models for such an aesthetics are Beckett and Borges.

There is no "death of the novel" for Robbe-Grillet: the old novel is dying, but there are enormous possibilities for a transformation of the genre. Robbe-Grillet rejects the idea that the novels of the past can serve as a model for the novels of the future. He defined the "new novel" not as a coherent program or school but as a research for new forms which bring along with them new meanings. Although he did not want to delineate a theory or a fixed model, Robbe-Grillet emphasized that a novel must be self-conscious about its procedures: it must know its historical moment and not try to be like a novel of the past. The novelist needs to be a careful and meditative architect, an inventor of a new form for each novel. The critic and the writer go hand in hand for the new novelists, although of course it is mainly through the process of writing that new forms are developed.

For structuralist criticism, narrative is not just a literary phenomenon. Narrative is a mode of perception which is "one of the essential constituents of our understanding of reality." (Butor 45). Narrative is a way of ordering reality, of making it manageable. Each narrative mode -- conversation, history, the novel, journalism, etc.-- "links us to a particular segment of reality" (Butor 45). Real narratives translate into one another: they can be compared, checked, falsified. Fictional narrative is different, and this gives it, according to Butor, an interesting structural role:

11. Even though veracious narrative always has the support the last resort, of external evidence, the novel must suffice to create what it tells us. That is why it is the phenomenological realm par excellence, the best possible place to study how reality appears to us, or might appear; that is why the novel is the laboratory of narrative. (45-46)

The novel creates new ways of responding to a reality that is changing and becoming more complex every day. Butor sees in experimental narrative the condition of a greater and more complex realism. Like Roth, he feels that reality will escape us if we continue to use exhausted forms to represent it. Literature is not a simple pastime: it is an essential instrument of self-representation in society, "a systematic experiment" (50).


Revision of the tradition

We may conclude by saying that structuralist criticism, and in a more general way, structuralist thought, led to new ways of criticizing and of conceiving fiction. It has also led to a new outlook on the novels of the past, seeing in them forms and functions which were ignored by the realist perspective. Recent post-structuralist critics are taking the analysis of reflexivity beyond the tradition of experiment studied by Alter, in order to apply notions such as self-staging, mise en abyme, allegory of writing, etc. to "classical" novelists such as Thackeray, Conrad or Robert Penn Warren (Siegle, The Politics of Reflexivity ). In this way, new writing and criticism both add to literature and transform the literature which exists before them -- a constant rewriting of history which confirms the hermeneutical basis of this new fiction. The study of reflexivity in fiction is one of the most interesting areas of study for present-day criticism of the novel.





1. Realism.

Besant, Walter. The Art of Fiction. Henry James. The Art of Fiction. Boston: Cupples, Upham, and Co., 1885.

Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. London: Arnold, 1927.

Howells, William Dean. Criticism and Fiction. 1891. In Criticism and Fiction and Other Essays.

Perry, Bliss. A Study of Prose Fiction. 1902. Rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920.



2. Early Modernism.

Beach, Joseph Warren. The Twentieth-Century Novel: Studies in Technique. New York: Appleton, 1932.

James, Henry. Prefaces to The Novels and Tales of Henry James. New York: Scribner's, 1907-9.

Lubbock, Percy. The Craft of Fiction. London: Cape, 1921.

Ortega y Gasset, José. Meditaciones del Quijote. Ideas sobre la Novela. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1964. 4th ed. 1982.



3. New Criticism and Modernism

Humphrey, Robert. Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1954.

Kahler, Erich. The Inward Turn of Narrative. 1957-9. Princeton (NJ): Princeton UP, 1973.

Friedman, Melvin J. Stream of Consciousness: A Study of Literary Method. New Haven: Yale UP, 1955.

Friedman, Norman. "Point-of-View in Fiction : The Development of a Critical Concept". PMLA 70 (1955).



4. Structuralism and Nouveau roman (in France).

Barthes, Roland. Essais critiques. Paris: Seuil, 1964. 1971.

- - -. S/Z. Paris: Seuil, 1970.

Butor, Michel. Essais sur le roman. Paris: Gallimard.

Dällenbach, Lucien. Le récit spéculaire: Essai sur la mise en abyme. Paris: Seuil, 1977.

Genette, Gérard. Figures III. Paris: Seuil, 1972.

Kristeva, Julia. Le texte du roman. The Hague: Mouton, 1970.

Ricardou, Jean. Problèmes du nouveau roman . Paris: Seuil, 1967.

Robbe-Grillet, A. Pour un nouveau roman. Paris: Minuit, 1963.

Todorov, Tzvetan. Poétique de la prose. Paris: Seuil, 1971.




5. Late modernism and structuralism in England

Beckett, Samuel. Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment. Ed. Ruby Cohn. Londres: John Calder, 1983.

Brooke-Rose, Christine. A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Fowler, Roger. Linguistics and the Novel. 1977. London: Methuen, 1985.

Johnson, B. S. Aren't You Rather Young to be Writing your Memoirs? London, 1973.

Lodge, David. The Novelist at the Crossroads. 1971. London: Routledge, 1986.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. London: Routledge, 1984.



6. Postmodernism and post-structuralism in the USA

Alter, Robert. Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre. Berkeley: U of California P, 1975.

Barth, John. "The Literature of Exhaustion". The Atlantic Monthly (August 1967): 29-34.

- - -. "The Literature of Replenishment". The Atlantic Monthly (January 1980): 65-71.

Federman, Raymond. Journey to Chaos: Samuel Beckett's Early Fiction. Berkeley: U of California P, 1965.

- - -, ed. Surfiction: Fiction Now and Tomorrow. Chicago: Swallow, 1975.

Gass, William H. Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston: Godine, 1979.

Hassan, Ihab. The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward A Postmodern Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1971.

Hutcheon, Linda. Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox. 1980. New York: Methuen, 1984.

- - -. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988.

Jefferson, Ann. The Nouveau Roman and the Poetics of Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.

Kellman, Steven G. The Self-Begetting Novel. London: Macmillan, 1980.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. London: Methuen, 1987.

Scholes, Robert. The Fabulators. New York: Oxford UP, 1967.

- - -. Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1974.

- - -. Fabulation and Metafiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979.


7. Other works cited


Rabinovitz, Rubin. The Reaction against Experiment in the English Novel 1950-1960. New York: Columbia UP, 1967.

 Rubert de Ventós, Xavier. El arte ensimismado. 1963. Barcelona: Península, 1978.