"Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox, by Linda Hutcheon"
Russell A. Hunt
[Review, as published in  English Studies in Canada 9:2 (June 1983), 241-245.]
Declare your interest!" they used to shout in Parliament. My interest is this: I think the ideas which inform Linda Hutcheon's book are important to the profession of English, particularly important now and immediately important in Canada. Because of this, I want the book not only to pursue and develop and apply those ideas in useful and stimulating ways, but also to bring them to the attention of those who might not yet have thought much about its central concerns: the ways in which readers interact with texts and the extent to which that process itself is what we as a profession should be centrally concerned with. I am distressed to have to admit that I have found the book a disappointment.

First, the ideas. It is Hutcheon's view that the kinds of prose fiction which we think of as having arisen during the third quarter of this century -- kinds which have been labelled "postmodern" or "self-reflective" represent more than a development in literary history. They constitute a dramatic challenge to the traditional forms of prose fiction and, perhaps even more important, signal a revolutionary change in the relations among authors, readers, and critics. In other words, practitioners of these forms writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet, John Barth, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, John Fowles, Italo Calvino not only can be fruitfully grouped together as a literary movement, but also exert a real pressure on the behaviour of other novelists and of critics and readers. Hutcheon's aim in the book is first to describe the "modes, forms, and techniques" of this movement, which she calls "narrative narcissism" or "metafiction," and then "to study the implications of these formal observations both for the theory of the novel as a representational genre and also for the theory of the interpretative and creative functions of the act of reading" (p. 155). Avoiding the traditional concern with authors and their motives for adopting styles or forms, Hutcheon says, she places her stress "on the text, on the literary manifestation of this change, and on the resulting implications for the reader" (p. 3).

In pursuing these aims, she displays a remarkable erudition and range of reading, and assembles a persuasive case that these writers constitute a movement which requires a new critical language and stance. Her schematization of the ways in which they create narratives which reflect on their own status as narrative seems to me thorough and stimulating and useful.

Perhaps, however, it is not so widely useful as it might have been had she not restricted herself largely to modern, conscious practitioners of self-reflective narrative. One of the profound reservations many critics have about these writers is that they do not often enough find ways to transcend the theoretical bases on which their works are constructed. Conscious workers-out of theories about the nature of fiction and of the contract between author and reader, they often seem to write for unborn generations of graduate students, to produce complexity without richness, to be theoretically interesting without being engaging: to produce fiction designed with the critic in mind. To show that these writers indeed do what they are consciously attempting to do is not to create very many of the surprises that we expect of good criticism or scholarship. One wonders what Hutcheon might have found had she begun looking for self-conscious narration in other writers Richardson, or Fielding, or even Jane Austen or George Eliot. Or in forms other than prose narrative what about Restoration comedy, for instance, or even (or perhaps especially) Shakespeare? If what writers of metafiction are consciously doing is dramatically different, I suspect that she might have found that what readers are called upon to do is not so new at all.

The problem may be that although Hutcheon is concerned with readers, her model of what readers do and have done is not detailed or subtle enough for her purposes. For instance, she observes that in dealing with narcissistic uses of fantasy, the parallels between fantasy and reality are "no longer the explicit subject of overt teaching to the reader; the text now forces him to read with his imagination and ordering faculties alert and at work" (p. 82). This is, however, surely nothing new: a reader without "his imaginative and ordering faculties alert and at work" is hardly a reader at all, whether he's reading Borges or Swift. Recent work in fields like response criticism and the psycholinguistics of reading has made it clear that any reading is an active process of expectation, prediction, hypothesizing, construction, and assembly. If anything is actually new here, it is our growing awareness of that fact. And it is of course that awareness, that consciousness of process, which metafiction depends on and fosters. Whether works of metafiction are a cause of that awareness, however, is a more complex question than Hutcheon allows. My own suspicion would be that this consciousness of process and of interaction between observer and observed is part of a more general shift in the overall pattern by which human beings relate to the universe. Many important areas of human endeavour physics, social science, developmental psychology are undergoing what Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, characterizes as a "paradigm shift": in each case, it seems to me, the change could be described as a new awareness of the process of perception, or, rather, of perception and interpretation as process rather than as a fact or a final product.

Hutcheon is not unaware of the fact that this shift is a more general phenomenon. She says, for instance, that what she calls "formal narcissism" may not be limited to narrative genres "the visual arts and music both have also shown signs of self-reflectiveness." This may, she suggests, be a more general phenomenon: "an increasing interest in how art is created, not just in what is created. The process may be becoming just as intriguing as the product" (p. 8).

Finally, however, this insight is much less important to Hutcheon's book than one might hope. Her belief in the power of the observer, of the process of observing, simply doesn't appear to run very deep. Although she complains in a footnote about the "overly passive roles" many critics assign readers, she consistently refers to what a reader "must" do, what he is "forced" to do even, on a couple of occasions, how he is "forced" to be free. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, for instance: "The reader has his orders and is not allowed to ignore them; like Charles's, his freedom is a real, though an induced one" (p. 71).

Her basic tendency is to see the reader as acting only when the text forces him to, as attaining perfect freedom only in the service of a text which is consciously self-referential. Although she repeatedly acknowledges that the reader's activity is important, she seems concerned with it only when it is made the object of focal awareness by the text. This leads to a consistent overestimation of the revolutionary newness of metafiction's demands on a reader.

It is perhaps significant that Hutcheon's own study shows almost no evidence of having been affected by the growth of what we might call the process paradigm. Her methodology and, even more, her style, are resolutely product-oriented. She consistently ignores her own activity as a reader, assuming or pretending that her relationship to the many texts which she so often illuminatingly analyzes is in fact a passive and objective one. She never once refers to herself in the first person, a matter of style which has unfortunate implications for matters of substance. Eschewing the first person leads, of course, to the standard awkward locutions the unattributed passive and inadvertent personification, for instance, of this passage:

At the start of these remarks, an allegorical reading of the Narcissus myth in terms of narrative was proposed. The interpretation to follow is not intended as a digression. Instead it hopes to fulfill two functions. . . (P. 8)
Regrettably, the awkwardness of that is typical of the book. It seems particularly ironic and particularly unfortunate that a book whose main concern is with writing that is self-conscious, self-referential, and above all clever, is so determinedly unself-conscious, so flatfootedly nonself-referential, so resolutely anticlever. When she explains why she uses German and Spanish texts in translation, she doesn't say something like, "I don't read German or Spanish, but I needed the texts as examples"; she says,
For reasons of authorial competence. . . translations are used for Spanish-American and German texts. The wider range of reference allowed by translations are deemed necessary  . . . (P. 7)
This is not merely a stylistic cavil. It is of course true that much of this sort of thing might have been avoided if the editor or editors at Wilfrid Laurier press had taken the book more seriously, had believed that the book was potentially an important one, with important ideas at its core. That they did not do so is suggested by the general level of editorial work, which does not provide us with a useful bibliography and which leaves intact disastrous sentences like this one:
In this textually intriguing work with its unnumbered pages, different page forms and tints, different print sizes and colors Gass mirrors the loneliness of the writer in that of sexual intercourse for the heroine who livens up the act by inventing fictional worlds (imagining herself as Madame Bovary). (p. 85)
The problem here goes beyond the fact that this sort of thing makes the book much harder to read than it has to be, and thus will restrict the circulation of its ideas. It even goes beyond the contradiction between the book's substance and its style. It suggests, I think, something important about the atmosphere in which the book is produced, perhaps about a malaise in our profession which makes it difficult for new ideas to obtain a fair hearing.

The traditional academic style, with its eschewal of personality and self reference and cleverness, with its ambitions of objectivity, is of course a defence mechanism. "Dissertationese" we call it at the professional level; "Engfish" Ken Macrorie calls it in the classroom. Either way, it is produced when a writer is afraid of making a fool of himself or, rather, afraid that his reader is interested in making a fool of him. A book written in such a rhetorical situation is likely to betray its fear in other ways as well for instance, in its attitude toward its implied reader. In Hutcheon's case, that attitude is a kind of bullying condescension. The condescension is most apparent in the excessive number of explanations of how the book is organized, and in the obviousness and awkwardness of those references for instance, transitions like this one: "This last point brings up the second above-mentioned concern" (p. 72). The bullying is perhaps clearest in Hutcheon's aggressive commitment to critical jargon. The reader had better be prepared to cope with a lot of new or special terms heterocosm, reify, fictive, diegesis, product mimesis, etc.  without a lot of help from the text.

It seems to me that all of this is produced by a pretty accurate analysis of the book's actual position among the members of our profession. Its rhetorical situation is not a very comfortable one. The book is condescending and aggressive and defensive, I would suggest, because the author expects a significant proportion of its real audience to be hostile and contemptuous. Literary theory does not have a good name among the traditional practitioners of literary scholarship in Canada. (In the back issues of ESC, I can find only two or three articles which question, or propose alternatives to, the current paradigm of literary studies, and one of those had to be included as an "editor's choice" because it did not fit standard patterns of evaluation.)

However exciting and important Hutcheon's ideas are particularly those regarding the reader's interactions with texts the book has all the earmarks of a text written by a member of a splinter group, for other members of that group. Like any such use of language, one of its effects will be to reinforce the isolation of that group and their sense of being a persecuted and misunderstood minority.

This is particularly unfortunate because these ideas are so important, and because it is precisely the members of our profession who are least likely to claw their way through the jargon and the stylistic infelicities of this book who might profit most from a serious engagement with such ideas.