One of the most common questions posed to editors is “What trends do you see in your submissions?” Over the years, I’ve noticed a few: the rise of contemporary noir, a fall in first private-eye submissions and then whodunits, the increased use of first-person narration, the wider availability of translated stories. . . .
Recently, I’ve seen something that may not yet merit being called a trend but that has nevertheless caught my attention: an increase in “meta-ficiton.”
On June 5, 2018, Anthony Horowitz wrote a post for the blog Crime Reads called “The Detective Story as Meta-fiction.” In it he said: “I can’t think of a modern, populist crime novel that has used the tricks and techniques of meta-fiction”—though his own very successful recent mystery novels do, of course: the award-winning New York Times bestseller Magpie Murders and the subsequent The Word Is Murder. I was astonished by the virtuosity of Magpie Murders. It’s an amazing display of skill and craft. And that, after all, is partly what meta-fiction is all about. Let’s consider Horowitz’s own definition of meta-fiction as “fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions and traditional narrative techniques.” To successfully parody or depart from conventions and techniques requires prowess in the use of those techniques, and when one considers that, often, meta-fiction also involves constructing a story within a story, as in Magpie Murders, considerable structural dexterity may be needed too.
As Horowitz points out, meta-fictional elements are nothing new in fiction generally, and in crime fiction, the gamelike relationship between the reader, who is trying to figure out the mystery, and the author and fictional detective who may be withholding or selectively revealing information, is in itself a meta-fictional one. The reader becomes, in a sense, a participant in the endeavor. But this, it seems to me, is something different from full-blown meta-fiction, in which the literary techniques and conventions themselves become part of the narrative. One of the finest examples of this that I can think of at short story length is the currently Agatha- and Edgar-nominated “English 398: Fiction Workshop” by Art Taylor, in which rules for constructing a work of fiction become the road map not only for the fictional offerings of the students in the story but for the real-life drama (and mystery) unfolding between the central characters—a professor and his student lover.
An aspect of meta-fiction that I have never been a fan of is the way in which it pulls the reader back from full immersion in the story. If we are never sure what is meant to be real—or if we are continually being reminded of the artificiality of the construct—it isn’t easy, I think, for a reader to lose him or herself in the world of the story or to become emotionally involved with the characters. It isn’t only meta-fiction that has this drawback; as I wrote previously on this site (see Pull Up a Chair) the dinner-table mystery, in which all relevant action is revealed through characters recounting it secondhand, can leave me with a similar sense of disengagement. But of course, the main point of the dinner-table mystery is not to transport the reader to another realm—it’s to dazzle with a brilliant puzzle. And if it’s done exceptionally well, I can enjoy this type of mystery as much as any other. With meta-fiction, the case is more complicated, because there is usually a “real” story unfolding along with the constructs that have been identified as artificial. In Art Taylor’s story, for example, there is real, immediate tension slowly building in the interaction between student and professor even as we are continually brought back to an awareness that what is happening between them parallels exactly the rules for structuring a short story. This is no easy thing to do. I was about to say that meta-fiction is not for the new writer, but then I recalled that this year’s Robert L. Fish Memorial Award winner for best short story by a new American writer could probably be classified as meta-fiction. In it, the husband of a mystery writer becomes obsessed with the question his wife is always asked: How does he die this time? (also the title of this excellent story by Nancy Novick). Eventually he rereads her books to discover scenarios she might be employing to kill him. What makes the book meta-fiction (from my perspective) is that at the end we are still not entirely sure whether it is really her agency that results in his demise or the playing out of circumstances set in motion by his obsession with her fictional plots.
As Anthony Horowitz suggests, there may not yet be many mystery novels using the tricks and techniques of meta-fiction, but among the short stories we’ve bought for the past fourteen issues of EQMM—from January/February 2018 through July/August 2019, there are seven that I can think of right away, and I could possibly add more if we were to expand the definition a little. In addition to this year’s Edgar-nominated Taylor story and Fish Award winning Novick story, there was the 2017 Glauser Prize winner that EQMM published in translation in 2018, Thomas Kastura’s “Enough Is Enough”; Argentinian writer Luciano Sívori’s “The Final Analysis”; John Lantigua’s “The Revenge of the Puma” (in our current issue, March/April); “The Girl on the Bandwagon” by Martin Edwards (coming up in May/June); and “Murderer’s Row” by Chris Holm (coming up in July/August). This may not seem like a lot, but it’s more than I’ve seen in the past. Perhaps it’s not the start of a trend in the field as a whole, but at least I have a new answer to that eternal question put to editors!