Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Stories within stories: from Scheherazade to Toren

For as long as I can remember, I've loved fantasy.

I've loved high fantasy, low fantasy, epic fantasy, sword and sorcery, urban and paranormal fantasy, portal fantasy, fantasies about hidden worlds inside our world, humorous fantasy, magical realism, and more. But I think that of all the different kinds of fantasy, metafiction is probably the kind I've loved the most.

I remember when I was a little kid listening to the story of Scheherazade for the first time.

Tales from the Thousand and One Nights (Penguin Classics)

In the ancient Persian story called The Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade bravely volunteers to marry the king, even though she knows that the king will likely have her beheaded in the morning. But unlike the many ill-fortuned royal brides that have come and gone before her, Scheherazade has a plan.

After the wedding, she asks the king to let her bid her sister, Dinazade, goodbye. As instructed by Scheherazade, Dinazade asks Scheherazade for one last story. Scheherazade tells half the tale, while the king overhears.

When the sun comes up in the morning, Scheherazade says she can’t finish her story because it’s time for her to die. The king, however, wants to hear the end of the story, so he lets her live another night.

On the following night Scheherazade finishes the first tale, and then start a second. So the king lets her live another night, and so it continues for 1,000 stories told over 1,000 nights. By the time Scheherazade runs out of tales to tell, her stories have softened his heart and made him fall in love with her. He rescinds his decree and makes her his queen.

While some of the stories inside One Thousand and One Nights--like Aladdin and Sindbad--are more famous than the story about Scheherazade that frames them, I always liked her story best. Scheherazade was smarter and braver than the women and girls in most of the fairy tales I knew. Sleeping Beauty just waited for her prince. Cinderella was a doormat to her stepmother and stepsisters. Snow White did housework for the dwarves and stupidly took an apple from a stranger. Rapunzel had to be rescued, and so did little Red Riding Hood. The Little Mermaid died because she cared more about a self-centered prince than he cared about her. This was all before Disney and others fixed (in my opinion, although I know many disagree) these fairy tales with movies like Hoodwinked and Tangled. Scheherazade was the only story-book with a backbone I knew. Not only was she smart and brave, but she taught me that the magic of stories was greater--and more real--than any magic could be. I loved her. I wanted to be her.

As I grew up, I continued to look for other stories like Scheherazade, stories about the magic of storytelling. I also wanted them to have smart and brave heroines, and I soon became frustrated, because I couldn’t find any. The closest I found was one short story in John Barth’s Chimera, which was the story of Scheherazade as told by her sister, Dinazade. (It’s an adult book, but I was seventeen and ready for adult books. I didn’t discover A Little Princess until much later.) Chimera was good, but it wasn’t exactly the book I was looking for. I just couldn’t find that book. And if I couldn't find it, I knew I had to write it. Which is how I started to write the story of Toren the Teller in my head when I was seventeen. It's the book I'm now editing for publication and plan to e-publish in a few months.

I continued to read as many stories about stories as I could find. Back then there wasn’t a word for them, but nowadays they’re called metafiction.

What is metafiction?

According to Encarta, metafiction is “fiction writing that deals, often playfully and parodically, with the nature of fiction, the techniques and conventions used in it, and the role of the author." In short, metafiction stories are stories about stories, writing, or storytelling. It’s the storytelling equivalent of art on art.

The Canterbury Tales (Oxford World's Classics)

Metafiction goes back many hundreds of years. Beyond One Thousand and One Nights, which is believed to have taken form about the 8th century, there’s Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which is from the end of the 14th century. One of the earliest works in English, The Canterbury Tales is about people who tell each other stories while on a pilgrimage.

Don Quixote, which was written in the early 1600s and which many consider the first novel, deals with a man who believes all the made up stories he’s reads, so it could also be labeled metafiction.

Between the 16th and 17th centuries, Shakespeare’s Hamlet has a play within the play, and so does A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A few centuries later, Hamlet was taken a step further in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which is a play about a play with a play in it.

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass , which were written in 1865 and 1871, Lewis Carroll included parodies of poems that were famous in his day, marking those books as metafiction.

Some have even argued that Homer’s The Odyssey, guessed to be from about 1170 BC, qualifies as metafiction. That’s how long metafiction existed before there was even a label for it.

For me, reading stories about stories is like looking at a watch with the back off and seeing the marvelous cogs and springs exposed. You can see how all the pieces move as it ticks, ticks, ticks. Metafiction gives you a chance to peek behind the scenes. The magic of storytelling is exposed for all to see, and that's what I love about it. Because this is the real magic: not in the wizards and dragons that some fantasy stories are about, but in the act of storytelling itself.

Today there are so many stories about stories. Some of them are books, while others are songs, plays and movies. You don’t need to know what metafiction is to be touched by the special magic of stories about stories. Here’s a quick list of just a few.

Children’s Books:

·                     The Monster at the End of this Book
·                     Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess
·                     Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart
·                     The Neverending Story

Adult Books:

·                     The Illustrated Man
·                     Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
·                     Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series
·                     Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crime series
·                     Everything written by Tom Robbins, like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
·                     Everything written by John Barth, like Chimera
·                     Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories
·                     Kathryn Stockett’s The Help


·                     Inception
·                     Isn't She Great
·                     The Truman Show
·                     Shrek
·                     Romancing the Stone
·                     Capote
·                     Shakespeare in Love
·                     Miss Potter
·                     Becoming Jane
·                     Finding Forrester
·                     Finding Neverland

Some—perhaps even most—of the people who have enjoyed these books and movies never really stopped to consider whether they were stories about stories. But they still enjoyed that magical peek behind the scenes.

Of course, as you can see from this list, not all metafiction is fantasy. Hamlet isn’t (okay, except for the part with the ghost), and neither is The Help. But I think that adding fantasy to metafiction gives writers more room to explorer the nature of stories.

Like Tigger in an old Disney Winnie the Pooh movie, fantasy lets you turn the book sideways to help a character get out of a very tall tree. It lets characters have conversations with their writers. It lets metafiction be all that it can be.

Do you have a favorite story about storytelling or a storyteller? If so, which one? 

1 comment:

Jennifer J said...

You've named some of my favorites: Finding Forrester, Romancing the Stone, and Thursday Next. Was never really thrilled with Inkheart. But one that I like because it covers different aspects (and because I like thick books) is James Michener's "The Novel". Thanks for adding more to my list!