As usual, I like to begin this post by mentioning my new novel, Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest, is out now. It’s pretty good. You should buy it.
Today, I’d like to talk about the concept of the Meta-Narrative. It’s a bit of a writerly thing to talk about, but it’s also all kinds of important. I’ll endeavor to avoid making it to dry, so stick with me. You’ll be glad you did. Promise.
The Meta-Narrative (or Meta, as I shall henceforth call it) is the notion that fiction doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that its perception and reception is determined not only by the story itself, but by the fiction around it. There is probably a more official term for it, but it’s one I hear most often, so it’s one I’ll stick with.
If you’re not a writer yourself, you probably haven’t given much thought to the Meta. There’s little reason you should have, but I’m here to tell you that it’s worth it to take a little time to do so. You are influenced by the Meta, whether you acknowledge it or not. Sometimes, positively. Sometimes, negatively. But enough abstract talk. Let’s use some examples.
Pacific Rim is a story about giant robots and monsters battling for the fate of the world. The Meta tells us that giant monster movies are kitchy and goofy and not at all serious. So a lot of people went into Pacific Rim not expecting anything other than that. You can see that in the way they easily dismiss the story or make fun of the acting, not because these things are actually bad but because they are presumed to be bad. On the other hand, the film was also directed by Guillermo del Toro, who is something of an auteur, a creative genius. Those people are prone to give Pacific Rim possibly more credit than it deserves because of his attachment to it.
Both these factors (and many others) influence how the audience might see the film, and neither relates to the film itself but to the larger Meta surrounding it.
The Meta is far more influential than most of us will ever realize. I watched 2 Guns this weekend, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It was a good, entertaining film, but what made it stand out is how relatively small in scale it was, its reluctant buddy partners element, and on several other things that were once old hat but haven’t really been around much recently. The Meta of the moment made the film seem fresher, more interesting than it might have seemed in a different summer.
Yes, it’s strange to view fiction from this perspective, but it is more important than most people realize. Especially in this day and age when we are inundated with media, advertising, and endless internet comments before our art even reaches us. That’s the Meta at work, and it is a double-edged sword.
My own stories wrestle with the Meta on a continual basis. As a “funny fantasy” writer, I am constantly being compared and contrasted to other writers of the genre. Even if I don’t consider myself in that category myself, it is irrelevant because the Meta is bigger than that. When I write a story about modern day gods, the Meta demands I face off against American Gods, even if my god story is entirely different in design and theme. And when I write a story called Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain, I can’t honestly claim to be surprised that the Meta seeks to define it as frivolous parody. In that case, I hoped the Meta would show its roots to classic pulp science fiction, but I also knew for a lot of people unfamiliar with pulp, it would only be goofy.
Heck, even my own name has become attached to the Meta. For a lot of my own fans, the name A. Lee Martinez stands for light, enjoyable reads, and for a lot of people who have never read a word I’ve written, it probably still stands for “that goofy guy who writes goofy stories”, “that guy who writes like Christopher Moore”, “that guy who isn’t quite as good as Terry Pratchett”, and so on.
There’s not a hell of a lot a creator can do to control the Meta. Pacific Rim will always be seen as silly by a certain percentage of the audience, and I’ll always be thought of as “that goofy writer” by many. Even knowing how the Meta might influence us doesn’t often allow us to supercede that influence. I know, for example, that I find Christopher Nolan to be an overrated director and that, as a reflex, I have an innate hostility toward his work. I know too that I have little interest in any “realistic” take on Batman. So it is that Nolan’s Batman films are fighting an uphill battle with me. This doesn’t mean that my dislike and criticism of them is incorrect, but it does mean that I acknowledge a lot of my criticisms are invalid depending on how you feel on the same Meta.
Acknowledging Meta also doesn’t mean that criticism or praise is automatically invalid. It just means that every piece of art doesn’t exist alone, and that how it fits together with the narrative around it is vitally important if you want to understand it. One of my favorite monster films is an old black and white classic called It Came from Beneath the Sea. The film is about a giant octopus that menaces the world. The octopus is fun, and the story is good. But I mostly love it because the female scientist in the movie demands to be treated as an equal, and the male lead is even lectured by another supporting male character for treating her with accidental disrespect. There’s very little subtle about it, but I imagine being in the audience, seeing the film when it was first released, and it makes it a powerful moment. It’s the Meta that gives it that extra life.
The Meta is also why so much nostalgia backfires so. I get annoyed when someone watches something from their childhood and dismisses it as stupid because it isn’t “as cool” as they remembered. Yet they’re not upset because it isn’t cool. They’re disappointed because they’ve forgotten the Meta. They aren’t putting themselves in the place they were when first watching it. Yes, some of those shows are pretty damn silly at this point, but others are still pretty damn good if you view them from the right mindset. Instead, we often try and take the charming elements of nostalgia and “fix” it, usually by making it more mature, however you define that term. The end result is often missing the point of what made the original work in the first place.
For myself, I realize how groundbreaking and amazing such works as The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were, and that at the time, they were incredible, fresh takes on the superhero genre. But then along comes generations of imitators, and they seem like so much more of the same humdrum grimdark for grimdark’s sake. And that isn’t fair. It’s why, even though I’m not fond of either of those works, I do give them credit for being truly original and influential. The imitators…not so much.
Regardless, the Meta is out there, and it is shaping our opinions and reactions to our art every day. There isn’t necessarily much we can do about it, but we can at least acknowledge it exists, and that our love or hate for some stories isn’t about the story itself, but about the larger culture around it. And that’s something always worth thinking about.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,