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Historiographic Metafiction

Historiographic Metafiction

With postmodern scepticism came the idea that everything is open to interpretation, including history. As former British prime minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) reportedly reminded us, history is told by the victors. The other side of the story often remains untold. Once considered a single, linear stream, history these days is regarded more like a channel that carries multiple voices and accounts of the past.

Historiography has thus evolved to accommodate alternate stories of what has been told from a single perspective. French historian Arlette Farge (b. 1941) remarks in her book The Allure of the Archives (1989) how archives allow us to unearth new, unheard voices from the past and how historiography should make way for these untold stories. Can you think of history as a story that can be adapted and retold? Film and literature have found ways to do that. While some are faithful retellings, others take more creative liberty to fictionalise history. We can call a text like that a 'historiographic metafiction'. Let's take a look at the definition and some examples of historiographic metafiction.

Historiographic metafiction: definition

The name 'historiographic metafiction' was coined by the Canadian literary theorist Linda Hutcheon (b. 1947) in the book A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (1988). The British literary critic Patricia Waugh (b. 1956) has also done an important analysis of historical fiction. The discussion of historiographic metafiction by both of these theorists is informed by postmodern theorisations of history. With the rise of postmodernism, the differentiation between history and fiction broke down. Hutcheon argued that both history and literature are types of discourses whose boundaries are not always watertight.

A historiographic metafiction is one where the always-present blurring of fiction and history in the historical novel gives way to an explicitness about fictionality, a self-referential quality, the calling into question of the factual nature of historical writing, and the removal of the 'pretence of transparency'.

Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodern, 1988

Postmodern criticism considers history writing as an act of reconstructing a story of the past. Rather than destabilising the historical novel, it seeks to destabilise the exclusive stream of historiography by drawing attention to history as a textual narrative rather than 'reality'. Historiographic metafiction, therefore, is located within the open discourse that sees history as a narrative.

Historiographic metafiction brings to light the prejudices and misconceptions latent in historiography. It is called metafiction as it is self-reflexive and yet references historical events.

Historiography is the process of writing history and the study of written history.

Metafiction is a work of fiction in which the author calls attention to the process of writing as well as the act of reading a work of fiction.

Postmodernism refers to both a twentieth-century philosophical and artistic outlook and the time period that followed modernism in Europe.

Historiographic metafiction is often described as contradictory and politically charged as it raises questions about historiography and representation.

Historiographic metafiction: characteristics

As a genre, historiographic metafiction is more concerned with whose truth is told rather than how it is told. In historiographic metafiction, history is purposefully treated as a subjective retelling of the past using a deliberate and ironic play on historical facts and incidents. As a result, we get a fictionalised account of history in a historiographic metafiction.

Historiographic metafiction represents the postmodern paradox in that it is undeniably grounded in historical realities yet questions and subverts the authority of those realities.

Here are some more features of historiographic metafiction. It may:

  • present multiple perspectives on history
  • emphasise, mock, conflate, satirise or omit incidents and names in history
  • include invented characters and events, change historical timelines or present anachronisms in the narrative
  • use protagonists who are ordinary people of little historical significance
  • include real historical personalities in parodic or comic roles
  • use multiple narrative modes to emphasise the problem of subjectivity
  • have a dominant, sometimes unreliable first-person narrator who struggles to situate themselves in history
  • use parody, irony, intertextuality, and pastiche
  • use subversive narrations intended to highlight suppressed voices and points of view and redefine mainstream reality
  • carry a mocking, ironic tone that criticises established ideologies, including law, individualism, progress, and government
  • include characters, especially famous personalities, who are caricatures instead of realistic portrayals
  • include depictions of historical periods and places in a surreal manner


As Umberto Eco (1932– 2016) said, books speak of other books, and stories speak of stories that have already been told1. In historiographical metafiction, we can find quotes or stories from the past as well as references to older texts, people, and ideas. This works to bridge the gap between the past and the present and historiography and fiction and to present the past from a new point of view. Intertextual references help the reader to locate the story in a specific time in history, only to then defamiliarise that context using metafictional techniques.

Parody is the imitation of a style of writing using exaggeration to create a comic effect. Pastiche is a parody without its comedic motives. The postmodern use of parody and pastiche is relevant to historiographic metafiction. Frederic Jameson (b. 1934) was among the first to analyse the use of parody and pastiche in the postmodern context. Hutcheon later developed Jameson's ideas. While Jameson suggested that postmodernism is ahistorical, for Hutcheon, the term postmodern is best used to describe fiction that is simultaneously metafictional and historical. This kind of fiction is what she called historiographic metafiction.

Historiographic metafiction: example

The classic nineteenth-century historical novel presents the contemporary way of life and worldview using devices of realism. Postmodern fiction broke away from other literature of the twentieth century that maintained the separation between fiction and historiography. The encounter between metafiction and history was a recurring pattern in the literature from the 1970s and the 1980s.

Realism, in arts and philosophy, is a preference for the truthful depiction of things and faithfulness to reality.

Hutcheon lists novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014), The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) by John Fowles (1926–2005), Ragtime (1975) by E. L. Doctorow (1931–2015), and The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco as some of the best examples of historiographic metafiction.

Historiographic metafiction Definition StudySmarterFig.1 Historiographic metafiction blurs the boundaries between history and fiction.

Postmodern novels like Flaubert's Parrot (1984) by Julian Barnes (b. 1946) and A Maggot (1985) by John Fowles (1926–2005) explore the plurality of truths based on how reality is framed. Books such as The Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys (1890–1979), Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and Gravity's Rainbow (1973) by Thomas Pynchon (b. 1937) belong to the category of fiction that examines the past through fiction.


Novels from the 1980s set the stage for explorations of these questions in the upcoming decade. These include:

  • The White Hotel (1981) by D. M. Thomas (b. 1935)
  • Midnight's Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie (b. 1947)
  • Waterland (1983) by Graham Swift (b. 1949)
  • Cassandra (1983) by Christa Wolf (1929–2011)
  • Watchmen (1986) by Alan Moore (b. 1953)
  • Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison (1931–2019)
  • Sexing the Cherry (1989) by Jeanette Winterson (b. 1959)
  • Kindred (1979) by Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006)


Notable works from the 1990s include:

  • Possession: A Romance (1990) by A. S. Byatt (b. 1936)
  • Sacred Hunger (1992) by Barry Unsworth (1930–2012)
  • The Volcano Lover (1992) by Susan Sontag (1933–2004)
  • The English Patient (1992) by Michael Ondaatje (b. 1943)
  • The Pope's Rhinoceros (1996) by Lawrence Norfolk (b. 1963)
  • Cold Mountain (1997) by Charles Frazier (b. 1950)
  • The Master of Petersburg (1994) by J.M. Coetzee (b. 1940)
  • The True History of the Kelly Gang (2000) by Peter Carey (b. 1943)

With the rise of feminism, writers actively used writing to explore and reassess women's status in society and history, along with questions about the authenticity and truthfulness of history. This led to the rise of 'new histories' along the lines of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. Recently published books like The Long Song (2010) by Andrea Levy (1956–2019) and Blonde Roots (2008) by Bernadine Evaristo (b. 1959) are retellings of history that offer new historical perspectives and challenge the absence of black stories in mainstream historiography.

Feminism is an intellectual school and women's rights movement that started in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and that fights for the rights of women and the equality of genders.

Difference between metafiction and historiographic metafiction

Historiographic metafiction is a self-conscious work of fiction that is related to history and the process of writing history. Metafiction, on the other hand, is a work of fiction that challenges literary realism by exposing the creative processes behind its own making.

Historiographic metafiction works to situate itself within historical discourse without surrendering its autonomy as fiction.

Linda Hutcheon, Historiographic Metafiction: Parody and the Intertextuality of History (1989)

Metafictional novels are based on the opposition between constructing a fictional illusion and exposing that illusion. It aims to lay bare that illusion by making authorial statements about creation itself. It also functions to point out that our perception of reality is a negotiation. Similarly, historiographic metafiction uses metafictional or self-referential techniques to remind us that history is a construction rather than an exact representation of what happened. History is nothing but a narrative that is recreated based on documentation.

Historiographic metafiction includes novels and short fiction that raise questions such as:

  • What is history? What is the difference between history and fiction?
  • What is the relationship between history and memory?
  • How do fiction and history serve the collective memory?
  • How much of the past has been retained in the historical record?
  • What are the political forces that influence our understanding of history or how much we remember from the past?

Historiographic Metafiction - Key takeaways

  • The term historiographical metafiction was coined by Linda Hutcheon in A Poetics of Postmodern (1988).
  • Historiographic metafiction refers to a work of fiction that is self-reflexive and based on historical events.
  • Historiographic metafiction digresses from realism by using techniques of metafiction.
  • By blurring the distinction between history and fiction, it emphasises how history is just a narrative that is constructed based on the past.
  • Examples of historiographical metafiction include One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez, The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) by John Fowles, and The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco.


  1. Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, 1980
  2. Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodern, 2004
  3. Linda Hutcheon, 'Historiographic Metafiction: Parody and the Intertextuality of History', 1989

Frequently Asked Questions about Historiographic Metafiction

Historiographic metafiction blurs the boundary between fiction and history to emphasise that history itself is a narrative.

  • Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
  • Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981)
  • Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980)

Linda Hutcheon.

The term historiographic metafiction was coined by Linda Hutcheon and discussed in many of her works. Historiographic metafiction is different from metafiction and historical fiction but possesses features of both.

Historiographic literature can be described as literature that deals with history and historiography, including historical novels and historiographic metafiction. 

Final Historiographic Metafiction Quiz


What is historiographic metafiction?

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It is a work of fiction that is self-reflexive and based on historical events. 

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Who coined the term historiographic metafiction?

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The Canadian theorist Linda Hutcheon

Show question


What is the purpose of historiographic metafiction?

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Historiographic metafiction exposes history as a narrative by blurring the boundary between fiction and history.

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What are the features of historiographic metafiction?

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  • The use of irony and parody
  • Intertextuality
  • Ordinary characters within the context of significant historical events
  • Altered historical timelines and facts.

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Give examples of historiographic metafiction.

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The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco

Midnights Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie

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Historiographic metafiction is a postmodern genre: True/False?

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What is the difference between metafiction and historiographic metafiction?

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Metafiction tries to point out the artificiality of the work of fiction. 

Historiographic metafiction uses metafictional techniques to bring attention to the fact that both history and literature are active discourses. 

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Historiographic metafiction and historical novel are the same: True/False?

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False. A historical novel is a realist portrayal of history through fiction. Historiographic metafiction breaks down the boundaries between fiction and history.

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How does historiographic metafiction approach history?

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According to Linda Hutcheon, historiographic metafiction is grounded in history, yet works to subvert the dominant and mainstream historical narratives. 

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Why is historiographic metafiction popular?

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Historiographic metafiction accompanied the postmodern scepticism of history as a single, linear narrative. It also makes room for stories and perspectives that were forgotten in mainstream history, such as those of minorities. 

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