restricted access Black Metafiction: Self-Consciousness in African American Literature
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Reviewed by
Madelyn Jablon. Black Metafiction: Self-Consciousness in African American Literature. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1997. x + 209 pp.

It wasn’t long ago that those of us who spent our professional lives writing about the experiences and representations of people of color, women, and working people were troubled, a few scandalized, by some of the antihumanist claims of postmodernity. The author seemed to be dying just as African American authors were being brought to renewed life; the subject became split, internally divided, eternally deferred, unintelligible, and essentially absent, just as women, workers, and otherwise colonized peoples were finding their voices and their subjectivities. For some, it appeared that the ontological claims of modernity (death and absence) and the epistemological pronouncements of postmodernism (deferral and aporia) were yet another means of ensuring that those wounded by the material realities of history would continue to be misserved by the intellectual climate of the present. The “other” emerged to find the self absent; the ethnic author was born into a cemetery.

This history, for Madelyn Jablon, seems to be repeating itself from the other side. Anglo-European theorists are now claiming the end of postmodernity just as African American authors are beginning to get recognition for a long history of theories and practices of self-conscious artistic representation. Just as African American authors otherwise [End Page 502] as diverse in subject matter and style as Ishmael Reed, Al Young, Albert Murray, Xam Cartiér, Leon Forrest, Reginald McKnight, Clarence Major, John Edgar Wideman, and Ntozake Shange produce works of heightened self-consciousness, of “Black metafiction,” William Gass, the critic who coined the term “metafiction,” is condemning the practice as a form of solipsistic, bourgeois self-indulgence, and advocating a “new realism.” Intellectual trends, it seems, just keep exceeding the grasp of ethnic literary practitioners, just keep excluding the rabble from the elite. Black writers in the seventies found themselves serious subjects in an age of play, and in the nineties become playful artists in an age turning serious. It is hard to tell whether this historical repetition is tragedy or farce.

In this study of self-conscious texts in contemporary African American fiction, Jablon offers two challenges to those who have theorized and renounced metafiction. First, she claims that earlier theoretical descriptions of metafictional practices were radically flawed because they did not take into account the developments in Black metafiction. Second, she argues that rumors of the death of metafiction are premature given the vitally robust quality of metafictional texts in contemporary African American literature. The study falls into five parts, Jablon demonstrating how African American artists since the sixties have written about the “thematization of art,” revised the trajectory of the künstlerroman, practiced and shown the limits of intertextuality, employed the oral tradition to exemplify the play of voice in written texts, and transformed popular genres such as science fiction and detective novels.

After an introduction in which she draws on the mainstream theories of metafiction formulated by Linda Hutcheon, William Gass, Patricia Waugh, and Mikhail Bakhtin, and then shows in what ways these theories are reconfigured by African Americanists like Deborah McDowell, Henry Louis Gates, Gwendolyn Mae Henderson, Donald Gibson, and Houston Baker, Jablon turns to extended readings of ten novels that exemplify the five techniques of Black metafiction. She reads Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage and Alice Walker’s Temple of My Familiar as expressions of artistic self-consciousness in which the characters who are artists represent “black metafictionists” and the artistic process itself becomes a metaphor for African American self-fashioning. Rita Dove’s Through the Ivory Gate and Arthur Flower’s [End Page 503] Another Good Loving Blues are texts that redefine the künstlerroman’s conception of who can be an artist and what constitutes conflict. Taking as her exemplary texts Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying and Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, Jablon shows how contemporary African American texts revise and rewrite their predecessor texts (for A Lesson it is Native Son, for Tar Baby, the mythic folktale and Their Eyes Were Watching God). Charlotte Watson-Sherman’s One Dark Body and Leon Forrest’s Divine...