Critifiction, or the Status of Experimental Gothic: Part Two

Posted by Neil McRobert on November 25, 2014 in Blog, Guest Blog, News tagged with , , , , , , , ,

In my last post I suggested that the dominion of postmodernism had passed. The deconstructive impulse pursued so earnestly in the ‘new’ fiction of the 60s and 70s, and which re-emerged as parody in the 1990s, online seems to have dwindled in the face of a resurgent narrative conservatism.

However, this being a Gothic-centric forum, my attention remains focused on the particular status of that genre/mode in the contemporary literary climate. And, unsurprisingly, the Gothic once more resists easy generalisation. Yes, it can be claimed—and that claim supported with a multitude of texts—that Gothic and horror have become the most conventional of narrative forms. A quick survey of any bookshop’s ‘horror’ section will suggest that contemporary dark fiction is little more than the formula: Romantic Triangle + (handsome) Monster = Bestseller. But beyond the mainstream, in the margins, where the keenest horror has always done its work, a vein of experimental fiction flourishes that is neither constrained by formula, nor punctured by the postmodern urge to undermine the illusory impact of story. This is the post-postmodern Gothic novel (PPM for short), and if such a diverse field can be said to possess any unifying features then, I would argue, they are:


  • The ability to perform as effective narratives whilst pursuing, with increased subtlety, the same critical agenda that marked postmodernism.
  • The incorporation and literary transformation of multimedia resources.
  • An increasing interest in the ludic potential of textuality and storytelling.
post-postmodern fiction: a balancing of heart and mind

post-postmodern fiction: a balancing of heart and mind


I will discuss the second and third points in the next post. Here I am focusing on some examples of the first issue. Ironically, in order to discuss this aspect of post-postmodernism, I draw on the terminology of one of the most recognisably postmodern writers and critics: Raymond Federman.

In 1988 Federman devised the term ‘critifiction’ to denote a specific type of narrative “that contains its own theory and even its own criticism.[i] He applies the terms to the highly experimental fiction of the 70s and early 80s whose authors pursue an “explicit self-reflexiveness that liberates the fiction from illusionism and even from fictionality.”[ii] Federman uses the fiction of Ronal Sukenic as a prime example of critifictional discourse. It is worth quoting his description of Sukenic’s work at length, as it is so pertinent to a number of PPM Gothic novels:

[Sukenic] constructs his fiction on the principle of a fundamental and sustained opposition: the construction of a fictional illusion and the laying bare of that illusion. In other words, he creates a fiction and simultaneously makes a statement about the creation of that fiction. The two processes are held together in a formal tension that breaks down the distinction between fact and fiction, between fiction and criticism, between imagination and reflection, and as a result the concepts of creation and interpretation merge into a critifictional discourse. To achieve this, Ronald Sukenick (the Author) is always present in his fiction (usually under his own name) but as a fictional/mythical figure: an author-narrator- critic-theoretician-protagonist.[iii]

This summary of his Sukenic’s work touches upon issues commonly offered as hallmarks of postmodern writing: most notably, the disruption of illusion and world-building, and the metatextual attention to the text’s own construction. Most importantly, however, he suggests that the inclusion of critical self-awareness is particular to this arch-postmodern style. Whilst it is undeniable that such techniques are endemic within postmodernism, I would argue that they are not exclusively postmodern. Rather, self-awareness, of both critical issues and of text-as-text persists within contemporary fiction, particularly within the Gothic. Where it differs from that described by Federman is that in these Gothic texts the critical function is performed without the need to undermine the illusory pleasure of the fiction. In fact, as Gothic, these texts remain dependent upon the reader’s surrender to the fantastic.

Though I would consider the majority of PPM novels to be post-millennial, there are earlier examples. Stephen King’s metafictional ‘trilogy’, Misery (1987), The Dark Half (1989) and the novella, “Secret Window, Secret Garden” (1990) would be included. Each walks a line between self-reflexivity and narrative integrity in order to tell a story that is at once both emotionally effective and critically self-aware. In each of these novels King, like Sukenic, is “present” as “mythical”, semi-fictional figure who serves to cast critical reflection on the work. In the context of these novels that focus is centred on the cultural and critical apparatus that developed around King’s literary ubiquity in the mid to late 80s. King’s most obvious analogue is Paul Sheldon, Misery’s beleaguered and embittered author-protagonist. His trials at the hands of Annie Wilkes—Sheldon’s “number one fan”—function as both the meat and gristle of an effective horror tale, and also as a critical commentary on the confines of genre and the relationship between authors and the critical and commercial spheres. In addition to this central thrust Misery also offers a critical commentary on a range of other issues, including both the patriarchy of authorship and the supposed limitations of genre fiction. The latter propels the horror of the novel, as Paul’s entrapment within Annie’s isolated cabin is analogous with his re-entrapment within the confines of the Gothic genre he has come to loath. Upon finishing what he considers his last entry in the field of Gothic melodrama (at the start of the novel) he cries out “Free at last! Free at last! Great God Almighty I’m free at last!”[iv] Misery, therefore, can be read as a straightforward horror novel, but also as a thought-provoking, though undeservedly self-pitying observation on King’s entrapment by the desires of his horror-hungry audience.


Paul Sheldon, literally and figuratively trapped behind his keyboard

I could go into much more detail about King’s approach, but I space is limited and have already covered the topic at length elsewhere.[v] Instead I will close by mentioning a more recent, and more complex, PPM novel that best illustrates the critifictional possibilities of contemporary genre fiction.

Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park (2005) is a strange novel. It begins as a seemingly straight autobiography of the author before becoming a full-blown supernatural horror story. Ellis admits that it was written in homage to 1980s Stephen King![vi] (King himself described it as “John Cheever writes The Shining”). Ellis throws everything into the mixer when it comes to the explicit Gothic portion of the novel. The protagonist and his family are haunted by hairy monsters, paternal ghosts, and fictional serial killers come to life. However, the most interesting aspect of Lunar Park is its several iterations of the author figure. There is Easton Ellis, the real-world creator of Lunar Park; Bret, the novel’s protagonist; and “the writer”, an abstract figure who haunts the margins of the text, increasingly denying the hero any independent agency. At one point Bret remarks upon the strangely premature arrival of to which “the writer” responds “Look how black the sky is . . . I made it that way.”[vii] Whether this “writer” is a manifestation of Bret’s desires, a distinct spectral entity, or whether it implies Bret’s awareness of the real, extradiegetic author is never made clear. Instead the book is concerned with a layering of identities that intersect and undermine each other.

In this way Lunar Park is as thorough an enactment of Federman’s critifiction as any contemporary novel (Gothic or otherwise). Here, Ellis really does appear as a fictional/mythical figure who serves each of the literary functions identified in Federman’s critique of Sukenick’s work. Ellis is author and narrator and critic and protagonist. He is employed as a creative writing tutor at a suburban liberal arts college, a role which requires a benign critical faculty at odds with his acerbic criticism of the modern literary field as artistically worthless:

It was the beginning of a time when it was almost as if the novel itself didn’t matter anymore—publishing a shiny, booklike object was simply an excuse for parties and glamour and good looking authors reading finely-honed minimalism to students who would listen with slack-jawed admiration, thinking, I could do that, I could be them.[viii]

Bret doubled

This is the fulcrum of the novel, both as story and criticism: the sense of identity as construct, represented in the final iteration of Ellis as a floating signifier of excess and transgression, and the dubious importance of literary endeavour in a culture devoted to surface and celebrity. Ellis novel is at once a savage satire of the modern literary marketplace and a Baudrillardean examination of the hyperreal surfaces of contemporary life. At the same time, however—and this is what distinguishes it from the cold disconnection of postmodernism—it manages to be affective. As such it is a wonderful example of the post-postmodern novel: fiction that engages the reader both intellectually and emotionally simultaneously. In fact, the synergy of these responses heightens the impact of both.

In my opinion then, we should celebrate post-postmodern Gothic as the result of centuries of emotional storytelling that has accrued qualities of postmodernism but resisted being nullified by it. I’m all for novels that make me think and feel and long may they continue. I have only briefly mentioned two examples here but there are many others. I would especially recommend The Lecturer’s Tale by James Hynes, a wonderful, quasi-supernatural parody of contemporary literary studies; The End of Mr Y, by Scarlett Thomas; A Jealous Ghost by A.N. Wilson and The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall.


All comments and disagreements are welcome. Happy reading.




[i] Raymond Federman, Critifiction: Postmodern Essays (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993) 31.

[ii] ibid

[iii] ibid

[iv] Stephen King, Misery (London: New England Library, 1987) 16.

[v] Neil McRobert, “Figuring the Author in Modern Gothic Fiction” in The Gothic World. (New York: Routledge, 2014) 297-306.


[vii] Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park (London: Picador, 2005) 317.

[viii] Ibid 12

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