The best meta-fiction books about books

The Books I Picked & Why

Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse

By Anne Carson

Book cover of Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse

Why this book?

Based on the tale of the Tenth Labour of Herakles, this queer, lush, and cheeky novel grabbed my heart from the moment I was assigned to teach it. I did an undeclared minor in Classics during my undergrad, and aside from being extremely clever with the wordplay, I was delighted by how Carson absolutely takes the mickey out of academic writing around mythology, classical archeology, and translation. Told as a form of free-verse poetry, this novel is comprised of some of the most incredible word-crafting I've ever experienced.

By changing the word “arrows” in the original tale to “eros”, Carson skews and plays with the relationship between the monster Geryon and the hero Herakles, all the while letting Geryon speak to the reader directly.

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By Barry Lyga, Colleen Doran

Book cover of Mangaman

Why this book?

I wrote my undergrad thesis on the migration of visual tropes from traditional Japanese theatre (Noh, Bunraku, and Kabuki) into modern art forms (Manga, Anime, Supakabuki/Anime Musicals), which was a rigorous exercise because I couldn’t just compare the tropes—I had to spend hours explaining them to my advisor. It was a fascinating (sometimes exasperating) lesson in learning to read one visual vocabulary, only to have to explain it to someone else in terms that they understood using another.

This blurred-xerox-translation-of-a-translation exercise is the central theme of Mangaman, where a Shojou-esque protagonist falls from a fantastical manga world into a comic. Visual conventions clash, where he walks the wrong way across panels, and where his speed lines accidentally stab people in the school hallway.

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By Cornelia Funke, Anthea Bell

Book cover of Inkheart

Why this book?

I read this book all in one summer’s day while in university, and came away with a wicked sunburn in the shape of a novel on my thighs and an absolutely wide-eyed fascination with the idea that you write books about writing books and people who understand that they’ve been written. I had grown up reading and writing fanfiction and loved the sorts of fics where people took the tropes of the genre of the show and broke/inverted/discarded them.

I loved playing with narrative focus, themes, character development, and my fave fanfic trope…when the actors meet the characters they play. And to see that someone had done it in a real published novel? That blew me away. Later when I decided I’d like to try my own profic take on that beloved trope, ‘creation meeting creator’, that I conceived of The Accidental Turn Series.

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By Paul Glennon

Book cover of Bookweird

Why this book?

A gentler, kinder version of Inkheart and The Untold Tale, this novel is still thrilling. I love the idea of consuming a book as literally as we do figuratively. In this one, our protagonist absentmindedly eats a page out of his favourite bedtime story and wakes up inside it. He has to hop from story to story to get home, crossing through his sister’s horse books and many an adventure before making it safe to his own bed. I think it’s totally charming.

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Stranger Than Fiction

By Zach Helm

Book cover of Stranger Than Fiction

Why this book?

Though not a book, the film starring Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson borrowed heavily from "Niebla" by Miguel de Unamuno, a Spanish novel about a character who becomes aware he is being narrated by a writer and goes to visit the writer. This film lives rent-free in my heart because the style of self-awareness that Ferrell’s character experiences in this film is close to the way I conceived of the meta-awareness of the characters Forsyth and Kintyre in The Untold Tale. I love the idea of someone learning they are being puppeteered and breaking free of the expected, the prescribed, and the narrative laid out for them. Maybe that’s why I like the film The Truman Show so much, too.

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