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I am toying writing a book involving layered stories:

There is Manuscript A, written by a character, which is an ostensibly real account/diary of an incident she experienced.

In the fictional world, the character publishes Manuscript A, which is met with much acclaim, and a second edition of the work is issued, complete with a preface, a praise page, introduction, footnotes, appendices, etc. This edition is the book the reader will have in their hands.

My question is how far the reader can be lead into believing that the trimmings introduced in the second edition are 'real', as in being external to Manuscript A, as in being from 'real' people in our own world. If the trimmings are known to be fiction (such as by an explicit statement on the book sleeve or back cover), then Manuscript A is known to be fictional. However, if there is nothing that indicates that the trimmings are not in fact 'real', then the reader may not know for certain whether the events of Manuscript A are real or not, as this is the subject of debate within the fictional 'real' world, and is mentioned in the introduction.

How would a publisher handle such a situation? Is it possible to maintain this extra dimension to the story? What obligation does the writer have to the reader?

Thanks

  • Worse, a lot of readers will skip the trimmings without reading them. And worse yet, if you don't make it clear they are fictional, you may face repercussions for false advertisement, same as with fake reviews. OTOH you may look up "Iron Dream" by an acclaimed Sci-Fi writer and a Hugo award winner, Adolf Hitler (actually, by Norman Spinrad). The preface and afterword are both by "third party" but actually written by the same author. – SF. Nov 3 '15 at 10:53
  • You may want to check out Jorge Borges, Samuel Delany, Ursula LeGuin --they've all made extensive use of this kind of technique. – Chris Sunami Nov 3 '15 at 15:24
  • Yes, I love Borges. Him as well as MZD are major sources of inspiration. Thank you for the other names, I'll check them out. – socrates Nov 3 '15 at 23:15
  • When I first heard the term "creative nonfiction" -- I thought it was about THIS sort of thing -- creating nonfiction for a fictional world. (I still want the term to mean that.) – April Feb 21 at 14:49
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This technique is called meta-fiction and there are those, including myself, who really enjoy it when done well. I think it defeats the purpose, however, if you try to make it too realistic. Then that's just deception. You'll also want your "trimmings" to be considerably more entertaining and engaging than the real versions typically are, otherwise you'll just lose your readers. You'll want to spend some time thinking about the goal and purpose of having those things in there. They'll really need to have some crucial info hidden in them to make it worth anyone's time.

As far as gaining the trust of the reader, I think you'll just need to rely on suspension of disbelief --you want your reader to accept the reality of what you present even while knowing it to be a fiction. I remember reading William Goldman's Princess Bride,, which is presented as an abridgement of a longer original text. Although his meta-fictional elements are not particularly realistic, I nonetheless was drawn enough into his world that I lost track of the fact that the "original text" didn't actually exist, and began to be annoyed at the author's choices in his "abridgment."

In terms of not losing the reader, or risking them skipping your "trimmings," you have to engage them from the first sentence. Here are some compelling meta-fictional opening sentences:

  • "This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it." (The Princess Bride).
  • "I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. (The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin).
  • "THE MULE: It was after the fall of the First Foundation that the constructive aspects of the Mule's regime took shape." (Second Foundation, Asimov)
  • "Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun." (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Adams).
  • "Philip Guedalla informs us that the novel The Approach to al-Mu'tasim by the Bombay barrister Mir Bahadur Ali 'is a rather uneasy combination of those Islamic allegories which never fail to impress their own translators, and of that brand of detective stories which inevitably outdoes even Dr Watson and heightens the horror of human life...'" ("The Approach to al-Mu'Tasim," Borges)
  • Thank you for your response. Yes, I understand what you mean about diluting the 'realness' of the 'trimmings' (I can't think of a better word for these: please help me!). I intend to use some tongue-in-cheek humor and what not to make it less dry. On another note, as SF mentioned in the comment on my post, how does one prepare for the fact that a reader might just skip these sections altogether? Obviously you don't want to have them miss anything too central, but you want to reward the reader that engages in them. Likewise for the technical appendix I want to include at the end. – socrates Nov 3 '15 at 23:17
  • Also check out the works of Stanislaw Lem -- I remember one of his books is nothing but introductions to books that otherwise don't exist, and there are other meta-meta things. – April Feb 21 at 14:47
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The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco provides a classic example of exactly what you're describing.

You know that whole thing at the beginning where he discovers the medieval manuscript and all that stuff?

Fiction.

If you skip it, you don't lose much.

Same with Nabokov, who is constantly playing with the nature of fiction.

In fact, what you describe -- in terms of preface, afterwords, index, etc (all being fictionalized trimmings on top of the "text" itself) is all part of Nabokov's classic work PALE FIRE. What's cool about this is the "commentary" IS the story itself, and tells a DIFFERENT story than the main story.

Brings up all sorts of interesting questions.

Is Pale Fire by the poet himself? Is Pale Fire by a critic? By the poet's wife?

Is it really what it says it is about? That's the nature of fiction, and by playing with this idea in the form, you're exploring one of the key things that makes fiction work.

  • 1
    Please note that literary fiction uses these techniques all over the place. SF started using these techniques with Jules Verne and Mary Shelley (Frankenstein, after all, purports to be about "real" events). – Ned Hayes Nov 6 '15 at 19:29
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Michael Crichton also used this method as well - often framing his stories as reports from government documents or interviews.

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