What is self-reference, and is it good, bad, or indifferent to the vagaries of moral indignation?

Self-reference is when a sentence, idea, or formula refers to itself.  It can happen when a film, novel, etc, talks about itself, such as, for example, when Bastian finds a book called “The Neverending Story” and starts reading it to discover that it is a book about a boy called Bastian who finds a book.

Also Monty Python – The Quest for the Holy Grail contains this line:

“Oh look, it’s the old man from scene 24.”

and many other similar references.

So is it a good thing?  It can definitely be used for comic effect, very effectively.

To give an example of where self-reference has been taken to the extreme (I really hope for comic effect), consider this story, by David Moser, which includes such delights as:

This is the first sentence of this story. This is the second sentence. This is the title of this story, which is also found several times in the story itself. This sentence is questioning the intrinsic value of the first two sentences. This sentence is to inform you, in case you haven’t already realized it, that this is a self-referential story, that is, a story containing sentences that refer to their own structure and function. This is a sentence that provides an ending to the first paragraph.

and

This sentence comments on the awkward nature of the self- referential narrative form while recognizing the strange and playful detachment it affords the writer.

and

This sentence raises a serious objection to the entire class of self-referential sentences that merely comment on their own function or placement within the story e.g., the preceding four sentences), on the grounds that they are monotonously predictable, unforgivably self- indulgent, and merely serve to distract the reader from the real subject of this story, which at this point seems to concern strangulation and incest and who knows what other delightful topics.

I suggest you go and read the full story for a better idea of what the story is about.

On the other hand, when it occurs in more serious work it is harder to do well.  I am probably not alone in finding that too many self-references jolt me out of the fantasy world and back into the one where I am sitting on a sofa reading.

It can work, though.  It’s just difficult.  So difficult that I can’t think of a book I’ve read that did it well.  Does anybody else have any suggestions?

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