Breaking the fourth wall is usually considered a theatrical concept, but Wikipedia notes that it can also occur in literature (ie. fiction).
Use of the fourth wall in literature can be traced back as far as The Canterbury Tales and Don Quixote … However, it was popularized in the early 20th century during the post-modern literary movement. Artists like Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse and Kurt Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions used the genre to question the accepted knowledge and sources of the culture.
The phrase dear reader is an idiomatic way to do this in modern English. An example is provided in response to this Writing.SE question about fiction:
- In ancient writings, was it usual to address the reader? – Roy, the hero of this tale, was indeed an idiot. But you know that by now, don't you dear reader?
“Dear reader” is also used in non-fiction writing. For example, some users of this Stack Exchange use “dear reader” to add a bit of sarcasm or “snark” to their posts:
Can you use "(sic)" in other contexts? – That would be an ironic extension of the regular usage of sic. I’d interpret it as “yes, dear reader, surprising as it may be, this is what he did.”
“just because… doesn't mean…” – I’ve just discovered the wonderful Corpus of Historical American English, and you, dear reader, get see the first fruits of my research there.
Have unnecessary quotation marks evolved? – For some time, I've had an odd fascination with commercial supply branding … Judge me not, dear reader.
Another way to do this is to begin a sentence with the salutation Reader. This is harder to search for, but I think it’s quite common in online writing about feminism and science fiction. A pre-internet example can be found in Carol Cohn, Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals (1987):
Yet what is striking about the men themselves is not, as the content of their conversations might suggest, their cold-bloodedness. Rather, it is that they are a group of men unusually endowed with charm, humor, intelligence, concern, and decency. Reader, I liked them. At least, I liked many of them. The attempt to understand how such men could contribute to an endeavor that I see as so fundamentally destructive became a continuing obsession for me, a lens through which I came to examine all of my experiences in their world.
Is there a more precise name for this technique than “breaking the fourth wall”? Does the non-fiction technique have a distinct history to its use in fiction? Am I right to think it’s particularly common in writing about feminism and science fiction?