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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:

“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:

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?

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  • You're finding editor's comments of the Nota Bene type written as Dear Reader. Charming if not overused. Seems like a style thing, not a subject matter thing. Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 23:09
  • Why did you ask this question here, on a site for a language that's maybe about 1500 years old? One of the most well-known English works addresses the audience directly: "thou shalt not kill", translating from a language much older than itself.
    – Laurel
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 23:11
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    Addressing the audience is not necessarily breaking the fourth wall. In most forms of communication, there is no fourth wall to break. An imaginary fourth wall lets us pretend to observe actors without them knowing they're being observed, or that they're characters in a story. In fiction, a narrator cannot break the fourth wall. The narrator always addresses the audience. Only a character who should not know they are a character in a story can break the fourth wall (by addressing the audience, or an omniscient narrator). Non-fiction lacks characters who don't know they're in a story.
    – Juhasz
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 23:29
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    Belongs on Writers SE ........ Commented Mar 9, 2022 at 2:52
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    The use of "Reader..." in feminist writings must be a conscious reference to the famous opening of the last chapter of Jane Eyre - "Reader, I married him". Commented Mar 9, 2022 at 8:22

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This doesn't answer all the OP's questions, but, as requested...

Starting a comment with "Reader..." in feminist writings must be a conscious reference to the famous opening of the final section of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) -

Reader, I married him.

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