December 9, 2010
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The critic as troll

Nicholas Carr argues that interactive storytelling is an oxymoron, picking up the torch where Sven Birkerts dropped it by reviewing what he has not read and ridiculing what he doesn’t quite understand.

Carr is responding to a Craig Mod essay about the future of writing which briefly alludes to wikipedia before proposing that the real impact of the digital has been on process, not form. Everyone who writes knows the impact of new media on the way we write. We’re far freer in structural edits today than we could be in 1950 or 1812, because we all have word processors and some of us have Tinderbox and Scrivener. Every novelist has a Web presence. Everyone who writes for a living either uses a computer or abjures its use as a dramatic, performative act. Old ideas like serial publication seem, suddenly, to be attractive once more. All this is unremarkable. One suspects that Carr got as far as “wikipedia,” through the printout across the room, and started to rant.

Carr seems to think that, when people talked about “death of the author,” they were concerned with some vague idea that everybody should invent their own wikistyle exquisite corpse stories. Yes, a few people have played with that idea, and it might yet be productive, but that’s not what people were talking about.

What those Evil French Theorists were discussing was the Late Modernist and then Postmodernist realization that the meaning in stories is more complicated than it would be if reading were simply data transfer, if it were just a matter of decoding some symbols that the author put on the page in order to evoke a specific response. Proust’s madeleines mattered to him because they triggered memories of sunny days when he was small, and that shudder of revulsion that you, dear reader, experienced when I mentioned Proust, matters because you never did finish that paper, did you?

“How did he know?” you ask. “And how did he know I still blush to have disappointed Dr. Baring, so many years ago?”

I didn’t. It’s smoke and mirrors. All storytelling that matters depends on this trick of memory and identification. It always has. We tear apart the story and piece it together; that’s how it works. We always knew this, but nobody quite explained it before the generation of Barthes and Derrida and Calvino.

Carr concludes that

An encyclopedia article can be "good enough"; a story has to be good.

A critic, looking for something good, might take a look at afternoon, a story. Or Patchwork Girl. These hypertexts are good, and they show one way to do it. There are others. You could do it yourself.

The tech world has a columnist, Rob Enderle, who seems always ready with a prediction that Apple has just made a terrible blunder. This makes him useful to newspaper editors who need a quote by deadline and don’t care whether it’s right, as tomorrow it will be fish wrap. Nick Carr is becoming the Rob Enderle of literature.