June 12, 2009
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The Critical Mean

James Pope, writing for Interjunction, offers recommendations for digital interactive fiction based on a survey of 36 readers.

I observed, questionnaired and spoke with 36 readers about their experiences of ‘reading’ a selection of interactive — hypertext — fictions, and armed with my data I would argue that reading interactive fiction can be enjoyable in many ways.

It’s an interesting conceit. But Pope never describes who the 36 readers were, or how they were chosen, or under what conditions and constraints they were reading. Were these 36 fans of Stephen King, or 36 art historians, or 36 Labour MPs? Did they all like Truffaut and Goddard? What else had they read? What did they like? Without knowing, we can’t really know what their opinions mean.

Surveying 36 readers gives the enterprise a veneer of objectivity, a sort of anthropological flair, isolating the study from quirks of individual taste and interest. But this balance is a mirage. Joe likes Jules and Jim, Jill likes Star Wars, and Pat likes Battleship Potemkin. They all are right! What, exactly, do we learn by averaging the three of them in a statistical pool. It might be interesting to let each argue their separate case; that’s why we read lots of critics.

The desire to avoid judgment pervades the two-part essay:

But I also found clear evidence that the experience of non-linear narratives combined with user-unfriendly interfaces can break the significant balance of effort and reward, a relationship which has been identified by such researchers as Nell (1988) and Csikszentmihalyi (1975, 2002) as being essential to reading pleasure.

I’m as big a believer in citation as anyone — my little Hypertext 2009 paper “On Hypertext Narrative’ has 45 references, Aarseth to Zellweger, plus 21 additional footnotes — but do we need authorities to tell us that “the significant balance of effort and reward” is “essential to reading please?” Perhaps we do, if we want to justify “significant” and “essential”, as Carroll (1865) argues so cogently:

”Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Of course, some people hate Carroll and Lear. My father, on the other hand, brought Alice in his footlocker to the South Pacific, along with Notes From Underground and Archie and Mehitabel, making room by discarding some government property he considered less necessary to the war effort. That’s the second problem here: if you try to triangulate “reading pleasure” by surveying traverses from a bunch of literary landmarks, you’re bound to find yourself in the proverbial swamp. And if you do it 36 times and sum the results, your boots are going to be soggy. Menand makes the point nicely in his recent New Yorker piece, “Show or Tell: should creative writing be taught?"

What is usually said is that you can’t teach inspiration, but you can teach craft. What counted as craft for James, though, was very different from what counted as craft for Hemingway. What counts as craft for Ann Beattie (who teaches at the University of Virginia) must be different from what counts as craft for Jonathan Safran Foer (who teaches at N.Y.U.). There is no “craft of fiction” as such.

In the end, best-seller lists are a poor way to choose what to read, and a grab-bag of 36 random readers is not much better. We don’t want to know what 9 out of 10 doctors recommend; we want to know what this friend thinks, and what that friend believes. And part of the reason we listen to friends and favorite critics is that we know who they are, what they like, how they want to spend their time. It was nice to know that Siskel and Ebert both liked a movie, but it was interesting when Gene loved a movie and Roger hated it, and that’s where we really went to town.

Recommended: Arthur Krystal on Hazlitt, who might not in fact have been “the first modern man” but can arguably be the first modern critic.