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Up Close and Virtual

In 1929 the English critic I. A. Richards published a startling and entertaining book called Practical Criticism. He was interested in applying the science of psychology to the process of literary evaluation, and his investigations therefore focused on how a literary text produces its effects in its audience - how we respond to words and phrases, imagery, rhyme, rhythm and so on as we read - rather than on literary and cultural history, or biographical knowledge of the author's life. Richards explains: For some years I have made the experiment of issuing printed sheets of poems - ranging in character from a poem by Shakespeare to a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox - to audiences who were requested to comment freely in writing upon them ... After a week's interval I would collect these comments [protocols] ... Much astonishment both for the protocol-writers and for the Lecturer ensued from this procedure ... The standing of the [protocol-]writers must be made clear. The majority were undergraduates reading English ... What makes the book so entertaining is that Richards quotes copiously from his protocols, and the spectacle of English students floundering without the support of the usual critical apparatus is irresistible. It seems to confirm a deeply-held suspicion, that English academics, deprived of their textbooks, are really no better than the rest of us at distinguishing good writing from bad. Richards' aim, however, was to overhaul the methods by which English students were taught to evaluate literary texts, and in this he was at least partially successful. The practice of giving students unseen texts on which to comment became central both to English teaching and English examinations, at Cambridge and elsewhere. Furthermore Richards' work had a profound influence on the writings of William Empson, his most famous student, and on the New Criticism movement which flourished on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1930s and '40s, championed by the likes of F. R. Leavis and John Crowe Ransom. Practical criticism certainly has its limitations, however. One of the unseen texts in Richards' book is the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem Spring and Fall. It is impossible to understand this poem properly without realising that the title alludes to the Christian myth of Eden and the Fall, and we are more likely to pick up this connotation if we happen to know that Hopkins was a Jesuit priest. None of Richards' protocol-writers, evaluating the text as an unseen, notice the reference. Studies in literary and cultural history may sometimes be used as a means of writing about literature without ever coming to grips with the words on the page; but we discard them at our peril. All the same, the change of emphasis which Richards introduced was an invaluable one. The ability to analyse and notate the effect which a piece of writing is producing in us as we read - even if what this amounts to is merely a clear identification of the ways in which it baffles us - is now acknowledged as a vitally important element of literary appreciation, almost the equivalent of perfect pitch in music. In the USA, the equivalent of practical criticism is close reading, but the two terms are not completely synonymous. The phrase practical criticism suggests a hands-on, do-it-yourself approach, and the use of unseen texts bears this out. The best way for students to learn the fundamentals of criticism, it implies, is by experience: give them anonymised samples of text and oblige them to formulate their own opinions. Eventually they will learn, firstly to trust their own judgements, and secondly to explain those judgements clearly. Close reading, on the other hand, draws on the French/European tradition of explication de texte. It is less concerned with practical exercises and more concerned with a particular type of exposition. The most celebrated close readings are re-readings of familiar works, in which critics demonstrate their ability to get more from the text than has ever been got before, or possibly to get the better of it, to take it apart and rebuild it in a startling new shape. The potential for dazzling displays of interpretive gymnastics, which was always there in practical criticism, is brought to the foreground, and at times the text is in danger of becoming a mere trampoline on which athlete-critics can perform their tricks. The editors of Mcessay, in their Introduction, describe the practice as follows: Reading is always an act of dismemberment, of tearing open in search of hidden meanings... There is a sense of hostility between the reader and the text. The text is never trusted at face value, but is torn to pieces and reconstituted by a reader who is always at the same time a demolisher and a constructor. If words such as "dismemberment" and "hostility" seem incongruous in a discussion about literary criticism, then it should be remembered that the literary theories of the past few decades have often represented literature as a power-struggle between readers and writers. Writers use their work as a means of rebuilding the world on their own terms, and gain power over their readers by forcing them to accept those terms. Readers, especially intelligent readers such as critics, turn the tables by breaking the text apart and rebuilding it to suit themselves. Both writers and readers are attempting to establish the supremacy of their own world-view, each at the expense of the other. In the remarks quoted above, the editors of Mcessay are attempting to co-opt the activity of close reading as part of the reader's or critic's arsenal in this power-struggle. But there is a paradox here. Most of the writers in early hyperliterature (or "electronic literature", as it's called here; eg: Michael Joyce) had close connections with the academic establishment and were well aware of the theoretical power-struggle between writers and readers. This is one reason why early hypertext theory laid such emphasis on interactivity. By virtue of interactivity, texts and their readers could escape from the manipulative mindgames of authors. The reader could interact with the text creatively, instead of receiving it passively; he or she would thus become a co-author. The editors allude to this effect: "What does it mean to read electronic text? ... Does the reader become an author ...?" And later: "The cybertext reader is not powerless. She can, to a certain extent, change the tracks and score a goal." If this is really so, then a critical approach based on "a sense of hostility between the reader and the text" is surely out of place. Either the close reading approach requires another overhaul before it can be used on hyperliterature, or hyperliterature doesn't empower the reader as much as is sometimes claimed. Perhaps both. Leaving such theoretical considerations on one side, the main criticism which might be levelled at Mcessay is that it doesn't always do what it says on the cover. At least one essay in the book - Mark Amerika's characteristically provocative "Hypertextual Consciousness" - makes no attempt to focus on any particular work, but presents us instead with a series of observations and prophecies about literature/culture/life on the Internet: "The politics of presence is being overrun by the pure performance of an overriding absence whose liquid-capital movement is more revolutionary than any 'art' movement has ever been." Another essay, Paul Harris's "The Narrative of an Interface", isn't about electronic literature as such, but describes how the front end of the Ebr (Electronic Book Review) site was developed into its present form. A third, Jack Post's "Requiem for a Reader?", does focus on a specific text - Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, website which was created as an extension to the feature-film of the same name - but the essay fails to deliver a close reading, involving itself instead in a discussion of the different ways the site makes use of text: "Because we perceive and recognize the material traces as the material manifestations of a linguistic signifier, we consider a planar object like a Web site as a semiotic process which realizes the virtualities of the semiotic system of the English language", etc. etc. All three of these essays occur in the last section of the book, "buy papers online". The editors define cybertext as "a device operating on signs", a "machine" which "does not only deliver language or text, but generates signifiers" - in other words, the meaning and form of the work are not fully determined in advance by the author/designer, but are generated dynamically as readers/viewers click their way around. This is where hyperliterature shades into new media, or games, or even functional software. A classic example is Jim Andrews' Arteroids, a shoot-'em-up game in the style of Asteroids, in which players must destroy or be destroyed by fragments of poetic text. These text-fragments can be customised via a piece of functional software called Word for Weirdos. Cybertexts such as Arteroids are the most technically-advanced, the least conventionally literary, and perhaps the hardest-to-analyse forms of electronic literature, and Mcessay really fails to get to grips with them. The other two sections of the book are called "Hypertext" and "Internet Text", and here the attempts at close reading are more successful. This may be partly because the texts discussed resemble conventional literature more closely. Geoff Ryman's 253, a "novel" about 253 characters on the London Underground, each of them portrayed in exactly 253 words, is actually discussed twice. This probably reflects the fact that 253, despite its unconventional form, is one of the most approachably bookish of electronic texts; as a matter of fact it has been published, with modest success, in book form; and it uses tricks which would be perfectly at home in a conventional postmodernist novel. Ryman introduces himself into the novel as a bumbling amateur actor, for example; and he also brings in Anne Frank as one of his other characters, in a moment of magic realism. To their credit, however, the essayists who discuss 253 - Richard Saint-Gelais and Rene Audet in "Underground Lies", and Jan van Looy in "One Must be Calm and Laugh" - do not confine themselves to its literary aspects, but analyse how it works as a piece of hyperliterature. In general, the choice of works for discussion is rather unadventurous: Stephanie Strickland's True North (another one which has also been published in print), Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl and M D Coverley's Califia, amongst others. These have all been around for years, and they've also been written about before. It would have been nice to see essays about more recent work, and work in other forms: blogs, e-mail novels or Flash poetry, for instance. It remains an open question whether the close reading approach is really appropriate to electronic literature, especially in its more extreme forms. How can you apply close reading to a text which keeps changing as you read it? And since the technique of close reading seems to presuppose that the text under consideration must be self-contained, able to yield all its meanings to a sufficiently perceptive reader, without recourse to any external sources of information, how can it be used on texts which are deliberately fragmented or which contain, as an integral part of their text, multiple links to other web pages? Despite these doubts, which the editors themselves acknowledge, the close reading method scores heavily over a lot of other new media criticism, simply because it focuses on specific works and attempts to judge them on their merits. Some of the essays in this book are unfortunately clogged with jargon, and they could have dealt with a wider, more up-to-date range of works; but it represents a welcome return to basics all the same, and it is to be hoped that others of a similar type will follow in its footsteps.


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