Genre Trouble: All Art is Interactive (or Why There Are Many Ways to Review)

As I have been reading and reviewing, I’ve listened to a lot of conversations about the “right” way to review. Part of the current backlash against People Who Are Not Our Demographic Producing Things We Produce (be that video games, novels, movies, etc) includes some notions about what does not belong in the assessment of a work of art. All of this is founded in some notion that there is one correct way to review.

At bottom, a review is the record of an audience member’s engagement with a work of art: be it technical discussion (musicology or game mechanics), esthetics (composition or plotting), cultural context (analysis using the tools of history, sociology, or economics).

To inquire of correct reviewing is to ask: what is the proper stance of audience to art?

All art forms are, at bottom, prompts. Whether we are talking about writing, drama, games, visual art, dance, sculpture, etc., the audience participates. The reader/viewer/player maintains eye contact as the artist’s contribution brings up associations. Each member of the audience brings their entire life experience to the interaction. They can disengage and walk away, or not.

Visual artists have the opportunity to lurk in the gallery and watch viewers react to the work. (I know more than one artist who figured out who their ‘real’ audience was by watching various reactions to the work.) Performance artists can feel the exchange of energy with the audience; without this exchange, there is no performance. For writers, especially in traditional publishing venues, it’s a bit trickier; you write into darkness, but you make the act of faith that your work will prompt an experience in your readers.

Writing teacher Peter Elbow (in Writing with Power) has an interesting analogy for the reader-writer exchange: the story is a bicycle, which the reader pedals to run the apparatus that shows the movie.

At any time, the reader can stop pedaling and get off the bike. The movie runs in the reader’s head, and depends upon their engagement. When I was reading stories in Russian and in French, I was aware of building the pictures in my head, as I looked up one word after another in my dictionaries and set them into the edifice like bricks in the wall. I expended effort to bring the picture into focus.

Different readers have different experiences from the same set of prompts.

When I read Tolstoy as a twenty-first-century child of the US, whose childhood was passed in the palmy days of the Cold War and the stirring of social change in the 1960s, I do not have the same experience as his Russian contemporaries, nor did they have the same experience. I built his landscapes out of my own experience of the American Midwest and South; I created his characters from the faces of people I had met.

(And years later, I met his people in all sorts of different guises, particularly the social-climbing office-politicians; some types he had written as early 19th century military men, I met as 21st-century corporate women. But some things don’t change.)

In short: there is no Universal Reviewer, because there is no Universal Person.

Unless you’re arguing that some of us are not real persons. (Which might, in fact, be your very point, disguised as a quibble of esthetics.)

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