David Sedaris, the author of such acclaimed collections as Me Talk Pretty One Day and When You Are Engulfed in Flames, was quoted during an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal as saying, “Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it” (Moncur). The illusion of control referenced here is the illusion on the part of the author, a god-like figure in the modern imagination, a person capable of bestowing ‘life’ upon the inanimate objects of words, that they have any real control over how those words are perceived by an audience. However, what if this illusion could go both ways?
What if readers, more than just “bring[ing] their own stuff into [a work]”, could grasp this illusion of control within a text itself? Such fantasies are difficult to propagate in print text, when the story is fixed within a set sequence of pages. Yet in the growing world of interactive fiction, a genre of electronic literature in which “readers” or “players” explore and interact with a simulated world that is described entirely in text, it is very possible indeed (“IFWiki”). Galatea, by Emily Short, is a perfect example of this type of literature. Within this work, the person engaging with the text plays a character that interacts with the famous figure of Greek myth, Galatea, the statue carved by Pygmalion that was endowed with life. This is a work that is “played” and “read” simultaneously, a place where the subject is allowed the illusion of control by entering text commands into a program (“IFWiki”).
“Illusion of control” has been attempted by several different print works, from the popular Choose Your Own Adventure books to the innovative 1984 novel, Bright Lights, Big City. Yet, in such works the illusion is incomplete, by the very fact that the subject is painfully aware of their lack of real impact on the story unfolding within the pages of the books before them. In true interactive fiction such as Galatea, the reader is allowed to affect the events described to them; they change the story, and, in a way, their very idea of self is also changed.
When sitting down to read a print text, readers willingly relinquish certain ideas of control. They realize that stories invariably follow certain set paths, even if they realize it only subconsciously. If a male main character notices a strange, mysterious woman across a crowded room, a reader expects that something will transpire between them. Readers understand the plot patterns of tragedies, of romantic comedies, of bildungromans, and of detective stories. The reading public has been raised consuming these types of stories and are familiar with the warp and woof of their structures. Readers let the author lead them through these well-worn paths, swearing off any interference with the plot beyond skipping to the end of a chapter to see if a character makes it out or re-reading a passage they didn’t quite understand. A large part of readers’ enjoyment of a print text rests on how well the author has led us through the story, sticking to or challenging our perceptions of how things ‘should go’. In such a scenario, the reader is forced to recognize the authority of the author. They become painfully aware of his or her ultimate control when, for instance, something happens to a character of which the reader does not approve. There is little the reader can do to counter such unpleasantness – many turn to rewriting the story in their own way, through the medium of fanfiction. Yet, this does nothing to affect the actual print text; things remain the way the author has written them. The reader is not allowed to control or alter what the author has put down. Such an event leads to a disconnect between reader and text, a moment when the reader can no longer allow themselves to connect to the print work because they are made aware of how little the work responds back to them; how unaware it is of their presence. Depending on the size of this event, this disconnect can last a few moments or, in the worst case scenario, completely dissuade the reader from going on with the book.
In the present world of print, there is little one can do to address this problem. A publishing house couldn’t invite people to write and re-publish their own versions of a work without violating the copyright rights of the author. While a book with removable and re-organizable pages may seem like a neat solution, it doesn’t seem to be catching on with the print reading public as of yet; just ask the publishers of Vladimir Nabokov’s unfinished work, The Original of Laura. Released with such pull out passages, the book did not sell very well.
Moncur, Michael. “David Sedaris Quotes – The Quotations Page.” The Quotations Page – Your Source for Famous Quotes. 2007. Web. 01 June 2010. <http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/David_Sedaris/>.
“FAQ.” IFWiki: The Interactive Fiction Wiki. MediaWiki, 31 May 2010. Web. 01 June 2010. .
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