The Freedom of the Reader (with some thoughts on "The Lottery Ticket" by Passer/Chekhov)

During my very short stint teaching Introduction to Creative Writing, I would show two poems to my students: “The Waste Land” by TS Eliot, and [“Long time ago”] by Leslie Marmon Silko. For two apocalyptic poems that have some common features, they certainly come off differently. Still, there is a common music in their use of repeated words and phrases.

Eliot:

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest

burning

Silko:

Entire villages will be wiped out
They will slaughter whole tribes.
Corpses for us
Blood for us
Killing killing killing killing

In spite of some shared tactics and frightening depictions of dead worlds, the experiences of reading them couldn’t be more different. Talking about “the experience of reading” was part of my schtick. I was always reminding these aspiring writers to respect what I called “interpretive agency.” That was just a fancy way of saying that they—and their audiences, too—should respect a person’s experience of art just as much as they valued its creation. Reading, I wanted them to see, was an act of creation, too.

It was with this idea in mind that I showed them the two poems. Then, I asked them about authority. Can these poets speak with authority? What kind of authority is it? How does that affect our experiences with the poems? There was silence for a moment, as those sophomores always wanted to wait for someone else to speak. They had taught me patience. Eventually, a student would tire of the silence and speak. This moment came to pass, and a student said, “‘The Waste Land’ has the kind of authority you do with books and stuff. The Silko poem is real.”

I laughed, because Eliot and I, two old, white dudes from Missouri and Arkansas, were always telling people to read and read. It was true!

In the case of “The Waste Land,” Eliot’s authority was established with many allusions and footnotes. References to Shakespeare, to the Bible, to Dante, to various Roman poets and playwrights were everywhere. The second-to-last line of “The Waste Land” is a direct quote of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. I can tell you that one can get an English PhD without reading Kyd. One can even take a comprehensive exam in English renaissance literature without ever mentioning Thomas Kyd (in America, at least).

The many footnotes included with the 1922 publication of “The Waste Land” seem to announce that few people are qualified to read it on its own terms. Certainly, my students felt excluded from and baffled by it. They resented it, too, because the footnotes were instructions to the reader. Read this thing, read that other thing. They saw it as an encroachment on their freedom to interpret, which, let’s face it, is exactly what that artistic choice is. One might uncharitably imagine that Eliot and Ezra Pound (presumably) were bragging about their learnedness and sophistication.

Those young readers felt more respected by Silko, and, in turn, they respected her. Whatever the craft differences between Eliot and Silko might be, only Silko seemed to write as if my students could understand her, as if she could be talking to them.


So far as Eliot goes, I choose to believe that his footnotes are a kind of shaggy dog story. Their words aren’t important, but the shock of their existence and monumental pretension is.


This is a lot to say about my teaching days, and about TS Eliot of all people (I’m glad GN doesn’t follow this forum closely nowadays!). Why am I doing it? I do it because “agency” is a word that keeps coming up in discussions of Dorian Passer’s “Stateful Media.” Not interpretive agency, which is my critical priority, but other sorts. One cannot visit the IF Comp page for “The Lottery Ticket” (Chekhov, Passer) without this introduction:

This is another study in stateful media with an emphasis on narration-based agency. To avoid breaking a reader’s suspension of disbelief, this work eschews story-based agency.

I do not think that my sophomore students, who all loved reading and writing, would know how to interpret this at face value. Its first impression connotes a door barred by a strange, magical glyph. After jumping in and out of IF for most of my life, I can honestly say that I’ve never considered suspension of disbelief to be a generic problem inherent to the medium or as something someone ought to “fix” programmatically. My first several minutes of the game consisted of searching my memory for egregious violations of my suspension of disbelief. This is how I began to read the text of “The Lottery Ticket.” From that moment on, really, the encroachment of theory and technical terms made it hard for me to “see” it as a work of art.

Instead, it read like a container or demonstration for a theory, and I focused on finding its applications of that theory. I tried, moment-to-moment, to gauge my suspension of disbelief, which means that, in fact, my disbelief was never suspended.

That isn’t all. The framing of the story is not yet complete:

What’s this mean for you? An interactive fiction experience that is more “literary” and less “game” made by combining quintessential elements of parser-based, choice-based, chat-based, and templated-based works under a new theory of agency in stateful media.

At this point, a player has a substantial list of craft terms to synthesize (to the extent that this is possible). There is also an assertion of theoretical or intellectual value the player may feel impelled to evaluate.

[Note: I am not evaluating Passer’s “theory of agency in stateful media.” I am analyzing the experience of encountering it as it is used to frame “The Lottery TIcket.” I’ve chosen to experience this game, as best I am able, like anyone browsing IFDB would experience it.]

Like Eliot’s poem, “The Lottery Ticket” has a framework that directs the audience’s reading of the work. In other words, it interferes with the player’s interpretive agency. I don’t think—not everyone will agree—that Passer’s stated goal of creating “narration-based agency” is achievable without protecting the player’s interpretive agency.

It might seem that I’m spending a lot of time on this. I am! The reason for doing that is, for all the concerns I have with framing and regard for the reader, the game is very interesting conceptually! I do hope this model will continue to develop, as I have faith in Passer’s ability to make something remarkable of it. I have a few requests that would improve my experience with this new framework:

  • As already suggested, seek ways to strengthen the player’s sense of interpretive freedom. The best aesthetic argument is good art. Try centering the art and trust the audience to do more work.
  • On a more mechanical note, consider prioritizing fencing off the possibility space for inputs? I’m sure that’s not easy to do, but many of the reviews talk about inputting nonsense words. That’s definitely a risk in terms of suspension of disbelief.
  • Try to find a way to take the other writers out of the picture. Featuring other writers may complement the theory, but they also introduce a lot of cultural and interpretive baggage that undermines one’s authority as an author. In terms of promoting a new form of writing, I think the author needs to be at the center. These are all the author’s ideas. They are the creator. And really, how many writers are going to come off well when their writing is imbedded in a Chekhov story?
  • Instead of telling players how things work, consider ways to demonstrate the principle. What needs to happen in order to stop players from saying “Mad Libs” after playing the game? Without telling them how to interpret the interface?
  • If theory must be mentioned in-game, do it after the ending, ideally in conversational language. This will allow the player to experience the game without distraction.

I’m not rating IF Comp games. Or reviewing them, really. I just thought “The Lottery Ticket” was interesting and warranted a closer look. If I were doing so, I would acknowledge its value as a work-in-progress and assess it in terms of its potential. I’d also recognize that new interfaces (this one debuted at this year’s parser comp) are often broken, and of course credit is due for creating a fully functional game with new technology.

I look forward to what comes next!

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I found this to be a really illuminating piece of analysis- it put to words some nebulous thoughts I’ve had floating around when inspecting Passer’s posts/work as well. The example of the two poems and demonstrating the difference between the accessibility of the work (in terms of the amount of work slogging through references and allusions to be able to feel like you understood what was on display) was one of those ‘click-y’ moments for me, where things just sort of make sense. It sort of vaguely reminds me of the difference in reading Shakespeare, and seeing it come to life on the stage- or the thick, obscuring jargon of the sciences: sometimes necessary, always puzzling to outside observers.

I really liked this post. It reminded me of the sort of English lectures I used to drag myself out of bed for, one day out of an abysmal week- with a professor who is still my very favourite, because he had a really magical way of speaking to you like you were a friend or colleague and breaking down really high level concepts and making them seem super understandable. He was always very encouraging. In the depths of my very worst depressive episodes, I’d show up disheveled and embarrassed, but longing to be swept up in that sparkly dialogue of smart people who just seem to get the world, and who want to share it passionately with their students.

It used to be the highlight of my week- I laughed at all of his silly little dad jokes, and smiled so often when he was speaking about the Gothic, that it actually came as a shock to him when I attended his office hours to confess that I was struggling badly. This was back in second year- and I remember the grace he gave me in a generous extension, the ‘assignment’ to have a good dinner and safe walk home, and to follow up with mental healthcare through student services. He was a real gem of a guy- and I’ve since expressed my thankfulness to him in a series of e-mails.

Anyway- all of that is to say that I really appreciated the bump of nostalgia there. You sound like you would’ve been a teacher I really liked, and I’m sure your students appreciated learning from you. The analysis outlined here is aces, and I really like the suggestions part you added- now that reminds me of getting our essays back, haha.

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It’s amazing the differences some teachers have made in our lives, isn’t it? Thanks for the kind words and for sharing some of your story.

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This is a great post, Drew. I’ve thought a lot about Dorian’s engine, because I too think it’s capable of great things with some experimentation. I haven’t been able to put my finger on what isn’t working for me about the current games, and this is helpful in corralling my thoughts. I think IF players are generally smart, literate people, and much like Eliot, we are tempted to show off our erudition (and it is such a pity that The Wasteland is so pockmarked with footnotes, because it’s such a juicy poem that people would enjoy more if it didn’t have blaring red signs all over saying, “TOO COMPLEX FOR YOU TO READ WITHOUT HELP”).

I think such displays are so didactic that it turns readers off, and run counter to what I consider the purpose of both IF and poetry: autodidacticism. We learn best when we teach ourselves, and generally speaking, IF should give the player some ground rules and then let them work out what’s happening and what it means. You often point out that the player wants to feel smart, and good IF manipulates that desire and gives a little endorphin rush of pleasure for having figured it out. That’s what’s missing in The Lottery Ticket– and in many games for many reasons. Probably the biggest reason is that it is a difficult balancing act as an author to make something impenetrable enough that you feel smart for solving it, but not so impenetrable that players feel stupid. And this is precisely why so many people don’t like poetry either. Wallace Stevens aside, most canonical poetry is probably way more accessible than it is perceived to be.

** Edit-- one more point: the extremely literate people (I could not believe how many players are Gerard Manley Hopkins fans after writing my first game on one of his poems) here will be tickled by figuring out literary references on their own. @DeusIrae took one look at the blurb and cover art for my new game and identified the inspiring poem immediately. Other poetry-heads may need to get into it a little bit before tweaking to it, but I hope it gives them pleasure to figure it out. And speaking of Wallace Stevens, I myself got a little frisson of satisfaction recently while listening to Nick Cave’s “We Call Upon the Author” and recognizing the literary reference.

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There’s a lot here to think about and react to, but for now I’m just going to make a post so the thread goes on my watch-list since I first want to re-play the game with my critic’s hat rather than my tester’s hat and organize my thought.

I will say, though, that on the general point about footnotes and lampshaded references, I think there’s a different side of it too which is that they can actually function as a tool for demystefication, letting a reader in on the joke and pointing to other avenues of exploration.

I suspect this side of things has gone somewhat into eclipse in the Internet era, where everything’s only a Google search away, but I know when I was growing up I was excited when a book I liked told me what other books it was building on so I could check those out too and learn more – there often weren’t great alternatives (I remember asking one of my high school teachers to tell me about the Talmud because Foucault’s Pendulum didn’t really give me enough to go on). And for all that Eliot can be a pompous, elitist kind of writer, I actually confess I enjoy the Waste Land footnotes; they seem to me to be showing the reader how the trick is done, showing off his cleverness, sure, but also providing a guide to the bricolage method and giving enough context for folks who know their Shakespeare but not their Fraser, or vice versa, to come to grips with the poem.

The rub, I think, is that these aspects of the approach don’t exist so much simultaneously as sequentially: if you’re just coming to a genre of literature or way of reading, the last thing you want, as you say, is the feeling that you need to do more homework before you can start doing your homework. But once you’ve got a grounding, they can shift from barriers to foot-holds for future exploration; the key as an author, I think, is figuring out who your audience is and trying to speak to them in ways that invite them in. Eliot’s assumptions about who would be reading him were presumably much narrower – unjustifiably so! – than the present reality. Though even so, he doesn’t spell everything out and leaves room for some entertaining laughs of recognition: he doesn’t mention that he stole Madame Sosotris from Aldous Huxley, where “she’s” the cross-dressing fortune-teller alter-ego of a male character, setting up a punning parallel with Tieresias.

(And per your note, Drew, about Graham Nelson, it turns out Madame Sosotris’s tarot cards are in Curses; they also wind up being referenced in Anchorhead, and as a result they’re a small Easter Egg in Cragne Manor, too, in an epic literature/IF relay race – which I believe is explained in the author’s note for the relevant room).

Anyway all this is not very connected to the Lottery Ticket or what y’all are actually talking about, but I guess what I’m trying to wrestle with is that I think there is value in providing some guide to the intertextuality and webs of inspiration that give rise to a work, for newcomers to a genre/community as well as to the old hands, but the trick is how to do that in a mindful, responsive way that doesn’t wind up shutting people out.

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Doesn’t he have a whole “unreal city” bit? It’s been years. That’s why I mentioned him (e: I’m thinking Jigsaw, perhaps).

A poet can do a bunch of allusions and, if the work is interesting, it won’t matter if anyone got them or not. I don’t think I’d ever argue against allusion in Eliot or anywhere else. Prufrock has great music and lines even if you don’t know Hamlet or the Bible. It just works. It’s good poetry!

[snip] I just realized I’m derailing my own topic! So I’ve trimmed a bit. It’s worth pointing out that the function performed by Eliot’s notes is now performed by literary critics, who didn’t really exist in the way that they did after “The Waste Land.” Eliot himself would never again repeat the footnotes experiment. Might this really be a question of game criticism vs game reviewing?

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I think that can happen when the writer views their work as a bridge to the reader, and that the process is a negotiation between them both. Lots of good stuff and positive magic happens then.

My (naive?) impression reading “The Waste Land” was that Eliot was showing his work, like a schoolchild demonstrating on the page that he double-checked his math before turning it in.

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