Reviewing Versus Criticising

Original Citation:
Miles, Adrian. “Reviewing Versus Criticism.” Journal of Digital Information 3.3 (2003).

An archive of all the essays that made up the special issue on hypertext criticism, that this was a contribution to, is available at

Reviewing Versus Criticism

The third and final contribution I made to an issue of the Journal of Digital Information dedicated to hypertext criticism. In this brief essay I try to describe the difference between reviewing and critique and advocates for an applied critical analysis of hypertexts. (Which remains to be realised.)

Reviewing versus Criticism

Writing on specific hypertext titles appears to have commonly confused reviewing with criticism. These are two distinct though complementary genres and each ought to have quite individuated aims and objects.

Reviewing is largely a task of consumer advocacy, it introduces and discusses any particular work in a manner that indicates to possible readers whether or not they may enjoy the work. This reviewing role is the dominant form of arts writing in journalism, in particular the broadsheet press, and generally emphasises the reviewer’s opinion of the merits of the work. Unfortunately, this has been the dominant form of ‘analysis’ in regards to individual hypertext titles in the commonly read and available published literature, with the notable exceptions of Gaggi’s (1997) chapter on Moulthrop’s (1991) “Victory Garden”, and Douglas’ (2000) sustained consideration of Joyce’s (1987)“Afternoon”.

(As a counter example consider Cubitt’s (1998) erudite “Digital Aesthetics” which opens with a discussion of hypertext that also takes “Victory Garden” as its object. It is quickly apparent that the “Victory Garden” discussed is not the published Storyspace “Victory Garden” but some sort of Webbed avatar. This mars an otherwise exemplary critical text, but the assumption that hypertext is or only appears in HTML is common.)

Criticism, on the other hand, is largely the preserve of academic writing, and in current hypertext practice this rarely appears to focus on an individual text, preferring to make general claims about hypertext and fiction. Where it does deal with specific titles such work tends to offer complex narratological analyses that tell us much about the formal properties of hypertext fiction, but little about what any particular hypertext fiction might be about, what it might mean, or its purpose. (I await the arrival of Hayle’s (forthcoming) “Writing Machines” with interest in this regard.)

This is not an argument for legitimating authorial intent, but is an argument for the necessity of recognising that a major problem in the reception and understanding of hypertext has been that there are very few examples of applied critical writing. This means that for the aspiring hypertext critic there are few extant models of what hypertext criticism might look like — for a group of undergraduate students what writing could I show them that illustrates how you can analyse and explore what a hypertext fiction might do and why? This is not an issue when writing about literature, poetry, cinema, or television. Rather conservatively I often find myself referring to Auerbach’s (1974) “Mimesis” as an exemplar, or in a more contemporary vein Foucault’s (1970) essay on Velasquez. Both examples combine a sustained theoretical contextualisation with an almost Ricourean concern with the horizon provoked by the Other.

As hypertext critics we are cobbled by the lack of examples of such simple things as what an individual hypertext might mean. This compounds the problem for future readers, and if we can’t work out how and what to write to model what a hypertext means, in a simple hermeneutic sense, we can hardly complain that readers don’t ‘get’ it.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.
Cubitt, Sean. Digital Aesthetics. London: Sage Publications, 1998.
Douglas, J. Yellowlees. The End of Books — or Books without End?: Reading Interactive Narratives. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
Foucault, Michel. “Las Meninas.” The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Tavistock Publications, 1970. 3-16.
Gaggi, Silvio. From Text to Hypertext: Decentering the Subject in Fiction, Film, the Visual Arts, and Electronic Media. Penn Studies in Contemporary American Fiction. Ed. Emory Elliott. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. Boston: MIT Press. Forthcoming.
Joyce, Michael. Afternoon: A Story. Watertown (MA): Eastgate Systems, 1987.
Moulthrop, Stuart. Victory Garden. Watertown (MA): Eastgate Systems, 1991.

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