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Reviewed by:
  • Avatars of Story
  • John Dolis (bio)
Avatars of Story. By Marie-Laure Ryan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. xxiv + 275 pp. Cloth, $60.00; paper, $20.00.

In Avatars of Story, Marie-Laure Ryan examines narratology in terms of its transmedial incarnations. The book falls into two parts: I, “Narrative in Old Media” and II, “Narrative in New Media.” Ryan’s “Introduction” endorses a middle ground position with respect to narration, one somewhere between “a stiflingly traditionalist and a wildly expansionist approach”: narrative is [End Page 524] a “cognitive construct” that can take a variety of shapes, what Ryan calls “avatars of story,” and which can manifest itself in a variety of ways, what Ryan calls “modes of narrativity” (xviii).

Chapter 1, “Narrative, Media, and Modes,” explores the recent popularity of narrative studies over the past decade and its subsequent dilution of meaning, a “dissolution” that can only be resolved in terms of “a definition that stresses precise semantic features” (6). A transmedial definition, moreover, requires “a broadening of the concept beyond the verbal” (6–7). Following the thinking of Fotis Jannidis, Ryan regards the set of all narratives as fuzzy, and narrativity (or “storiness”) as “a scalar property rather than as a rigidly binary feature that divides mental representations into stories and nonstories” (7). Accordingly, narrative transcends the traditional sense of “telling somebody else that something happened” (12). A “medium,” in turn, refers not only to a channel/system of communication or a material/technical means of expression, but also, drawing upon the thinking of Joshua Meyerowitz, to a “language” (17). In this sense, media may be semiotic phenomena, technologies, or even cultural practices. In short, a meduim is narratively relevant “if it makes an impact on either story, discourse, or social and personal use of narrative” (25–26).

In chapter 2, “Drawing and Transgressing Fictional Boundaries,” Ryan addresses narration in light of “fictionality”—specifically, those media and conditions under which the term might be applicable—and argues for a transmedial concept: fiction “is not a property inherent to certain media but a specific use of the media for which the concept is valid” (37). Thus, music and architecture, for example, are, by definition, excluded from the realm of fiction. As for the postmodern phenomenon of hybridization (the “Doctrine of Panfictionality”), Ryan both exposes the epistemological consequences of any theory that fails to distinguish fiction from nonfiction and, simultaneously, avoids the issue entirely by making her distinction purely pragmatic: how are we supposed to use a text? A further question emerges here: is hybridization compatible with an analog theory that posits a continuum between fact and fiction, or, rather, with a digital theory that posits a well-defined border between the two?

Chapters 3, “Narrative in Fake and Real Reality TV,” and 4, “Narrative in Real Time,” examine, respectively, “reality” TV and “real time” media—for example, live radio broadcasts of sports events—as old-style media that nonetheless partake of an “emergent” mode characteristic of most digital media. Specifically, chapter 3 compares the “fictional” TV show of The Truman Show to the “real” show of Survivor, questioning both reality TV’s dependence upon other genres and media as well as its “sense” of reality as such. Chapter 4, in turn, investigates a play-off game between the Cubs and [End Page 525] Giants, 9 October 1989, illustrating how radio sports broadcasters emplot events—“the decisive factor of narrativity” (81)—despite the absence of retrospective narration’s “perfect hindsight” (xxi).

Chapter 5, “Toward an Interactive Narratology,” introduces the general argument that configures the second part of the book: how can classical narratology be applied to digital media (dependent upon the computer’s hardware) in light of the single-most defining characteristic of the media’s textual architecture, “interactivity” or choice (dependent upon the computer’s software), which seems to militate against the very possibility of story-telling? Ryan draws upon Espen Aarseth’s typology to distinguish four strategic forms of interactivity based on two binary pairs (“internal/external” and “exploratory/ontological”) able to accommodate hybrid categories as well (107).

Chapters 6, “Interactive Fiction and Storyspace Hypertext,” and 7, “Web-Based Narrative, Multimedia, and Interactive Drama,” retrace...


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pp. 524-527
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