Mar 02 29 2002

On criticism

Diane Greco takes a look at the New York Times Book Review, and doesn't like what she sees. The favorable reviews, she finds, are mere hagiography, but Greco argues that the unfavorable reviews often reflect intellectual laziness. "Hypertext", she finds, has entered pop culture as a term of abuse, people don't like emotion or complexity or challenge, and worry entirely too much about whether a book will sell -- a question that should hardly concern the reviewer.

"Another popular way to slam a book is to argue that it is too intellectual, too 'symbolic,' in need of too much "interpretation." (Can you hear the gagging yet?) Claiming a book won't appeal to the hoi polloi implies that the book is not marketable -- it won't sell. This argument is not only completely specious because it conflates merit with sales, but it is particularly deadly because it encourages people to believe that it is perfectly all right to conflate merit with sales. "

In the LA Times, staff writer Susan Salter Reynolds writes about "Opening the Book on Literature's Future".

The fact checking is abysmal and shocking. In alluding to the canon of early literary hypertexts, for example, she writes:

These include William Gibson's "xanadu," a story that disintegrated bit by bit over a six-month period, and Michael Joyce's "Aftermath," the first electronic literary book with hypertext links.

The Gibson work was "Agrippa: A Book of the Dead". "Xanadu", of course, is Ted Nelson's vision for a docuverse. Joyce's was "afternoon, a story". Good grief.

Apr 02 23 2002


Diane Greco shows how easy it is to write hypertext criticism these days:

  1. Bash George P. Landow
  2. Bash Eastgate
  3. Blow your horn; don't bother to read or understand writers who don't buy you drinks
  4. Drop names

Greco's furious. It's about time someone got angry. It's about time we all got angry.

I've been quiet about this for the last year or two, expecting that talent (and there's plenty of talent in this field) would drive out or educate the foolishness. Instead, the foolishness and thuggery are driving out the talent. Enough: let's clean these stables.

Apr 02 24 2002


Congratulations to ELO, which has been awarded another $50,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to work on its directory of electronic literature.

Last week, Eastgate's main Web site served 43,377 pages. As best I can determine, the hypertexts and systems we publish -- about 40 in all -- received two referrals from the directory. That's at least 0.005% of our traffic!

Apr 02 26 2002

On Criticism

Greco is angry because so much hypertext criticism is small-minded and inept. It's also unreadable. It doesn't have to be.

Let's look at Ebert, taking on a terrible challenge: reviewing a mediocre movie that readers expect to be mediocre. What can you say about The Scorpion King?

"Of all the special effects in the movie, the most impressive are the ones that keep the breasts of the many nubile maidens covered to within one centimeter of the PG-13 guidelines. Hu, a beautiful woman who looks as if she is trying to remember the good things her agent told her would happen if she took this role, has especially clever long, flowing hair, which cascades down over her breasts instead of up over her head, even when she is descending a waterfall.

Did I enjoy this movie? Yeah, I did, although not quite enough to recommend it...

This isn't showy, but he makes a point about craft, and another point about the limits of craft, and we have fun reading it. Compare this to Scott Rettberg in EBR:

A hypertext novel, with its simple links, might map metaphorically to a relatively simple instrument, such as a flute or a guitar, while a VRML MOO complete with programmed AI avatars might map to something more along the lines of a pipe organ. Symphonies will be written, but before they are realized both writers and readers will need to figure out how to work with the many new instruments at hand.

Rettberg is reaching higher, and his horn won't hit the note. Ebert shows humor and sympathy to an actress caught in an difficult place and awkward costume, Rettberg is busy fluting his metaphor. Whether "mapping" is an apt metaphor or not, it's hard to care as much about it as we care for Ebert's actress. Is a pipe organ a complex instrument, compared to a guitar? In terms of polyphonicity, or difficulty of performance, or subtlety of repertoire, or what? What's the obsolete VRML doing here? After all those conditional verbs, who knows?

Rettberg can do better than this; look at his fiction. But this is one of the better parts of the essay. Elsewhere, he stumbles (as writers do) and his editors at EBR don't take the trouble to save him. For extra credit, listen to this muddled nostalgia for the good old school days of his youth which (since Mr. Rettberg is still in school) must have been more recent than he wants you to think.

Back in the day when William Gillespie and I were enrolled in David Foster Wallace's M.A. fiction writing workshop at Illinois State University, which at the time was chock-full of eager young postmodernists striving to subvert the work of their forbears, our discussion often circled back to the ideas - not to familiar workshop dictums about showing vs. telling - but to the problem of "showing off," and in the process "telling off" the reader. When we youngsters utilized techniques such as nonlinear narrative, disruptive shifts of discourse style mid-story, radical deconstruction of givens of traditional storytelling such as plot, character, and setting etc., Wallace usually reacted in a surprisingly negative, surprisingly conservative way....

Apr 02 29 2002


Many of the best, most-active hypertext critics are not native English speakers, though all the most-discussed hypertexts are written in English. Good critics need to undertake a good deal of work to approach these hypertexts, which are often challenging, dense, complex. Fine hypertexts need to be studied and savored. The extra obstacle of working in a second (or fourth) language is just one extra burden.

Why doesn't Eastgate publish hypertexts in Italian, Norwegian, or Chinese? We don't know how to read them, and we don't know how to sell them over there. We may need to learn.

A lot of the lazy critics are Americans. They don't expect to work. The demands of a hypertext may too much of an imposition for them. Sven Birkerts writes that a friend tried to get him to read Victory Garden one afternoon, but Birkerts just couldn't get into it.

A few of the death-and-gloom critics are Europeans, it's true. Notice, though, that the naive pseudo-Marxist adulation of the amateur (and outright hostility to hypertext publishing) is almost purely American -- indeed, chiefly Midwestern. The Left is a living force in Northern Europe, Australia, and to a lesser extent in the American coasts, making it harder for Babbitry and boosterism to masquerade as academic Marxism.

It's not a hard and fast rule. A few Americans do the work. So do some Britons, and a bunch of Australians. Some European critics are as lazy as any American. The phenomenon is probably meaningless, the chance conunction of a slow year for some of the better US writers just as a generation of talented Europeans are getting their degrees and publishing a storm.

In a bad week, I'm taking a pleasure in Iru, a lovely display font from T26. It's drawn with a simple joy. It's at once familiar and new. It has a great Y and a nifty X, which makes it handy for a hypertext publisher like me.

If you read the Scandinavian Web design portal k10k, you're already familiar with the exuberant enthusiasms of its writers. Sites they like are smooth and sweet. They're filled with pixellated goodness. They're tasty. They're happy.

Hypertext begins with Ted Nelson's white book with a clenched fist and the motto: You Can And Must Understand Computers Now. Computer For The People! We used to worry about fitting the computer in the basement, and what we'd do to help people who didn't have a basement. Now, we agonize over whether we can bother upgrading our browser or agonize that we weren't born knowing Flash and Tinderbox and PHP.

Enough. Let's stop worrying and get back to making (and enjoying) great stuff.

As a rule of thumb, you can sniff out the bad hypertext criticism from a distance. It's sour, bitter, and petty. The bad criticism is filled with talk about the death of disciplines, with gloating over the end of careers, with jealousy over the very idea of someone having to pay $20 for a wonderful hypertext, with venom and bitterness and bile.

The good critics remember that we're part of a wonderful new beginning, and they're happy. They're even happy when they don't much like the hypertext at hand. The good critics learn from hypertexts they don't immediately like. They want to learn, they want to share the lesson with us, and they are happy doing it.

In an interview in The Iowa Review's Web 'zine, Kate Hayles worries about the future "playability" of electronic literature.

I am especially concerned with building and conserving an archive of electronic literature, in a technological environment where any electronic work is likely to be unplayable in 3-5 years, certainly by a decade. How will we achieve the depth, breadth, and quality of the print archive--a treasure store without which the practice of literature would be unthinkable--for electronic works? This crucial issue is currently being addressed by a number of organizations, including museums, text-encoding initiatives, and in the case of literature, the Electronic Literature Organization. Historians accept the idea that without an archive, the discipline would be impossible. The same goes for literature." (emphasis mine)

This claim is unsupported by the evidence and probably untrue. It is extremely likely that most electronic work written today will be easily performed in 3-5 years, and that much will be easily readable in a decade.

Every Storyspace document ever published is readable today. Afternoon is fifteen years old. Victory Garden is a decade old. They're read all over the world.

Even if Eastgate hadn't just released bright and shiny new Storyspace 2, you could still read these titles with Storyspace 1. Storyspace 3.4 -- the unpublished 1987 beta, still runs fine. So does lots of antique software. You can download the 1987 outliner MORE 1.1c and run it on machines sold today. You can still run Lotus Agenda (1988). You can even still run neglected and forgotten hypertexts like my Election of 1912 (with Erin Sweeney). Flash is four years old; if you wrote a hypertext in Flash in 1998, it'll run just fine today. Old Director files work fine. HyperCard works fine. HTML will be readable for centuries, assuming there is anyone alive to read it.

Historians have often worked without archives. According to Anthony Grafton, the first historian to make real use of archives was Leopold van Ranke (1795-1886). From Thucydides to Samuel Eliot Morrison to Russell Meiggs to John Keegan, students of history have often worked in the absence of complete (or any) archives.

Since works a decade old are not only "playable" but widely available, why does Hayles assert that works will "certainly" be unplayable after a decade? I understand the problem to which Hayles is calling attention here, and agree that it's worth study. Preservation is important, and initiatives like the Text Encoding Initiative can provide invaluable infrastucture, as can good library collections of electronic literature. But, the specific assertions Hayles makes here are unsupported and probably unsupportable. Surely an intelligent editor should have queried this? Surely someone at Iowa is familiar with the history of hypertext, and the history of History?

May 02 3 2002

The Big Chill

In 1983, Lawrence Kasdan made The Big Chill, a glossy Hollywood remake of John Sayles' 1980 indy classic, The Return of the Secaucus 7. The Sayles movie was a low-budget sensation -- in a sense, it was the original low-budget sensation.

The Big Chill has big-name actors, great sets, wonderful music, living color. The Return of the Secaucus 7 doesn't. We all know this story, and we know where this leads. You already expect to hear that Secaucus 7 is a better movie -- earlier, more original, less contrived, more sincere. You don't need a film degree to anticipate this, or to understand why production values and special effects don't always make movies (or hypertexts) better.

That's why it was strange to hear Kate Hayles open the ELO conference last month with a plea to overlook the technical shortcomings of hypertexts that aren't brand new. It was a fine keynote, but why was it necessary to argue this point? This wasn't, after all, an audience of 14-year-olds who think The Scorpion King is, well, the best ever; this is an audience of writers and writing teachers and English professors, and Hayles is struggling to explain to them that the fact that Charlie Chaplin movies all look old doesn't mean they're no good anymore. (Most of them don't understand the message, and are deeply, deeply worried that hypertext literature will become unreadable unless they launch a big project to archive it or reimplement it or stamp out Storyspace or something.)

This was not what Hayles argued in Los Angeles, although some of her audience seemed to think it was. It is what she appears to be saying in her Iowa interview; I assume that she can't really mean it, and that a wrong impression was created by sloppy editing.

That great electronic writing remains untarnished after the shiny-newness of its technological wrappings falls away should be obvious, even to a self-described novice like Larry McCaffery who judged the first (and, apparently, the last) ELO fiction prize. He wrote that Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl is

still more than able to hold its own among more technologically advanced works in terms of the freshness of the writing and the conceptual brilliance of its design.

Why would an English professor be surprised that seven or eight years don't dim fresh writing and conceptual brilliance? This was a silly thing to say, just as silly as when he wrote that he wanted to "encourage" Patchwork Girl's publication. A decent editor would have caught these blunders and spared everyone a lot of embarrassment.

I find that Roger Ebert usually dashes straight to the crucial point of a film, but I think perhaps he's slightly astray with Pawel Pawlikowski's My Summer of Love. It's a very good movie -- I think everyone agrees with that. And Ebert is exactly right about the pacing:

The movie is sweet and languid when the girls are together... Pawel Pawlikowski, the director and co-writer (with Michael Wynne), wisely allows then time to seem to flow, instead of pushing it.

And he's right that, despite appearances, this is not about anyone's discovery of sexual identity.

The title of 'My Summer of Love' gives away two games at once: That she will fall in love, and that autumn will come.

This is not the story of two girls in love, and it's not Fucking Amål, and it seems incidental that the two girls are two girls.

But it's not: you couldn't remake it as boy meets girl, the way you could make a straight It Happened On Night, or a gay Some Like It Hot. This is a story that only works the way it's told; what seems incidental is unexpectedly essential.

Ebert's review sets up the expectation that it's all about the ending. It is, yes, and yet it isn't: there isn't a real twist. Not only has everything in the denoument has been established, it's been so well established that the surprise isn't surprising until the story over and you realize how that wasn't what you expected but it's what you should have expected.

My Summer Of Love

For real criticism of real hypertexts, we turn from Birkerts to Anja Rau. She's looking again at new media play in the interface, from Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse to Spanish blood drive ads.

In the Boston Globe, Sven Birkerts (The Gutenberg Elegies) tries to explain why literary blogging won't save our literary culture.

Ive been trying to make my peace with [literary Web sites] -- and to decide once and for all if they represent an advance, a retreat, or simply the declaration of an emerging new order against which there is no point in kicking.

As newspapers cut back on book reviews, Birkerts deplores the shift of literary discussion to electronic forms. As has always been the case for Birkerts, there's something about the screen of the computer that prevents him from paying attention.

I've discovered what the more digitally progressive of my peers have known for years: that it is alarmingly easy to slide into a slipstream, or, better, go rollicking in a snake-bed of sites and posts, where each twist of text catches hold of another's tail, the whole progress and regress morphing into a no-exit situation that has to be something new under the sun.

Well, yes: it's alarmingly easy — just as a schoolchild might argue that it's alarmingly easy to get bored reading an big old book when the sun is shining and everyone is going to play baseball down at the park. Or, just as the proverbial stock broker might argue that it's alarmingly easy to fall asleep, especially since nobody can be expected to keep all these authors straight: the country is going to the dogs and something should be done and I'll have another whiskey and soda!"

Reading requires attention. Birkerts can't bring himself to pay attention to what's on the screen; he gets distracted by the links. Everyone goes through this; it's part of learning to read hypertext, which means, part of learning to read.

This time, Birkerts longs for the declining influence of "the self-constituted group of those who have made it their purpose to do so. Arbiters, critics . . . reviewers." Self-constituted! Bloggers might be self-constituted, but newspaper reviewers are hired help, hand-chosen by the lords of the press. You might get lucky, and have, say, Mr. Hearst for your boss. You might get Lord Beaverbook. A bunch of new people are about to enjoy the literary patronage of Mr. Murdoch: good luck with that.

To write of newspaper folk as "self constituted" suggests that Birkerts, gray haired as he says he is becoming, never managed to spend much time in a news room or a newspaper bar. Those guys and gals were working stiffs, they were fierce defenders of labor, and they knew which side they were on. Birkerts feels "deep impulses of solidarity" for some forlorn picketers responding to cuts in the book reviews at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but Birkerts has a short list of influential book sections.

  • The New York Times
  • The Boston Globe (now a local subsidiary of the New York Times)
  • The Los Angeles Times (torn by cuts and believed to be in deep trouble)
  • The Tribune (up for sale)
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (huh?)

The absences are haunting: San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Washington. I don't understand why Birkerts doesn't mention the NYBR or the TLS — both of which seem to me to be far closer to the center of literary discussion than any US newspaper other than the Times.

Birkerts dislikes what he perceives as "a more idiosyncratic, off-the-cuff style, a kind of 'I've been thinking . . .' approach." How about E. B. White? Hell, the entire Talk of the Town! It's hard to get more hierarchical than Ruskin on art criticism, but Mornings In Florence affects the same style.

Birkerts says he wants to "keep alive the possibility of shared discourse," but he isn't interested in listening. To listen would require attention, and his attention keeps wandering off under the influence of all those tempting links. It's not the link's fault, anymore than it's the sunshine that keeps our young scholar staring out the window toward that sunny ballpark.