May 4, 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.