November 13, 2001
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Rau Row

For many years, I've been calling for real criticism of real hypertexts. Caitlin Fisher's "These Waves of Girls" is a real hypertext, of which Anja Rau is really critical.

Rau attacks on three separate fronts. First, she finds the work lacks craftsmanship. Load times are unnecessarily long. Significant links are broken. Borders come and go, sounds seem to be applied arbitrarily, and Rau attributes these inconsistencies to mere inattention. She notes that better solutions are available for the challenges that seem to have baffled Fisher; Flash sounds, vector graphics, better window management, and PHP could all (she thinks) have been deployed to good effect.

Next, Rau finds that the various elements -- text, images, sounds, animations -- that comprise the work fail to cohere; they are thrown together without forming a coherent whole. Strunk and White suggest that writers omit unnecessary words; Rau applies the same rule to tiled images, rollovers, noises. (Diane Greco gave a fine talk on this common failing to the Canadian Library Association a few years ago)

Finally, Rau believes the work was misconceived because it "utterly ignores its predecessors in both print and the digital medium."

The compulsion to adopt a unified identity and a linear story of ones life that came and still comes with coming out, might be represented in a text with a hypertextual layout. Waves is obviously not aware of such possibilities -- let alone of the tradition of homoerotic and especially lesbian (sub)texts in hyperfiction from Victory Garden via Patchwork Girl to Desert Mauve.

The hazard of this argument is that the critic can be tempted to argue about the work that might have been, not the work at hand. Occasionally, ignoring the past is a good idea. What particularly annoys Rau, I think, is not Fisher's turning her back on the past and its possibilities, but rather that ELO judge Larry McCaffery (who described himself as "an interested novice") failed to observe or address the issue.

Rau concludes by suggesting that these shortcomings indicate that multimedia is too hard for any one person to do alone, that collaborative teams are now indispensable. I think she's mistaken in this. Certainly the shortcomings of one work don't prove that better work is impossible. "Modern, commercial Web sites," Rau observes, are "built by teams of .... specialists, often in several months of hard work." This is, of course, indisputably true, and collaborative production of new media might yet prove important even if the first steps seem unpromising. Still, a host of influential and technologically complex sites are crafted by individuals, often working in their spare time (see Independents Day for polemics about this, or look at Rayseo, 6amHoover, or Praystation for examples)

The fewer hands, the fewer the barriers to real feeling, intensity, and expression. We read to make contact, to touch another mind. Two is company; a collaboration is sometimes a crowd.

Reading this essay, I find that at times I agree with Rau. At other times I disagree, and on occasion I'm not sure. But we're always talking about ideas, not arguing about taste gossiping about box office. This is what criticism is supposed to do

Jill Walker responds..