Literary Hypertext and Its Critics
Diane Greco and Mark Bernstein
Although games, visual art, and textual experiments had long been areas of academic research, the first artistically convincing explorations of literary computing appeared in the late 1980s. It was only in these years that computers became sufficiently commonplace that a computational creation could realistically hope to find an audience. Of equal importance was the gradual acceptance of Ted Nelson’s thesis  that computers could be tools for personal expression. Even in 1982, the title of Nelson’s Literary Machines  was meant to shock and surprise.
A final and critical step was first taken by diverse collection of American writers, many of whom came to be associated with the early hypertext publisher, Eastgate Systems. These writers recognized that hypertext links were in fact the distinctive innovation in electronic literature, and that links need not be merely annotations (as in ) or plot points (as in Adventure ). Links, they realized, could serve as exquisite literary connections. They could change point of view, enact time shifts, and hold contradictory elements in suspension. Links suggested new narrative structure –in a sense, they offered a new, large-scale punctuation . Even the absence of an expected link could prove as eloquent as a dramatic musical rest , and the readerly effort required to decode the gap between the point of departure and the point of arrival could exert a powerful artistic effect.
To other early hypertext proponents, the link and its vicissitudes offered a new kind of a writing that reflected contemporary thinking about textuality and reading. Of particular interest to them was the degree to which the links created and enacted a dialog between the reader and the work , making manifest a tacit interplay between the writer and reader that has always been part of reading .
Although these early hypertext writers tended to agree on these principles, their works differed strikingly in execution, giving rise to three quite distinct approaches to literary hypertext that continue to shape the literature today.
First, the link's appearance as a literary device was an occasion to reflect, thematically and formally, on the nuts and bolts of narrative. In particular, writers addressed themselves to the question of what sorts of transitions were necessary to make a narrative satisfying when an open, fluid link structure replaced one-way, naturalistic causality as the fundamental building block of narrative. As a device that guided readers through cyclical (or at least non-linear) narratives, offering opportunities to re-visit old scenes in new contexts, the link became a motor for a kind of storytelling that attended to context in new ways. How do you write for and about a form in which each discrete part of a story may be encountered in any order, at any time, before or after any other part? Using links to create narratives without clear beginnings or endings, Michael Joyce, in afternoon and later in Twilight   built dense, lyrical explorations of time, causality, textuality and memory.
Stuart Moulthrop, in Victory Garden  used links in an ironic, less purely evocative mode. While Joyce spoke of links as “words the yield”, Moulthrop’s witty (and, often, bitterly sarcastic) links yield nothing to anyone. Where Joyce’s work is overtly metafictional, calling attention to itself as a linked and cyclical expressive mode, Moulthrop and J. Yellowlees Douglas (“I Have Said Nothing” ) use links to shape narrative events much as a poet may depart from idiomatic word order to achieve dramatic effect. In hypertext, these writers contrive to reveal an underlying narrative that emerges as the reader interprets scenes described in an unusual or unexpected sequence. As Michael Joyce said of Victory Garden, "There is no edit that makes sense of it after all; rather, it is the mapping along the way that is the sense that makes the fiction." [24, p. 87] Reading these hypertexts is often like creating subtractive sculpture: as you read, connections emerge from what had previously seemed like an intriguing but undifferentiated .
Finally, links could be used to tell stories incrementally, through operations that build up a narrative from hints and cues, presented as simulated artifacts or found objects. The reader engages in a voyage of discovery, with game-like overtones but without a game’s typically simple objective. In Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse , John McDaid devised an artifactual hypertext, literally a literary machine simulated on the reader’s computer, which the reader must learn to operate and decode.
All three approaches received substantial critical applause, a lasting following, and (perhaps most importantly) have inspired subsequent hypertext artists. Joyce’s lyrical hypertextuality finds recent echoes, for example, in Chapman’s Turning In , Strickland’s True North , as well as Arnold and Derby’s Kokura . Moulthrop’s hyperbaton is key to Coverley’s Califia  and Cramer’s “In Small & Large Pieces” , Eisen’s “What Fits”  and Amerika’s Grammatron . McDaid’s artifactual approach, dormant for some years, finds recent expression in Bly’s We Descend , Marshall and Malloy’s Forward Anywhere , and in Sondheim’s executable poems . Many combine several approaches, as when Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl  masterfully shifts among all three
A substantial critical literature has developed around these works, as scholars and critics have sought to understand and appreciate them more fully. Robert Coover’s early essay  and his comprehensive , thoughtful review of entire body of early hypertext fiction , helped situate hypertext fiction near the center the contemporary literary landscape. Bolter’s Writing Space situated hypermedia in the continuing development of writing, and Landow’s Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology  called attention theoretical complexity of reading and criticism. Lanham  , Gaggi , Murray , Douglas ( , a revision of her 1992 dissertation) and Aarseth  each contributed monographs with important early readings of key hypertexts.
Contrary to the ahistorical claim that early hypertext critics were blindly supportive of the form (cf ), hypertext fiction has always attracted stern criticism as well as praise. Much of the early critique centered on the apparent similarity of the computer to the television, expressing more or less absurd fears that images, mixed media, and the screen's luminosity would of necessity subvert the values these critics argued were necessary for a literary culture to exist at all . Others, perceiving the relationship between hypertext and postmodernism and finding postmodern theory distasteful, sought to ridicule postmodern theory by denouncing hypertext . Inevitably, individual works received both praise and blame, and it is not uncommon to read of critics who, after the passage of months or years, found great merit in work they had previously disliked .
One may go further than this, although there is only room here to gesture toward a deeper, more informed way of thinking about hypertext. When critics bother to depart from polemicizing and adopt a more useful and informative historical focus, their point of departure for understanding hypertext is often the printing press and the history of the novel. This is a mistake. We might more usefully situate hypertext in a longer history, that of inscription. Each era demands its own forms of expression and creates technologies to facilitate them, and the history of writing may be understood as a long conversation between tools for inscription and the uses to which they are put.
At the same time, the struggle has always been overlaid with a parallel, though more nostalgic, struggle between memory and forgetting, invoking writing as a tool for recording rather than a forum of communication . Technology is always limited, but the imagination is not, and dreams always seem to outrun devices.If the link is a new, then is hypertext more like a new (or modified) writing surface, language, narratological form (a different mythology), or is it something else entirely?
Our dreams and devices will continue to pace, and occasionally outpace, each other. The future of serious writing lies on virtual surfaces richer and more malleable than paper, and these questions will better inform our understanding than nostalgic longings for an imaginary past, for the smell of ink and leather.
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Mark Bernstein is chief scientist, and Diane Greco is acquisitions editor, at Eastgate Systems, Inc. Founded in 1982, Eastgate publishes serious hypertext and creates advanced hypertext tools.
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