Hypertext Fiction: Dead or Alive?

I alluded to Robert Coover’s Litquake[1] appearance at Elbo Room in the previous post. But what I failed to mention was Andrew Sean Greer‘s introduction for Coover. Greer, who despite clutching what appeared to be a ferocious palimpsest in his fist, managed to find the will to extemporize about how he met Coover, which was in a classroom at Brown University. The class that Coover taught was “Hypertext in Fiction,” and Greer noted this was a bit before the web browsing days. Coover used hypertext as a way of interconnecting the students’ various stories. Greer confessed that, at first, he thought that such an exercise would be easy, tantamount to devising a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. But as it turned out, most of the students skipped out on the class, leaving Coover with a small cadre of students (including Greer).

The funny part of Greer’s story was that, as students were composing their work on hypertext, they noticed that some of their minor details had been changed around. Furious, the students approached Coover, pointing out that, as authors, they rightfully controlled the details to these works. Coover responded that he wasn’t the one changing the details, but thought that the mysterious person doing this was on the right track.

Greer’s hypertext anecdote had me wondering, in these days of Web 2.0, Wikipedia and podcasting, whether hypertext is even a suitable medium for fiction anymore. Is hypertextualized fiction something to be frowned upon or ignored, much like the theatrical Happenings of the 1960s? Or is it simply misunderstood? Perhaps we’re limiting our options in thinking, as we have thought since the advent of the byline, that the author exclusively controls the narrative. Since the reader is bound to form certain impressions from a story’s subtext, often wildly disparate from other readers, perhaps the author doesn’t really control the destiny. Because while he is organizing the information, he cannot possibly control how it is read. (And one might argue that David Foster Wallace’s infamous essay from earlier in the year, “Host”[2] which featured several internecine branches of footnotes, might be representative of this potential new model.)

If this is the case, then perhaps the next step after postmodernism is something along the lines of hypertext, something that might be dictated either by footnotes, by hypertext, or through some other device, as yet beyond our powers. Whatever method used, I’m suggesting here that the order in which the information is presented and perused is entirely up to the reader, but the author can control the taxonomy and the structure through which it is accessed. Not unlike a category that might clarify a blog posting and allows it to be strung together through a search engine (such as Technorati) for a common frame of reference.

For more on hypertext[3], they’ve got a lively discussion over at I Love Books, complete with hypertext fiction linkage.

[1] — Additional Litquake coverage can be found at Frances Dinkelspiel’s place.

[2] — Sadly, the PDF version is only readable to Atlantic subscribers. But the essay is contained in Wallace’s forthcoming essay collection, Consider the Lobster.

[3] There are several hypertext stories for sale at Eastgate. Thankfully, Norton has an excerpt of J. Yellowlees Douglas’ “I Have Said Nothing.”


  1. this reminds me of a “scheme” I “hatched” a while back, possibly at “converational reading” in the “comments”.

    Unfortunately I am not a “writer” but would be willing to collaborate with one[1] on the “following”

    * the text would appear in some sort of “browser” (Web browser, or some custom built – [TBD])

    * the (source) text(?) would be marked up in some way that the reader could “activate” the appropriate portions. (Possibly with the use of “sliders”, radio buttons, and mood-ring / browser interfaces). = Acitvate not being limited, of course, to current definitions and understandings of the word.

    Some ideas:
    * remove all adjectives, adverbs, modifiers, etc.. we’re talking Nouns and verbs ONLY! (or vice versa)
    * remove words longer than N syllables.
    * whatever.

    Of course this would be made easier if English were a more consistent, regular grammar. Anybody have suggestions for a grammar suitable / optimal for such an undertaking. (Initially, I’ll limit this to language with a written language, but may eventually extend this to ESL, or whathaveyou (what have you?).

    The sooner I get MY MacArthur, the sooner I’ll get the ball rolling on this.

    [1] Also seeking: User Interface Experts, Cognitive Linguists, Logicians, Graphics Designers and 1 intern (unpaid).

  2. Thanks for the link, Tito.

    I wish I had about three hours to corral all of my thoughts on this issue, because I’m very much interested in the idea of text being surrendered from the author and granted to the reader through some technological device. Not only is this a highly playful approach to literature, but it also suggests that different technologies spawn different types of fiction, further innovating the form.

    I’ll say just this though:

    1. Richard Powers is very much ahead of the technological curve. Aside from dictating “The Time of Our Signing” directly into Dragon Naturally Speaking, his novel “Galatea 2.2” is an interesting fictional examination in machine consciousness, with the additional meta-element of Powers writing himself into the sucker.

    2. Has anyone offered a thorough examination of how the word processor has altered literature? Further, I wonder if we can truly speculate upon how the next inevitable device will alter fiction, whether it be hypertext or spoken composition that is captured onto the page.

    3. If we can determine that technology does encourage certain forms and styles, is it possible to chart something akin to action units for the face for literature? We have devices for musicians where they can deterine how salable a particular track is (by feeding it through a musical algorithim that, in turn, compares the track against previous pop music hits). Why don’t we have such a device for literature?

    I guess what I’m suggesting here is (a) can technology assist us in deconstructing text and inferring the kind of meaning that grad students spend hours discussing, (b) can whatever conclusions or metadata we obtain from this be qualified into further literary criticism, and (c) once aware of these specific “voiceprints,” can we then devise a writing method that is both innovative and completely undetectable by a computer?

  3. Do footnotes count? Then the Pepy’s Diary would be good example in a way, but I’m not sure they do – only because footnotes don’t change the fundamental meaning of the text, they only enhance the readers understanding.

    I think of hyperext literature as the interconnectedness of disparate parts that can be combined or recombined in ways that change the original meaning of the text.

    An idea might be several linear threads of character’s stories, each thread with a predominant story, but connected at key points where each character shows up in a different character’s thread – each independent of one another, but connected and each time you switch threads you risk altering your perception of the character you came from based on how she interacts in the current thread.

    I don’t know any examples of this, but it’s a thought. One that you probably easily punch some holes into.

    Ed, you may also be interested in checking out the blog of the Institute for the Future of the Book.


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