Cyberbooks and Virtual Libraries

Hypertext and its Implications for Literature


Computer technology is beginning to have a noticeable effect on the study and production of literature, but even now the influence is mostly in the form of reference tools. It is in this context that hypertext can most easily be explained. Although many scholars are still unfamiliar with the concept, most have used hypertext at some point in their research; the MLA bibliography on CDRom, an electronic encyclopedia, or help files for Windows are all forms of hypertext. Hypertext is electronic text which allows non-linear access to information through an index or links between words and topics. When the user selects a link or a hot word, she jumps to the selected article or section.

Although most academics may be familiar with hypertext, whether they know the term or not, this does not hold true for hyperfiction. Hyperfiction, electronic fiction which uses the technology of hypertext for creative purposes, is still quite exotic, and works of serious hyperfiction such as Anastasia Smith's Tavern (1990) or Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden (1991) remain rare. The genre is so new that no one really knows how to deal with it, what standards to set, what to measure it against. Should hyperfiction be judged by the amount of links it incorporates; by the way in which it subverts its own story; or perhaps even by the possibilities of the story itself? How important should verbal artistry be in a medium that requires more than that?

Ideally, hypertext could serve as a tool to "realize" fictional experiments that authors have been attempting since James Joyce, such as subverting the chronological imperative or the authority of the author. In fact, critics predicted this kind of hypertextual experimentation at least five years ago.(1) Although hyperfiction has recently received extremely celebrated attention,(2) fictional experimentation in the medium of hypertext is still far from widespread. This may well be the result of the limits of the early hypertext programs available and the knowledge of programming necessary to go beyond these tools and create such a project from scratch. Among the prominent early experimental works were the hypertext poem "Everglade" written by Rod Willmot, who went on to develop the authoring tool "Orpheus," one of the more versatile hypertext authoring programs presently available for IBM compatible computers;(3) and the hyperfiction Afternoon, A Story by Michael Joyce, who has since developed a program with Jay David Bolter and John B. Smith, Storyspace, probably the most popular hyperfiction vehicle for Mac-users.(4) It seems appropriate that these pioneers are both poets and programmers.

Thus, when examining the development of hyperfiction, it is important to keep in mind that affordable hypertext programs for non-programmers have only been available for perhaps half a dozen years. A number of early fictions were written with "Hypercard," a program that came bundled with the Mac starting in 1987. Early electronic fiction for IBM was generally more conventional in structure, for example the science fiction novel Baby April by John Peter, which came out in 1987:(5) more experimental works for IBM were usually in the form of interactive fiction, written with the help of text adventure authoring tools, for example the dreamlike story "A Fable" by Stan Heller.(6) Ted Husted's "Iris" for IBM first appeared in 1989, and has been used for several electronic magazines and works of fiction such as Sharedebate International, Ruby's Pearls, and the novel Tavern. But as these dates indicate, the medium has been available to authors for only a little over the space of time usually necessary for the creation of a long work of fiction. Of course, true hypertext programs were created long before these dates, but the prices of the packages made experimentation out of the question for most writers.

In the criticism dealing with hypertext and hyperfiction (generally published in standard print form) it has been noted frequently that the theory is far ahead of the reality. Robert Coover for example notes the "conventional nature of most of the fictions so far written."(7) The critical output on hyperfiction far exceeds the works available. Cyberspace and virtual reality have become thematic staples of science fiction literature, but for the most part these authors apparently prefer to think about the possibilities of the new medium than contribute to its development. An ambitious exception is the self-consuming literary artifact Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) by William Gibson, who is generally credited with coining the term "cyberspace." (Agrippa is a story on disk which erases itself as you read.) Several works of science fiction have appeared electronically, and there are a few authors who have experimented with digital media in their own works, among them Marc Steigler, Vernor Vinge and Rob Swigart, but the number of hyperfiction authors who apparently write for a predominantly academic audience is much higher.(8) Disregarding other difficulties, hyperfiction is very simply not a profitable market--yet.

Promoting the possibilities of digital media rather than actually producing hyperfiction is a common phenomenon among "academic" authors as well, however. Even Robert Coover, who leads a respected hyperfiction workshop at Brown University, which is fast attaining a corner on the market for serious hyperfiction authors, has not yet produced a work of hyperfiction. Not only the market is to be blamed for the lack of experimentation in the medium; not every author is willing to give up control to the extent that is necessary for hyperfiction. The well-known science fiction author Vonda McIntyre, for example, has participated as instructor in a hyperfiction workshop with Rob Swigart, but for her own works she rejects the medium of hypertext: "...with regular fiction, I want to have complete control of your horizontal and vertical."(9)

The lack of hyperfiction works available for literary analysis has been bemoaned but hardly looked into seriously; the aspect of production is not generally considered a subject for critical discourse.(10) But in order to better understand the phenomenon of contemporary hyperfiction, we cannot avoid the aspect of production. Typing words into a computer is only a first step in creating hyperfiction. Structure is of course always a question the author must consider when creating a work of fiction, but it is an even more important consideration when creating a work of hyperfiction, because the structure is potentially so much more complex. It is not a single structure, it is many. The author must decide on branches and alternatives and parallel plot lines; how many links to use and where to put them; whether to use graphics and sound, and if so, how to integrate multimedia into the hyperfiction itself.(11)

Once this complex structure has been mapped out, it has to be implemented--easier said than done. In order to create the links and jumps and color effects that change straightforward electronic text into hypertext, it is usually necessary for the author to go beyond the level of the text itself to the level of "command language": the future hypertext file must contain both text and so-called "scripts," the control characters that create the hypertextual elements once the file has been compiled. It has become a commonplace of contemporary criticism to acknowledge the overdetermined nature of the medium, language, and to point out that the message of the text is necessarily distorted by the medium. In hypertext, the filter of language is supplemented by the filter of computer language, making the author doubly distanced from the act of telling.

Some hypertext programs make the process of changing straight text to hypertext easier on the author by adding the control characters automatically once a link has been selected, but these types of programs often make editing on the level of the text difficult or even impossible. The program HyperRead, for example, is one of the simplest authoring tools allowing hypertext links that I have examined, but once the hypertext has been compiled, the original file can no longer be changed. If the author wants to make changes to the text, the hypertext must be recompiled.

Even before the potential author of hyperfiction plans the links and compiles the text, she must choose which of the many hypertext programs on the market is most suited to her purposes, assuming she is not a programmer as well as a writer, that is. The options can be overwhelming.(12) Does she want to stay close to the text and work in ASCII, manually putting in the codes for the links and pages as in "Iris" or "Dart," or does she want to import text page by page and comfortably create links on screen, at the risk of losing sight of the text as a whole, as in "Orpheus"? Does she want to work in a DOS or Windows based environment? How long a hypertext can the program handle, how many links? Does she want mouse support, colors, sound, graphics? Examining authoring systems alone takes a great deal of time--and learning how to use them even more. Here the Mac user may be at a certain advantage over the IBM user: the hypertext programs "Hypercard" and "Storyspace" have already become the standard choices for this platform.

Obviously, the hyperfiction author is faced with numerous decisions which have nothing to do with plot or characterization. To test these decisions, I decided to set up a hyperfiction application using two different hypertext programs, the older "Iris" and a new program with graphics display, "Neobook." I found working with Iris relatively simple, but it has no mouse support, and it is absolutely necessary to read the manual; the hypertext codes must be added with a word processing program or text editor and saved in ASCII format. It has sound, but does not support graphics. On the other hand, this means that a hypertext document written in Iris can be read by nearly any IBM compatible computer. Neobook, by contrast, requires an EGA, preferably VGA monitor, as well as a mouse. Graphically, it is much more appealing, but hypertext links can only be created with buttons that are assigned a certain function, rather than actually associating a word of the text with that function; if the author imports text which is longer than a single screen, the button created on a hot word will not scroll with the text. This means that links have to be created outside of the text window, giving the text more of the look of a program than hypertext, since there are no true hypertextual links, no highlighted hot words promising a new trail to follow.

Thus, in order to work in the medium of hyperfiction, at least at the stage we are now in computer and software technology, it takes an above-average knowledge of computers and a willingness to dedicate an above-average amount of time to the "prewriting" phase, in addition to the linguistic sensibility that we expect as a matter of course from the verbal artist. Is it any wonder that we have so few works of literary hyperfiction on which to vent our critical energies?

The emphasis here must be placed on "literary." The number of electronic works already available, often easily downloaded from the libraries of Internet and Compuserve and GEnie, is astonishing. Small distributors like Serendipity Systems and UserWare have dozens of available titles. But most of these titles are not "literary," nor are they "new" in any dramatic way; they are thrillers or science fiction novels, westerns or how-to books. The text is chronological, one chapter following the next in the same way it does in a traditional book, the only difference being that the book is distributed electronically. Even some of the works which use hypertextual elements, such as Peter Seulund's comic novel Uprisings in Libertyville, USA (1993), try to retain the resemblance to a printed book through the use of a table of contents and page numbers.(13)

Although much has been made of the non-linear nature of hypertext, even the more experimental works still largely rely on the chronological unfolding of events. Despite all that has been said about hyperfiction and the computer medium revolutionizing the way we read, there may be something more imperative about traditional chronology than just convention. Especially in such an unfamiliar medium as electronic text, in which the orientation offered by the physical book is missing, a plot thread with a recognizable chronology is the only prop on which the reader can rely. How should an apparently random sequence of screens which have no obvious connection to each other maintain a reader's interest? Stuart Moulthrop's highly praised Victory Garden is perhaps a case in point: as Robert Coover points out, it is little different than a standard academic novel,(14) but it may well be the traditional plots to be found that make it one of the more successful hyperfictions now available. Victory Garden is essentially a collection of parallel, alternate stories sharing the same protagonists, but depending on which link the reader follows, these same protagonists lead completely different lives. All of the stories are complicated by asides, by links which lead to quotes and scraps of information, perhaps even back to where the reader was before, but a definite chronology of events is nonetheless recognizable. Anastasia Smith's Tavern, less sophisticated in a hypertextual sense, lacking as it does the multitude of links that will lead the reader in different directions, conforms in a narrative sense less to the conventions of chronology. Impressionistic and fantastic, it follows no coherent plot, except perhaps that of authorial ego. (The main character is the "world famous author Anastasia Smith.") By contrast, Victory Garden has several recognizable plots, including a story with a sort of happy end. I even found a screen after this ending which offered no more links to follow; every click of the mouse gave me only an irritated beep--the hypertextual equivalent of "the end."

As opposed to what some critics claim, even in hypertext many authors still work with endings, and a beginning is unavoidable:(15) there has to be a first screen, a command to start the hyperfiction, at the very least, a "readme" file to instruct the reader which choices she has when loading the hypertext. Every hyperfiction I am aware of has at least a title screen, and most of them a first page as well. The continuing structure, on the other hand, can easily undergo radical transformation in the computer medium, and the author must decide how she wants to branch off from the unavoidable first screen, the inevitable beginning. These works are not linear in ways we are familiar with. Playful and open, they trick the reader into dead ends and backtracks. In Carolyn Guyer's Quibbling, for example, if the reader chooses the link "museum" from the node "Blue Ball in Space," she gets a bibliography of sources in the middle of the fiction.(16) From this "bibliography," the only option is to go back to the blue ball.

Will such non-linear works revolutionize the way we read? Or is the notion of beginning, middle and end too ingrained in our way of thinking to be broken? The linearity of the actual reading experience can hardly be changed by the options of the hypertext link--given the same hyperfiction, two individual readers will rarely read the same book in the same order, but both those readers will read one screen at a time, moving forward through the text in a very linear fashion.

What the branching options of the hypertext novel are more likely to revolutionize are the aesthetics of unity: the idea that every element of the fiction, right down to the last word, is there for a reason and could not be changed without dire effects on the aesthetic experience. The idea of a "definitive text" testifies to this ideology: the repeated attempts to define "authoritative" versions of Shakespeare's plays, for example, exactly as the author would have intended.(17) If, however, a hypertext novel is set up in such a way to allow different readings that still form a complete whole--options to follow the actions and point of view of a favorite character, for example, as opposed to one we like less--if the reader can arrive at the "end" aware that she has not followed all the paths possible but is still convinced that she has experienced a successful work of literature; if this fragmentary experience is possible, then the aesthetics of unity and intention can impossibly be applied to the work of hyperfiction. A definitive text would be a hard thing to find in the maze of a hypertext novel.(18)

Richard Lanham points out that an important element of the aesthetics of the printed literary work is that of "unselfconscious transparency" of style, and that this stylistic ideal can be directly related to print culture:

... after Gutenberg, "transparent" print faces had to be modeled. But once all this was done, unintermediated thought, or at least what seemed like unintermediated thought, was both possible and democratizable. And this unselfconscious transparency has become a stylistic, one might almost say a cultural, ideal for Western civilization. The best style is the style not noticed ... (19)

The convention of printed text as a natural expression of thought is a convention so engrained that it hardly occurs to us to question it.(20) In this context, Lanham distinguishes between looking at and looking through a text, and argues that the stylistic ideal "unselfconscious transparency" will change radically with the advent of the computer age, away from the notion of decorum to a theory of style which acknowledges "radical artifice," a style that was anticipated by postmodern writers.(21) On the level of language, Lanham's arguments are quite convincing, but as I have already suggested, there is yet another level to be considered when dealing with computer fiction. "Unselfconscious transparency" is necessary for successful hyperfiction as well as for traditional printed texts--but it is a transparency of technology rather than style. If the hypertext is difficult to get around in, if the commands are far from intuitive or the symbols on the screen misleading, it will affect the reading experience. The author still has the job of making it look easy, be the medium the page or the screen.

But although the technology may be transparent, the maze of the text usually is not. The ideal of ease of navigation seems to frequently be sacrificed to the ideal of interactivity. The branching options of hypertext are meant to promote reader participation beyond that of mere perception and interpretation: by the choices the reader makes, she helps shape the fiction, or at least the fictional experience. Does the possibility of choice on the part of the reader subvert the traditional dominance of the author over her text, as numerous critics and writers have claimed? In the introduction to Victory Garden, "Are We Reading Yet?" J. Yellowlees Douglas claims that the hyperfiction requires the reader to "intervene in the development of the narrative."(22) The reader can hardly be said to be forcing the narrative to do anything that isn't there in the first place, however; the choices the reader can make are all offered by the author. What if, as in Victory Garden for example, the reader finds herself caught up in the story of Emily Runbird and Boris Urquhart, but none of the links offered take her in the direction she would like to go? There is no option in hypertext for leafing through pages until you reach the passage you're looking for. Hyperfiction does require the reader to take a more active role in the reading experience, but the question remains to be answered whether this is true readerly freedom.

In its experimentalism, hyperfiction participates in the basic paradox of avant-garde writing since James Joyce--the illusion of openness, the indeterminate nature of the text, actually necessitates more control on the part of the author, or at least more planning and a more thorough organization, as well as more commitment on the part of the reader, more dedication to the artistic vision of the author rather than less. In his discussion of the "open" work of art, Umberto Eco suggests that it is precisely the attempt to achieve multiple levels of meaning which easily leads to misunderstanding or no meaning at all, because the recipient does not bring the necessary commitment to the aesthetic experience.(23) In the same vein, Hilmar Schmundt points out that the works of hyperfiction now available frequently leave the reader adrift upon a sea of text.(24)

For my own part, I found Victory Garden relatively easy to navigate, and soon picked up a thread which I followed right up to Emily Runbird's return to Tara. (In my first reading, she never died, which she apparently does in most of the other options.) When I showed the text to a friend, however, he found little of interest in the fragmentary scenes which his choice of links revealed; certainly not enough to make him want to keep reading. A willingness to play the game of participation is an absolute requirement of the reader of hypertext; whether the reader finds this liberating or just plain exhausting, the text as a whole remains the same, and it is a text provided by an author who has determined the choices available to the reader. In the bible of the age of computer literacy, Jay David Bolter's Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing, Bolter claims, "Electronic writing emphasizes the impermanence and changeability of text, and it tends to reduce the distance between author and reader by turning the reader into an author."(25) That Bolter may be speaking metaphorically and that the author still retains a certain authority, however, is eminently obvious from license agreements, such as the one in the insert of the novels distributed by Eastgate:

You may not: I) Modify, translate, reverse engineer, decompile, disassemble, create derivative works based upon, or copy ... the program or the accompanying documentation; ...(26)

Although this message may seem to contradict the purported goals of readerly participation of many hyperfiction authors, it is completely understandable when we consider one very practical complication presented by the phenomenon of electronic text: that of copyright. Even with the technology of photocopying or scanning, the physical book cannot be reproduced exactly by the average consumer. That cannot be said of electronic text. If I were to give someone a copy of Afternoon or Quibbling, and he or she were to install it on their own computer, they would have exactly the same book that I do. They might be viewing it on a different monitor, monochrome, or with a larger screen, but the book itself would be no different. This ease of illegal distribution is a nightmare to many electronic publishers, as heated discussions on electronic networks show.(27) The implications of the technology of hypertext and electronic publishing go beyond aesthetics or the role of the reader. Our whole publishing industry, its rules and regulations and system of rewards, is based on the printed book. The ease of distribution of books on disk raises unavoidable questions of copyright and how the author should be paid, problems which electronic publishers have yet to work out. Many works of hyperfiction have entered the market on the "shareware" honor system, but if this proves unreliable for providing writer royalties, some other system will have to be devised.

There is a positive side to this ease of reproduction and distribution, however: electronic text has the potential for breaking up the near monopoly on the publishing industry of the New York publishing houses. The costs of standard book publication make the big companies for the most part unwilling to take chances on experimental or marginal works. Hyperfiction and other forms of electronic text, on the other hand, can be given a large potential distribution through the simple medium of uploading to networks; the reader can access the works in the electronic library through online services without even going to a bookstore or a real, physical library. Even on disk, the costs of production and distribution are small, and as electronic text becomes more common, we are likely to see more small publishers catering to the tastes of marginal groups, publishers who will be more willing to take a chance on new writers or writers whose work is not bestseller potential.

On the other hand, perhaps computer games of the adventure and role-playing sort will turn out to be the true inheritors of the book, and we are not only leaving the "late age of print"(28) but also the late age of reading. Perhaps electronic text and hyperfiction will turn out to be nothing more than a transitional phenomenon. After all, if it is interactivity we are searching for, computer adventures are interactive in a way few hyperfictions are. But games are also inflexible in a way most hyperfictions are not - in an adventure game, there is usually only one acceptable "reading," and it is the duty of the player to find it. If the linearity of the tale and the authority of the author are to be revolutionized, it seems unlikely that it will be the computer game that will do it.

Hypertext is not only another mode of distribution of the literary artifact; it is a new medium whose potential is only beginning to be understood. Hyperfiction is so new, no one knows what it will become - like silent movies, it may seem to later generations like a genre in which something is missing, computer fiction without the animation, perhaps, or the predecessor of hologram entertainment. But whatever effect it eventually has on literature as we know it, hypertext and the medium of the computer will not leave it unchanged.


The question of how computerized literature might revolutionize the publishing industry was treated by Ben Bova in his science fiction novel Cyberbooks, published through traditional book medium but also as an excerpt in a hypertext magazine.(29) Although his vision of electronic fiction has little resemblance to mine, I have taken the liberty of borrowing from his title for my own.

I am indebted to various authors and editors on the GEnie Information Network for information and ideas, especially John Galuszka, Ted Husted and Del Freeman.

1. See for example Richard Ziegfield's list of "Individualization Applications": "Interactive Fiction: A New Literary Genre?" New Literary History 2 (Winter 1989): 356-7.

2. The most prominent of which is of course the front page article by Robert Coover in the New York Times Book Review: "Hyperfiction: Novels for the Computer," New York Times Book Review, August 29, 1993: 1, 8-12.

3. Rod Willmot, Everglade, Version 2.3 (Sherbrooke, Quebec: Hyperion Softword, 1990). (Original version 1989.)

4. Michael Joyce, Afternoon, a story (Cambridge, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1987).

5. John Peter, Baby April (San Simeon, CA: Serendipity Systems, 1984, 1987).

6. Stan Heller, "A Fable." (1985) Distributed with the Adventure Game Toolkit (Mission San Jose, CA: Softworks, 1987).

7. Coover: 10.

8. The small electronic publisher B-Plan Virtuals offers a number of science fiction and fantasy novels, but I am not aware if any of them actually make use of hypertext elements.

9. GEnie Information Services, Science Fiction and Fantasy Roundtable, Category 11, Topic 7, Sept. 20, 1994.

10. This is discussed at more length by John Slatin in his essay, "Reading Hypertext: Order and Coherence in a New Medium." College English 52,8 (Dec. 1990): 873.

11. For a short introduction to types of possible hypertextual structures see Veith Risak, "Hypertext und nichtkonventionelle Textstrukturen," in: H.D. Frei and P. Schäuble, eds. Hypermedia. Proceedings der Internationalen Hypermedia '93 Konferenz (Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer Verlag, 1993): 232-34.

12. For a sample review of just a fraction of the available programs with authoring capabilities see the review article by "robin": "Hypertext Authoring Environments: A Critical Review," EJournal 3,3 (November 1993): n.p.. The author evaluates a total of 21 programs for DOS, Windows and Mac, but admits that this is in no way comprehensive.

13. Peter Seulund, Uprisings in Libertyville, USA (Neillsville, Wisconsin: Spittin' Image Publications, 1993).

14. Coover: 9.

15. See for example Richard A. Lanham, "The Electronic Word: Literary Study and the Digital Revolution," New Literary History 2 (Winter 1989): 269.

16. Carolyn Guyer, Quibbling (Cambridge, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1993).

17. See also Jay David Bolter's discussion of "Technology and the Literary Canon," Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991): 150-153.

18. Wellek and Warren, for example, assert in their influential Theory of Literature: "the poem is not only a cause, or a potential cause, of the reader's 'poetic experience' but a specific, highly organized control of the reader's experience..." René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (1942. Reprint, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976): 249. In this post-modern age, we like to think that we are beyond formalism, but ideas such as those of Wellek and Warren continue to have an influence on the way we read.

19. Lanham: 266.

20. On the aesthetics of print as opposed to the electronic word see also Lanham's "Digital Rhetoric and the Digital Arts," The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993): 33.

21. Lanham, The Electronic Word: 9.

22. J. Yellowlees Douglas, "Are We Reading Yet? A few pointers on reading hypertext narratives." Insert, Stuart Moulthrop, Victory Garden (Cambridge, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1991): n.p.

23. See Umberto Eco, Das offene Kunstwerk. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977: 89.

24. Hilmar Schmundt, "Author ex Machina: Electronic Hyperfictions: Utopian Poststructuralism and the Romanticism of the Computer Age." Unpublished essay.

25. Bolter: 3.

26. Insert, Afternoon, a story by Michael Joyce: 7.

27. See for example the messages between March 17 and 28 on the Digital Publishing Roundtable, Categroy 21, Topic 6, of the GEnie Information Network.

28. Bolter: 1.

29. See Sharedebate International 1,3 (Fall 1990).


This paper was originally given at the annual conference of the German Association of American Studies in Tübingen, May 1994, and published in Electronic Publishing Forum 17 (Oct. 1994). A review appeared in Analog in July 1995.



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