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Inside the Brave New World of Hypertext Fiction

Imprints Literary Supplement 1998

Hot Links Inside the Brave New World of Hypertext Fiction | By Michelle Albert

Gold Futures Taking Sci-Fi Seriously | By Scott Carlson

Never Again? A Journalist Looks at Rwanda's Genocidal War | By Sandy Asirvatham

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By Michelle Albert | Posted 10/14/1998

Remember those choose-your-own-adventure stories from when you were a kid? Those pre-adolescent adventure books named you, the reader, as the main character and let you advance the narrative by choosing from several courses of action at the end of a page:

You walk into a rundown old dining room. Plaster is chipping off the walls, the floorboards are warped, and cobwebs are hanging from the broken chandelier overhead. Oddly, there is a fresh bowl of fruit salad on the dining table. You realize that your adventures in the Mystery Mansion have made you very hungry. Just then, you hear an eerie moaning sound coming from the hallway. The sight of the fruit salad is making your stomach growl.

If you decide to stay in the dining room and eat the fruit salad, turn to page 23.

If you decide to ignore the fruit salad and investigate the moaning noise, turn to page 95.

If you decide to run out of the house and go back to your friends, turn to page 62.

That, very simply put, is the basic idea of hypertext fiction. Hypertext fiction, though, is an electronic medium, readable only on a computer. It's a nonlinear, multisequential form of narrative composed of chunks of text (and often images, video, and sound) connected to each other by a series of hyperlinks. A hypertext version of the above story might look something like this:

Maggie walks into a rundown old dining room. Plaster is chipping off the walls, the floorboards are warped, and cobwebs are hanging from the broken chandelier overhead. Oddly, there is a laptop computer sitting on the dining-room table. Upon closer inspection, Maggie sees that the computer is online, with a chat-room window open on the screen. Someone going by the name of HV5 has been chatting here very recently. Maggie sits down in front of the monitor and tries to figure out the topic of discussion.

If you were reading this story on a computer, the words in bold would be hyperlinks, just like the links you see on Web sites. When you click on a link, a new page, with a new chunk of text, would pop up on your screen.

Each page in a hypertext story can range in length from one short sentence to a dozen lengthy paragraphs and might contain any number of links. The new section of text you've selected might relate directly to the section you just read, or to the linked words you clicked on. There is no one way to read a hypertext story, since there are many paths through the piece, all equally valid. Every reader will read a different story. Thus, the story is "co-authored" by the writer and the reader. Reading this way forces you to discard ideas of traditional narrative. And that's exactly what the writers of this stuff want.

Hypertext fiction was first proposed back in the 1960s by literary and information theorists, who were excited about the potential of putting postmodern theory into practice in a way that the printed book simply didn't allow. By the 1980s, computer technology made the concept concrete. Within the boundless virtual writing space of the computer, writers could create stories that were fluid, multiple, fragmented, and interactive. Print books could only simulate or suggest these qualities; in cyberspace, you could see them in action.

Much of the serious hypertext out there is largely the work of academics such as Stuart Moulthrop, who teaches hypermedia theory and production, literature, and creative writing at the University of Baltimore. He found his way into the hyperworld while working on his doctorate at Yale in the mid-80s. "Doing a Ph.D. gives you lots of ideas of how texts could be approached, other than in an ordinary manner," he says. Computer technology and the burgeoning Internet allowed those theories to evolve into practical applications--actual written works that readers could peruse on their computers or online. The first popular work of hypertext fiction, Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story , was released on floppy disk in 1987. Another classic is Moulthrop's Victory Garden, a story about a graduate student caught up in the media frenzy surrounding the Persian Gulf War--it's considered one of the most important early works of hypertext.

But is there an audience for hypertext outside the ivory tower? Is this stuff interesting enough for the rest of us to read? Moulthrop thinks so.

"Certainly anybody who's seriously interested in literature might be interested in hypertext," he says, "particularly if they're interested in experimental or late-modern or avant-garde literature." And it is catching on, judging by the number of hypertext literary journals you can find on the World Wide Web these days.

For now, though, the brave new world of cyberliterature exists in the future; the number of hypertexts available is still relatively limited. The best place to look for hypertexts is on Eastgate Systems' Web site ( Eastgate began as a software company in 1982 and now publishes and promotes hypertext fiction, nonfiction, poetry, criticism, theory, and software--just about anything relating to writing and computers.

Hypertexts published by Eastgate on disk generally sell for about $20 a pop. Currently, about 35 titles are available. Mark Bernstein, Eastgate's president, estimates a typical hypertext title will sell a few thousand copies. "[That's in] the same neighborhood as literary fiction and scholarly monographs," he says.

If this piques your interest and you want to spend the cash, Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl, a feminist retelling of Frankenstein, and Michael Joyce's Twilight, a Symphony, a multimedia interweaving of stories about family, death, and the nature of hypertext, are two solid works to start your collection. (Both are published by Eastgate.)

Many hypertext works can be viewed for free on the Web, of course, but doing a random search for hypertext will bring up list of largely worthless works. Moulthrop cautions that anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can publish his or her own work online. Web writing--even works by accomplished scribes--is considered amateur and doesn't receive the same critical attention as works published by publishing companies.

"If it's on the Web and you don't have to pay for it, it's not a product. It doesn't get reviewed like a book. If it's not a product, it's just not taken seriously," Moulthrop says. His hypertext work Hegirascope, for example, which he published on his Web site has garnered a lot less attention than Victory Garden, which is published by Eastgate.

If you're not ready to spend money but still want to sample quality writings, Eastgate has two full-length hypertexts--Twelve Blue by Michael Joyce and l0ve0ne by Judy Malloy--on its site, plus excerpts from other works, including Victory Garden. Another site to check out is Alt-X. Adrienne GreenHeart's story "Six Sex Scenes" and Shelley Jackson's "My Body" are both great reads.

Be aware, though: Reading hypertext for the first time can be a frustrating experience, especially when one reads stories published on disk. Most of us are familiar with the Web by now, and instinctively know to click on those (usually) blue, underlined words we see scattered about our screens. But most stories published by Eastgate are read using software called Storyspace Reader and don't look anything like the Web-based stories. To begin "reading" a Storyspace work, you first have to install it on your computer, the way you'd install any new piece of software. The disks come with an instruction booklet telling you how to navigate through the story using pull-down menus and icons on the screen. Links in Storyspace stories are not blue and underlined, but are hidden within the text so as to avoid placing unnecessary emphasis on words and phrases. The linked words can only be made visible by hitting the control key on your keyboard. All in all, it takes some patience and practice to work your way through a piece of hypertext in Storyspace.

Is it worth the effort? For some people yes, for others, probably not. Like postmodern or experimental fiction, hypertext assumes a fairly high education level. It also assumes a fairly high level of computer literacy. For now. This is still a fledgling field, one that is rapidly expanding. As more people become familiar with this form, and more writers try their hand at it, there is no doubt the quality and variety of stories will increase and readability will improve. Hypertext literature is unlikely to replace the printed book, but it will add new dimensions to the way we think about reading.

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