Word Circuits


Forepaper by Lawrence James Clark
for Messenger Morphs the Media 99

After several years of writing, reading, and introducing college students to hypertext fiction and poetry, I have found one of my biggest challenges to be trying to convince students that I am not punishing them by assigning hypertext works as course readings, and that they can indeed find some sort of aesthetic pleasure in reading these works.  I have found three major hindrances to readers' enjoyment of hypertext fiction: the (typical) lack of closure, frustration with non-linear narrative, and navigational issues.

  • Closure (or lack thereof)

Although a Gallup poll would probably find that the majority of the public is not even aware of the existence of hypertext fiction, those of us in the field know that it is far from new.  Michael Joyce's seminal work, afternoon, a story was first published over ten years ago, and since that time hundreds of works have been produced and released on disk, CD-ROM, and on the World Wide Web.  With the number of people using computers on a daily basis at home and work growing exponentially, and with the number of entertainment-oriented software products that currently grace the market, why has hypertext fiction not won the hearts and pocketbooks of millions?  Why is the major publisher of hypertext fiction still a small software company in Massachussetts rather than a major player such as W.W. Norton or Simon and Schuster?  Jay Bolter, in his 1993 keynote address to the 9th Conference on Computers and Writing, proposed a simple answer.  People need closure; we (the reading public) are brought up with the idea that every story has a beginning, middle and end.  Even though (or perhaps because) real life doesn't work that way, we search for and have been ingrained with tidy solutions from the time we are toddlers listening to fairy tales or grownups reading popular novels or watching situation comedies in which everything is solved in a span of 26 minutes.  While the typical reader of a hypertext work is perhaps more sophisticated and more willing to "play" or take risks with the narrative structure, the size of that audience is unlikely to reach that of, say, the latest John Grisham novel.  Even those of us who hold a valid academic interest in reading and writing about these works often grumble amongst ourselves about the lack of pleasure often associated with "reading" them.  Jane Yellowlees Douglass, for example, took 2 years to read afternoon and finally found the "key" writing space which gave her a sense closure and a feeling that she understood the work--is it realistic to expect the average (or ven above average) reader to devote this amount of time to a single work?

  • Non-linear narrative:  can it be satisfying?

One of the chief characteristics of a hypertext work is its non-linear narrative structure.  This "problem," of course, is not unique to hypertext fiction, and has been a common complaint of unititiated readers who are first introduced to many forms of experimental fiction, such as the postmodern works of Thomas Pynchon.  This problem seems to be exhasperated, though, by the advent of hypertext authoring programs and those authors who experiment with the myriad possibilities they afford for providing multivocality, multiple plot "paths", etc.  Michael Joyce, in Of Two Minds and other writings, says that the answer to this problem is to educate readers so that they look to be satisfied by achieving a "sense of the whole" rather than simply a feeling that one has read all of the writing spaces (nodes) in a work.  This also provides a solution to the problem of having to spend months or years trying to read every single node of a work before reaching a point of "satisfaction."

  • Navigation: "Lost in Cyberspace"

I was first alerted to the problem of navigation for the user when I wrote a review of Bolter's Writing Space in 1992; the text came with a companion disk for Macintosh (written in Storyspace) in 1992.  Although this was a work of non-fiction, Bolter took advantage of hypertext linking to create several "layers" of information beneath the surface of the original work.  Although I found it fascinating and useful to have this information available only a few mouseclicks away, I became frustrated when I couldn't find my way back to the section of the original I was reading.  I find that most hypertext fiction works I read today still have the same problem; this is one of the major complaints of my students who are being introduced to hypertext fiction for the first time.  Of course, those works which are published on the Internet can make use of the "back" and temporary history features, but if one strays too far from the original node even these tools can't help.  At the 1998 conference of the Modern Language Association, Margie Lusebrink (M.D. Coverly) "performed" and also discussed the creation of her soon-to-be-published work, Califia, which is written in ToolBook for Windows.   In Califia, Lusebrink has recognized the problem of user navigation and has attempted to orient the reader with the use of a "toolbox" that allows the following of paths which are accessible by such means as theme or character.

  • My Attempts

In my own work, I have tried to keep all of the above issues under consideration.  Although I admit that I am not targeting my works at such a wide audience as Grisham, Clancey, or other current popular writers seek, I am making an attempt to allow my works to be accessible to readers, and thus help to increase the possibility that they will derive some aesthetic pleasure from them.  For example, both Fly and WeR1 have a finite number of links, and take the reader back to the opening screen when he or she has finished reading through the work.  Also, Fly has no incidental paths for the reader to get "lost" on; WeR1 does have paths which the reader can choose, but they all lead back to the original path which in turn leads to the end of the work.  I set up the narrative structure of these works in this manner precisely to allow readers to introduce themselves to the idea of linking as a poetic device, of fragmented text eventually becoming "whole," and of a theme being presented through multiple voices and points of view.  I am in now way suggesting that either Fly or WeR1 alleviates all of the "problems" I have discussed here, or that these problems necessarily need to be "solved."  I am, however, suggesting that these issues remain a matter of discussion, and that hypertext authors, as well as those who design the software used to construct these works, keep them in mind as they continue forging ahead in this new literary genre.



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