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Readers, meaning and coherence in hypertext fiction

Anne M. Holzapfel

The current part of my PhD thesis is concerned with the issue of how meaning, coherence and orientating the reader works out for the text in hyper*text* fiction. It is also concerned with how this relates to features of authoring programs (special programming features, overview maps etc.). In this paper for the CyberMountain Colloquium, I would like to extend a discussion between Deena and me which took place during the Hypertext '99 conference in Darmstadt. Deena asked me to read her forthcoming hyperfiction "Stone Moon" and to comment on why I decided to read the text the way I did.

The session with Deena showed that reading hypertext fictions is more than just reading the text bits. It also involves reading links, patterns and maps. Authors can guide and challenge their readers by making use of various features of the authoring program. Another point that became clear during my discussion with Deena was that there are different types of readers who takes various measures to explore and understand hyperfictions.


Apart from the normal requirements for reading and understanding texts, the hyperfiction reader needs to have knowledge of the medium (including knowledge of auxiliary programs such as ResEdit and others in order to explore deeper levels). In a best case scenario he is willing to spend quite some time on analyzing the text and is willing to search for meaning on various levels. Deena dubbed this type of reader an analytical one. He is a reader whose decisions and interpretation of a text rely on close scrutiny of the fragments read as well as on the aforementioned knowledge of the medium. In other words, the analytical reader is one who not only grasps and integrates the aesthetic level of a text, but also the media-specific level.

  I would say that there are four types of hyperfiction readers:

In an ideal world, hyperfiction authors would cater for the needs of the different types or readers. This would ensure that readers can have their specific means of getting access to the text and that the timid readers would gradually be guided towards higher levels of reading a hypertext fiction.

Meaning and coherence

Meaning and coherence are closely connected. Given the non-linear nature of hypertext fictions, one is likely to speak of finding a lot of incoherence here. On the other hand, too much incoherence will produce lack of meaning and will put the reader either off (as for example with the timid reader) or in a position where he has to try extremely hard to wrestle meaning from the text.

Hypertext allows for both linear and non-linear structure with the original concept by Bush aiming - in my opinion - at enabling the users to gather bits of information in a non-linear, i.e. associative, way; however, being conceived for informational reasons, hypertext aimed at coherence in the sense of direct access to whatever the author of a web (or other users) were looking From my point of view, literary hypertext (hyperfiction) tries to undermine and subvert this concept by using the very means of hypertext. In this context I think that what is relevant for CM is that hyperfiction authors need to know is that a) after a certain point, there can be too much incoherence to allow meaning at all and b) readers come with various degrees of experience, i.e. they are prepared or unprepared for what awaits them when reading a hypertext fiction. Meaning (and also coherence) can be found not only on the text level of a hyperfiction, but also on level directly related to the programming level; here we find a point where hyperfictions can offer something unique, something that sets or could set them apart from print literature.

My questions for CyberMountain

I am interested to find out what other hypertext authoring programs there are apart from the by now classic Storyspace and HyperCard. What ways and means for orientating the reader do they offer? As for the hypertexts being presented at CMC, I would like to find out what authors do to produce meaning in the interplay of text(s) and program. What tricks to they employ to make readers explore and stick with the text?