Thursday, April 24, 2008

Hypertext Fiction, Oh My!

In the comments of the last post, reader G. C. Munroe wonders if perhaps the internet will not only change the literary dialogue, but fiction itself. He links to his quite interesting fiction blog and writes:

What the authors and the editors of these websites haven't taken advantage of are the tools used on Wikipedia, on the best daily blogs, etc., ie. illustrations (also, I guess, used by Boz, etc.), and - more essentially - hyperlinking. Allowing for a more dynamic method by which to navigate, increasing the speed by which the reader can accumulate knowledge...Now you might be thinking, if hyperlinking takes an essential role in new fiction, how could this ever transfer to books? This, I think, is where ebooks come into play. Touch of a word opens a new window, takes you to a new page, in an instant.

(The ellipsis is mine.)

Now, I don't know about you, but I remember when Robert Coover was going to make hypertext fiction the next big thing. We tried it, and people didn't seem to like it too much.

But I wonder. When I was talking with my class the other day, and I was holding forth on the idea that nobody wants to read a novel on a computer, a couple of students said they had--and one of them, a former teacher of young people, said that, to his students, reading on a computer was not only normal, but preferable. Maybe this generation is the one with whom hypertext will catch on.

Here's the thing about hypertext, though. When I'm using the internet, I'm generally looking for information. And when it's information I want, I enjoy the blinding speed (as Mr. Munroe puts it) with which I can accumulate the knowledge I want. Hyperlinking makes that possible.

But when I'm reading a novel, speed is the last thing I want. What I want is a contained, hermetic world that I can ponder, and compare to the one my mind usually inhabits. I don't want to make choices--I want to submit myself to the mind of another person, the writer. I want to experience The Work: for the writer's intellect, her grand vision, the flavor of his emotions. I don't want to worry about all the possible choices I might have made, or might make in the future, and where those choices might lead. That's what life is like. I want my art to be different.

That isn't to say there isn't something to hypertext fiction. But it isn't the "direction" that fiction is "moving," in my view. It's something else entirely, something on another track. There will always be a desire for the non-participatory narrative, and there will always be a desire for something you can be a part of. But so far, text-based fictions have not found a stable home in the arena of the latter desire.

What do you think? Is hypertext fiction poised to rise again? Or did you have enough of the stuff in 1992?


G. C. Munroe said...

Thanks for posting a link to the project, but for a much better, more polished example of how hyperlinks can enrich a work of fiction, I'd encourage everyone to check out Phil Gyford's tremendous serialization of Pepys diary.

There the links provide historical context. On other sites, links provide immediate access to annotation.

In the two examples above, hyperlinks give access to outside information that (in theory) enriches the reader's comprehension/appreciation of the text.

"What I want [in a novel] is a contained, hermetic world that I can ponder, and compare to the one my mind usually inhabits."

I totally agree. But think - if all the hyperlinks turn inward (or stem from the mind of a single author) than you're effectively still within a 'hermetic world'. It's just a world where information is transferred not only through the text, but from outside the text.

Now - would this work? God knows.

But it's an opening, a potential. One I think that's worthy of exploration.

AC said...

I would have assumed that in fiction, the hypertext would all be part of the fictional world. For instance, if a character mentioned a dream or a past experience, you could clink on a link and read the character's fictitious blog post or diary entry of that experience. It would shape the story without actually being part of the main narrative.

Is that the sort of thing you're talking about?

G. C. Munroe said...

AC, right on.

Or, to give another example, an author might build her world from a series of interlocking stories, similar to the way Potocki structured his Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

G. C. Munroe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

It's the non-linearity that bugs me about this kind of fiction...I know that, as you describe it, I'd be able to ignore the links if I liked. But of course it would weigh on me: what am I missing?!!? And so I would click on them, and be distracted from the main narrative.

I can see the appeal, it just isn't for me...

rmellis said...

It's not hugely different from footnotes, unless you start doing "choose your own adventure" type stuff where the progress of the story depends on the decisions of the reader.

I think the difference will happen when image and text are more merged, somehow...

AC said...

Conceptually, I like the idea of stories that bloom out into virtual room sized installations. I guess you would buy them in a format like a video game. I don't like video games, so that's where the concept dies for me. But there are an awful lot of people who really love video games.

myles said...

I had a dream last night, where I was reading a book that was constantly and uncontrollably growing. Every time I turned the page, a dozen more pages were added to the front of the book, and I had to flick back to see what I had missed. It was infuriating, because I knew I would never get to finish the book.

I like the idea of pop-up factoids and background in non-fiction (such as in the Pepys website), but I prefer my novels to be discrete and finite. Unless it's a 19th century doorstopper like Anna Karenina or Moby-Dick, when hyperlinks could contain all that research that Tolstoy and Melville couldn't bear to leave out: all those tedious bits about Russian agrarian practices and the state of the Nantucket whale industry.