How is cyberliterature different from print literature?

There is always the page.

Whether we read the text on it and write the text on it—whether the page is a piece of paper or white space on a computer screen, we think, as readers and writers, in printed text on a "page."

But what happens when a writer, gazing at the computer screen's "page," wonders, "If this can be created, what else might be?" The answer is the difference between literature created for cyberspace and for print. Or as expressed by early cyberwriters Carolyn Guyer and Martha Petry, it's the difference between "sailing the islands and standing on the dock watching the sea. One is not necessarily better than the other" (as cited in Coover, 1999, p. 5).

Some basic differences are worthy of notice for the cyberwriter:

Cyberliterature favors the short form.

Electronic literature is shorter than traditional print literature. Content follows form, as we know. The space of the internet is the screen, and it seems to dictate that the more involved and creative the piece, the shorter it should be. It is also a logistical problem, according to critic Edward Picot (2003): "The longer a text is, the more effort it would take to sustain a high level of multimedia effects all the way through."

Writing in cyberspace "moves."

Electronic Labyrinth's creators, in explaining one of theorist Jacques Derrida's concepts, suggested (1993) that words move from their original meaning . Writing forces a separation of ideas from "their source of utterance" (Keep, McLoughlin, & Parmar). Once the source of an idea is no longer "there" to explain the ideas behind the printed words, the words can take on unintended connotations for a reader.

Electronic text also moves but in quite different ways. Michael Joyce, hyperfiction pioneer, once said that print stays itself while hypertext "replaces itself." Hypertextual writing seems to have an ephemeral quality.

The materials of the technology have a direct effect on the actual path of writing, states Loss Pequeno Glazier. "In the electronic environment, the materials shift...Fonts rage wistful or out of control and the "size" of paper irrelevant..." Electronic texts move writing into charged space, where words themselves begin to move from context to "dystext": pieces or fragments of text. "This is a dance outside the linear, outside the line," Glazier believes. "An interesting place for they say in Texas, "real cowboys don't line dance." How could this ever work, especially in poetry where there may not be a narrative flow? Poet Ron Silliman once wrote, "When words are, meaning soon follows. Where words join, writing is" (p. 16). This is hypertextual writing on the web, a writing based on links.

Early hypermedia poet Brian Kim Stefans (2000) was one of the first to grasp the idea of the possibilities of a cyberpoetry created with words freed from the page and the cross genres waiting there. He alluded to this switch in an introduction to his genre-expanding "Dreamlife of Letters," referring to earlier attempts being "antique 'concrete' mode, belonging to a "much older aesthetic." With "Dreamlife," the surreal result gives a whole new meaning to "words that move."

Hypertext works like our minds.

Hypertextual writing works more like our minds do. Most print text found in books stresses lineality, a "one-thing-at-a-time" way of thinking, as media theorist Marshall McLuhan expressed it in "The Agenbite of Outwit" (1997). But not so with electronic media based on links.

"What are links but faults in the monolinear imagination?" asked cyberpoet Loss Pequeno Glazier (1997). Freud wrote about parapraxis, faults in reading, writing, and speaking, "slips of the tongue," that happen when the mind shifts into an associative disposition. "Although Freud would probably suggest that conclusions may be drawn from parapraxis," argued Glazier, "the ability to read linked writings depends not on conclusion but occlusion, or an aberration of the eye, literally and homophonously... a fusion of parts extending into a plethora of directions."

Hypertextual writing is "decentered."

Instead of text blocks flowing steadily down the page, as they would in a printed text, a hypertext narrative can offer many "paths" through the structure of blocks and links provided by the author. It is what theorists call "decentered." A hypertextual text has no fixed center; rather, its center keeps shifting as the reader chooses links and "rides" their trains of thought. "From the side of authors, the computer becomes an instrument on which they both compose and perform their work; from the side of readers, each time they access the work they choose links that create a single actualised experience out of innumerable other potential ones," explained theorist Paul Delany (1994).

In other words, the creative piece, according to reader choice, moves from one link to another which "create" various readings of the same piece of literature—not page 1 to page 2, necessarily, but perhaps page 1 to page 15 to a footnote, to a link on the web, back to page 15. It's all up to the reader's choices offered by the writer's skill.

Of course, the art comes in manipulating the whole to create the desired effect or effects on the reader, whatever choices the reader makes. In a hypertext fiction, we might refer to a path as a storyline or storylines. Beginnings and endings, the basic demands of any book, now are up for debate. With hypertext, a writer is free to discard old structural conventions and traditional ideas of "closure"—often leaving the "problem" of the ending to the reader.

Cyberlit can offer "reader/writer interactivity."

Theorists call a text that can be changed or manipulated by reader input a "writerly" text; a text that elicits nothing more than page turning is a readerly text.

Hypertextual writing allows the reader into the "meaning" of a work that is reminiscent of the way philosopher Walter Benjamin (1936) explained the difference between distraction and concentration in viewing art. He tells the legend of the Chinese painter who when viewing his finished painting, enters the work, fully absorbed by it.

The key word in hyperliterature is choice—the writer enjoys creating different ways to read a story and readers enjoy "creating" their own story told version by not just turning a page, but creating a path, "entering" the work. As expressed, the dynamic, cyberliterature offers two kinds of such interactivity, "full" and "selective." (6)

In selected interactivity, the reader chooses from as many choices as the author allows, creating combinations that when done well have a fascinating literary effect. The choice may be as complex as a long poem by Stephanie Strickland offering three navigations methods—the random reading, the complete reading, and the link-driven reading—entitled The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot. (The piece, winner of 1999 Boston Review prize, is also in print version, offering another reading experience, yet a tellingly different one.) But even simple interactivity can offer a very non-print literature experience, such as a short piece by Robert Kendall, Study in Shades.

Full interactivity offers a reader the chance to add to the piece, much like a computer game or a piece of shareware gone literary. These cyberworks can range from dark creations, such as "Fractured," (requires Flash), to light-hearted, shareware-style literary games such as "Field of Dream."

Cyberlit can redefine "authorship."

Of course, such interactive works beg the question of authorship, another critical theory topic cyberspace inspires. Critics Roland Barthes and Michael Foucault are well-known for writing about what is called the "Death of the Author," but not until the cyberspace era did the concept ring true. Anyone who has surfed the internet understands this now. "We are dealing here with an electronic orality that contrasts with the much more focused encounter between a single book and a solitary reader," explained theorist Delany.

The idea of "author"—the idea of intellectual rights, of owning one's creation—originally came with print culture and the Gutenberg Press. There was a time, as Michel Foucault explained in "What is an Author?" when texts we now call "literary" (narratives, folk tales, epics, tragedies, comedies) were circulated without any thought about the identity of their authors.

But, in truth, as theorist Jay David Bolter (1990) noted, "The sense of infinite possibilities offered by hypertext is an illusion" (pp. 42-43). And, in most cyberspace works, except for those offering full interactivity where the reader is offered what is called "agency" to become a type of co-author adding content to create stories within stories, it is an illusion created by an author, no matter how many choices a reader might have. Be it hypertextual fiction, digital fiction or hypertextual poetry, the movement is still in the hands of the author/creator. Whether we enjoy the dance, and maybe even feel we, the writerly reader, add a flair to the dance, it is still, ultimately, the author's dance we are dancing. (12)

Cyberspace has no "originals."

With printed text, the story or poem there is always an original that one can return to, a visceral first edition, however many new print runs or revised editions there may be. But what is the original of a hypertext work of art? In the world of the computer, the question makes little sense. There are no originals in cyberspace. The shift from ink to electronic code, what Jean Baudrillard called the shift from the "tactile" to the "digital," is an information technology that combines fixity and flexibility, order and accessibility, but comes at a cost (as cited in Landow, 1992). Since electronic text-processing is a matter of manipulating computer-manipulated codes, all texts that the reader-writer encounters on the screen are virtual texts.

The very fact that a cyber document or creation transmits and transforms experience at the same time limits it to the realm of "simulacra," copies of something that no longer has an original, a sort of debased reflection, inferior to whatever abstraction it simulates. It challenges the very notion of a "true copy" or authentic rendering.

Walter Benjamin might have mentioned the missing quality to be its "aura"—its special, one-of-a-kindness—what 20th century humankind lost in a world of reproductions. In a cyberspace context, the loss of "aura" might seem to fit, except not even the original is "original," since even as it's being created it is just a series of zeros and ones behind the screen text. "All texts the reader and the writer encounter on a computer screen exist as a version created specifically for them while an electronic primary version resides in the computer's memory," explained theorist Bolter:

If you hold a magnetic tape or optical disk up to the light, you will not see text at all...In the electronic medium, several layers of sophisticated technology must intervene between the writer or reader and the coded text. There are so many levels of deferral that the reader or writer is hard put to identify the text at all: is it on the screen, in the transistor memory, or on the disk?
Cyberspace fosters new "engagements."

Cyberspace, as writing and reading space, beyond being a new medium for the computer-savvy writers, is different from print space in a very basic way—it's accessible to the masses. And that has manifested itself in unusual ways. For example, poetry has seen a new birth on-line, which intimates that print was holding poetry back. When Garrick Davis founded Contemporary Poetry Review in 1998 as an online poetry journal, the whole genre was considered to be "if not disreputable, then certainly distasteful," he wrote in the review's mission statement. Established poets did not submit their work to such journals and academics "frowned upon them as neither popular nor peer-reviewed." But the situation changed, and remarkably so, Davis explained: "In the world of literature, electronic magazines are vastly more popular than their print counterparts in the terms which matter most: readership. There is, suddenly, an audience for poetry and criticism that is much larger than anyone had dared to imagine. " The little magazines are "little" no more. Why? As he put it, "The reading public, it turns out, was not turned off by poetry, but by print."

Or as Alt-X's Mark Amerika (2000) quipped, it is "the word's revenge on TV."

Cyberspace fosters new cybergenres.

Cyberliterature has also moved beyond link-driven text on screen. A hypertextual piece that includes other "media" such as like film, photography, sound, text, image is called "hypermedia" or "new media" as even newer technologies are being created and incorporated in a fusion of arts in cyberspace. An example is the new subgenre created by the wide accessibility of Flash technology now standard on most computers of the 21st century.

"Today's poet almost certainly can't help but think about how their poem looks on a page. But what happens when we take the words out of the poem and the letters out of the words and play with their relation to the page?" asked the editors of the online magazine PoemsThatGo (2004) in their issue Text, Time, and Typography, and continued, "What happens when the visual form of the poem is as important as the words that make it?" (Madsen). This one piece of software allows the creative writer/artist a chance to answer those questions, as seen in these simple, early flash poems:

The Dancing Rhinoceri of Bangladesh

Flash, also, along with other newer technologies, allows for a subgenre called digital fiction, hyperliterature with equal parts text and design. One such website, Dreaming Methods: Digital Fiction-A Fusion of Writing and New Media, created as an "exploration into accessible and engaging writing for the internet" (Campbell, 2002) exemplifies this new cyber subgenre: as its editors explained, "These works are not 'e-books' or hypertext sites in the traditional sense, nor do they adhere to the usual styles and standards incorporated into 'quality' Flash sites. The aim of Dreaming Methods is to use Flash to create interesting ways of telling 'stories', to offer a blend of challenging writing, user-entertainment and user-interaction."

(For an ever-developing collection of critical articles on poetry and the new media, see PoemsThatGo essay archive.)(11)

But even this purely cyberspace creation can't escape our culture's deep print text roots as seen in this book-loving piece called The Rut, "The self-published book that never got past the introductory page." (When in doubt, click. Requires Flash 7.)

Electronic Labyrinth: Closure
Electronic Labyrinth: Writing
Contemporary Poetry Review
George Landow's Hypertext 2.0. "Virtual Text"

RoadSite: references/linkography