Is a cyberlit aesthetic emerging?

Considering the ever-mutable nature of this still-new creative medium, the fact that a cyberlit aesthetic is forming and reforming should be no surprise. As critic Carrie McMillan (2002) expressed it, writers are a more "introspective bunch" in general and those working in hypertext writing are always questioning the potential and value of the medium:

"This constant discussion of the hypertext format for writing seems to want to bash out a set of conventions for this genre, which is still so new and fresh that there is no real agreement even as to what name it should be known as, never mind what it's characterised by. And it is in this freshness that I think the real potential lies."

What exactly makes a work artistic or literary is, of course, open to interpretation and question. Neil Randall's definition (1988), cited in a very early article called "Determining Literariness in Interactive Fiction," stated that interactive fiction's literary quality is "a merging of the strange and the familiar."

"Strange and familiar" certainly applies to cyberspace and literature created for the medium. Patterns are emerging, however. For instance, by the very nature of the computer screen "space," cyberfiction and poetry favor the short form, and a hypertext poem tends to be offered quite differently from prose pieces. The longer the text, the more a straightforward reading without too many linking distractions seems important, the shorter the text, the more it can be animated.

Lawrence James Clark, in a 1999 essay extolling a lighter aesthetic in hyperfiction, saw a decidedly postmodern slant he considered negative. "Since much of it has been written by authors steeped in postmodern and poststructuralist literary theory, hypertext fiction has attempted to manifest these theories in the structure and content of the works."

What about cyberpoetry? How is its aesthetics forming in a visual, virtual world? Cyberpoet Robert Kendall noted dramatically contrasting cyberpoetic aesthetics:

You have people like John Cayley whose work depends heavily upon randomization or quasi-randomization in the tradition of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low. There's a strong emphasis on theoretical underpinnings here...the poetry is generally unadorned by nontextual elements. At the other end of the spectrum is much of the new poetry on sites like Poems That Go. Audio and video are placed on equal footing with text, or often dominate the text, and there's an emphasis on accessibility in the manner of street poetry or East Village performance poetry. Then there's everything in between and around these approaches.
"The page has become complicated; the computer screen is refreshingly simple," stated Brian Kim Stefans (2000) in his essay "Reflections on Cyberpoetry." So much of cyberpoetry, he believes, "like much rock and roll and neo-Lettrism, is puerile, or more justly, juvenile, against which we don't argue so much as regret at times."

But even Stefans believes there should be an irreverence given to the omnipresent link itself. "The rejection of the page is not a leap at facility, though the leap-in-itself creates much needed pleasure, and is the primary activity of cyberpoets today. On the contrary, it imposes a much severer strain upon the language, since it is taking the projective and the performative at its word, while fishing lustily for the integrity of the lyrical corpus (tensegrity)."

In other words, "No hyperlink is free for the man who wants to do a good job" (Stefans). Stefans offered a "creative" link example using Walt Disney. The code to link to the Walt Disney site looks like this:

<a href = "">Walt Disney</a>

This appears on the page as the following (it's not live, by the way): Walt Disney

Since, the real website URL is invisible, the hyperlink name itself can be any combination of words and it would still link straight to Walt Disney, such as:

And clicking on it would still go to Walt Disney. (Try it. You might not particularly care but you went to Disneyland, didn't you? And the creative programmer's sarcasm is noted.)

Stefans reminded the cyberwriter never to forget that there are two languages going on in cyberspace. "There are two lines for every line of cyberpoetry—the line on the screen and the line in the source—not all lines of cyberpoetry can provide the effect of its promise, or premise, should its on-line double fail to live up."

In effect, the cyberwriter is learning a new language, one which each new leap in technology works to make ever simpler yet ever more visually fascinating. Any aesthetic demands a working awareness of HTML, this "neath text." For a peek behind the screen, choose "View Document Source" or "View Source" from most any cyberspace screen document from the "View" menu. For example, when ready to look around, try it for this simple HypertextHaiku and, voila, its basic html code appears.

What might that look like if "Flash" technology is added?

When ready to look around, click here for FlashHaiku: Chances.

And once you've begun mastering HTML, then return and click here for Computergeek Haiku.

Cyberpoet Robert Kendall in his 2000 article "Hypertext: Foe to Print?" expressed well the most basic cyberlit aesthetic: "The hallmark of worthwhile hypertext that everyone is likely to agree upon is that it offers a reading experience fundamentally different from reading print. Hypertextuality should not be mere decoration that could be easily stripped away to reveal a would-be piece of printed linear text beneath."

Can a writer dabble in both print lit and cyberlit? Working in both print and hypertext can be good for a writer or so says Kendall in his 1999 article "But I Know What I Like": "For one thing, it can help ensure that when one turns to hypertext, the result will be truly hypertextual to the core. If a work emerges as basically linear in nature, it will end up in print rather than as an electronic piece in which the hypertext is merely window dressing."

Referring to select works that have been published in both print and cyberspace, Kendall (1999) commented, "Clearly print works and hypertexts can coexist harmoniously in an author's oeuvre... Much is lost in these printed versions, which only hint at the hypertext reading experience."

Meanwhile, the medium's nature is inviting new subgenres into the discussion. When asked about aesthetics, cyberpoet Stephanie Strickland commented: "Many, many aesthetics are emerging. One central rivalry at the moment is between works that are more narrative and those that are more game-like."

Writer/designers coming from the game-playing world, who think of the computer as their creative playing field instead of cyberspace's entirety, are bringing their own aesthetics to the literary field. Nick Montfort, one of these pioneers, offers theory and history on this subgenre, known by several names including interactive fiction, computer narrative and digital fiction, as it begins to offer works with literary and artistic merit. The subgenre includes mass-market cyberfiction "collaborative game-playing worlds" of fiction as Dark Lethe to more literary creations such as found on Dreaming Methods-Digital Fiction.

Cyberliterature's aesthetic will obviously continue to move along with ever-evolving technology as well. In experimenting with new technology on his website, cyber poet/artist Jim Andrews (1998) ruminated on technology's potential to create aesthetics that may prove truly cyber-unique: "The great British poet W.H. Auden once said that he would give less chance of success to a young writer who said he had something to say than he would to a writer who said that he liked to watch the way words hang around together," he argued, and suggested that new technologies would allow writers to make documents "in which words hang around together and interact with each other and with the reader and possibly with other documents and readers on the Web in ways that can be relevant to what Auden said but in radically different ways than he had in mind."

Links-Theory and Practice:
Currents in Electronic Literacy-Stephanie Strickland, Robert Kendall et al
Nick Monfort-theory and history
Jim Andrews-theory
Electronic Labyrinth
Word Circuits
Electronic Literary Directory

RoadSite: references/ linkography