Is it really literarily "new"?

Cyberspace is certainly new, the computer era is certainly new, the entire medium is certainly new. But is the emerging literature being created with the new medium's hypertextuality "new?"

Here's poet Charles Bernstein's rather "loud" answer.

Or as poet Millie Niss (2002) whispered in her witty poem, The Dancing Rhinoceri of Bangladesh: "The surrealist did this without all this technology."

John Barth (1967) saw nothing "new" in it, having proposed in "The Literature of Exhaustion" that the conventional modes of literary representation had been "used up," their possibilities consumed through over-use: all is tired in literature; no new forms are left to be invented, Barth declared (pp. 29-34).

By definition, hypertextual writing inspires a non-linear narrative technique, a technique in itself that isn't literarily new. Novelists and poets have long experimented with ways of conquering the normal demands of narrative, from structure to marginalia and footnotes; these include such writers as Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Julio Cortazar, Italo Calvino and Cervantes, not to mention T.S. Eliot, William Burroughs and even William Gibson. "The structural interest offered by hypertext is as yet nothing dramatically different from what writers have been doing throughout the last century," believes critic Carrie McMillan.

In fact, a case can be made for the nonlinear, fragmented roots of hypertext to go back much further than that. Even before Gutenberg, texts were often collections of scrolls, sorted in no fixed sequence. Non-linear is the structure of "The Book" as it's called in cybertheory circles—the Bible—whose structure pioneered the idea of what makes all books, since Gutenberg's printing of the King James Version of it. Maybe the most famous example in our literature of a single story told in a nonlinear fashion is the Bible's story of Jesus, points out critic Edward Picot: "The Gospels tell the story of Jesus from four different viewpoints, sometimes with quite substantial differences of style, detail and chronological sequence...They do not have the same unity as a conventional linear narrative: they have a different kind of unity instead, more ambiguous, more fragmented, and more challenging to the reader."

Does cyber-hypertexuality, then, offer anything unique, though, for the aspiring creative cyberwriter?

In his foundational essay "The End of the Book," Robert Coover said yes: "True freedom from the tyranny of the line is perceived as only really possible now at last with the advent of hypertext, written and read on the computer, where the line in fact does not exist unless one invents and implants it in the text."

Cybertheorist Paul Delaney said yes and no:

Hypertext can create a kind of 'zero degree' narrative, entirely liberated from the sequential imperatives of a standard plot. But does this achieve any more than those books of the 1960s that were issued unbound, so that the pages could be shuffled and read in any order?
Poet Jorge Luiz Antonio said yes. In fact, he believes the "vehicle" on which a cyberwork is read alone forces any reading of literature to be classified as "new":
The use of a computer, even if we are reading a piece of traditional literature such as a sonnet, implies a mediation which alters the final product. Access to poetry through a machine is totally different from opening a book, a magazine, a newspaper, or a copybook. The computer re-makes the text.
Just as in life, there's a tension in narrative between the sensation of time as a linear experience, one thing following another, and time as a "patterning of interrelated experiences reflected upon as though it had a geography and could be mapped." Hypertext can actually create these spatial forms that the reader is only vaguely conscious of when reading a print novel, explained theorist Paul Delaney.

Hypermedia can also offer something "new" in the way classic texts are reconsidered, much like postmodern bricolage, the use of the bits and pieces of older artifacts to produce a new, if not "original," work of art. Such hypermedia treatment of classic literature not only reinterprets but offers new pleasures and new accessibilities.

Here are three hypermedia examples of this new-but-not-new form reinvented via hypertextual elements are (requires Flash):

• Charles Demuth and Megan Sapnar's "Figure 5 Media Series," inspired by a William Carlos William's poem.

• A scholarly hypertexted version of Ezra Pound's Canto LXXXI.

• Natalie Borchkin's re-telling of the Jorge Luis Borges short story, The Intruder, as a dual commentary on pop culture and anti-fable, that begins as fun and games then turns subtly into a disturbing feminist statement. (Notice, also, that cyberspace can offer instantaneously the cyberfiction, its critique, and the Borges short story in original Spanish.) A PoemsThatGo article includes the "game's" introduction and critique.

From the deeply literary texts to pop culture staples, cyberliterature, then, builds on the past to create a new "new." The melding of all that's gone before layered onto and into this new medium can offer pleasures in a multitude of engaging ways, whatever our knowledge or opinion of its literary history might be.

Might future technology make a difference? Probably not. The task facing cyberwriters, as the Electronic Labyrinth theorists pose it, is the "necessity of making language and its increasingly outdated technical modes" live again. No amount of RAM will, in itself, make a work succeed, they point out, "but Marshall McLuhan reminds us, the 'medium is the message.'" Writers working in a new medium, no doubt, will find new messages and new ways of refashioning the old ones.

Electronic Labyrinth:The Book
Electronic Labyrinth:Literature of Exhaustion

RoadSite: references/ linkography