What are cyberlit's disadvantages?

i hates cyberpoetry
and i can't hates no more
A poet


Creative hypertextual writing has been pronounced dead several times, as early as 1993 and on into the 21st century:
(1) "Is Interactive Dead?
(2) Literary Hypertext: The Passing of the Golden Age
(3) Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star

One has to wonder, why the resistance? An early critic of the form, Max Whitby (1993), said, "Storytelling and narrative lie at the heart of all successful communication. Crude, explicit, button-pushing interaction breaks the spell of engagement and makes it hard to present complex information that unfolds in careful sequence" (p. 43).

Another quipped: "We're still left to ask 'Now what?' when all the clicking is done."

Another bemoaned: "It neglects to consider the very real pleasures that come from surrendering to the discursive seductions of a masterful author."

"Even those of us who hold a valid academic interest in reading and writing about these works often grumble about the lack of pleasure associated with 'reading' them," said yet another.

And if you've actually clicked on the links above to see who said what, you'll have experienced the very annoying disadvantage of being sidetracked from the main reading and often unable to get back without several clicks backward or worse.

(Many apologies for proving my point and further apologies for the links to follow that may also strand you, since I resist not offering them in the text. My personal answer? Read the essay in full, then return to see the links that piqued your interest. But, fair warning, there may be some that are there just to make other points you might enjoy...you'll know them when you see them... )

But what about less textual, more artistic cyberlit sites? Some critics cite the download and upload times involved as problematic. Hypermedia creators themselves have such moments, as we can see in this South Korean writer's piece about waiting on his website to upload (while at the same time creating a cyberlit way of expressing it): Artist's Statement No. 45,730,944: The Perfect Artistic Website (Requires Flash)


Even as the medium itself explodes into everyday life, cyberlit respect among the print-focused literati has been slow in coming. For instance, a symposium on the conceptual issues surrounding hypertext—initiated by a leading cyberpoet—was published in American Letters & Commentary #12. The online link is nothing more than a table of contents, the actual issue only available via subscription, offered at a special price for web subscribers who print out the page and send it via snail mail with a check. (The term "Luddite" springs to mind.)

Free mentality

The perception persists in some circles that anything free—i.e., available online—cannot be high quality. Yet the nature of the internet fosters "free" mindset, as seen in the recent music industry's download controversy. Put another way, accessibility is cyberliterature's very existence. It must be seen to be wanted, but if seen in cyberspace, then in a very real way, it's already owned.

Literary emagazines have become creative in their attempts to make their efforts, if not self-supporting, at least commercially viable. Drunken Boat, for instance, asks for a donation of $2 (as of this writing) before entering its site, which includes new poetry, prose, photography, video, web art, and cybertext as well as notable audio interviews with such literary giants as Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award Winner Norman Mailer.

Others such as Coach House Books were more direct:

Are the online books free? Not exactly. You are asked to "tip the author"—that is, give them a small royalty for reading their works online. Authors deserve to be paid for their work...If you're a regular visitor to this site, and you haven't tipped any of our authors yet (you cheap bastard), please consider doing so.
Coach House long championed the shareware "try before you buy" paradigm, but then this message appeared:
Due to the massive influx of new users on the Internet in recent years, the spirit of goodwill and fair usage that inspired the shareware ethic has been trampled under the virtual feet of a public greedy for new forms of cheap (read "free") entertainment...We believe that the extra work and risk involved in embarking on an entirely new form of publication demands extra compensation...and we are working to find new avenues.
Soon the great experiment failed, as they explain on their "online books" webpage, even as they are still committed to preserving their quite wonderful early efforts as well as other forms of online publishing.

Elitist readership /Experimental persona

"Where are the hypertexts?" and "Where are the readers of hypertexts?" asked Eastgate e-publisher Mark Bernstein. (8) Early hypertext fiction seemed to be written for and read by an extremely specialized audience, one steeped in postmodern and poststructuralist literary theory. So much so, that Bernstein speaking to a new generation of cyberauthors suggested they create hypertexts that include "elements of mystery, fun, satire, and even "inspired silliness." One professor, Lawrence James Clark, noted student problems with hyperlit's complicated narrative structures "full of endless loops." He believes three major hindrances to a novice readers' enjoyment of hypertext fiction—"the (apparent) lack of closure, frustration with non-linear narrative, and navigational issues."

"How do I know when I've read everything?" is the usual wail of the frustrated hypertext reader, according to Clark. Too often with hyperliterature, when the text starts to loop relentlessly, that is the only sign there's no more to read, and that can be obviously less satisfying than a good print ending. But in the hands of a skillful, creative cyberauthor, it doesn't have to be that way. As writer Robert Kendall put it, "The effectiveness of just about any artwork depends partly upon the successful integration of form and content, and hypertext is no exception. In fact, if a work's hypertextuality isn't an integral part of its conception, it may seem at best just mere decoration and at worst an extraneous annoyance."


Technology itself can be a disadvantage. There's the cost, of course. Even the novice cyberwriter must have a computer with an internet connection, additional software, maybe a digital camera, an image-processing package, and certainly his/her own websites with its domain-name registration et al. That's not even mentioning the amount of technical expertise involved.

But the ever-involving form itself can be a problem. Book print form has been the same for hundreds of years. To create tech-centered art of any kind, and to keep it valid and constantly current is a brave undertaking—at least, so it seems. Working with a technological medium is always living dangerously, and always has been. Robert Coover acknowledged as much in 1992 at the dawn of cyberliterature. "Even though the basic technology of hypertext may be with us for centuries to come, perhaps even as long as the technology of the book," he admitted, "its hardware and software seem to be fragile and short-lived, " he admits. "Whole new generations of equipment and programs arrive before we can finish reading the instructions of the old." Jay David Bolter has called the feeling "the anxiety of obsolescence." (9)

Artistically, other aspects of technology can make life in cyberart difficult as well—"its extremely brief lifetime, its lack of backward compatibility, its lack of compatibility with rival technologies," are only three posed by cyberpoet Stephanie Strickland.

And there are always the latest "bugs" and "errors" to deal with in any computer complexity, so common to the computer world that sometimes the only thing to do is make art about it, as this hypermedia poet/artist did: RunTimeError (requires flash):

Cyberpoet Reiner Strasser called the electronic media a "time-eater." There is "always the danger to virtualize" that is, to "lose contact to your real world."

Technology also creates an unplanned obsolescence factor. A reader who wants to read Don Quixote, for instance, written over 500 years ago, has only to stroll into any library or bookstore for a dozen different translations. But while lists and critiques of early hyperlit works are still accessible online, the works themselves are sometimes oddly inaccessible via cyberspace, even though sites such as Electronic Literary Directory attempt to remedy that problem.

Granted, copyright law demands often keep important print publications from the public domain for a considerable time, and that dynamic may impact some cyber-published works as well, but what book, due to technological advancements is not still readily available?

Two classic hypertext fictions, for instance, are Michael Joyce's "Afternoon: A story" and Shelley Jackson's "Patchwork girl." (See RoadSites for links.) One has been called "an information age Odyssey," and the other, "a true paradigmatic work of the era." Both can still be bought through Eastgate (www.eastgate.com) but neither, not even excerpts at this writing, are offered in their entirety online. Missing is the satisfaction of flipping through a piece of literature before buying. And if a reader bought it now, sight unseen, would it be "readable" on his/her present computers, over a technological decade hence? Even if one believes in "literary Darwinism," i.e. quality literature standing the test of time, will the concept be true for hypertext work? As Robert Kendall put it in his essay "Hypertexts of Yesteryear," consider the poor publisher who, before considering whether to resurrect a discontinued text has to also consider the trouble of "hunting down an obsolete machine or hiring an engineer to decipher an obsolete file format just to get an idea whether the piece is worth reissuing."

Freedom's flipside

The much-heralded freedom of the internet has its downsides. As Plagiarist.com's Jough Dempsey explains: "Unfortunately...since anyone can self-publish anything they want, most people do. The amount of inaccuracies, errors, and outright misinformation available on the Internet is staggering. Never before in the history of humanity has so much incorrect information been so freely and readily available."(10)

Dead links, mis-info, and typos are epidemic in a wide-open, librarian-free archival space as big as cyberspace. ERROR!

Websites are abandoned, out-of-date and adrift in cyberspace with no warning for the unknowing browser. Even "live" sites which don't check their links periodically can have dead links. As Coach House Books warned, "Be aware that pages have a tendency to move, so check your links occasionally to make sure they're still good."

Links can also be better off dead. In the strange domain-name world of the internet, an innocent click of abandoned link can shock. One prominent university untended literary website links to a defunct literary journal URL that is now a porn site (a link that will go linkless in this text for obvious reasons.)

As for typos, no one truly wants cyberspace to have a gatekeeper, but an proofreader would be helpful. Amateur, professional, even pedagogical and scholarly texts are replete with an astonishing amount of typos, which underscores the old notion that everyone needs an editor.

Reason? The responsibility of a "shallow" cyberspace "author" is shallow? A subconscious lack of respect for print strictness? The nature of cyber "space"—its mutability, immediacy, virtuality, and even its correctability? Or is it as a web designer friend said, "Who has time to wait for a snail-paced copyeditor?" Print-text publishing has time-honed layers of editorial fail-safes to keep errors and typos at bay. And still they happen. What hope for the internet with its one-click publishing? Adding "editor" to the cyberwriter's tasks along with "programmer/designer" creates triple-duty. Yet, the irony remains: Of all mediums, exactness in HTML is demanded for hyperspace to work at all. A mistyping of even a letter in a URL can detour or even dead-end a link and leave the reader stranded in cyberspace, as Loss Pequeno Glazier demonstrates: faulty text

Despite All

Despite the disadvantages—and even inspired by their challenges—artists continue to push into cyberspace's creative territory with obvious glee, especially with the mass accessibility offered by the latest hypermedia/new media viewing technology now being standard on most 21st century computers. The virtually visceral future of the creative medium seems to not only attract but invigorate the adventurous writers' imaginations. Some might even call that the definition of creativity—taking the old and making it new in surprising and difficult ways. As noted by the editors of The Electronic Labyrinth (2002), an early and important academic website dedicated to the implication of hypertext for interested creative writers, the real allure of hypertextual-based literature may well be, just as in print text, the "ever more ingenious ways of directing, controlling and surprising the reader" (Keep, McLoughlin, & Parmar).

Coach House Books
Electronic Literary Directory
Currents in Electronic Literacy:Stephanie Strickland
Currents in Electronic Literacy:Reiner Strasser

RoadSite: references/linkography