Confessions of a Would-Be Hypertext Novelist
by Jimmy Guterman
I was fortunate enough to "attend" Robert Kendall's online hypertext fiction and poetry class two semesters back. I'd been following the field since I read the same Robert Coover piece in the New York Times Book Review that introduced and inspired so many others. I'd attended various Eastgate conferences and made a few attempts at the form, using both Storyspace and some commercial HTML editors. It was time to put myself in a workshop with someone who knew what he was doing--the originality, energy, and expansiveness of "A Life Set for Two" is what made me think Kendall's class was right for me.
In retrospect, what I got out of the class (aside from Kendall's insight, encouragement, and good humor) was more theoretical than practical. Because the field of literary hypertext is so young, we're still playing with definitions of the form.
Or at least I am. The key creative problem I encountered while trying to build a competent literary hypertext was my difficulty in delivering a satisfactory reading experience that included tension and closure. Aristotle's rules in "Poetics" have worked well for 23 centuries; the advent of the Web shouldn't be enough to repeal them. (Genius modernists like Borges, Joyce, and Nabokov aside, most great fiction is linear; computer programs aren't. Even worse, my work is neither genius nor particularly modernist.) Because constructing solid literary hypertext is so difficult, and because the field is still so new, all too many hypertexts seem to be about hypertext, showing off multiple links and lack of linearity without bothering to use those tools to tell stories. It's as if early TV shows were often about transistors and vacuum tubes. Yet there are deservedly celebrated examples of the form from Bill Bly, Stuart Moulthrop, and others; the problem was mine, not the form's.
I fell into this problem with the hypertext I worked on and played with during the course, "Clip." A hypertext writer can have a great deal of fun sneaking unexpected paths and alternate versions of the same scene into the tale. Even a title can provoke fun. On one of the pages near the beginning of the hypertext, I posited the question, "What Is 'Clip'"? There were many possible answers to that question, all identified as links by different types of question marks:
One led to:
I've never been a big fan of the cranky folk singer Ani DeFranco, but in the liner notes to her double-live record Living in Clip she offers a useful definition for the term "clipping an amp": "overloading an amplifier with a sonic signal that exceeds the machine's power capacity, resulting in a terrifying snapping sound and the illumination of a tiny red warning light on the face of the amp indicating that it is about to blow." The idea is that many of the characters here are living in or close to the condition of clip.
Another led to:
If you want a more literary meaning, "clip" is defined as "To steal from, as in 'to clip a victim'" in The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, which was a big part of my life when I was in third grade.
A third led to:
"Clip" is a hypertext fiction-in-progress by Jimmy Guterman. It bears some resemblance but is significantly different from Clip, a lengthy traditional novel that I am writing (in fact, I should be working on it right now). Indeed, this hypertext serves as a place where I am experimenting with some of the ideas that are being developed in print Clip.
There's a boring linear navigational path here, but if that's all you want, just wait for the book to come out and go do something else with your computer now. But if you're interested in a different ride...
And on and on. Last time I checked, there were 11 possible choices on that page. Each of them led to a page that included some sort of information, in varying levels of relevance to the broader issues I hoped to dramatize in "Clip."
Why did I do this, scatter chunks of information across 11 pages, playing when I should have been getting on with the story? Because it was fun. Perhaps the reason I and some other would-be purveyors of hypertext fiction never get around to crafting coherent hypertext narratives is that it's too much fun doing other things. In any fiction, hyper- or otherwise, a story must eventually rise from even the cleverest tricks, but I was having too much fun playing to spend the necessary time plotting an immersive story.
But this particular form of literary procrastination is unlike the usual "I never got around to writing that article I have due because it's more fun using my computer to answer email or cruise Web pages than get any work done." Unlike a piece of composition paper, where the writer creates everything except for the guiding lines across it, the authoring environments for hypertext are far from immersive, and that's reflected in the works they generate. When a hypertext writer looks at a project in progress, the project is competing for space with several other open programs, the "Start" button and icons at the bottom of the screen, and all the keys, pads and sliders on the computer. When you read a book, there is no real distraction on the page (unless you like to read page numbers). To be successful, hypertexts must be as immersive as print media--to the writers as well as the readers.
A big part of immersion is knowing when the story is over and you can come up for air. It's not the writer who creates closure in hypertexts, it's the reader. One of the promising things about a hypertext poem like Judy Malloy's "Its Name Was Penelope" is that it generates seemingly random pages that add up to fascinating patterns (hint: you'll figure them out more quickly if you know your Homer). Every time you read it, it's a different story. The reader decides when the text is over. That's what a successful work of hypertext-based literature can do that paper-based writing can't: share power. It can be done.
I'm not sure if hypertext fiction (or, at least, my attempts at hypertext fiction) can be expressive in quite this way; poetry, so far, seems far better-suited to the medium--or at least Malloy and Kendall have the theoretical grounding to make the equation poetry + computer add up to something new. I suppose I need to take the course again and find out if I'm worthy of wielding such power.