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I have been wrestling with the issue of how hypertext changes the role of the reader for a long time. On the one hand I do not believe that hypertext alters the act of reading any more than any other new genre would. We read magazines differently than we read novels. We read textbooks differently than we read computer manuals. Some theorists like Landow and Lanham believe that the simple presence of a cursor on a screen alters the reading experience because the cursor is a physical means of inserting the reader into the text, it is a physical reminder that the reader is always present. Lanham believes that because text resides on a hard drive that readers approach it differently. The fact that electronic text is no longer caught between the covers of a book, that it only becomes present when a reader calls it up on a screen, invites the reader to come closer to the text, to write the text anew each time he or she engages with it. Bolter (1991) believes that because the text is "non-print, undark, dry, unimprinted, prone to sailing off" (86) it is dynamic and volatile, and the reader loses track of where the writer has left off and the reader begins.
Some of this is a little tough to swallow. In what way is a cursor any different than a finger following along? Why does it make any difference to a reader if the text resides between the covers of a book or on a disk or hard drive or server somewhere? The reader is still able to access his or her prior knowledge, is still able to predict what is yet to come. If we are to believe Rosenblatt, then the meaning in of a book or magazine is still called into being by the reader and each reading can be made anew as the reader brings newer experiences with life and text to the reading. So where are the differences?
I think there are differences, actually. Not perhaps in the actual act of reading but in the attitudes that readers and writers bring to electronic text, which includes hypertext. Critics of electronic text like to point out that it is difficult (and dangerous) to read hypertext in the bathtub. And they are right. And when I want to read something long, I print it out and read it at my desk or on my couch. But perhaps the reason I do that is because I am used to book text. I'm used to its conventions and I know what to expect. I did not learn to read or spend my "formative" reading years at a computer. I did that stretched out on my bed hoping my mother wouldn't drag me away to dust mopboards or change the cat litter. Every moment caught up in Nancy Drew's adventures was a moment away from the litter box and the mopboards. Or so it seemed. And so the pleasure of reading is, for me, caught up in those secret moments when I could sneak and read. And in those stolen moments I became accustomed to the feel of a book, to the conventions of book text and magazine text.
But conventions change, just as they did in the transition between scribal culture and book culture. I know my students would rather go to the computer lab than do anything else. And when they are in front of a computer, they are totally engaged, consciously making decisions about where to click, what to read next, and what to add to an electronic text. There is something different going on. It could be novelty. I suspect it is something more.
In this essay I will argue that hypertext challenges our notions regarding the relationship between reader and writer. Hypertext gives "permission" to readers to insert themselves into the meaning construction process and "write" a text in a way that is often different from what the author foresaw. Hypertext makes us conscious of the blurring of the reader/author role. Book technology seems to fix our notion of authorship and hypertext challenges us to rethink that role and the role of the reader. Historically, however, there have been other "challenges" to these roles, which is an important consideration when discussing the role hypertext plays in the act of reading and writing. The authors I will draw on most frequently in this discussion will be Janet Murray, George Landow, Sven Birkerts, and Ilana Snyder.
Sven Birkerts (1994)believes that electronic text, and hypertext in particular, is killing the author. In a traditional reading situation, Birkerts places the writer, "the flesh and blood individual" at one end of a continuum. At the other is "the flesh-and-blood reader" (96). He places between these two, "words on a page [that'] don't change" (96) Birkerts is uncomfortable with the disorientation he experiences when he reads hypertext. And he worries that hypertext will destroy literature and its role in our culture. He believes that hypertext and other electronic texts will weaken the quality of writing and displace order for chaos.
Snyder Ilana Snyder believes that hypertext is changing our notions of authorship. She notes that the absence of textual autonomy and centeredness disperses the author. But Snyder points out that the amount of control experienced by a reader is largely dependent on hardware and software. In Storyspace, for example, a hypertext writing program published by Eastgate Systems, links can be hidden in the text and the reader must either search for the links by randomly clicking on words that might be a link, or by executing a key stroke that highlights where the links are in the lexia. She points out that computers shape the way we think, encouraging some kinds of thinking and discouraging others. She uses the example of a blackboard where text is created with the assumption that it will be erased. Paper and pen writing encourages writers to attend to grammar and spelling and to use a more controlled type of thinking. Computers invite writers to think non-linearly and cooperatively. She points out that "we organize our writing space in the way we organize our thoughts, and in the way in which we think the world itself must be organized (69).
I know that for most of my life I wanted to write short stories. I never seemed to be able to do that using paper and pencil or even a typewriter. I tried. I never finished anything and I was never happy with what I had written. It wasn't until I got my first computer, IBM's first laptop. They didn't sell and so IBM offered them to teachers for $300. I bought one and six months later I wrote my first short story. Had I been willing to turn the story into a novel, as two editors, one from Farrar, Stauss, and Giroux and the other from Houghton Mifflin suggested, I might have sold it. Such was the power of electronic writing from me as a writer. The task was simply different in front of a computer than in front of a typewriter or with a paper and pencil.
Landow writes that hypertext blurs the boundaries between reader and writer and claims that, because of the nature of hypertext, the fact that the reader has to make choices and acts upon those choices by clicking on a word or image, the reader becomes "active." Perhaps it is important to point out here that although I consider Landow one of the key figures in hypertext theory, I have difficulty with his use of the word "active" here. All reading, all meaning construction is active. Reading is not a passive activity. Yet Landow sometimes uses passive and active in his explanations and defense of hypertext. For example, he points out in his first Convergence text ((1992) that hypertext "provides an infinitely re-centerable system whose provisional point of focus depends upon the reader, who becomes an active reader…" (11).
Perhaps a better word to explain the role of the reader in this re-centerable system is the word "deliberate." Hypertext reading requires the reader to make deliberate decisions about which path to take within a hypertext web. And as I write this, I know that there are instances when readers of more traditional texts like dictionaries and encyclopedias, not to mention magazines, make deliberate choices regarding where and what they will read. But for the time being, until I can come up with a better word, I will describe the hypertext reader as deliberate, as one who deliberately reads a text according to his or her own interests or organizing principles.
Landow frequently mentions narratologist Gerard Genette, and Genette's ideas are particularly relevant to a discussion of the reader/writer roles. Landow, citing Genette, maintains that hypertext is a means of escaping what Genette refers to as the idolatry or idealization of the author. Hypertext, because of its openness, its fuzzy borders that are so easily permeated, makes the author's role as diffused as the boundaries of the text itself. Landow also talks about Walter Ong's theory regarding the relationship between computer technology and orality. Ong argues that computers have brought with them a "second orality" that is very similar to the participatory sense of community and a focus on the present moment in oral cultures. And though Ong seems to go astray when he talks about computers and sequential processing, he (and Landow) make the interesting point that books and their authors cannot be challenged in any immediate sense.
Hypertext readers, however, can challenge a text immediately, or as immediately as the reader can write a response and link that response to the author's text. This placement of text within a larger domain of text places the reader and the writer in a kind of dialogue that cannot happen as easily in the world of paper and ink.
Murray poses an interesting argument that in electronic text, which includes other media besides hypertext, the author still exists but as a choreographer. The reader is not the author of the text but can experience many of the "exciting aspects of artistic creation-the thrill of exerting power over enticing and plastic materials" (153). Murray makes an intriguing point. The reader of electronic text, and especially hypertext, is not experiencing authorship. The reader is experiencing agency. Murray defines agency as the ability to take meaningful actions and to see the results of those actions (126). Murray points out that the kind of agency that takes place in the reading of hypertext fiction, particularly, is rather rare in more traditional narrative forms. The difference may be that by entering a computer environment, the reader alters the environment of the text through his or her participation.
In the case of MUD's and MOO's, textual gaming spaces, (now often spaces in which colleagues gather to "talk") the reader can greatly alter the environment by creating new spaces in which to play or participate. This has happened in a number of gaming MUD's and MOO's where participants, dismayed over the types of interactions they were encountering , simply constructed new "rooms" or other spaces in which to play out their character's actions. And at times players have simply created spaces in which to converse with other players or characters without challenge from those who wanted to duel or engage in other types of narratives. But the reader can insert himself or herself in more pragmatic hypertexts as well, simply through the act of deliberately selecting which lexias or writing spaces he or she will read. And the reader can write a response and link it to the piece he or she is responding to. This is always an option in hypertext.
If hypertext is challenging the role of author and reader, it is not the first textual innovation to do so. Ilana Snyder (1996) reminds us that in manuscript days scribes often altered the work they were copying. This blurred, even then, the boundaries between author and reader. Snyder adds that the tradition of print literacy privileges the author. Nothing, supposedly, can be changed about a text once the author (along with the publisher and editor) have finished with the text. French literary critic Roland Barthes, in his interesting essay "The Death of the Author," (1993) points out that a piece of text is "not a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the message of the Author-God), but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, non of them original, blend and clash" (116).
Most hypertext theorists would agree. Snyder also points out that oral texts had many of the features that theorists claim are inherent in hypertexts. Oral texts could be revised at will by the speaker who altered stories depending on the prompts from an audience. But book technology provided a new framing device for narrative and other forms. Murray (1997) points out that with electronic text the "author" is procedural, like a choreographer "who supplies the rhythms, the context, and the set of steps that will be performed" (153). The reader, or as she calls him or her, the "interactor", is a "navigator, protagonist, explorer, or builder, [who] makes use of [a] repertoire of possible steps and rhythms to improvise a particular dance among the many, many possible dances the author has enabled. We could perhaps say that the interactor is the author of a particular performance within an electronic story system, or the architect of a particular part of the virtual world, but we must distinguish this derivative authorship from the original authorship of the system itself" (153)
In this sense, Murray is reminding us that each time a reader enters a hypertext web, the reader creates a "new" text, written by the choices he or she makes as she travels through the docuverse. And Landow (1992, 1997) consistently reminds us that the text an interactor reads is not necessarily the text an author planned. All this seems much like the ancient storyteller who changes the text to fit the wishes of each audience. The audience and the storyteller (author) collaborate to create the narrative.
Collaboration is a key element in hypertext reading and writing. In a sense both the reader and the writer collaborate with the computer. But because the reader is physically required to execute some sort of command and to make a choice as to which command, the reader collaborates with the author. We can put this in Murray's terms and say that the reader or dance is collaborating with the choreographer or writer so that some version, perhaps a new one, of the author's plan flashes onto the screen. But Landow adds that a hypertext reader/writer "almost inevitably works collaboratively whenever creating documents in a multi-author hypertext system" (2.0, 110)
Hypertext also enables authors to collaborate from a distance. One writer may place a draft of a web up on a web space where another author, a continent away can look at it, add to it, make notes, revise the web, and place the changes in the same space as the previous one. Landow (1997) reminds us that print technology has imposed a more "passive" role on readers. This technology--that of the printed book and its close relations, which include the typed or printed page--engenders certain notions of authorial property, authorial uniqueness, and a physically isolated text that hypertexts make untenable (69). Certainly print technology can be seen as privileging the author, if for no other reason than the fact that once text is set and printed on a page it is difficult to change or add to in a way that "respects" the changes. We may insert our readerly selves into the text by making notes or underlining passages, but our notations look different and that difference clearly indicates that the changes were added after the fact.
Hypertext, however, allows the reader to insert himself or herself, either through copying and pasting words onto a new "page" or lexia, and adding to the text, or linking a reader's lexia to the author's. This of course turns the reader into an author, and has the potential to turn the author into a reader. Of course, theoretically this has always been true. Someone can alter a text by typesetting a new text, and a reader may write a critique and publish it in a book, but the process is cumbersome and even costly and delayed.
Landow believes that hypertext is the instantiation of Barthes' concepts of readerly and writerly text (Convergence,1992). Indeed, Landow borrows many of Barthes' terms when talking about hypertext-terms like lexia, meaning an individual writing space or block of text that can be accessed and has links to other lexias. Barthes envisions a readerly text as one in which networks [reseaux] are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach, they are indeterminable…(cited in Landow, Convergence, 3). And though it seems as though Barthes is talking specifically about hypertext, he is not.
But Landow points out that hypertext blurs the boundaries between reader and author in much the way Barthes suggests text should. Landow goes one step further and posits that the distinction between readerly and writerly text is essentially the distinction between electronic or hypertext technology and print technology. Barthes writes: "…the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text. Our literature is characterized by the pitiless divorce which the literary institution maintains between the producer of the text and its user, between its owner and its customer, between its author and its reader" (S/Z 4).
Certainly a hypertext reader is more than just a consumer of the text. The hypertext reader seems more akin to the ancient audience of the storyteller--a collaborator. The hypertext reader is a deliberate force within the text itself, not divorced from the text, but a partner with both the author and the text.
Birkerts, of course, is distressed by this and blames hypertext for "delivering a mighty blow to the long-static writer-reader relationship. It changes the entire system of power upon which the literary experience has been predicated; it rewrites the contract from start to finish" (163). Birkerts warns that hypertext is ruining literacy and literature, along with killing the author. Birkerts argues that the "subjective ecology of reading" allows him to feel the power of the words on a page, and that this power cannot be felt with hypertext.
I am reminded of an interesting National Geographic site on the world wide web that allows readers to "become" someone accused of witch craft in Salem, Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. The background of the narrative is black. The reader hears wind in the trees, the tolling of a church bell, the fall of footsteps up the stairs of the gallows. Ultimately the reader "dies." The effect is chilling. Students who read the narrative are totally engaged. And yet they are clicking on frames and making choices as to how to proceed, as to how to manipulate themselves away from the hangman's noose. The reader "feels the power" of the text.
The National Geographic site and other hypertexts, bring an interesting question into the discussion--that of agency. Murray believes that hypertext does not diminish the author's agency, but it may make the reader more conscious of his or her agency within the narrative or other discursive form. Murray points out that there is a distinction between authorship and agency. Murray emphasizes that readers ...can only act within the possibilities that have been established by the writing and the programming. They can build simulated cities, try out combat strategies, trace a unique path through a labyrinthine web, or even prevent a murder, but unless the imaginary world is nothing more than a costume trunk of empty avatars, all of the [reader's] possible performances will have been called into being by the originating author (152)
It may be that print technology diminished the agency of the reader by forcing the reader to comply with a way of organizing text. Birkerts believes, however, that book text is natural and stabilizing. He writes "The words on the page, chiseled and refined by a single author, aspire to permanence" (159).
Louise Rosenblatt would disagree with Birkerts' notion of authorial power. The reader brings a text to life. In order to bring that text to life the reader must transact with the text, the reader must write the text for herself or himself. And in the reader's mind the text sifts through all of the reader's previous experiences as the reader goes through the meaning-making process. In this sense the reader is always central to the text.
Espen Aarseth, however, makes a point that transactional theory cannot adequately explain what happens when a reader engages with hypertext, or ergotic literature, as he calls it (Cybertext, 1997). The hypertext reader "also performs in an extranoematic sense" (1). This happens through the semiotic sequence of physically clicking on a hypertext link which places the reader in a physical act of meaning construction. Aarseth writes "In [hypertext] literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text" (1). This "nontrivial effort" loosens the author's dominion over the text.
Foucault (1977) argues for a loosening of the author's constraint over text, and hypertext seems to be one way in which this can happen. He writes: Although, since the eighteenth century, the author has played the role of the regulator of the fictive, a role quite characteristic of our era of industrial and bourgeois society, of individualism and private property, still, given the historical modifications that are taking place, it does not seem necessary that the author-function remain constant in form, complexity, and even in existence" (159-160). Tuman suggests that the future of authorship "may have less to do with a single vision of writing defined in terms of invention, creativity, and copyright than with earlier, multiple visions" (64)
These multiple visions are brought on by cultural changes which brings me to an important point. Landow and the others frequently assert that hypertext is bringing about changes in the author/reader relationship. But that relationship was already being questioned by Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida who were talking about the decentered self and about the decentered or nomadic web of knowledge where knowledge can be accessed from an impermanent nomadic center (Landow 1992).
But there is a group of hypertext theorists who are, in their own way, trying to maintain the structure of a given piece of knowledge, a given piece of hypertext, not because they are necessarily alarmed by the postmodern condition and the increased agency of a reader, but because they see a disoriented reader. These are the cognitivists who approach the role of the hypertext reader and author from a different perspective. In order to understand the cognitivist approach to hypertext reading, it is important to first look at the reading theory that many of the cognitivists use as the foundation for their stance on the roles of readers and writers.
When discussing reading comprehension, many of the cognitivists use what is known as the Kintsch model of reading comprehension. This is a more linear process that only considers the cognitive processes in meaning construction. Certainly the cognitivists have brought some valuable ideas to reading theory. But in considering the role of the reader and writer, the cognitivists do not look at the social transactions involved in meaning construction.
A number of cognitivists have conducted studies on how readers engage with hypertext. One such study (Dee-Lucas, 1996) looked at the way in which undergraduates constructed meaning during a test review process that used two different kinds of hypertext--one with a hierarchical overview that indicated which headings contained the main ideas and which contained subordinate information, the other with a simple list overview that listed the headings in alphabetical order. Dee-Lucas found that students who used the hypertext containing the hierarchical overview felt better prepared for the test and had an easier time moving through the hypertext web than students who used the hypertext with the list overview.
The cognitivists tend to deal with "what is," rather than "what could be," of course. They are not so concerned with the changing role of the author and reader as they are with the ways in which current readers make use of hypertext. And so Dee-Lucas' recommendation that hypertext webs show readers where the main and subordinate ideas are within the web seems a little odd, especially in lieu of what Landow and the others say. Landow, who has overseen a huge "informational" hypertext web at Brown University would find Dee-Lucas' recommendations tantamount to heresy. The cognitivists are concerned about a reader's disorientation within a hypertext web, and indeed, that can be a concern, especially in a test preparation situation.
The problem here is that Dee-Lucas' study looked at a non-traditional piece of text that was being used to prepare students for a very traditional rule-bound task--a test. Of course students would find the hierarchical overviewed hypertext more suited to their task of test preparation. A hierarchical overview would indicate exactly what the main ideas were and which parts of the hypertext they needed to concentrate on the most. Their agency was diminished because of the task they were preparing for. In a hierarchical overviewed hypertext, the author maintains his or her power. The reader is not a collaborator. Yes, within the hierarchy, readers may choose which main idea they want to read first, but the act of suspending and balancing those ideas, the act of deciding for himself or herself which ideas are most important, has been denied the reader. The author has done that already.
Davida Charney is perhaps the most recognized of the cognitivists who write about hypertext. She scoffs at what she calls the Romantics (meaning Landow, Bolter, etc.) who approach hypertext as a more "Coleridgean" concept of an infinitely evolving text that liberates readers and writers from textual boundaries. Charney does not believe that readers necessarily know best which information is important, and so it should be the role of the author to establish that for them (241) To be fair, Charney admits that her goal is "not to accept or dismiss hypertext processes or hypertext in principle, but rather to point to specific aspects of reading and writing processes that hypertext designers must consider if they are to serve readers and writers effectively" (241).
But Charney defends hierarchical overviewed hypertexts because she believes, based on empirical studies, "that as people read, they build a hierarchically structured mental representation of the information in the text. As they read successive sentences, they link the ideas of proposition expressed in them to their developing hierarchical representation by means of chains of repeated concepts" (243). But Charney's beliefs about hypertext are based on long-established assumptions about readers and writers, assumptions that are based on a print culture that has been in place for centuries. Charney assumes that readers conduct themselves through a sequential process, one that has been designated by the author whose sole purpose is to see that the reader conducts himself or herself through a progression of ideas the author has perhaps laboriously laid out.
But the writer of a hypertext goes into the task knowing the reader will not progress through the text in any given sequence or at least has the option if taking multiple possible paths if there is a default sequence. The writer's role, as Murray says, is to choreograph the text, to set it up so that the reader can dance among the lexias as he or she sees fit. It may be that a hypertext writer will have to envision different readers who have different purposes.
Slatin (1992) actually identifies three different types of hypertext readers: the browser, the user, and the co-author (158). The browser reads for no particular purpose other than to find something interesting with which to engage. The user is looking for specific information and uses the hypertext to find that information. The co-author collaborates deliberately with the hypertext, inserting his or her own lexias in response, or incorporating existing lexias into a new hypertext web or docuverse. It is impossible, actually, to predetermine whether a hypertext will serve the needs of the browser, the user, or the co-author, so a writer cannot always create a hypertext web with any particular audience in mind. And that is why the cognitivists have some important ideas in terms of hypertext reading, at least during a time when we may be experiencing a transition between two information technologies. Most websites provide some sort of overview of what is contained in the web. Sometimes this is in the form of a site map. Other times it is in the form an opening page menu.
Where the cognitivists seem to have difficulty is in the fact that readers, when they get used to the new text spaces of hypertext, will develop new reading strategies. The cognitivists call for hierarchical overviews and more "ordered" progressions through hypertext webs seems much like the calls for order that were heard when the printing press began making an impact on how people thought about readers and writers. Landow, citing Tom McArthur, points out that, first, there is nothing natural about the book. It took four thousand years for it to come about, and that evolution disrupted the previous "elites" , the scholastics, who had worked hard to conventionalize the plots and themes, not to mention the structure and look of the books of their time. The printing press, Landow points out, presented the scholastics with a different order, a different way of organizing knowledge. And this new way may have appeared disjointed, even chaotic (Landow, 2.0, 77).
This sounds all too familiar when we read Birkerts and even Charney. Ironically, perhaps, I see all this as simply change. I enjoy my book reading life. I enjoy my hypertext reading life. The more aware I am of hypertext the more I see evidence of the rhizome, what I sometimes think of as the the proto-hypertext. Birkerts may be alarmed, but as more and more hypertext sifts into our lives, we will adapt to it and in a hundred years find Birkerts' disgruntlement charming. There may even be nostalgic Birkerts Societies where everyone swears off hypertext for a day or week when they "go back to nature."
But hypertext, whether it is literary or pragmatic, whether it is Stuart Moulthrop's latest novel or a new version of Excel, is here. And unless the lights all go out at Y2K, it will affect us all in one way or another-either through the simple click on a name in an e-mail message, the calling up of data in a spread sheet, or the browsing for information on the world wide web, it's here. We will adapt to hypertext with as much ease or as much difficulty as we adapt to a changing larger culture. Because essentially it is the culture that is changing. Hypertext is merely a symptom of that change.
Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on ergotic literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." Modern Litarary Theory: A Reader, 2nd edition. Ed. Rice and Waugh. London: Edward Arnold, 1993.
Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in the Elecronic Age. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994.
Bolter, David Jay. Writing space: The computer, hypertext, and the history of writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1991.
Charnay, Davida. "The Effect of Hypertext on Processes of Reading and Writing." Literacy and computers: The complications of teaching and learning with technology. Ed. Cynthia Selfe and Susan Hilligoss. New York: MLA, 1994.
Dee-Lucas, Diane. "Effects of Overview Structure on Study Strategies and Text Representations for Instructional Hypertext." Hypertext and Cognition. Ed. Jarmo J. Levonen Jean-Francois Rouet, Andrew Dillon, Rand J. Sprio. New York: Erlbaum, 1996. 73-107.
Foucault, Michel. "What Is An Author." Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.
Landow, George P. Hypertext 2.0: The convergence of contemporary critical theory and technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Landow, George P. Hypertext: The convergence of contemporary critical theory and technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: The Free Press, 1997.
Slatin, John. "Reading Hypertext: Order and Coherence in a New Medium." Hypermedia and Literary Studies. Ed. Paul Delaney and George P. Landow. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992. 153-169.
Snyder, Ilana. Hypertext: The electronic labyrinth. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
In the 1960s, Ted Nelson conceived of a huge electronic network to connect all the information in the world by means of cross-referenced documents (a ‘docuverse’). He coined the word ‘hypertext’ to name a tool which would create a non-sequential linking of texts. In the same decade, both literary theory and computer science were interested in the systematisation of textual forms that cited other texts – what Gérard Genette (1962) referred to as ‘palimpsests’. For Genette, hypertextuality is the relationship that links text B (the hypertext) to a previous text A (the hypotext) in a way which is not a mere commentary. In this sense, all texts can be said to be potentially hypertextual.
The increasing access to personal computers, the development of interactive technology and the advent of the internet and the World Wide Web have made Nelson’s docuverse and his notion of hypertext a reality. In Literary Machines (1981), Nelson was then able to write: ‘By hypertext I mean non-sequential writing – text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen. As popularly conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways.’
In 1992, George P. Landow, a pioneer in the use of hypertext in higher education, wrote a book whose title reveals the impact of hypertext within a cultural context informed by new technologies: Hypertext: the Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. In this book, computer hypertext is defined as ‘text composed of blocks of words (or images) linked electronically by multiple paths, chains or trails in an open-ended, perpetually unfinished textuality described by the terms link, node, network, web and path’ (p. 3).
Attracted by the challenge offered by electronic links, the American writer Michael Joyce experimented with hypertext to write original fiction. He then conceived of a virtual story that would never be read the same way twice: the result was afternoon, a story. Hypertext fiction (or hyperfiction) had been born.
As George Melrod (1994, p. 162) defines it, hyperfiction is ‘non-linear interactive electronic literature. Potentially, the next stage of evolution for storytelling, where text is made of light instead of ink, where you help the author shape the story, and where you never read he same novel the same way twice’. Hyperfiction can only be read on a computer screen. Readers decide where to go next by consulting the titles of linked passages or may let the links between windows or ‘lexias’ (a term used by Roland Barthes, applied in Landow, 1992) take them to an unknown place in the textual geography. They can choose whether to click on a word, on an arrow that takes them backwards or forwards, on YES and NO buttons… or simply press ‘ENTER’, which is just like ‘turning the page’. ‘The result is a kind of narrative collage, a textual kaleidoscope in which the story is cut into fragments and is constantly changing. If it’s a bit disorienting, that’s part of the idea. Instead of laying out a straight path, hyperfictions set you down in a maze, give you a compass, then let you decide where to go next’ (Melrod, 1994, p. 163).
By definition, hyperfiction is strikingly open-ended. This empowers the reader, who is not only able to make decisions such as where to go next or when to ‘put an end to the story’ but is in control of the process of appropriation (the interaction with the text that leads the reader to ‘own’ a certain reading of the text) in ways which are hard to achieve within print technology.
Michael Joyce reflects on this in an introductory lexia in his afternoon, a story:
‘WORK IN PROGRESS
Closure is, as in any fiction, a suspect quality, although here it is made manifest. When a story no longer progresses, or when it cycles, or when you tire of the paths, the experience of reading it ends. Even so, there are likely to be more opportunities than you think there are at first. A word which doesn’t yield the first time you read a section may take you elsewhere if you choose it when you encounter the section again; and sometimes what seems a loop, like memory, heads off again in another direction.
There is no simple way to say this.’
Where and how to put an end to a story must always have been one of the main preoccupations of a writer, and it is certainly the focus of the metaliterary concern which pervades the self-referential novel of the last few decades. Hypertext unveils the artificiality of closure, revealing not only the writer’s but the reader’s role in the creation of that artifice, as well as the arbitrary nature of the paths that may lead to it.
Hyperfiction is a question of texture, or, as Mary-Kim Arnold (1993) has expressed it, ‘Words that yield to the touch’. But what words will ‘yield’ if the reader clicks on them? Joyce’s explanation in afternoon, a story seems to have established the metaphor:
‘READ AT DEPTH
I haven’t indicated what words yield, but they are usually ones which have texture...’
Once again, it is the reader who decides which words ‘have texture’, which bear a tempting quality... and wherever the reader decides to click, he or she is unlikely to be disappointed. ‘The nomadic movement of ideas is made effortless by the electronic medium that makes it easy to cross borders (or erase them) with the swipe of a mouse, carrying as much of the world as you will on the etched arrow of light that makes up a cursor. [...] Each iteration “breathes life into a narrative of possibilities,” as Jane Yellowlees Douglas says of hypertext fiction, so that, in the ‘third or fourth encounter with the same place, the immediate encounter remains the same as the first, [but] what changes is [our] understanding’” (Joyce, 1995, p. 3).
The reader weaves the web of narrative possibilities, aware of the power of choice. He or she advances, down the labyrinth of ‘forking paths’ that Borges (1941) once imagined, sometimes at a loss, sometimes helped by the map, chart, tree-map or outline of links between lexias which the author may have provided. But no matter how s/he chooses to do it, the reading experience is a challenge to the stability of the traditional concepts of text, author and reader.
Delany and Landow (1991, p. 3) point out that ‘so long as text was married to a physical media [sic], readers and writers took for granted three crucial attributes: that the text was linear, bounded and fixed. Generations of scholars and authors internalized these qualities as the rules of thought, and they had pervasive social consequences. We can define hypertext as the use of the computer to transcend the linear, bounded and fixed qualities of the traditional written text.’ Devoid of paper, tablet, scroll, book... the text becomes virtual, transient. There is no stable object holding the entire text; all the reader can see is one block of text at a time and explore the electronic links that connect that lexia to others: a variable textual structure that lies behind the blocks and can be represented on screen as a tree diagram, a web, a network... There is no fixed way out of the labyrinth: you build it as you choose your way down the forking paths.
If hypertext has changed the nature of text, it has also disclosed the nature of underlying reading operations. True, the reader may apply perfectly conventional reading habits in each lexia, but, as Delany and Landow (1991, p. 4) believe, ‘[hypertext] can also provide a revelation, by making visible and explicit mental processes that have always been part of the total experience of reading. For the text as the reader imagined it – as opposed to the physical text objectified in the book – never had to be linear, bounded or fixed. A reader could jump to the last page to see how a story ended; could think of relevant passages in other works; could re-order texts by cutting and pasting. Still, the stubborn materiality of the text constrained such operations.’
Hypertext, then, is the virtual space where modern literary criticism and pedagogy meet, as the active reader in the learner-centred classroom becomes a reality rather than a desideratum. The reader as ‘producer of the text’ advocated by Barthes (1970), the active reader of Umberto Eco’s open work (1962), the Derridean emphasis upon discontinuity and decentring (Derrida, 1967), all find concrete realisation in hyperfiction. So does Bakhtin’s conception of dialogism and multivocality (1984), for ‘hypertext does not permit a tyrannical, univocal voice. Rather, the voice is always that distilled from the combined experience of the momentary focus, the lexia one presently reads, and the continually forming narrative of one’s reading path.’ (Landow, 1992, p. 11)
All this has far-reaching implications for education in general and for literary education in particular. The dialogical interaction between reader and text which allows each reader to construct ‘the meaning of the text afresh’ (Pulverness, 1996) has been (and many times still is) veiled by layers of respect for the mythical authority of writers, critics and literature teachers. Even in classrooms where the existence of multiple readings is acknowledged, there is often an underlying belief in the superiority of the teacher’s learned reading. Hyperfiction removes the veil: not only does it offer multiple readings, but multiple texts (or architectural realisations of text). This simply means that no reading (not even the teacher’s!) can be considered the ‘correct’ one, as the text itself is not fixed and it literally grows with every reading.
Hyperfiction readers are aware of the fact that they are opening the textual track as they advance. As they sit in front of the computer, they are encouraged to fill in ‘indeterminacy gaps’ (Iser, 1971) in the information as they read (or rather, navigate) the text. Though they cannot change the author’s work, they can discover multiple combinations and can actually type notes on a ‘notepad’ as they read, responding to the information gaps in the text. The boundaries between reader and writer are then blurred and the authority of the authorial voice is partially transferred to the reader. The reader activates procedural skills to make sense not only of discourse (Widdowson in Brumfit and Carter, 1985) but of the constructive web behind it.
Hyperfiction in the EFL class
What contributions can this kind of literature make to a learner-centred classroom where literature is integrated with the teaching of English as a foreign language? How can the reading experience be integrated with writing and oral activities that are meaningful? What materials can teachers and students develop using hypertext-writing programs and applications?
At present, no hyperfiction materials seem to be available to suit the needs of EFL students whose standard of English is not considerably advanced. Pilot experiences in the use of hyperfiction with advanced EFL students (Ferradas Moi, 1998) suggest a few preliminary conclusions:
carefully planned pre-computer activity is needed to acquaint the reader with the necessary information and skills required to approach the new textual form (especially with groups who are not yet comfortable with the use of computers)
the computer-based activity can be frustrating: this is perhaps unavoidable when a new format is encountered, but it also means the teacher may want to select a hypertext which resembles traditional stories to some extent rather than a more radically ‘avant-garde’ one
the post-computer activity can become a true negotiation between different readers as to what ‘the text’ means: the teacher or workshop co-ordinator can count on information and opinion gaps that will encourage involvement and give rise to a number of meaningful language activities
this also encourages learner autonomy: hyperfiction reading involves commitment on the part of the students. They are responsible for their own reading, as they will have to retell their version and support their views with constant references to the reading they have ‘saved’.
the lack of a ‘correct’ version may be particularly encouraging for the more insecure students, who feel free to express their views
above all, reading hyperfiction and writing comments as the reader advances contributes to the development of metacognitive strategies: the learner is encouraged to reflect upon his or her own hypotheses and interpretive procedures and this process raises awareness of the reader’s expectations, reading style, the affective factors at play in the building of the textual web and the way this compares to the procedures used by others
according to the participants, as they read hyperfiction at home, the experience became even more exciting as they thought of the next meeting with the other members of the group: it seems that coming to terms with the text involves discussing it with other readers (which ensures motivation and encourages collaborative learning).
However, further research needs to be done to corroborate the preliminary conclusions listed above and explore their implications. In particular, it is necessary to investigate whether these statements apply to the needs of EFL students at lower levels of proficiency.
Apart from its value concerning awareness-raising, hyperfiction can lead to meaningful classroom activities, such as:
role-play activities (dialogues between characters in the different ‘versions’)
the meaningful retelling of a student’s reading – asking the others to provide ‘closure’ and then comparing their suggestions to the ending the student ‘reached’
highly motivating writing tasks, such as descriptions of one character as seen by different readers, or a series of letters (or e-mails) from one character to another, where a number of misunderstandings will be produced by the fact that characters have different information in each case.
It can also prove enlightening to surf through an online hypernovel, Geoff Ryman’s 253, www.ryman-novel.com, and then compare it to its printed version. Students may then want to read Chris Mitchell’s review for Spike Magazine (1998)) available at www.spikemagazine.com/0398_253.htm, to see whether they agree with the critic’s views and then e-mail their opinions to him. What Mitchell writes may remind the reader of several observation made above:
‘253 refers to the number of passengers which a London Underground tube train can hold, including the driver. The novel follows the pattern of describing each of the passengers on board in exactly 253 words, including their outward appearance and their internal thoughts.
With the electronic version, the reader can choose any passenger from which to begin reading and then follow how that character interacts with the other tube travellers by clicking the links provided. It's a curiously addictive form of storytelling, relying both on the illusion that the reader is shaping the story through choosing which links to follow, and the voyeuristic joy of finding out what people really think on the tube.
However, much of this joy is lost in the printed version precisely because there are no links. … With the absence of any real character interaction, this quickly becomes tedious. As Ryman himself admits in the introduction, “Nothing exciting happens in this novel. It is ideal fare for invalids”.’
Developing critical technological literacy
Can hypertext-writing programs be used for students to develop their own stories in class? Experimentally, I observed a class of five upper intermediate EFL students in Buenos Aires give that kind of program a try. Initially, we were worried by the fact that the task of writing a short hyperfiction piece involved the use of a hypertext writing program (Eastgate Systems’ Storyspace). However, students took no time at all to learn how to use the basic functions of the program. They showed an exploratory learning mode and those with better PC skills collaborated with the others, who, in turn, paid more attention to editing, though content rather than accuracy was the focus of students’ attention.
When they evaluated the experience, students found it motivating and did not think the program was an obstacle. According to the assessment interview at the end of the project, they had found the activity ‘original’ and ‘challenging’. However, they had also found it time-consuming and the results were disappointingly simple, with very few links except for those that led the reader down parallel lines in a forking structure.
The students took the whole idea as a game and seemed to enjoy it. They even wanted to go on working outside class, which means that if we could find ways of training students to use the hypertext program and give them enough time, we could begin to throw light on some of their hyper-reading and hyper-writing operations.
In fact, simple wordprocessors can be used today to establish links from one word to another or from one text to another. This can help students write their own creative hypertextual pieces or even develop critical insights into other texts they have read by establishing intertextual relationships between texts or with their own comments. These can then be uploaded on to a class web page for other readers to share.
These are just early attempts to develop the literacies demanded by new technologies. As educators, we should bear in mind that even though we may hail the advent of forms of technology that contribute to the achievement of a more democratic, learner-centred classroom, we must be aware of the implications this may have in the particular context in which we teach and learn, so I expect further studies to consider some of the questions hyperfiction raises:
How satisfying is the reading of a permanently inconclusive work? Can the frustration of finding oneself in the same lexia again and again be overcome with considerations on how the lexia can be interpreted in its new occurrence?
To what extent is the reader free to choose where he or she is going? How much manipulation on the part of the author is there when he or she determines where links lead? Can this help us become aware of the manipulative potential of hypermedia products on the internet?
Does hyperfiction really challenge our concept of narrative? Can we do away with the narrative line, or do we put the chunks together, jigsaw-puzzle style, only to reconstruct some form of narrative line?
What possibilities does hypertext offer for the development of new pedagogical practices and the design of innovative materials?
Can hypertext help us throw light on the metacognitive processes involved in reading?
How democratic is a form that depends not only on the access to computer hardware and software but on the necessary ‘know-how’, especially in countries where access and ‘know-how’ are still the privilege of a few? Does this contribute to McLuhan’s global village or to a world whose distribution of power (and empowering knowledge) is becoming more and more unfair?
Will screens ever replace books? How will a ‘reading artefact’ look, feel, smell... in years to come? And how is that likely to change our perception of the world in general?
How will hypertext negotiate its relationship with images and audience in attractive multimedia environments such as the internet?
Hyperwriting can help students reflect on and assess the new technologies, thus contributing to the development of critical technological literacy. ‘The credibility of designers / authors…is continually open for question and challenge by hyperreaders… To carry out such assessments, readers should be discouraged from a simple consumer orientation to the Web, to learn to distinguish simple information from linked information, which… implies a host of other assumptions and values; and to resist and suspect the seductive character of multimedia Web design […] A crucial aspect of developing this capacity for critical hyperreading is, I suggest, to learn about the mechanics of Web design / authoring itself.’ (Burbules, 1998, p. 118)
These are, of course, early steps in the development of new forms of textuality which pose challenges to readers, writers and educators alike. We have started weaving a virtual web, but must try to remember that ‘you cannot, with the Web, go where no one has gone before’ (Tchudi, 2000). Like the Lady of Shallot, we must take our boat and sail down to Camelot ourselves if the elusive fascination of the virtual is to help us become aware of our place in the realm of the actual. Otherwise, we may get caught in a Web that others weave for us – and the postmodern curse will fall upon us.
N.B. Sections of this paper were published in the following articles:
Hyperfiction: Explorations in Textual Texture. In IATEFL Literature and Cultural Studies SIG Newsletter, spring / summer 2002
Hyper-reading: facing the challenge of electronic literature. In Folio 7.1, MATSDA, U.K., January 2003
Further considerations on hypertext and materials design, with details on the experiences described in the paper, can be found in: Hyperfiction: Explorations in Textual Texture. In Tomlinson, B. (ed.) Issues in Materials Development for Language Teaching, Continuum, UK (2002)
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Burbules N.C. (1998). Rhetorics of the Web: hyperreading and critical literacy. In Snyder, I. (ed.) (1998). Page to Screen –- Taking Literacy into the Electronic Era. London and New York: Routledge, pp.102–22
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Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Saturday, March 18, 2017
Just read the decade+ old not-a-memoir, not knowing about the controversy until I was a only a few pages from finishing the book.
I have trouble believing any one who read didn't see through some of the details as hyperbole. The fact that so much of it was written as dialogue would have to clue the reader that this was a story about his experience, rather than his experience.
I remember thinking that it reads like a male version of Pretty Woman. And, I qualified much of what I read with a heavy dose of authorial creative license. That was the only logical way to read it. Still, I enjoyed the story of the author's stance against AA rhetoric. I revelled in hearing his preference for the Tao te Ching over the Bible. I was happy to have the 12 steps questioned as the ONLY solution for sobriety.
I read it as fiction, with a personal message, even before learning it had been incorrectly classified as a memoir in order to get it published. And I find it amusing that the media took it at face value.
Was it well-written? It was OK. The style was interesting, but obviously not interesting enough to stand on its own literary merit and be published as a novel. But as a memoir! It was a miracle? Jeez.
Where to catalog a book makes a big difference on where it sits on a shelf in a library. And the same goes for a book store. Publishers look at who is reading. Are people more likely to pick up a story about addiction in fiction or non-fiction? Publishers look at their catalogs. They have a surfeit of novels but not much selling as memoir. So they tweak it to fit what will sell.
As a naive, unpublished author Frey just went along with the hype to get it out there.
I'm sure reviewers (including Oprah) were embarrassed to learn they had praised the book based on a lower bar having been set for a memoir than a novel. To me, this speaks to our own hungers and needs to feed on the adversity of others more than our ability to judge a book by its cover. Yes, I find this disturbing. But not anything new.
Frey wrote something timely. Wrote it from his own experience, in his own voice. And, I believe, his experience of writing was an excellent example of an exercise in bibliotherapy. His fictionalized story was his confession. His confession was a catharsis. And the catharsis was instrumental in his recovery. I applaud the semi-autobiographical novel for its cathartic success, if not its literary merit. Read it as entertainment, rather than as how-to conquer addiction.
Memoir doesn't have to be a trainwreck in order for us to not look away. The writing itself can carry us forward, can provide the impetus of not being able to put a book down.
Frey as an inexperienced, but not untalented, writer served as his own fluffer. He couldn't get it up without overstimulation. "It" being the genius of an memoirist who not only tells a story, but tells their own story, with truth and beauty.
The publishing industry has to take the fall here. In the end, Frey's book speaks to his readers on their own level and conveys his message. For Frey, the success is in being heard. For the publishing community, the failure of categorical integrity resulted in financial success.
And the whole Oprah component, well, that WAS unfortunate...