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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