May 11, 2003

Hypertext Fiction Never Tried?

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 11:20 pm

I just got back from eNarrative 5, part of the last weekend of the Boston Cyberarts Festival. One of the most interesting moments for me was this morning, when longtime hypertext scholar George Landow said (to my ear) that we haven’t really tried hypertext fiction.

He said most hypertext fictions that we see as successful really use hypertext as their container, not as their fundamental structure. Works like afternoon and Patchwork Girl use links as the connections between narrative loops. Landow’s done a lot of work in non-fiction hypertext (e.g., The Victorian Web) and in these works such loops don’t tend to exist — instead each page stands nonlinearly related to many others in the work. He speculated, building upon a comment he attributed to Robert Coover, that such total nonlinearity in literature might actually be more appropriate for what we think of as poetry (functioning by analogy) than for fiction.

I find the implicit challenge in Landow’s remarks interesting — that we should try to imagine what a hypertext fiction would be that was deeply nonlinear. (Though I suspect there’s some prior conversation on this topic I should be remembering and referencing here.) At the same time, it also occurs to me that The Victorian Web contains “pages” (hypertext nodes) that are the length of book chapters — which might be serving purposes quite similar to those of narrative loops in fictional works. Also, I feel compelled to point out that a mixture of non-linear and looping behaviors within a document is perfectly hypertextual by Nelson’s definitions (about which I’ll no doubt post more before long).

Lots of other stuff I could write about from eNarrative as well – especially meeting and hearing for the first time interesting people like Meg Hourihan, Scot Osterweil, and Cati Vaucelle – but the best thing would probably be for people to follow the links that I’m sure will appear on the website soon (Mark Bernstein, the organizer, tends to be diligent about such things).

On a related electronic writing note, the materials from the excellent e(X)literature conference are now online (and also check out Matt Kirshenbaum’s trip report).