> vox

Literary Hypertext:
The Passing of the Golden Age

by Robert Coover

29 October 1999
Keynote Address, Digital Arts and Culture
Atlanta, Georgia

(This speech was also published in Feed in 2000.)

A decade or so ago, in the pre-Web era of the digital revolution, a new literary art form began to emerge, made possible by the computer's ability to escape the book's linear page-turning mechanism and provide multiple links between screens of text in a nonlinear webwork of narrative or poetic elements.

The early experimental writers of the time worked almost exclusively in text, as did the students in our pioneer hypertext workshops at Brown University, partly by choice (they were print writers moving tentatively into this radically new domain and carrying into it what they knew best), but largely because the very limited capacities of computers and diskettes in those days dictated it. Now and then, a black-and-white line graphic was drawn (or, later, scanned) in, perhaps as part of the "title page" or a navigational map, but audio and animation files were virtually nonexistent. These early hypertexts were mostly discrete objects, like books, moved onto low-density floppies (this was before the Web and its browsers, remember, even before CD-ROMs), and distributed by small start-up companies like Eastgate Systems and Voyager, or else passed around among friends by hand or snailmail.

This was, in retrospect, what might be thought of as the golden age of literary hypertext, for with the emergence of the World Wide Web, something new is happening. For those who've only recently lost their footing and fallen into the flood of hypertext, literary or otherwise, it may be dismaying to learn that they are arriving after the golden age is already over, but that's in the nature of golden ages: not even there until so seen by succeeding generations.

Silver ages are said to follow upon golden ages as marriage and family follow upon romance, and last longer but not forever. They are characterized by a retreat from radical visions and a return to major elements of the preceding tradition — while retaining a fascination with surface elements of the golden age innovations, by a great diffusion and popularization of its diluted principles and their embodiment in institutions, and by a prolific widespread output in the name of what went before, though no longer that thing exactly. This would seem to be the sort of time we find ourselves in with respect to literary hypertext.

When we first began teaching our hypertext courses at Brown University, our focus was on the radically new idea of complex textual webworks of multilinear narrative and, to a much lesser extent, lyrical or poetic webworks, and the burning workshop questions had to do with architecture, mapping, design, and navigational procedures, with the centrality and variety of links and how to make them more transparent, or less so, with organicity, problems of closure, indeterminacy, with the interactive role of the reader, intentional networks, the redefinition of the "author." These concerns also engaged the creators of the early classics, such hyperfictions as Michael Joyce's afternoon, Judy Malloy's Its Name Was Penelope, Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden, and what is perhaps the true paradigmatic work of the era, Shelley Jackson's elegantly designed, beautifully composed Patchwork Girl.

These pioneer narrative hypertexts explored the tantalizing new possibility of laying a story out spatially instead of linearly, inviting the reader to explore it as one might explore one's memory or wander a many-pathed geographical terrain, and, being adventurous quests at the edge of a new literary frontier, they were often intensely self-reflective. Thus, in a text space entitled "this writing," buried deep within the heart of Patchwork Girl and presumably the meditations of a female monster created by a Dr. Frankenstein named Mary Shelley, or Shelley Shelley as she sometimes calls herself, Jackson writes:

Assembling these patched words in an electronic space, I feel half-blind, as if the entire text is within reach, but because of some myopic condition I am only familiar with in dreams, I can see only that part most immediately before me, and have no sense of how that part relates to all the rest. When I open a book I know where I am, which is restful. My reading is spatial and even volumetric. I tell myself, I am a third of the way down through a rectangular solid, I am a quarter of the way down the page, I am here on the page, here on this line, here, here, here. But where am I now? I am in a here and a present moment that has no history and no expectations for the future.

Or rather, history is only a haphazard hopscotch through other present moments. How I got from one to the other is unclear. Though I could list my past moments, they would remain discrete (and recombinant in potential if not in fact), hence without shape, without end, without story. Or with as many stories as I care to put together.

Hypertext, she has said elsewhere, "is the banished body. Its compositional principle is desire. It gives a loudspeaker to the knee, a hearing trumpet to the elbow... Hypertext is the body languorously extending itself to its own limits, hemmed in only by its own lack of extent."

The very choice of the central metaphor of Patchwork Girl was alone a stroke of genius: the patching together of a new body, whether of flesh or text, from linked fragments of other bodies, also of flesh, also of text, once dead, now given new life, new form, if somewhat strange and "monstrous." The work is divided, like the senses, into five linked sections, and one of these is the raiding of the graveyard for body parts — and for the stories attached to their previous owners. Thus, from the outset, this patching together of a physical body from disparate but harmonious parts was linked to a similar patching together of story materials, the body becoming text, text body, a traditional theme given its true hypertextual configuration with this multiply coded, larger-than-life patchwork girl. "You could say that all bodies are written bodies," Jackson wrote, "all lives pieces of writing.../"

First, because our infinitely various forms are composed from a limited number of similar elements, a kind of alphabet, and we have guidelines as to which arrangements are acceptable, are valid words, legible sentences, and which are typographical or grammatical errors: "monsters"...

There is a kind of thinking without thinkers. Matter thinks. Language thinks. When we have business with language, we are possessed by its dreams and demons, we grow intimate with monsters. We become hybrids, chimeras, centaurs ourselves: steaming flanks and solid redoubtable hoofs galloping under a vaporous machinery...

From this window of text, we can link to further self-reflective meditations, but if we click on "intimate with monsters," we find ourselves in bed with the creator and her monster. And like most authors, Mary, the creator, married to a guy named Percy, falls in love with her own creation...

Last night I lay in her arms, my monster, and for the first time laid my hand on her skin. Her skins, I should rather say, or forego the possessive altogether. Others had as good a right as she — perhaps better — to call that skin their own. These thoughts trembled in my hand, and yet I did not pull away. Her body was warm. Feverish, I might say, yet knew not what internal thermostat might hold steady and true in that preternaturally robust form...

Which window, in turn, leads by way of a slow unfolding of linked segments to:

I ran my fingertips along a seam that traversed her flank. It was tough and knobbled, yet slick. And it was hot, not the cold I had anticipated without knowing it. Indeed it was hotter than the stretches of smooth skin it divided as I proved by caressing both regions. When I laid my hand flat and still for a moment on her side, the scar was a burning slash across my palm, and I wondered if it hurt her. I was filled with compassion.

She seemed to sense a change in me...

I have quoted from this work at length as a reminder of what it felt like, back in ancient pre-Web times, to read a classic hyperfiction. These early multidirectional webworks of text spaces had the alleged disadvantage — a disadvantage that has all but disappeared — of having to click a mouse and read from a screen, relatively new experiences then, but they challenged the constraints and conventions of centuries of printbound reading in very exciting ways, offering the writer vast new formal possibilities and redefining the relationship of the reader to the text. Suddenly, as many of my student electronic writers remarked, we were able to read and write in the way that we think, creating and/or accessing the various elements of a narrative the way one accesses the fragments of one's life story held in memory, say, or the way that one backpacks through a strange country, making hypertext not the latest fantasy tool, but a kind of neorealism. And, once we got used to it, there was no reason we could not achieve that sort of focused, deeply imagined, "lost" reading experience we so treasured in books — finding, as the hyperpoet Stephanie Strickland has said, "an individualized, meditative space, of the kind that supports mental doodling, rest, quiet exploration in a safe space, as books were wont to give us."

Indeed, Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl offers the patient reader, if there are any left in the world, just such an experience of losing oneself to a text, for as one plunges deeper and deeper into one's own personal exploration of the relations here of creator to created and of body to text, one never fails to be rewarded and so is drawn ever deeper, until clicking the mouse is as unconscious an act as turning a page, and much less constraining, more compelling.

Not that many did read these works as carefully or as thoroughly as they deserved, but that is true of the reading of books as well. We have always insisted that good printbound texts need good engaged readers to fulfill their concealed potential. Now, in hypertext, that readerly role was made manifest and foregrounded. The author did not disappear, as was feared or hoped for, but became a kind of designer or architect or landscaper as well as writer, building or laying out a structural or geographical space through which the reader might roam as though on a quest of her own, guided or not guided by its artist-maker. These were mostly discrete literary artworks, with a shelvable diskette or CD-ROM existence not unlike that of the book, such that if closure was sometimes a problem, enclosure was not.

Then, almost overnight it seemed, together with the new IBM Windows applications, the boom in laptop computers with expanded memory along with CD-ROMs and ZIP and JAZZ drives, the invention of Netscape and other browsers, the creation of HTML and Java and VRML and rapidly improving hypermedia, there came the sudden worldwide rush to the Web, a phenomenon from which we are all still reeling. The impact upon communication, expression, commerce, sex, politics, indeed all forms of human exchange, has been truly phenomenal, and one senses that that impact is only beginning to be felt.

In terms of new serious literature, the Web has not been very hospitable. It tends to be a noisy, restless, opportunistic, superficial, e-commerce-driven, chaotic realm, dominated by hacks, pitchmen and pretenders, in which the quiet voice of literature cannot easily be heard or, if heard by chance, attended to for more than a moment or two. Literature is meditative and the Net is riven by ceaseless hype and chatter. Literature has a shape, and the Net is shapeless. The discrete object is gone, there's only this vast disorderly sprawl, about as appealing as a scatter of old magazines on a table in the dentist's lounge. Literature is traditionally slow and low-tech and thoughtful, the Net is fast and high-tech and actional. As for hyperfiction, the old golden age webworks of text have largely vanished, hypertext now used more to access hypermedia as enhancements for more or less linear narratives, when it's not launching the reader out into the mazy outer space of the World Wide Web, never to be seen again. Notions of architecture, mapping, design: mostly gone. Genuine interactivity, too: the reader is commonly obliged now to enter the media-rich but ineluctable flow as directed by the author or authors: in a sense, it's back to the movies again, that most passive and imperious of forms.

And even the word, the very stuff of literature, and indeed of all human thought, is under assault, giving ground daily to image-surfing, hypermedia, the linked icon. Indeed, the word itself is increasingly reduced to icon or caption. Some speak hopefully of the binding of word and image, many, perhaps also hopefully, of the displacement of word by image. There is a genuine fear — or hope — that our old language of the intellect, systematic discourse, and poetic metaphor may very soon be as foreign and esoteric as ancient Sumerian cuneiform tablets.

And for the authors themselves, there are all these new tools to learn. Writing consumes one entirely. But learning these new applications also consumes one entirely, and they keep changing, sometimes so radically that what's been written in the old can no longer be read in the new. Many electronic writers now seem baffled and disillusioned by what author Jay David Bolter has called "the anxiety of obsolescence" as their tools and formats, laboriously learned, are ceaselessly displaced by others, and they are further dismayed by the Web's increased hostility toward text and the flight of readers into cybermalls and chatrooms.

So, does this mean that literature is dying on the Web? On the contrary. If anything, true to the nature of silver ages, we are into a miniboom as electronic magazines and prizes proliferate, new electronic publishers emerge, organizations spring up to develop online readerships and bring them into contact with the new writers. No, though most of the world's literati continue to shy away from this new, increasingly dominant medium, and so continue to drift further and further from the center, the new literary mainstream is being carved here. And if I am mistaken and it is not, then literature itself is adrift and slipping even further into the backwaters. There is, as we know, a new generation of readers coming along, an audience trained from primary school on to read and write — and above all to think — in this new way, and they will be the audience that literary artists will seek to reach, else perhaps have none at all.

And will the new literature look like the old literature? No, it will not. Changing technologies continually reshape the very nature of the artistic enterprise. The dominant narrative forms of our times, the novel and the movie, for example, would not have been possible without the technologies that created, not so much the forms themselves, as the new audiences toward whom artists directed their endeavors, some translating the classic modes into the new technologies, others exploring the new technologies for new forms appropriate to them. This emergent expressive environment provided by the computer and the WorldWide Web is impatient with monomedia and simple self-enclosed sequences. Rhetoric, in this Age of the New Sophists, is still the route to power, but the hypertextual link and all the visual and aural media are now part of its grammar. Like composers, artists, and filmmakers before them, writers will learn to battle through the new tool-learning tasks, or to collaborate with other artists, designers, filmmakers, composers, and the tools themselves will become easier to learn and use and will interact more smoothly with other tools.

Poetry has indeed prospered in this new medium, even more than fiction. Or to put it another way, since the genre distinctions are breaking down in this new medium: the narrative mode, being a literary gesture that typically moves from A to B — the "nextness" of story — has had to cope with the paradoxically contrary nature of the multidirectional webworks of hyperfiction, while the lyrical mode, in which typically a single subject becomes the center of many peripheral meditations, has often found those webworks most congenial. With hypermedia, a whole new poetic movement has emerged, called kinetic poetry, or poetry that "moves," in which the text of a poem undergoes ceaseless transformations on the screen, emerging and disappearing, evolving into shapes and motions and patterns that "imitate" the poem itself, interacting visually with other elements of the poem or aurally with overlaid sound files. Visual artists sometimes even insist on calling their own hypermedia works "poems," though they may contain few words or none at all, keeping poetic structures intact but displacing language with visual images.

Many of the more beautiful and ambitious works of kinetic poetry, such as "Spy v. Spy" by Jay Dillemuth and Alex Cory, "Captain, My Captain" by Judd Morrissey, and "After Lori" and "Saccades" by Paul Long, are not yet available on the Web, but some sense of the form and its potential can be glimpsed in Australian Jenny Weight's suite of sixteen short poems about Vietnam, which uses hyperlinks, kinetic text, music, artwork, photographs, newscasts, live poetry readings, recorded street sounds, animation, found objects, Shockwave graphics, and much more, in a kind of personal anthology of the formal and technical means currently possible. Other examples can be found at The Electronic Poetry Center at Buffalo, UbuWeb, Turbulence, Multimania, Eastgate Systems (see, for example, pioneer hyperpoet Rob Kendall's "Dispossession"), and Dia. These works can be quite beautiful, at least visually, even if kinesis does sometimes seem like a way of draining a poem of its meaning; this of course is the constant threat of hypermedia: to suck the substance out of a work of lettered art, reduce it to surface spectacle. But then, nothing is ever mere surface, mere spectacle, is it?

It will be obvious by now that I am still in love with the word, still faithfully wed to text, and especially literary text. Reading such text remains, for me, the most interactive thing that we as humans do, converting these little black squiggles on white backgrounds into vast landscapes, ancient battlegrounds and distant galaxies, into events more vivid than those on the news or the streets outside with characters we know better than we know our own families and friends. That's what writers invented: this enlargement of our imaginative powers. And I continue to feel that, for all the wondrous and provocative invasions of text by sound and image, all the intimate layering of them and irresistible fusions, still, the most radical and distinctive literary contribution of the computer has been the multilinear hypertextual webwork of text spaces, or, as one might say, the intimate layering and fusion of imagined spatiality and temporality. In my workshops I continue to insist upon text, often against the wills of students, eager to abandon the slow but demanding word and rush into sights and sounds.

But then, maybe this is where I am stuck in the past and becoming dated, for one might well ask, are not these golden age narrative webworks mere extensions of the dying book culture, as retrotech in their way as eBooks? Could it be that text itself is a worn-out tool of a dying human era, a necessary aid perhaps in a technically primitive world, but one that has always distanced the user from the world she or he lives in, a kind of thick inky scrim between sentient beings and their reality? Even alphabets, clever little tools in their time, are fettered now by the unlinked nature of the times of their origins, and are already giving way to new multilingual alphabets and pictograms called icons. In the beginning was the word — but maybe only for writers, for scribes, a class with special skills, brought into being by the Sumerians and perhaps no longer relevant to the electronic world we live in, or are about to. It may be that it will be the image, not the word, that will dominate all future cultural exchanges, including literature, if then it can still be called that. Text, so far anyway, can reflect upon itself more directly yet complexly than can the image, and so curb its own excesses, but we do not yet know how subtle the language of the image might be. We do know how forceful it can be. Silver ages, you will remember, are generally followed by iron ages wherein the hammer is the hammer and the head the head...

But this is still the silver age, or perhaps even merely the tag end, as some would have it, of the dark ages, that sweet wordy time. Certainly, the world is full still of subversive and obstreperous writers and they will not take being made redundant lying down. Text at the outset of this new millennium remains our traditional source of content, of meaning, imagination's primary trigger, and writers will continue to use it as their tool of choice, if not their only one, even if readers do not. Even as we of this time, astraddle the ages, continue to fuse text with all the hypermedia at our disposal, we also continue to hunger for the old reading experience, until either (the generations come, the generations go) it is forgotten and becomes a legend of the past, or this magical fusion of image, sound, and text, and perhaps of aroma and tactility as well, really happens, and the golden age, thought past, begins.

original text 1999-10 / posted with the permission of Robert Coover 2002-05