Authors explore the labyrinthine options of the Internet
by Rob Brookman
Illustration by Nana Rausch
Don't look for A Long Wild Smile to make
the rounds of the book-club circuit any time soon. Although it is a
published work of fiction, Jeff Parker's creation isn't a book, doesn't
have a beginning, middle or end and eschews most of the conventions of
traditional narrative—including anything you might call a plot.
A Long Wild Smile (www.hypertxt.com /parker/magnetic)
is actually a quintessential example of what its practitioners term
"hypermedia": work that feeds off Internet technologies and combines
elements of literature, fine art, animation and even performance art in
a single, interactive package. Instead of marching purposefully from
introduction to conclusion, hypermedia mimics the Internet's
hypertextuality, encouraging readers to click links at random and
meander through a work—the same way they might surf the Web.
What results is a new and highly experimental approach to
storytelling. Still, hypermedia is finding fans, adherents and even a
little respect. One event likely to boost hypermedia's profile is this
month's print publication of Coming Soon!!! by postmodern novelist John Barth, whose works include Lost in the Funhouse, The Sot-Weed Factor and the National Book Award-winning Chimera. Coming Soon!!!
pits an aging writer against an ambitious young hypertext author in a
race to complete a tale about a floating opera (revisiting both the
fictional novelist's first novel and—wink, wink—Barth's own debut, The Floating Opera). Barth says what drew him to hypertext is the way it, in some ways, mirrors human experience.
"I see hypertext as a jim-dandy metaphor for what I would call the
hypertextuality of everyday life," Barth says. "Metaphorically
speaking, we can click on anything we see in life and there'll be some
story lying behind it, and that story can be hot-linked to further
stories behind that, and on and on, ad infinitum."
It may take time before writers learn to accurately replicate the
hypertextuality of life in story form, but if they do, it will be
thanks in part to Robert Coover. Coover, professor of electronic and
experimental writing at Brown University and author of the recent novel
thinks it's inevitable that technology will exert an influence on the
world of letters. "Changing technologies continually reshape the very
nature of the artistic enterprise," he says.
Technology may shape art, but money doesn't hurt, either—that's
where Scott Rettberg comes in. In May, Rettberg and his group, the
Electronic Literature Organization (www.eliterature.org),
presented the first annual Electronic Literature Awards at a ceremony
in New York, handing out $10,000 apiece to winners in fiction and
poetry. As Rettberg sees it, the awards—currently the richest given to
works designed specifically for electronic media—represent an
investment in the future as much as a payout to the present.
"I look at all of these [hypermedia works] as clues to what will
happen fifteen, twenty, thirty years down the road,"he says. "Right now
we're in this early moment in electronic literary history when these
strange, new ideas are getting yoked together. Fifty years from now,
we'll have a better idea of what this moment means."
Readers not content to wait fifty years might be forgiven if they
find today's stabs at hypermedia more science project than serious
literature. But Rettberg is comfortable with the fact that hypertext
fiction has yet to produce a masterpiece. "Today is a kind of proving
ground for the discoveries and techniques that may help produce
something like a masterpiece in the future."
A Hypertext Sampler
The Iowa Review Web (uiowa.edu/~iareview/mainpages/tirweb.html) This respected literary journal has been posting hypermedia works since 1999. BeeHive (beehive.temporalimage.com)
Talan Memmott, whose trAce Award-winning Lexia to Perplexia is on the Iowa Review site, edits this hypermedia journal. trAce (trace.ntu.ac.uk)
by British author Sue Thomas, trAce is an online writing community and
school sponsoring hypermedia competitions, fellowships and conferences. The Unknown (www.unknownhypertext.com) This hypertext novel about hypertext novels is authored in part by Scott Rettberg of the Electronic Literature Organization.