What is the Forgotten Literary Child?

Maria D’Antonio

In an age where almost everything is becoming digitalized, if it hasn’t already, it may come across as odd that the genre of hypertext fiction never really became popular in the general populace or even with universities.

It seems as though literature, insofar as making fiction and literature completely adapted for the Internet and hypertext, never completely succumbed to the digital culture.

Click Here: About Hypertext Literature

Hypertext literature is not merely turning one of the great American novels into an e-book. Imagine some of the old children’s books where at the end of a page the reader has to choose an action for the characters. The book would then redirect the reader to the appropriate, sequential part depending on the choice. Hypertext is the same general idea, except digital.

Nvate Eastgate hypertext fiction Hypertext Literature Michael Joyce multi-sequential story My Body non-sequential storyopen-ended story Shelley Jackson Twelve Blue Virtual Shadow

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Dean Taciuch, an English professor at George Mason University, describes three essential ingredients to hypertext literature: non-linear, unbounded, and unfixed story-telling. In other words, generally hypertext fiction is an open-ended, multi-sequential or non-sequential story that is not bound by physical means or in some cases even by the author. There are multiple authors in a collaborative work.

Though hypertext literature is its own genre, like print literature, it encompasses a wide range of literary works—poetry; genre and literary fiction; and nonfiction. However, to be clear, nonfiction refers to creative nonfiction or autobiographical. Nonfiction hypertext exists everywhere on the Internet; it is how one accesses Google links after typing in a search term.

Like its name implies, in a hypertext story or poem a reader will read the text on the screen, but to access the rest of the story they have to choose one of the links within the text. In more recent hypertext fiction and poetry, the story includes pictures and readers can click on different areas of the picture, sometimes choosing between the link within the text and the picture. This is extremely prominent in Michael Joyce’s “Twelve Blue,” a series of short stories that explores the connections between various characters. The story can be read online.

When the reader reads this story, they can choose to click on a link in the text or in the sidebar art. All the links lead to different parts of the story. Sometimes the links lead to a picture, and then the picture itself is a link. This is the nature of hypertext literature; it is non-linear, but still has just as much meaning as a linear, print story.

Taciuch points to the reader’s role in hypertext literature in that it is much more active than reading in print. Unlike in traditional books or e-books, readers actually choose the outcome of the story and thus literally create their own meaning for the story.

Hypertext Spotlight: “My Body” by Shelley Jackson

“My Body” by Shelley Jackson is an excellent example of hypertext literature. When the reader clicks on the title, they are led to a picture of a woman’s body. The reader is invited to click on boxes that are present on almost every part of the woman’s body. Particularly, what makes this one easier to read than “Twelve Blue” is that there is only one character to follow. Each part of the body is exploring a new aspect of the character.

Nvate Eastgate hypertext fiction Hypertext Literature Michael Joyce multi-sequential story My Body non-sequential storyopen-ended story Shelley Jackson Twelve Blue Virtual Shadow

Credit: Altx Online Network

Sometimes the links lead to thoughtful discussions of various body parts, such as the brain or eyes, and other times to short stories about the character’s childhood. Each link leads somewhere different, yet there is a circular nature that helps the reader make connections about how each aspect of the character leads to another. The story has a theme—the body—which helps the reader keep track of what is happening in the story and what it is about.

Read “My Body” online.

Hypertext is Not Exactly New to Literature

Of course, hypertext literature is nonexistent without the computer, so it was impossible for great writers like James Joyce or Mark Twain to write such fiction. However, the idea that one part of a text should lead to another part that is not exactly sequential is not new to readers or authors. Scholars are well aware of the usefulness of footnotes, which lead the reader away from the text down to the bottom of the page to gather new information about the article as a whole. They are regularly used in scholarly essays.

Another book that uses footnotes is the Bible. One of the reasons why the Bible is divided into books, then chapters, and then verses, is to easily redirect the reader to a specific passage. For instance in the Catholic edition, Psalms 51:4, which reads, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight, so that thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment,” has a footnote that directs readers to Romans 3:4 which reads, “Let God be true though every men be false, as it is written, ‘That thou mayest be justified in thy words, and prevail when thou art judged.’”

If the reader continues reading Romans, then St. Paul continues his discussion on the justice of God on sinners, while Psalms asks God to cleanse the author’s soul. Thus two readers can read the same line, Psalms 51:4, but, like hypertext, read two different texts, creating two different meanings for the same verse.

Fiction is not exempt from using footnotes, but perhaps is not as dramatic as the Bible. Terry Pratchett, an author famous for his “Discworld” novels, makes generous use of them in his novels. In “Eric,” Pratchett uses a footnote to not only explain what happened in a previous novel but to add new information that adds to the humor of the current situation. Of course, the reader does not have to read it, but then they miss out on information about the characters.

Hypertext is a modern phenomenon, but the idea that a linear story can be interrupted or that literature may be non-linear is not new. Hypertext can take footnotes to a new level, because instead of being redirected to information at the bottom of the page, hypertext can redirect the reader to a different part of the story. In both cases, the readers’ perspectives change whether or not they follow a certain link or ignore a footnote.

Hypertext is a Virtual Shadow

If hypertext literature is the epitome of digital literature, why isn’t it more prominent in the digital age? Readers are much more likely to find online linear stories than online hypertext fiction. From personal experience, hypertext fiction is much more difficult to read than traditional literature. The reader must keep clicking on various links to get the whole story rather than simply reading it linearly, and it takes longer to finish. These are not tarnishes on hypertext literature, because it does more actively engage the reader, but the reader’s work significantly increases when more characters are added and points of view constantly shift.

Nvate Eastgate hypertext fiction Hypertext Literature Michael Joyce multi-sequential story My Body non-sequential storyopen-ended story Shelley Jackson Twelve Blue Virtual Shadow

Terry Pratchett uses footnotes in his books, like in “Eric,” to explain previous novels.

Steven Johnson, in his Wired article on the subject, cited other difficulties with hypertext because not only is the readers’ workload increased, but the authors’ is as well. The author would have to create a story with multiple starting and ending points and then have it make sense. Most writers slave away at a linear story, making sure a story with a single starting and ending point makes sense, so a hypertext story is that much harder to write.

Johnson also pointed out that a different feature of hypertext emerged alongside and ultimately instead of literature. This is the social networking aspect, which makes heavy use of hypertext. Bloggers and users can provide links to news articles or other web articles that are linear and easier to read. So readers were ultimately able to connect vast amounts of information together, but not in the form of stories.

Hypertext literature is not extinct. Readers can go to various sites like Eastgate which sells hypertext fiction on CD-ROM. Writers are still writing hypertext fiction and readers still read it, but it is clear that hypertext fiction will not gain the popularity of traditional fiction.

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