December 1996

Root Page of Article: Tracing the Growth of a New Literature, by Michael Shumate

Hypertext Fiction on the Web, 1996

As I read Web-based hypertext fiction and add items to Hyperizons, a couple of thoughts come to mind again and again. The first is that hypertext fiction on the Web is replete with bad writing of all kinds: dull prose and wooden characterization; typographical errors, misspelling, and incorrect diction; unwieldy syntax and sheer ignorance of grammar; misapplication of HTML; pointless graphics and senseless links; inane sermonettes on contemporary society and cultural and literary theory among all sorts of other postmodern pretentiousness; and virtually any other kind of awkwardness, bombast, offputting jargon, and flatout stupidity a cynical critic could hope to find. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, most of these works are rhinestones in the rough.

But as I said, a couple of thoughts. The second is that I think this is a healthy thing.

In another context, discussing Web design in general, Jay Bolter has noted that "amateur and even unattractive design should be allowed to flourish on the net." His reasoning is that amateurs may, after all, be willing to try riskier, more daring things than professionals. To which I say, applying his argument to hypertext fiction, Hear! Hear! Give any artist who wants it Web space and let's have at it--we'll sort it all out later. If it's bad enough it'll be ignored, if it's good enough it'll be found, and if it's wildly uneven we'll make compost and use it in next spring's garden. The crucial point is that people are putting work out there to be read, commented upon, even--radical as this may seem--revised.

This is, of course, very optimistic, and an optimism hard-won in the face of some of the stuff I've read. As I discuss elsewhere in this article, I've spent a fair amount of time sorting it out for myself, so the next loaded question comes fairly naturally to me: Is there any good hypertext fiction on the Web? Aside from the immediate problem of defining the words "good," "hypertext," and "fiction" singly or combined, the problem of genres and people's reading tastes makes the question completely unanswerable in the space of this short article. All I can do here is tell you whether I find anything on the Web that whets my tastes in fiction.

Matthew Miller's Trip is a hypertextual road novel that is one of the few Web fictions that manages to impart both a sense of narrative momentum and spatial organization. Miller's solution is elegantly simple: he provides a map of the United States and icons of interstate highway signs so the reader can navigate through his story of a man's cross-country search for the mother of two children with him who are, he repeatedly assures us, not his own. Thus, the reader can begin anywhere by clicking on an image map of the forty-eight contiguous states. Then, at the end of each node, one can follow the default route or, at intersections, choose to turn onto different highways and head off in a new direction. All well and good, but what of the narrative itself? Like many hypertext fictions, its successes are more often local than general. For one thing, it's hard to say how large a portion of it I've read, so I don't know if the story's vagaries are intrinsic to the piece or simply due to my reading experience. I've explored most of the Southeast and some of the Pacific coast, but I have no idea how thickly or sparsely the nodes are scattered in the remaining states. Though it is certainly packed with events, I never learned such basic facts as how the narrator came to be responsible for these children, or whether the quest for their mother was fulfilled. Miller's prose is always clear and concise, though seldom exciting (partly due to the narrator's flat tone and apparent aimlessness, quest or no). It even has moments of unlabored humor, a rare commodity in hypertext fiction on the Web. It is well worth exploring.

Ian Randall Wilson's "If We Even Did Anything" is one of the better hypertext short stories to appear on the Web in 1996. While the core narrative is slight--Marilyn's purse is or isn't stolen, she does or doesn't confront the thief--Wilson manages, in thirty-eight brief sections, to weave a dense texture. He provides the reader the opportunity (and the prodding) to explore paths narrated in first or third person, to begin in medias res, to consider the thief and his motivations, to consider in more than one way what prompted this story, and even to take brief turns into Marilyn's fantasies, in which she brings her dilemma to an abrupt, satisfying, unlikely halt. Metafiction is not to everyone's tastes (including mine, usually), but it seems at home in hypertext, as does Wilson. He juggles text, reader, and narrator constantly, opening both satisfying and frustrating paths, never allowing the reader to forget for long that the story is a created thing.

Collaborative fictions, the darling of so many with high hopes for hypertext literature, have, if anything, been more disappointing to me than individually authored works. Uneven, formless, directionless, silly, boring--these are the thoughts that have come to me again and again. Of new ones to appear this year, one that is potentially entertaining is The Company Therapist. I say "potential" because, launched officially on August 1, it is scarcely underway, yet the concept has some promise. The framework designed by Christopher and Olga Werby supposes a young psychiatrist, one Charles Balis, hires out 60% of his time to an HMO that handles health care for a large computer company in San Francisco. Collaborators are invited to write Dr. Balis's patients--their sessions, diaries, letters, etc. The site has a clean, visually pleasing design that makes it easy to follow a patient from one session to the next, less easy yet possible to surf horizontally along the plane of one day in everyone's life, or to float out to larger contexts such as Balis's notes on patients, his arguments with the HMO, and so on. The groundwork is laid for writers to take individual patients (or, in collaboration, subgroups of patients) in all sorts of directions: serious analysis, farce, soap opera, topical potshots at HMO's (and who could resist that?). The writing thus far seems to be in that middle ground that I've always found hardest to evaluate in student writing: competent but not compelling, making few mistakes--however one might care to define that--but also taking few risks. Yet competence alone would be a leap forward for most Web hyperfictions, so it's not to be taken for granted. Perhaps the future will bring a writer/patient with the edginess and brinksmanship of inspiration. If you find nothing you like there, or, as I do, find it more earnest and less probing than suits your tastes, the opportunity is there to take the Werbys' word and introduce a character of your own.

The mention of edginess brings me to a highlight among webzines for 1996, the debut of the Hyper-X section of Mark Amerika's Alt-X web site. Devoted to hypertext fiction and theory, and under the direction of Amerika (dubbed by editor Jay Dillemuth, in his prologue, as "Avant-Pop cyber-prophet') Hyper-X bears watching in the coming months. Four works--two fiction, one a forum, and the other an essay by Amerika--reside there now. I don't have the space to describe them in this article but do suggest that interested readers explore Hyper-X. Together with the publication of Postmodern Culture's first piece of fiction, Matthew Miller's Trip discussed above, the debut of Hyper-X made 1996 a promising year for hypertext fiction in e-zines.

Many more pieces than this debuted on the Web in 1996. These are simply a few that struck me as doing something I hadn't seen in 1995 and before. Readers interested in what else is available may want to read -- my description of my Hyperizons web site and use it for further exploration.

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