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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hyperfiction Joins the Canon

Despite all of the images and words stored on the Internet, computers are not the first things that come to mind as repositories of serious art and literature. On the whole, the Internet and commercial "multimedia" on CD-ROM sometimes seem a linguistic junkyard and wasteland for vanity authors better left unread. However, an article in the Sept. 11 New York Times reported that publisher W.W. Norton (http://www.wwnorton.com) will be including excerpts of two electronic novels in its forthcoming printed anthology, "Postmodern American Fiction."


Inclusion in a Norton anthology effectively canonizes these works as part of mainstream contemporary American literature. The original texts, Michael Joyce's 1987 "Afternoon, a Story" and J. Yellowlees Douglas' 1993 "I Have Said Nothing," were previously available only on diskette from EastGate Systems (http://www.eastgate.com), a pioneer electronic publisher. They are written not as ordinary linear beginning-to-end narratives, but as hypertext, where hundreds of pieces of text are woven together with mouse-clickable links -- the same basic logic and technology that underlies the World Wide Web.


For writers of poetry and prose alike, hypertext offers unique tools to craft narratives with complex interlaced layers of context, history and chronology. Depending on the order in which links are followed, each reader emerges with a unique "experience" of the novel. Alternative paths might even yield entirely different or contradictory endings.


Obviously, hypertext writing does not lend itself to publication in the linear medium of the printed page. Thus Norton chose to publish excerpts, and includes a password with each copy of the anthology that will allow readers to explore the entire version of each text on its web site.


Hypertext literature is difficult to describe in words or visualize unless you have actually read some of the genre's early "canon." Eastgate provides an excellent collection of links to hypertext literature and criticism (http://www.eastgate.com/Hypertext.html), including a full Joyce hyperstory called "Twelve Blue."


An article by Robert Kendall, called "Writing for the New Millennium," (http://www.wenet.net/~rkendall/pw1.htm) helps to place the technique in context and introduce some of the main authors and trends within it.


While hypertext literature may represent the artistic cutting edge, more traditional linear writing has also found innovative expression on the Internet. As a promotional experiment, the Amazon.Com bookseller teamed up with renowned author John Updike to create a collaborative short story online (http://www.amazon.com). Updike wrote a 300-word introduction and will conclude the story, while for each of 44 days a panel selects from among brief passages, submitted by Amazon visitors, which carry the story forward in a kind of narrative relay. Each day's "winning" author receives a $1,000 prize, while all entrants are eligible for a $100,000 grand prize drawing once the story is complete.


Aspiring online literary magazines of reasonable quality have also started to emerge. The ELectronic LIterary MAgazinE (http://www.elimae.com) offers a small but growing archive of essays, fiction, author interviews, poetry and criticism. Web del Sol (http://www.webdelsol.com), which aspires to "acquire and frame the finest contemporary literary art," offers an attractive forum where traditional print literary journals, including North American Review and The Literary Review, can open and house online versions. Another site called ZuZu's Petals (http:/www.lehigh.net/


zuzu) offers contests and postings for poets and contains an exhaustive catalog of links to other Internet literary resources.


Several companies have also started to sell downloadable versions of traditional books online, including BiblioBytes (http://www.bibliobytes.com), OverDrive Systems (http://www.bookaisle.com) and Pulpless (http://www.pulpless.com).


With ongoing consolidation in the traditional publishing industry, online publishers offer hope that specialized "niche" books can remain profitable by reducing promotion and production costs. These publishers can also offer specialized services that their print brethren cannot, such as allowing customers to "assemble" cookbooks based on the individual cuisines and recipes they prefer.


Still, it remains to be seen whether this kind of publishing can be commercially viable in the long term. Hard-core Internet junkies will buy and download books from the net, but will the public at large join them?


Assuming the roughly equivalent content quality of electronic and traditional publishing, it seems to me that the main obstacle to its spread will be that, quite simply, people like books.


You can take a book to the beach, on the train and to the bathroom, and the text is easy to read without eyestrain. Even the smallest and best portable PCs have a long way to go before they will meet those criteria. Still, it is probably just a matter of time before lightweight, paperback-sized electronic reading devices will appear as competitive alternatives.


As more aspiring authors begin to experiment with the new dimensions and creative potential of electronic print media, it will be fascinating to watch the literature that emerges. One can only imagine what Michael Joyce's namesake, James, might have done with hypertext: "Ulysses" meets the "Dubliners" in cyberspace?





Bill Fick welcomes any tips on interesting web sites or questions concerning the Internet for response in future editions of this column. Fick is co-founder of Samovar Internet Consulting, LLC. Web: http://www.samovar.ru


e-mail: bill@samovar.ru fax: 233-2261