Electronic Literature: Thinking Outside the Book

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It is perhaps not surprising that the wave of a literary revolution would break not far from the campus of Microsoft Corp., where hardly anybody would be caught reading something so retro as a book. Not in these days of Pocket PC readers and online magazines, not for a generation that grew up writing book reports on Word Star.

Here, at a recent evening at the home of Microsoft executive Richard Bangs, were all the elements of 19th century salon society--and a glimpse of how the salon of the future might look.

There were trays of light finger food and delicately chilled Chardonnay. Guests from high-tech east side Seattle mingled with representatives of the old-guard arts establishment and half a dozen writers of new fiction who had come to read from their work. The difference, in this 21st century drawing room, was that there were no books. A trio of laptop computers sat on a table, with an overhead projector pointed at a large screen. As authors stood to present their work, they moved from page to page with the click of a computer.


This was not text, but hypertext--a work of fiction on endlessly linked computer screens, often supplemented with audio and video imagery in the place of the mundane predictability of sequential pages. It allows readers to wander electronically within a novel to any plot twist, back story or rumination that interests them.

“With the traditional reading, you have the silent audience: attentive, rapt, staring up at the genius author waiting for enlightenment. We have given away that authorial control,” said writer Dirk Stratton, who read from the hypertext novel he coauthored, “The Unknown.” “We put up a space that’s filled with text, that’s filled with many different paths, and we let the audience tell us where to go.”

This was the first reading hosted by the fledgling Electronic Literature Organization, a Chicago-based group devoted to developing hypertext--the medium most computer users know through the Internet, with the intricate, interconnected links that navigate the World Wide Web--into a postmodern literary art form.

Its books have no beginnings, middles or ends except as the reader elects to navigate through them; it is a liberation literature that, for good or ill, ends the tyranny of the writer over the reader, making them partners in a reading experience that may happen in different ways at different times.

“I can tell you that the amount of electronic literature is approximately doubling every month or two. It is growing at an exponential rate,” said Katherine Hayles, professor of literature and science of the 20th century at UCLA. “If you’re 20 years old and you’ve been raised on the Web, what is it like to sit down with a 600-page novel by Dickens? It seems like it’s a very dead, noninteractive, boring medium.”

The reading at the home of Bangs--editor at large for the Expedia Inc. travel Web site--featured some of the best-known names in electronic literature, including Shelley Jackson, author of an electronic takeoff on the Frankenstein story called “Patchwork Girl”; Rob Wittig, founder of tank20 Literary Studios, reading from his hypertext novel about office politics and romance, “Friday’s Big Meeting”; and Newport Beach writer Marjorie C. Luesebrink, a professor at Irvine Valley College who recently published the CD-ROM novel “Califia” under the pen name M.C. Coverley.


“Arguably, a good 30% to 40% of the most interesting people in this field in the world are in this building right now,” said Scott Rettberg, executive director of ELO, which is setting up symposiums and, with readings like the one on Seattle’s upscale, high-tech east side, hoping to garner corporate sponsorships to help publish hypertext works and set up high-dollar prizes for those who write them.

The gathering was evenly divided between Microsoft techies and old-guard Seattle arts types. Scott Moore, publisher of Slate, was there talking about his online magazine’s poetry column, which features streaming audio of poets reading their work.


Few of them had ever been to a hypertext reading or, indeed, knew much about how hypertext could become art. Gathering in Bangs’ basement home theater, the crowd quickly rose to the challenge, enthusiastically shouting out links to be followed, with the writers grinningly complying.

Luesebrink introduced her work, “Califia,” heralded as a hallmark of the newest generation of hypertext. Its 800 screens include not only text blocks but musical overlays and links to 2,400 images. The story begins with the lilting sound of a Spanish guitar, linking into old sepia-toned family photographs, maps, celestial navigation charts and blocks of text--told from three characters’ points of view, depending on which thread the reader chooses to follow. It tells the story of the search for long-buried treasure and the history of a California family through several generations.

Michael Joyce’s “Afternoon,” a 1987 classic of early hypertext, starts from a single point--”I want to say I may have seen my son die this morning”--and moves backward and forward across that epiphany, depending on which links are pursued.


Shelley Jackson’s “Patchwork Girl” examines, with the aid of the author’s drawings, the possibility that Frankenstein’s monster had a female counterpart who came to life, developed a relationship with her creator and traveled to America. The central metaphor of the book--the patching together of a body by a creator--also explores a writer’s assembly of a body of electronic text blocks.


“I am very determined to make it possible to have the same kind of reading experience that I do with a book. To create something that is intricate, that has to be read carefully, that’s immersive and complex,” said Jackson, a Seattle writer.

To do that involves something far more complex than the traditional process of writing the opening scene of a novel and going on to tell what happens next. Special software developed for hypertext allows writers to create different story lines, viewpoints and plot elements, and then build links between them. The more advanced programs funnel in musical and video backdrops. But determining how to arrange all the elements can be enormously complex.

“With ‘Patchwork Girl,’ I didn’t know how I wanted to structure it at all when I started out. So, sort of by default, I decided to write a mass of stuff, and then I thought I would just link the things that seemed sort of related and see what happened. As it turned out, that was a complete disaster. There was incredible redundancy,” Jackson said.

“Finally, I just decided to think about what a reader’s doing, and travel through it in ways that seemed intelligible to me, creating some discrete strands that made sense and then making sideways connections between those, so that you had options along the way.” In the end, readers could elect to explore a “Graveyard” section, examining the history of the monster’s body parts; or read the creator’s journal; or follow a more or less chronological story of the monster’s journeys, among other options.

If plot lines diverge, writers must determine how each path concludes and then ensure each is cohesive if readers choose to hop between them. More often, it is not the actual plots that vary, but paths of thought: a single set of events explored with a variety of reflective diversions and backgrounds.

In “Califia,” for example, Luesebrink tells the same basic story through three different narrators. Each narrator’s personality determines what kinds of facts are important, how they come to be known and how they should be assessed.


Literary Workers ‘Built’ the First Electronic Novel

The Redmond reading also featured a trio of writers who helped produce what was arguably the first electronic novel, “Invisible Seattle,” created in 1985 with a team of artists, actors, writers and others working collaboratively on a Bulletin Board Service, a precursor to the World Wide Web--plugged into a pair of IBM PC clones.

A team of “literary workers” began collecting text for the book, dressed in overalls and hard hats and stopping people on Seattle streets. “Excuse me, we’re building a novel,” they would say. “Can we borrow some of your words?”

So the citizens of Seattle became the authors, depending on how they answered a list of questions. “What would be your first act as mayor of Seattle?” they were asked. “Where would you go to see greed at work? Where could a stranger go to get killed here? Describe the body of your lover. List the contents of your pockets.”

“It may be that certain aspects of an immersive book experience may not translate into the new medium. But to think that’s the only legitimate way to experience literature . . . is a mistake,” said Wittig, who collaborated on the project.

In fact, said Rettberg, “it’s a different reading experience from immersing yourself in a book. You can come back to it again and again without exhausting it, and you can have a variety of different reading experiences from the same material. You don’t have the same feeling of, ‘I’ve finished the book and I can process it, and I have the moral of the story.’ But it does create a new form of literary entertainment that is just as legitimate as the traditional novel.”

Brown University creative writing professor Robert Coover was an early and prominent proponent of hypertext fiction, pronouncing “The End of Books” in a 1992 essay. He has since scaled back his predictions, admitting “The Passing of the Golden Age” of hypertext in a February online posting. In it, he laments the inhospitality of the Web--”a vast, disorderly sprawl, about as appealing as a scatter of old magazines on a table in the dentist’s lounge”--for serious literature, its emphasis on image, chat and commercialism and its lack of genuine interactivity.



Coover, nonetheless, has been the mentor of some of the most successful writers of hypertext, insisting that students in his creative writing program experiment in the medium. He has lobbied software manufacturers to promote the development of electronic tools better suited to the demands of hypertext literature.

There are those--probably the majority of readers, truth be told--who wonder why anyone would want to read hypertext fiction anyway. “The promise that the fiction of the future will have no story, or a story of one’s own devising, recalls a Lily Tomlin joke about the afterlife,” Laura Miller, a senior editor at the Internet magazine Salon, wrote recently. “It turns out that there is sex in heaven, you just can’t feel it.”

Navigating hyptertext literature, Miller said, “feels profoundly meaningless and dull. If any decision is as good as any other, why bother?” Critics have lamented the lack of the immersive experience that a traditional book affords.

Yet, Coover said he remains convinced that serious writers must find a place in cyberspace if they are to be part of the dominant communications mode of the next century. “Every aspect of our life, at least all of our communicative and expressive life, is apt to be drawn into this medium,” he said. “Will it be strictly a commercial space, or will there be some room in it for serious creative activity?”

At least 30 e-zines regularly publish hypertext literature, and a new generation of publishers is moving in to fill a void left by the mainstream book industry. Eastgate Systems Inc. of Watertown, Mass., is one of the best known, with a catalog of more than three-dozen works of hypertext literature, available for about $20 each. Thus far, most sales are off the Internet. With a few exceptions, the only bookstores stocking hypertext works in the form of diskettes and CD-ROMS are those that sell college textbooks.

Still, there are broad hopes that a move away from the dominion of the New York publishing industry could lead to greater financial rewards to writers. “The royalty structure is going to change drastically, because the costs of printing, binding, warehousing and shipping books totally disappear. A writer theoretically could ask for about half the proceeds from his book,” Rettberg said.



And where, many might wonder, is the reading public in the process? Indeed, what happens to the communal nature of literature when two people who read the same book may have read it in completely different ways?

The answer, says Luesebrink, is to discover new ways to talk about books. “There is a problem with discussing what it is we think we’ve seen,” she said. “And I’m not sure that isn’t more a problem of the fact that we still don’t have a vocabulary to describe this reading experience.”


Kim Murphy can be reached at