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The Topography from Here

Page, screen and hypertext fiction
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The Topography from Here

By Brooke Ford

The often-cited query that hums just beneath the surface of publishing reads something like this: What will the future of the book look like, how will technology shape and reshape what we read and how we read it? Plenty of headlines and blogs and articles on the changing state of print publishing have begun in much the same way, arguing that over the past few years, with the progression of technology, the written word, the book and publishing culture have changed. The landscape in which we communicate and tell stories will continue to reform and amend itself, with creative, meaningful, perhaps even unfamiliar — and sometimes begrudged — results. The impact of technology, especially the ability to publish, post, serialize and link one’s work online, has provoked much comment from the publishing industry and among readers and writers, many in defence of the printed book. The print novel is suddenly threatened, with the Internet cast to supersede print culture.

If literature interprets the world, then it follows that it is also informed by that world, and what we’re faced with is not so much a departure from a now-defunct method of storytelling so much as a convergence between print technology and new media. And the not-so-new-but-routinely-overlooked genre of hypertext fiction promises to show us just how bookish we want to be.

Although the book is not as readily viewed as a piece of technology as it once was, many people are more inclined to think of the book as inevitably human, an entity that is somehow intertwined with a history of cultural development, and yet, simultaneously its origins are half-forgotten. To put a finer point on it, what this convergence brings to the surface in the way we conceptualize the practices of writing and reading is a reminder that the printed book, too, is technology. Now more than ever can we look to the printed book as a form of technology, not solely as a medium, but also as a measure of how conventionality, form and language have been constant points of struggle and investigation for writers. It is in this way that electronic literature, or hypertext fiction, acts not as an alternative to or replacement for print literature; instead, the two can be seen as continuums of each other.

In a series of landmark essays in the 1960s, Theodor H. Nelson coined hypertext as a term representative of a “series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways.” J. Yellowlees Douglas, a researcher and writer of the connections between narratology and hypertext fiction, understands hypertext as a tool that allows readers to use the printed word as the basis for a technology that greatly broadens writing’s reach and meaning by extending text beyond the single linearity of the printed page. Produced online with the objective of also being read online, hypertext fiction speaks to and refashions many of the conventions at play in print prose. The term itself has gone on to influence other disciplines, especially critical literary studies, where many in the publishing field and academia have used hypertext to talk about particular narrative tropes and vice-versa. But the issue is not solely whether the printed book and hypertext narrative can co-exist; much more important than that is whether future readers will begin reading print works differently. And in the latter case, we already have.

In the 1980s, Michael Joyce and J. David Bolter developed Storyspace, software dedicated to the reading and writing of hypertext fiction. Writing in 1991, Bolter explains that artistic innovation doesn’t symbolize a break with the past; what is new about hypertext is its use of the printed book as an object of remediation. The experience hypertext provides, he writes, “still depends on our intuitive understanding of that [printed] writing space.” Joyce, who wrote one of the earliest examples of hypertext fiction, Afternoon: a story in 1987, also speaks to how the two mediums inform one another, with an emphasis on the reader-writer relationship. Since hypertext fiction allows the reader to actively participate in the story’s creation and structure, Joyce suggests, the idea of an author as the sole creator of meaning, or the reader as an inactive recipient are recast; the hypertext story can be read and re-read through various pathways, offering multi-linear narratives and “links” to various perspectives. Much in the same way we talk about the challenges that print experimental fiction and poetry pose to our assumptions about writing and reading, the genre of hypertext fiction re-conceives those conventional, long-held notions about authors and readers and the texts they write and read.

What we often like about some contemporary print fiction writers is their ability to self-consciously call attention to their medium and its limitations, their challenges and disturbances to the act of writing and reading itself. Fragmented texts, intertextuality, the unhinging of traditional conventions and the creation of borderless texts through topographical structural play are among some of the textual reflexes literary critics and readers praise. In hypertext fiction, the idea of a “link” resembles the print convention of intertextuality, the references made to other works or writers. George P. Landow, an important writer on hypertext and hypermedia, presents hypertext fiction as exemplifying the literary history of authors who read and rewrite the works of other authors — in Harold Bloom’s words, the “anxiety of influence,” which no author or text exists outside of. Landow maintains that hypertext can be viewed “as a vast assemblage,” an expression that holds significant poignancy for readers and writers of experimental prose or fiction that consciously works to overthrow a sense of individual authorship.

Winnipeg writer Rob Kovitz’s most recent eight-volume bookwork, Ice Fishing in Gimli, is completely made up of other people’s writing: passages from other works constitute the structure and meaning of his novel. Intertextuality in hypertext comes in the form of links that takes the reader from one story or a piece of a story to another as a series of pathways. Kovitz’s writing works much in the same way in that he has built a narrative based on other, recognizable narratives that at once connote their own original form and author, while they also contribute to his novel. In other words, while I am reading Kovitz’s story, I am also reading Richard Zimmler, Flaubert, Talking Heads, Beckett, Margaret Atwood, Barthes and Robert Kroetsch. Kovitz also uses government documents, film stills and photographs in his work. While there is a narrative development that Kovitz has created, a reader may enter Ice Fishing at any point without following a strict linear arc; or, even better, his work undoes the convention that one, particular narrative arc must be followed.

Canadian short story writer Anik See similarly uses the idea of a link to create a topographical textual pathway that disrupts the singular linearity of the printed page. In her 2009 short story collection postcard and other stories, she uses the structure of the italicized footnote to tell a second story in addition to the traditionally laid out narrative that dominates the rest of the page. The two stories run one on top of the other on the page, and when one reads them, it is ambiguous whether the narratives are connected or separate. It is in this ambiguity that a sense of convergence between print and hypertext environments unfolds, as the reader becomes even more integral to the meaning and development of the story. See’s use of white space between the two narratives also contributes to a disruption in how the text is read and what kind of response this disruption will elicit. In an essay on their own work, Bolter and Joyce establish hypertext as a “new kind of flexible, interactive fiction,” “a continuation of the modern ‘tradition’ of experimental literature in print.” In their view, the devices developed in the literary movements of Modernism, Futurism, Dada and Surrealism are visibly and actively at play in hypertext fiction, by “disrupting the stability of the text.” Like Kovitz’s creative skirting on the edge of appropriation, See’s structural play allows for a visual and contextual openness, an ability to enter a narrative from more than one perspective, which is a key feature of hypertextuality.

The questions as to what the future of the book looks like, how we will read it and in what medium, are shocking in their finality, in their connotation that “this will destroy that,” as Bolter puts it. But what is more telling is the fact that the questions are being asked at all. The ways we convey and connect our stories are ballooning with possibilities, just as they were when the novel first rose in popularity. People were appalled by the novel, shocked that such a genre could be introduced as serious art. It was considered brash, temporary and in bad taste in a way that is reminiscent of how hypertext fiction and electronic publishing have been conceptualized. The idea of a “vast assemblage” goes beyond Landow’s use of it, as one medium undoes and takes from another in order to build upon itself. What we are shocked by and perhaps initially reject on grounds of frivolousness can also have the potential to win us over into new ways of thinking and understanding ourselves.

Brooke Ford

Brooke Ford is a Toronto writer and assistant editor of Broken Pencil magazine. She graduated from Ryerson University’s Literatures of Modernity program, where she will also begin her PhD focusing on epistolary fiction and digital media. Her fiction has been published in Canada.

Image: "The Future of Books" is by Kyle Bean. You can see more of his work at www.kylebean.co.uk

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