Hypertextual fiction offers either a radically democratic approach to language and narrative or a meandering morass, depending on who's describing it. A literary theorist assesses the performances to date and the possibilities for the future

Hypertext and the limits of interactivity

Ursula K. Heise

Navigating a hypertext document can be like a self-guided tour of Los Angeles--or like getting lost in its sprawling suburbs: It's either a well-structured survey of major sights or an odyssey among minor ones. As an innovative digital form of organizing and presenting information, hypertext has inspired far-reaching claims about its impact on the structure of knowledge and its democratizing implications. Through non-linear organization and virtually infinite links between different segments of information, hypertext enables the user to approach knowledge in a non-hierarchical fashion: Since hypertext information is structured as a web in which each node of information can function as a gateway to related nodes, users can follow a variety of itineraries in their gradual exploration and acquisition of knowledge rather than a single, linearly designed path.

This built-in diversity of approach can potentially be deployed to great effect in curricular contexts: Customized "electronic textbooks," for example, could accommodate a much greater variety of learning habits and individual or group preferences than conventional printed textbooks do. At the same time, hypertext structures are open-ended: Readers and users can add to the information they contain or comment on it by creating additional links, which makes hypertext documents an ideal medium for collaboration among groups of researchers or students. Theorists such as Richard Lanham (at UCLA), J. David Bolter (Georgia Institute of Technology), and George P. Landow (Brown) have therefore praised hypertext as a medium that allows much greater flexibility in organizing and transmitting knowledge and leaves much more room for interactivity than the printed book.

Hypertext unquestionably offers these advantages. The two most important hypertext software programs now on the market, Eastgate Systems' Storyspace and Apple's Hypercard, are both outstanding tools for research and teaching: Storyspace allows sophisticated visual displays of information structures that can convey in a sort of blueprint the conceptual underpinnings of an entire research project, whereas Hypercard, which creates digital stacks of index cards that can integrate textual, graphic, and acoustic information, is ideally suited for didactic purposes. And anyone who has visited the World Wide Web will no doubt appreciate the multiplicity of connections that hypertextual links offer to the user.

But surfing the net also illuminates the problems that come with this openness: Links may lead to important or irrelevant sites, to accurate or inaccurate information, with often no easy way for the non-expert to tell the difference. The use of hypertext documents in research and teaching can involve similar problems: If every participant can add his or her own modules of information, comments, and links to the whole, some filtering and control mechanisms must ensure the accuracy and relevance of the added material, or the document may disintegrate into an amorphous mix of information and misinformation. But introducing such mechanisms means somehow curtailing the openness and egalitarianism of hypertextual collaboration. The use of hypertext for creative purposes raises different but related problems. Hypertext has already begun to make an impact in literature and literary criticism, with not only critical works but also short stories, novels, and, most recently, even poetry written specifically for and as hypertext. In critical work, for example, George Landow and Jon Lanestedt's In Memoriam Web provides a rich array of historical and interpretive information on Tennyson's poem. And Eastgate Systems has published a series of narrative texts that are organized as textual nodes linked by paths, which leave the reader the choice of which narrative sequence to follow.

Such experiments with narrative structure are not entirely new, of course, and neither are they limited to the medium of the computer: Postmodern novelists of the 1960s and '70s experimented with variable or aleatory sequence in such novels as Julio Cortázar's Rayuela [Hopscotch], which can be read according to two different itineraries, and B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates or Marc Saporta's Composition No. 1 , loose-leaf novels whose chapters the reader can reshuffle in any order. More recent hypertext narrations such as Michael Joyce's Afternoon, A Story or Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden build on these earlier models, as well as other postmodernist experiments with interactivity: Italo Calvino's Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore [If on a Winter's Night a Traveler], which confronts the reader with a whole series of interrupted and unfinished stories; John Barth's highly self-referential short stories about writing and reading; or Alain Robbe-Grillet's narrative repetitions, which force the reader to choose between competing versions of the same events. Many postmodern authors and critics have claimed that such interactivity, like that of electronic textbooks, has a democratizing effect, extending the creative task from the author to the readers.

But hypertext novels, along with some of their print predecessors, also reveal the limits of interactivity. Many of the sequences the reader may choose, as even advocates of hypertext fiction admit, do not make for particularly compelling reading; this is not necessarily due to lack of talent on the authors' part, since by their very nature, hypertextual and interactive novels leave the completion of the work of art up to the reader. But this restructuring of the creative process, even as it may be more democratic than the earlier emphasis on the consumption of finished aesthetic products, does not automatically have the progressive ideological implications writers and critics have claimed for it. While such innovative forms of writing may shake readers out of a passive consumer attitude, these structures also force them to fall back on their own preconceptions. By refusing to present the reader with a completely different world of the author's making, interactive aesthetic forms can contribute to reinforcing the audience's pre-established world views--rather than disrupting them, as revolutionary works of art often do.

Part of the difficulty in assessing precisely what hypertext can and can't do, in creative as well as pedagogic contexts, may be that research in literary criticism has too often focused on textual structures and the social and historical context of their production, but much more rarely on their reception. There is relatively little empirical research on how readers select literary texts or how reading literature interlaces with other activities in a reader's daily routine. Once the actual process of reading is examined, however, it may turn out that as far as reception is concerned, even conventional texts are a good deal more discontinuous and open than literary criticism allows for. Similarly, pedagogic research might want to consider how the learning of material in one discipline might be affected by the student's experience of going to several classes a day that present completely different fields of knowledge. Hypertext obviously would be an invaluable tool for examining such cross-disciplinary connections and disjunctions. But hypertext might also serve as a conceptual tool, helping scholars analyze the discontinuities and multiple connections that occur in readers' reception of works of art as well as the inherent structures of knowledge and the production of texts. This new medium may help theorists envision the reading process in more empirical terms than they usually have to date--perhaps taking a step toward a truly systematic account of literary interpretation.

Related links:

  • Hypertext Resources on the Web

  • George P. Landow, ed., Hyper/Text/Theory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995)

  • Landow, Hypertext and Critical Theory

  • Short History of Hypertext, Jakob Nielsen, Sun Microsystems

  • The Culture of Interactivity (conference, 1/17-18/98, Rockefeller U., Visual Arts Foundation, et al.)

  • Vision 2010: A commentary by Richard Lanham for the American Association of Universities provosts, 1995

  • Jerome McGann, "Radiant Textuality" (on academic uses of hypertext), U. of Virginia Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities

  • Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein, "The Hyper-Texted Body, or Nietzsche Gets A Modem," CTHEORY

  • Geoffrey Nunberg, ed., The Future of the Book (Berkeley: U of California P, 1996)

  • Postmodernism and the Postmodern Novel, The Electronic Labyrinth

  • URSULA K. HEISE, Ph.D., is assistant professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia and author of Chronoschisms: Time, Narrative, and Postmodernism (NY: Cambridge UP, 1997).