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Popularity & Experimentalism

Astrid Ensslin private interview with me:

‘it’s important to realize that the Storyspace School … never intended to appeal to a mass readership. Electronic literature has, from its beginnings, sought to contravene mass phenomena such as AAA gaming, and to offer experimental, self- and medium-critical ways of dealing with everyday political and (meta-)fictional themes … we need to move away from “judging” electronic literature like first gen (e.g. Storyspace) hypertext by the same yardstick as popular and commercially produced narrative media. It’s a mistake commonly made, which doesn’t recognize hypertext fiction for what it is: a historical verbal art form that sought and still seeks to exploit the affordances of interactive, multilinear textuality for narrative experimentation rather than for culinary, capitalist purposes. It is therefore important to recognize important preservation and documentation efforts being undertaken globally by electronic literature scholars and digital humanists to save these texts from technological obsolescence.  

I think it’s important to emphasize again that we need to move away from “judging” electronic literature like first gen (e.g. Storyspace) hypertext by the same yardstick as popular and commercially produced narrative media. It’s a mistake commonly made, which doesn’t recognize hypertext fiction for what it is: a historical verbal art form that sought and still seeks to exploit the affordances of interactive, multilinear textuality for narrative experimentation rather than for culinary, capitalist purposes.

Shelley Jackson quote on hypertext’s difficulty

There’s no question that hypertext will lose or never acquire those readers for whom a fated slalom toward the finish line is the defining literary experience; hypertext’s not built for that. Probably it is because linear text’s so well-built for it that it has become the dominant narrative style in the novel. But there are other reasons to read.

James O’Sullivan private interview

“I disagree with the premise that hypertextual fiction does not have a mass audience. Consider all of the hugely successful video games that privilege story, many of which are heavily reliant on text as an essential part of how their stories unfold.”

A Future for Hypertext Fiction – James Pope

Hypertext fiction has been available since 1987 when Michael Joyce published afternoon, a story. afternoon is widely praised, and yet after 18 years, regarded as a classic of hypertext fiction, it is hardly heard of beyond academia. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Laura Miller noted, ‘What’s most remarkable about hyperfiction is that no one really wants to read it, not even out of idle curiosity’ (Miller, 1998). Andy Campbell, developer of the Dreaming Methods website, says,
I don’t think that the general reader would particularly think of fiction as something they’d log onto the internet to experience, even with e-books and fiction-based web magazines in the picture. The main audience for fiction published on the web, or fiction that blends itself with multimedia, is other writers. (Campbell, 2003)

The only commercial publishers of hypertext fiction, Eastgate Systems, report that their hypertext fictions ‘sell in the low thousands – in other words, they sell about as well as literary fiction on paper’ (Bernstein, 2004). Mainstream commercial success is not an important consideration for Eastgate, as Bernstein (2004) makes clear; but the low sales, and more significantly, the near invisibility of hypertext to the vast majority of readers, must make those of us who are interested in new-media storytelling wonder what is ‘blocking’ hypertext fiction from a wider audience.

Astrid Ensslin – Literary Gaming

It is mainly due to hypertext literature’s subversive and nonculinary aesthetic that this form of digital writing has never reached a popular audience. In this sense, it is akin to print texts, from Sterne to Saporta, that defy closure and challenge readers formally and thematically. As Bruss (1977, 155– 156) puts it in her own terminology, these

literary games are disconcerting to those who approach them looking for mimesis, emotive force, or formal beauty, [and therefore] they are often described in negative terms: antiliterature, antipsychologism, nonsense, eccentricity, shapeless and incoherent. And some games do deliberately frustrate “positive” expectations . . . : Borgesian fragments, Robbe-Grillet’s “pointless” expositions, the slippery metamorphoses of Nabokov, and the autodestructive paradoxes of Queneau become suddenly less disconcerting when viewed as interaction rather than as eccentric objects.

Robert Coover’s The History of the Future of Narrative

For a short time, it seemed that might be what digital narratives of the future would look like, but with the opening up of the internet in the mid-1990s via the World Wide Web and the invention of browsers, accompanied by expanding memory, improved interfaces, powerful search engines, the arrival of laptops and handheld devices with internet, television, image capturing, and telephony convergence, the massive shift of audience attention, and the explosive development of sophisticated networking, compositional, and hypermedia tools, it became clear that these early experiments have been to electronic literature what the early silents were to the movies: pioneer artworks making speculative use of a new technology still in transitional development.

Dene Grigar – Electronic Literature: Where Is It

But not being mainstreamed does not mean elit does not exist or if it did exist at one time, that it is now dead. One of the biggest misperceptions regarding elit’s presence found in Gallix’s essay is the idea that in order for something to have presence, it must be in the limelight, as if fame (or infamy) are proof of one’s existence. In a world where a one-minute video on YouTube can, indeed, turn an unknown singer into household name or we measure our worth by the number of “Friends” we have in our Facebook pages, perhaps Gallix has a point: Elit as an art form is not featured in Entertainment Weekly and, so, has not yet registered in mainstream culture. But then writing by Robert Pinsky hasn’t either, and it doesn’t mean that people are not producing poetry anymore. It just means that Pinsky’s work is found elsewhere, outside of the consciousness of those who feed on People or find solace in the Star.

The notion of the “shock of the new” does play a role in elit’s earlier, high profile image that Gallix alluded to in his question. Robert Coover’s 1992 essay for the New York Times, “The End of Books,” highlights that heady period when elit was a new phenomenon. Yet even an argument that claims that because elit is no longer the new darling of the press, it no longer exists falls flat when we consider that publicity surrounding JK Rowling grew quiet after the publication of her seventh Harry Potter novel. Would anyone agree that this silence meant that she is no longer writing or that people are no longer reading her books? I somehow doubt it. Being a sensation is not a measure of worth or value, it just means that one is, for a moment in time, a sensation.

Yes, the article did kick up some controversy, re-igniting the long-standing, romantic debate that technology is bad and writing (seen as “not” technology, despite the fact that it is) is good. Ironically, the article brought elit a renewed sense of notoriety in the essay’s five-day run in the press and spurred many of us to reengage in a debate about its worth. But it is not 15 minutes of fame on a blog needed to grow the field but long term, purposeful action to promote and educate people about it. I, for one, would like to see elit mainstreamed in the academy beyond those universities interested in experimental art, for what we teach in our classrooms can go a long way in shaping future reading audiences. So, I ended my “comments” on the Guardian blog by “challeng[ing readers] who have not yet read a work of elit to experience” it. The rationale for this action is that if each one of us who claims to admire works of electronic literature took the time to teach it in our classes either as an entire course about the art form or alongside works of print-based literature promoted in the traditional literary canon, we could develop an audience to appreciate, understand, and critique elit, much in the same way many of us aim to educate students about Shakespeare, Morrison, or Fitzgerald. Showing students literary works that incorporate digital technology seamlessly and meaningfully like Dan Waber’s “Strings” and Nick Montfort’s “ad verbum” can help to reach a growing audience of potentially technology-savvy, young supporters. This is a concept with which Hayles is quite familiar and underpins the website that accompanies her book, Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary where in the “Resources” section she provides course syllabi for teaching elit.

J. Yellowlees Douglas – The End of Books, Or Books Without End: Reading Interactive Narratives

A peculiar note of triumph in her tone, Miller notes that the only people who seem to be buying hypertext fiction are writers of hypertext fiction, a number that dwindles into insignificance alongside those who recently plunked copies of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain onto their Visa cards. While Cold Mountain may well have been stacked alongside a million bedside tables during 1998, however, the people reading Mrs Dalloway, let alone Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow or any of the works by topographic or “difficult” writers, are mostly writers themselves, professors of English, or graduate students. And perhaps not even graduate students, as a student of mine once noted: Yeah, he’d read Ulysses—just not personally. If the distance yawning between the best-seller lists and the vestigial remains of the literary canon still dictating the Works That Count on university syllabi has not already brought home just how varied readers’ tastes and habits are, surely a quick glance through inventories at Barnes and Noble or would forever destroy the myth of the Reader, that singular, educated entity who once queued at the docks or outside bookstores awaiting shipments of the latest from Dickens, Henry James, or Saul Bellow.

As we saw in chapter 1, readers enjoy the trancelike spell, immersiveness, and ability to screen out the buzzing world around them that are the hallmarks of ludic reading only when they are reading books that are undemanding, immersiveness existing in inverse proportion to the complexity of the characters and prose. Even if we disregard the nostalgia for the now-vanished educated reader who never existed in significant numbers, a deeper irony still underlies Birkerts’s and Miller’s horror at the postmodern interactive barbarians at the gate: their educated reader exists on a continuum sandwiched somewhere to the right of your average consumer of Harlequin romances at the utterly pedestrian end of the scale but far to the left of readers tackling the likes of Ulysses on the difficult, demanding end. Simpler, highly conventionalized texts more completely absorb any reader’s cognitive capacity for comprehension than difficult ones—with the depth of readers’ immersion in fiction inversely proportional to the complexity and originality of the reading matter.3 Demands made on readers grappling with Ulysses require frequent pauses and regressions, breaking the “readerly enslavement” so valued by Miller and Birkerts alike. Conversely, highly conventionalized plots, stereotypic characters and settings make for an ease and more even pace of reading that absorbs readers’ cognitive capacity more completely, leading to the absorption and trancelike pleasures of ludic reading. Far into the nineteenth century, reading fiction was seen as the equivalent to furtive sessions with the sherry, probably because readers became “lost” while reading light fiction—the equivalent of today’s genre or mass-market fiction: “The effect of inordinate addiction to light reading . . . came under the head of ‘dissipation,’ and to read novels, as to drink wine, in the morning was far into the century a sign of vice.”4


Storyspace authors used hypertext to create multi-linear narratives which sometimes contained contradictory narratives. They were therefore quite challenging to read. James Pope has made similar observations in his empirical work.

Jay Bolter – Writing Space (Second Edition)

  • The cynical interpretation is that it’s just a genre getting used to its unpopularity and then claiming that it comes with the territory of being avant garde.


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