Monday, March 3rd, 2008
I find this post by Ben Vershbow at if:book on hypertext strange and worrisome. It starts with comment on Jeremy Ashkenas’ web tool Hypertextopia and then dips into generalization and the condemnation of a class of objects.
The site [Hypertextopia] is gorgeously done, applying a fresh coat of Web 2.0 paint to the creaky concepts of classical hypertext.
What are the “creaky concepts of hypertext”? Map views, charts, links, and titles? The concepts aren’t all that complicated.
Ben then moves to the viability question:
Lovely as it all is though, it doesn’t convince me that hypertext is any more viable a literary form now, on the Web, than it was back in the heyday of Eastgate and Storyspace. Outside its inner circle of devotees, hypertext has always been more interesting in concept than in practice. A necessary thought experiment on narrative’s deconstruction in a post-book future, but not the sort of thing you’d want to read for pleasure.
I can actually understand the “thought experiment” issue. It can be fun to think about the possibilities. But there are hypertexts to consider as artifacts and as works that demand more than just a squash. Is hypertext “more interesting in concept than in practice” is a question that leads no where. In New Media we just went through several hypertexts to wonderful response and the students are finding the building of a hypertext quite interesting. In Contemporary Fiction, we read Jackson and the students came away stunned at the content and the “viability” question licked. The “narrative deconstruction” issue is for me an old concept, but the question of a theory pose shouldn’t turn writers away from writing interesting stories in the form.
Maybe it’s because I enjoy Borges as a writer that I disagree with Ben on the conflation of Borges and hypertext. The forking path meme has consequence to physical paths, but this isn’t the only metaphor that matters and can, indeed, lead to inaccuracy and incongruence, nor does the metaphor need apply when we think about the enormity of possible aesthetic devices that links, spaces, and syntax may provide in the form. I have no idea what Ben means by the literality of Borges’ tales. He writes, “Tales like “Forking Paths,” Funes the Memorious and The Library of Babel are ideas taken to a frightening extreme, certainly not things we would wish to come true.” Hypertext does not realize the ideas in the tales. It is, however, an expressive form.
There are days when the Internet does indeed feel a bit like the Library of Babel, a place where an infinity of information has led to the death of meaning. But those are the days I wish we could put the net back in the box and forget it ever happened. I get a bit of that feeling with literary hypertext — insofar as it reifies the theoretical notion of the death of the author, it is not necessarily doing the reader any favors.
I have no fear of the Library of Babel issue, since people bring meaning to the net in all kinds of ways. Nor does hypertext need to assist in any deaths, be they metaphorical or theoretical. There are, however, interesting relations that can be “authored” into the environment if the writer keeps the reader in mind.
But here’s the main problem. Ben writes, “Hypertext’s main offense is that it is boring, in the same way that Choose Your Own Adventure stories are fundamentally boring.” This is just puzzling. Hypertext is a container of expression. Books, as a container of expression, can be put aside, only if a specific book is found uninteresting. It is not, however, the book that is boring, but the reader who is unimpressed by it or finds its content uninspired or repetitious. Yes, I’ve read hypertexts that were better hypertexts than stories. But I’ve also read works that have stayed with me. If the argument is that hypertext tends to poor prose, then what explains poor prose in books?
For me, as a reader and writer of hypertext, I find that the form presents all kinds of possibility for storytelling and that the forms needs further exploration.