Hypertext is Boring?

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.

He writes:

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.

Ben writes:

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.

5 responses to “Hypertext is Boring?”

  1. gibb says:

    Thank you. I did not feel either experienced enough in the form or intellectually up to argument with the post other than a brief comment I left. I am rather surprised that the term ‘boring’ could be applied to hypertext. I could understand some might find it frustrating or confusing or perhaps not fulfilling, but boring? I take some comfort in the fact that many also apply such a term to the literary classics when separating them out to a genre as opposed to crime, romance, sci fi, etc.

  2. Literary hypertext is boring, in exactly the way James Joyce and Samuel Beckett and all the rest of those dusty old moderns and postmoderns are boring. Who would read them for pleasure? Who would read them at all?

    It’s all so terribly, terribly hard. And boring. So much easier to claim to have read some Borges and to start your essay with “We were recently alerted…” All the trappings of the Old New Yorker, with none of the difficult and boring bites.

    (It’s too bad, really, that this institute is so bitterly focussed on their own product that they can’t appreciate the very interesting work of their colleagues. I understand why the gamerz might affect a little of this good old American anti-intellectualism. But really! At the very least, can we write about real hypertexts instead of recycling that stale Borges anecdote?)

  3. susan says:

    I think we’re all bothered by the same thing–the connection between difficulty and boring that is made here in hypertext literature just as has certainly been implicated in traditional literary form of so many of the classics. I’ve truly given things up in frustration–and picked them up again after tossing them across the room to plod further and discover more. The key may be in how a piece of work makes a reader feel, i.e., inferior. It is a common syndrome particularly at the high school level of learning.

  4. Mary Ellen says:

    My son’s teacher just took “all the fun” out of reading Catcher in the Rye by asking him to summarize chapters and answer questions. Poor boy, having to work in school…

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