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Prof. Roger Graves
November 3, 1997
Pol. What do you read, my lord?
Ham. Words, words, words.
Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act II Sc. 2)
It seems difficult to discuss art in an era that has seen the rise of Rikki Lake, Court TV, and 900 numbers purveyed into legitimate entertainment. Nor has literature escaped what some have termed as an inexorable slide toward aesthetic bankruptcy. However, there has been one aspect of literature that has remained at least a relativedare I say sacred?constant since man began drawing pictures on cave walls of how the day's hunt went: authorial perspective.
Storytelling, like most artistic pursuits, has been largely the domain of individual expression, a personal interpretation of events (whether imagined or not). Moby Dick would not be the work that it is without Melville's hand at the pen, nor would Hemingway's bells toll to the same tune without Ernest pulling the ropes. The strength of these and other such works rests in the vision of their authors. Yet to hear the most ardent supporters of hypertextual fiction, this has not only cheated us of a potentially deeper experience, but hasin the opinions of certain post-modern schools of criticismoperated as a tool of egalitarian suppression of the reading proletariat. To quote a summation of this philosophy by Michiko Kakutani:
The 500-year-old Gutenberg revolution has come to an end, and the novelthat outmoded vestige of the bourgeoise industrial worldis a casualty of its own irrelevance. Indeed, the book itself is on the verge of extinction, and with it the colonial, patriarchal, hierarchical and authoritarian values its critics say it embodies (Kakutani, 40).
Such beliefs undermine, if not attack outright, the art of fiction on a number of fronts: authorial control, relevance, and artistic viability. While hypertextual/interactive fiction may eventually produce a worthwhile art form, it will only assume predominance in fiction at the expense of what we know as art.
I understand a fury in your words,
But not the words.
Shakespeare, Othello (Act IV Sc. 2)
Has the viewpoint of the author ceased to matter? Indeed, if we follow the logic of the more agenda-driven schools of New Criticism, does the very nature of the author-audience relationship demand such a radical change in status in order to sufficiently empower the reader? The question is one of motive and degree. In Raman Selden's book Practicing Theory and Reading Literature: An Introduction, Selden writes of deconstruction:
The challenge which this type of theory produces is especially disturbing, because the concepts of "indeterminacy" and "differance" erode all notions of knowledge, objectivity, identity, and historical truth. Some critics (Marxists and feminists, for example), in pursuit of moral and political commitments, have used deconstructive concepts in order to disrupt other people's discourses and forms of knowledge (Selden, 93).
Jay Bolter and other proponents of hypertext as the natural evolution of fiction use parallel arguments to demonstrate the supposed weaknesses or limitations of standard print works. The goal is to liberate the reader, or at least shift the balance of power between the author and the reader. In practical application, this ranges from interactive fiction in which the reader picks an individual path through the plot all the way to fragmented collaborative works in which the readers are themselves the authors (or "co-learners", as Robert Coover would term it), contributing to the work as they read it.
Interactive fiction is the least radical application of this approach. I would not disagree that this can become a valid form of entertainmentthat is to say, a genre (albeit a genre of medium as contrasted with the traditional genre of content) within fiction proper. However, even this has its pitfalls. First, to make the genre become the paragon is as ludicrous as making any other genre, say, that of Harlequin romances or legal thrillers, paramount. Fiction is only vital so long as it can accept a wide range of genres under its roof. Second, these theorists make a critical reader assumption that is tenuous at best, and has yet to see fruition in other mediadoes the audience necessarily desire to make their entertainment a participatory experience? In a nation that rarely sees 50 percent voting in national elections, will the mainstream audience want to assume the responsibility for choosing the plot of their favorite work of fiction? Interactive fiction, like interactive television or WebTV, seems a long way from fulfilling the promise of its visionaries, whether due to mainstream indifference, lack of audience education, or the failure of current technology to sufficently deliver on the promise.
The end extreme, proposed by writers like Coover, are "multi-vocal" works. Again, as a genre of fiction, this could become a viable form of art. On the other hand, it completely repudiates the very essence of art as we've come to define it. Rather than marginalize the artist, it renounces the artist as being necessary at all. One might equate this to telling Michelangelo to buy a block of marble, and thenwithout directionto invite the entire village over with chisels in hand to create the Pieta. Or, as Kakutani writes:
...such "multi-vocal" works point to the obsolescence of the old idea of an authora lone individual bent on expressing an idiosyncratic vision. They also reinforce the sort of self-absorption and egotism promoted by talk shows: everyone's an expert, anyone can be an artist and all opinions are equally valid, especially your own (Kakutani, 42).
Yet art is by definition that "idiosyncratic vision" of the "lone individual." And to claim that art is merely a tool of controland nothing moreis to slander the concept. Yes, art in varying forms and degrees has been appropriated by various factions at times as a tool of political influence (for a crude example, one could point to the fictional posters of Orwell's 1984: "Ignorance is Power!"). That notwithstanding, there is a fine line between manipulation and personal vision that gives art life. How do we gain in empowering the reader by subjugating the writer? Under those unique circumstances, fictionwhether print or hypertextindeed becomes irrelevant and dies a piteous death.
Zounds! I was never so bethump'd with words
Since I first call'd my brother's father dad.
Shakespeare, King John (Act II Sc. 2)
The consensus of the hyperfuturists is that print literature is an exhausted art form, and therefore would be supplanted by interactive hypertextual works. This view is presented concisely by Jay Bolter in Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing:
Electronic fiction is technologically complicated is in that it requires a computer and the sophisticated arrangement of text and graphics on a videoscreen. But it is conceptually simplesimpler than writing for print, where the writer must always force his or her text into a single line of argument or narrative. The computer frees the writer from the now tired artifice of linear writing, but the price of this new freedom for the writer is that the writer must allow the reader to intervene in the writing space (Bolter, 146).
There is little hard evidence presented, however, to back the assertion that print literature is exhausted. On the contrary, it seems an extension of the overall neo-utopian belief that technologyespecially the computeris the new Messiah of our age. To illustrate his point, Bolter refers to Borges' Ficciones (specifically the "Library of Babel"), saying, "For Borges literature is exhausted because it is committed to a conclusive ending, to a single storyline and denouement" (Bolter, 139). This is a selective example of print literature, founded upon the idiosyncratic view of a lone individual, appropriated by an author who is proselytizing on behalf of an infant genre. Furthermore, Bolter says, "He could not see that the literature of exhaustion in print by no means exhausts the electronic medium" (Bolter, 139). Certainly, placing the reader in a state of greater determination adds a new ingredient to the stew of fiction; perhaps it enervates the field as a whole. However, this view of Bolter and other hyperfuturists seems far too entranced with the mode of delivery over the actual content deliveredtechnology will deliver us when imagination itself fails. For surely, the exhaustion of literature in print is the result of a corresponding exhaustion of imagination. If this is indeed the case, then fiction as an art is doomed, whether delivered on paper, screen, or stone tablets.
Here are a few of the unpleasant'st words
That ever blotted paper!
Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (Act III Sc. 5)
The question of artistic viability is perhaps the most nebulous aspect of the hypertext vs. print debate. While it's easy to assert the promise of hypertextual fiction and the consequent demise of print, it's impossible at this point to peer into the future of reading aesthetics and determine the actual outcome. We can, however, examine hypertext to determine wherein the artistic promise lies.
Many of the current hypertext proponents trace their roots back to Vannevar Bush, and his 1945 article, "As We May Think." The article, which is founded on the precept of associative thinking, explores hypertext as a utilitarian means of navigation through the burgeoning collection of data of the Information Age. Bush, envisioning a day when information can be custom-tailored, writes:
Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex [Bush's electronic knowledge repository] and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client's interest (Bush, 13).
This points to the obvious and relatively undisputed aspect of hypertext: the great search engine of the new age. Creating a multiplicity of paths through an otherwise potentially overwhelming amount of information is the ostensible task of hypertext used as a tool. It allows the user to efficiently narrow the scope of a search to relevant topics.
Like many tools, however, hypertext could feasibly be adapted to a more artistic usage, which is what authors such as Michael Joyce, George Landow, and Jay Bolter are all betting. Most of the excitement of this camp lies in the possibility of creating a multiplicity of paths through a plot, layering fiction with a type of literary fourth dimension. In the case of Bolter and some others, the tendency is to take this line of thought even further; literature in print is at or will soon reach a creative dead end. Multiple plotting through hypertext is the only solution to this supposed dead end, and the advent of non-linear, reader-response fiction is the only natural progression in creativity. Bolter presents this idea with the following example:
The author might choose to build a narrative hierarchy by presenting the same events, for example, from three points of view, where the first point of view is in some sense superior to the second and the second to the third. The author might think of these as the divine, the heroic, and the satiric perspectives. From the satiric perspective, events are a confusion, as we normally experience them, making only a provisional sense that dissolves again into chaos. Imagine the dramatic story of Oedipus, told from the perspective of the shepherd who failed to obey the order to kill baby Oedipus and instead gave him away. After many years, this well-meaning shepherd is brought before Oedipus the king, threatened, and made to reveal what he did with the baby. He is then released and left to ponder the horror of Oedipus' crime and his own revelation. From the heroic perspective, events take on greater clarity and urgency, as Oedipus himself would tell the story. The third, divine perspective is omniscient and also detached, for the heroic sense of engagement is lost. It is the story of Oedipus as narrated by Apollo (Bolter, 128).
The idea of hierarchical narrative, especially given this example, is an interesting one, although it stumbles slightly on two counts. First, it fails to call to the reader's attention that this is an artistic device that has already been explored in printed works (although the differences between the media of hypertext and print allow for varying types of exploration depending upon the media chosen). Second, at least in the example above given by Bolter, it does not take into account the essence of fiction: drama.
One either accepts that the essence of narrative fiction is a crisis-resolution model, or one doesn't; however, history tends to side with the dramatic conflict of crisis and resolution. The deconstruction of fiction, even under the most benign circumstances, moves away from this traditional model in favor of varying degrees of existential fragmentation. The question begs to be asked: is art the mirror's reflection of life, or is it order imposed on life? Notwithstanding that our notion of art must include elements of both theories to resonate, art in all forms is about the selection and presentation of details, even from the chaos of deconstruction. So, can deconstruction create art? Yes.
However, such art proclaims the death of narrative, which has been the essence of storytelling (and hence, fiction). It also ignores the aesthetics ofwhy we read narrative fiction. Fiction is based upon a teneteither indirectly or directly, depending upon the individual workof escapism into a world of another's making. The aesthetic world envisioned by Bolter marginalizes this escapism, and that of Coover or Joyce foregoes escapism entirely in favor of making art a doppleganger of life experience. But this is in antithesis to the art of fiction as we know it, in that reality is expressed as the only true entertainment, and the worlds of others are abandoned in favor of the world of one's self. As a genre of fiction, it can be a valid art; as the only fiction, we will suffer an immeasurable loss.
The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.
Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost (Act V Sc. 2)
Is it irony that theorists who claim to work for the abolishment of authoritarian control are themselves engaged in a struggle for a greater control, that of artistic license itself? It seems that in their eyes, the medium assumes more importance than the message as the reader becomes more important than the writer.
Art in general, and fiction specifically, has survived for all these centuries because rather than be dominated by genres, it has been able to absorb them and continue on. Those who prophesize the death of print and the waxing of hypertextual interactive fiction seem drawn to siren's wail of technology, heedless of the reefs lurking below the artistic waterline. The views of such fringe theorists call into question many, if not all, of the fundamental, defining characteristics of fiction as an art.
Fiction as it stands today, the culmination of hundreds of years of development, will not be torn down by a single genre. Storytelling has always been a part of the human existence, and surely will remain a vital part of our cultural experience, indeed, our very humanity. We would not expect punk rock to become the defining example of all forms of music, nor would we expect that Cubism would dominate painting and sculpture. Likewise, we cannot be asked to accept passively that electronic fiction will assume the all-encompassing mantle of art in fiction. For though the proponents of hyperfiction proclaim that it will save fiction, what might be left is an art form not worthy of being saved.
Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1991
Bush, Vannevar. "As We May Think". Atlantic Monthly, 176 (1), 101-108
Kakutani, Michiko. "Never-Ending Saga". The New York Times Magazine, September 28, 1997, 40-42.
Selden, Raman. Practicing Theory and Reading Literature: An Introduction. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1989.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.
Shakespeare, William. King John and Henry VIII. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.
Shakespeare, William. Love's Labour's Lost. London: Penguin Books, 1982.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.
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