Reviewing the Reviewers of Literary Hypertexts

Reviewing the Reviewers of Literary Hypertexts

Thomas Swiss
March 15, 1998, page 43

Thomas Swiss unravels Laura Miller’s arguments in the New York Times Book Review and finds news of hypertext’s demise premature - as was Robert Coover’s call for the end of books five years ago in the same journal.

Reading literary hypertexts, writes Laura Miller in the New York Times Book Review , “is a listless task, a matter of incessantly having to choose among alternatives, each of which…is no more important than any other…. The experience feels profoundly meaningless and dull.” While unusually harsh in tone, Miller’s piece indeed represents a common enough view of hypertextual writing in a literary mode: it’s pointless. Not that literary hypertexts have always gotten such bad press. In fact, as Miller points out, just a few years ago the Times featured a piece by writer Robert Coover that heralded both the arrival of hypertextual fiction and “the end of books.” But, Miller writes, “six years after Coover’s essay was published…I’ve yet to encounter anyone who reads hypertext fiction. No one, that is, who isn’t also a hypertext author or a journalist reporting on the trend.” Thus Miller declares in her short essay not only the popular triumph of the book, but the death, more or less, of hypertext fiction. Touché!

Miller’s “” is one-sided and wildly unfair to the literary hypertexts she mentions. Ironically, however, few essays crystallize as nicely as does Miller’s a set of opposing ideological and aesthetic relations as they are being played out on an emerging literary practice. That is, her noisy partisanship brings into focus and thus helps us understand something of what is at stake (and for whom) when we ask a fundamental question: what are we talking about when we talk about hypertext literature? Two different ways of answering this question have surfaced in the last few years with very different implications.

Briefly, on one side there are those who find the terms “hypertext” and “literature” to be oxymoronic. Like Miller, they find the “very concept” of literary hypertexts to be “dreary”; they argue that literary hypertexts distort the true processes of both creating and reading literature. On the other side are those who are interested in the ongoing constitution of literature in and through technological media. They see “hypertext literature” as literature first, the way “kinetic sculpture,” for example, is adamantly sculpture. Proponents of this view believe that changing the structures and strategies of literature - as the use of typewriters, photographs, video, and other technologies have changed writing and reading this century - is inevitable, even useful.

Reading Miller’s essay, I’ll comment on how the languages of opposing public arguments bear on each other - and on our own understandings and experiences of literary hypertexts. By “our,” I have in mind those of us readers who are more or less on the sidelines, not especially (or not yet) invested in either position. But I also mean those in the front lines of this particular skirmish, especially journalists whose positions often seem under-examined, and academics who may need to be more reflective about (and less dismissive of) the kinds of value judgments journalists are making and why. It’s impossible, and not really desirable, to resolve the conflicts among ways of talking about literary hypertexts. But giving up that ideal, which can seem attractive at times, does not mean we do not need to be attentive to the terms of this debate. On the contrary, we need to be not only aware, but engaged - these arguments involve us all as we continuously reposition ourselves, as individuals and in competition with others, in our ongoing involvements with “literature.”

seeing = knowing

Laura Miller’s many doubts and complaints about hypertext literature are generally shared by Sven Birkerts, the free-lance critic whose best-known book, The Gutenberg Elegies, argues for the fixed stability of the printed page and against “putting ourselves at risk” with computer-mediated writing. A few years after Elegies appeared, Birkerts surprisingly edited an anthology on “Technology And The Muse,” which included at least one hypertext writer; a writer with a Web site for her books; and a poet, Robert Pinsky - currently the U.S. Poet Laureate - who had authored an early “Interactive Narrative” for Broderbund Software. Did this volume signal a change of heart for Birkerts? Not really, it now seems, for recently he has taken on not only hypertext writing, but poststructuralism generally and an even larger target: postmodernism. “So what was - and flickeringly is - postmodernism? Hard as it is to define…,” he writes, “we know it when we see it.” Birkerts feels similarly about literature: he knows it when he sees it. Such a position may be inarguable if speaking for oneself. But what’s with this “we”? Who is he talking about here?

Like Coover and Miller - swapping death announcements for the book and hypertext fiction - Birkerts has his own funeral to minister over: “Postmodernism suddenly seems dated,” he writes wearily, “exuding the ‘period’ quality of Art Deco.” This may be true for some audiences. No doubt there are plenty of cultural journalists whose careers depend on sniffing out or inventing “the new” who might benefit from Birkerts’s appraisal. Let’s kill off the old and get on to the next thing! Even if, as is the case with Miller and Birkerts, the “new” is actually a return to the “old” ways of writing and reading. Indeed one hears or reads with increasing frequency these days that “the fashion” of postmodernism has worn thin, has lost its appeal, and is no longer “in.” But Birkerts’s claim, like most invoking “style,” is complicated and political. Wishing postmodernism away, that is, can and should be read as an attempt to contain whatever disruptive and transformative potential postmodernism might have, to render it inconsequential.

That’s what Miller’s after, on a somewhat smaller scale, in her pointed attack on hypertext literature. And like Birkerts, she invokes the populist “we” to speak for the imagined masses - as if literary tastes and consumption habits were one simple thing, and were not always fragmented, distributed across an array of niches. At one point, she writes about literary hypertext: “no one really wants to read it, not even out of idle curiosity.” It seems that most people who talk about “the public” are concerned with, even anxious about, their own interests, whatever those might be.

Miller’s interests include preserving canonical works of literature, and in particular the “high art” status of both authors and texts. Describing what “the common reader craves,” Miller employs this sacral language: readers crave, she writes, “the intimacy to be had in allowing a beloved author’s voice into the sanctums of our minds.” While this passage seems almost a parody of the dreamy romanticizing found in the writing of fan magazines, Miller is serious. Still, such purple prose does not much help to distinguish her case. Henry James, after all, might be your “beloved”; my aunt’s might be Gertrude Stein; my student’s might be Mary Gaitskill or, to shift literary genres, (hypertext) poet John Cayley. Whatever their differences, these writers all have literary “voices.” Truth is, though she doesn’t quite say it, Miller’s real beef is less with hypertext literature (which she does not waste many words on) than with “hypertext’s champions” and the critical, academic discourse that has thus far largely defined the genre.

“How alienated academic literary criticism is from actual readers and their desires,” Miller writes, here echoing the long-standing complaint that scholars have created a critical language so specialized that it excludes “actual readers.” There is, of course, some truth to this. Most scholars acknowledge it, some regret it, but hardly anyone believes we can (or should) turn back the clock. The “old” critical language, after all, was a kind of jargon, too. And having largely devoted itself to exhalting (the same) favored authors time and again, it was exhausted or nearly so. Indeed, Miller’s criticism, which borrows its attitudes and language from this lexicon, is a case in point. At any rate, picking up on some of the key terms academic critics have used in writing about hypertextual literature, Miller stresses that she doesn’t much like thinking of herself as a “co-author” in the construction of a text; she does not want “myriad opportunities and surprising outcomes” while reading; and she cannot abide by texts that “yield.”

That Miller has experienced the hypertext writing she critiques through the language of some prominent hypertext critics is not unusual. In fact, any reading of this work would have to have been influenced, even “produced,” by some sort of critical language that preceded her own. What is troubling, however, is the fact that she doesn’t acknowledge this relationship. Instead, she dismisses literary hypertexts as being simply “embodiments” of these (for her) “peculiar” terms and goes on to argue, as if it were self-evident and demonstrably true, that real literature “makes sense of the chaos of this world, and our passage through it, because making sense of it is humanity’s great collective project.” No claptrap here!

Miller’s language - her own key terms - captures the dominant discourse of journalistic criticism. It’s a discourse that most of us as newspaper readers are familiar with. It was widely employed, for example, in “liberal” papers a few years ago when the “culture wars” were first heating up and the National Endowment for the Arts came under attack in the notorious Piss Christ, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Karen Finley affairs. In a series of editorials at that time, The New York Times, for example, made the perennial aesthetic arguments that “art touches the soul,” giving us access to a “universal language.” Perhaps the fact that these arguments were not powerful enough to win the day (the NEA being a shell of what it was ten years ago) suggests that more convincing arguments for and about art and literature need to be made or found?

Regardless, Miller’s linking of this particular ideological (not to mention warm and fuzzy) value - that is, “good” writing makes sense of chaos - to a particular aesthetic practice (exemplified, as it often is in these cases, by nineteenth century authors Jane Austen, Henry James, and others) is obviously unfair. After all, can’t hypertext literature provide edification? Can’t it “make sense?” Did Henry James always make sense or has a hundred years of criticism helped? And “make sense” to whom, anyway? Finally, what is manifested as a stylistic difference between writers (a canonical writer like Austen, say, versus an “experimental” hypertext writer like Deena Larson) is equally a difference between diverse audiences.

beyond “the reader’s revolt”

Having dismissed both “postmodernism” as well as certain key terms and categorizations, Birkerts and Miller have more or less turned their backs on the possibility of meaningful arguments with contemporary cultural critics. That’s unfortunate, because it means that right now there’s hardly anything for readers to learn from discussions between the two camps best situated to make public arguments about literary hypertexts: journalists and scholars. Without a shared critical language and some agreement on how to talk about literature in a hypertextual mode, there can be no thoughtful discussion, either, of what might constitute “good” or “bad” literary hypertexts. Not that this discrimination much interests Miller. By her lights, reading is more or less a single practice and readers constitute a single-minded “public.” Further, hypertext writing in a literary mode is a single practice and literary hypertext writers are part of a single “trend.” Reading and readers, literature and writers: she knows them when she sees them.

As I’ve said, the power of Miller’s message - its reasonableness - depends in some measure on convincing readers of the Times that she’s “reporting” on a trend that is now “over.” But of course journalists also “create” trends by reporting on them in the first place, and then, to keep the news “new,” polish them off. Like pollsters, whom the press is both in bed and in competition with, journalists are charged with checking the pulse of “the people” - “no one really wants to read it,” Miller writes. But journalists are paid to circulate opinions, too, and the press typically includes a mix of utopian and dystopian rhetorics when reporting on nearly everything “technology-related.” But the drift in recent years has been toward the latter. In some ways, then, Miller is simply following the herd: the same herd that drooled over the Web in its “early” years but now, as Stuart Moulthrop notes, with the headlines full of pornographers, pedophiles, and teenage bomb-makers, represent the Web as less a playground for readers and writers than “a sinkhole of weirdness and perversion.” Miller doesn’t push it that far: literary hypertexts, in her opinion, are simply sinkholes of dullness and meaninglessness. Nevertheless, she manages to make this sound awfully dangerous, and like Birkerts, she doesn’t want us putting ourselves “at risk.”

Of course, some of the complaints I’ve been making about “populist” critical journalism could also be lodged against “academic” defenses of literary hypertexts. That shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the two camps share some common tasks, including finding the language by which they might assign (or withhold) value in relation to “literature.” In addition, these critics must compete with each other not only over the issue of whether, say, Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl and Geoff Ryman’s 253: A Novel for the Internet about London Underground in Seven Cars and a Crash are good or bad literature, but over who has the authority to say so.

I’ve already described the kind of critical language and strategies some journalists have been employing at the service of their literary tastes, and as their way of constructing a literary hierarchy. By way of concluding, I want to briefly note three issues or “problems” that involve the hypertext “champions” whom Miller and others feel so threatened by. The first issue concerns the discourse of these critics.

Miller writes:

…the rhetoric of hyperfiction can be warlike, full of attacks launched against texts that can offer no “defense,” prove “vulnerable” and ultimately “yield.” Coover sees “readers who fall asleep on four or five books a year” and “surrender to novels as a way of going on holiday from themselves” as weaklings insufficiently girded for the glorious battle ahead.

She has a point here. Defenders of literary hypertexts do tend to use the language of a “reader’s revolt.” Or at least some defenders do, and among them are prominent voices from the “Eastgate school,” whom Miller names in her piece. Eastgate, as many know, is the pioneering publishing company based in Massachusetts that was instrumental in first “publishing” and distributing literary hypertexts. Specializing in “serious” hypertexts, its stable of writers includes such influential authors and critics as George Landow, Stuart Moulthrop, and Michael Joyce.

One of the problems here, I think, is that the entire genre of “literary hypertexts” remains, for a complex of reasons, too connected to Eastgate in critics’ minds. Many of the current terms used to describe, define, and defend literary hypertexts come from a (pre-Web) generation of Eastgate writers and critics. Indeed the language used by or associated with Eastgate comprises the dominant discourse employed by both sides - with different readings and conclusions, of course. But I wonder, especially with the advent of “serious” writing on the Web, if in fact the initial phase of literary writing in a hypertextual mode is coming to a close. If so, certain key critical terms may be losing their power to do much more cultural work.

Secondly, I’d suggest that the defenders of literary hypertexts have not done a particularly good job of distinguishing among hypertexts, making individual cases for individual texts. It is a common complaint from academic writers that journalists like Miller and Birkerts have not spent enough time reading hypertext literature, but perhaps no one has yet? Or not many. Certainly there are very few hypertexts that have been awarded close reading (in writing) by either camp. My point is that as in other areas of cultural studies, the scarcity of value judgments about individual hypertexts perhaps confirms Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s sense that “evaluation” has been “exiled” from literary criticism. My own feeling is that exploring and writing in depth about a wide variety of literary hypertexts will put into play some new critical terms - after all, many hypertext authors have created (and are creating) texts that are not easily, and not intended to be, read in the light of poststructuralist critiques.

Finally, critics in this camp may need to devote more time to theorizing “the popular” and literary hypertext’s place in ongoing discussions about popularity, especially as it relates to “value.” Miller’s populist argument seems to be (though it sometimes reverses itself) that best-selling writing is “good” writing - that is, it’s literature. But a measure of popularity is hardly a measure of value, most would agree. And yet there may be something to learn still from thinking about “popular” responses to literature and - more broadly - what Simon Frith calls the “aesthetic/functional axes around which cultural judgments work.” Here he names believability, coherence, familiarity, and usefulness. Do these terms have any life left in them that we might find useful to our writing about literary hypertexts? I mean especially the writing we do that goes beyond simply offering counter-categories, important as these might be.

As I’ve said, I think the conversation between journalists and academic critics about literary hypertexts is stalled. To get it going again - to move it ahead - both camps may need to contribute to a shared discourse by acknowledging, even highlighting, in their criticism both continuities and conflicts in the meanings and study of literary hypertexts. Then we might better understand what it means both to ask and answer the question: what are we talking about when we talk about literary hypertexts?