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of clockwork men

Why nothing connects anymore

In another of his comments (I think it might be the same one, but I’m not going to check right now) Baldur asked about hypertexts and digital writing. I half-addressed that yesterday morning, with the Tinderbox remark, but there’s more to my decision not to run with hyperlinks than that.

(Hedging My Bets Moment. I may be wrong about hyperfiction. I just haven’t heard a spirited defence from the other side yet.)

Here goes. I teach. A lot. One lecture, that starting postgrad students get, is about the history of storytelling criticism, from Aristotle through Propp and Campbell, Todorov, Genette and into the modern day. It’s followed the week after with a study of interactive storytelling that begins with Michael Chabon’s introductory essay in ‘McSweeney’s Treasury of Thrilling Tales’. The pertinent section of which I’m going to reproduce here:

Imagine that, sometime about 1950, it had been decided, collectively, informally, a little at a time, but with finality, to proscribe every kind of novel from the canon of the future but the nurse romance. Not merely from the critical canon, but from the store racks and library shelves as well. Nobody could be paid, published, lionized, or cherished among the gods of literature for writing any kind of fiction other than nurse romances. Now, because of my faith and pride in the diverse and rigorous brilliance of American writers of the last half-century, I do believe that from this bizarre decision, in this theoretical America, a dozen or more authentic masterpieces would have emerged. Thomas Pynchon’s Blitz Nurse, for example, and Cynthia Ozick’s Ruth Puttermesser, R.N. One imagines, however, that this particular genre — that any genre, even one far less circumscribed in its elements and possibilities than the nurse romanc e– would have paled somewhat by the year 2002. Over the last year in that oddly diminished world, somebody, somewhere, would by laying down Michael Chabon’s Dr. Kavalier and Nurse Clay with a weary sigh and crying out, “Surely, oh, surely, there must be more to the novel than this!”

Instead of “the novel” and “the nurse romance,” try this Gedankenexperiment with “jazz” and “the bossa nova,” or with “cinema” and “fish-out-of-water comedies.” Now, go ahead and try it with “short fiction” and “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story.”

Suddenly you find yourself sitting right back in your very own universe.

There. And I’m going to ask you to skim that again, and this time substitute ‘nurse romance’ for ‘branching hypertext’, and ‘novel’ for ‘interactive narrative’. Which probably won’t have the same seething, teeth-gnashing effect on you as it does on me, but trust me, that’s largely how I feel about branching hypertexts. They’re everywhere, and they’re a shorthand, and each time I meet a broadcaster, a designer, or any sort of media professional who hasn’t spent time trying to work out an interesting way of telling a story that isn’t a branching hypertext, then I spend/waste the first hour of our conversation getting past the impression that branching hypertexts are the only way to tell an interactive story.

They’re everywhere, incidentally. First-person videogames ? branching hypertexts. Web design software – branching hypertexts. It’s the shorthand for digital expression and while I have absolutely no problem with it as a important part of the toolkit, I’m not convinced it’s any more than that. I don’t use a hammer to screw a hinge to a door.

Don’t get me wrong – I like reading hyperfiction, and as part of the form it’s a building block of the writer’s toolkit. It’s just not the whole toolkit, and that’s why anovelexperiment was made without hypertexts imposed as an authorial requirement. I’ll use then in the future, as I’ve used them on previous projects – but for this piece of work, I wanted to ride without safety wheels, so to speak. One of the dangers of relying on a device like hyperlinks is that’s all we use. It becomes more than a device, and drives the whole structure toward one end (or, sadly, multiple ends). That decision drove the project in a different direction, and possibly one that locked out a set of possible conclusions, but I’m still happy with it. Earlier versions of the piece did make extensive use of thematic hyperlinks, connections buried in the text and available for exploration, but they felt like a forced route through. I don’t know what a reader is going to make of a particular narrative moment, and driving them toward the one I ‘believed’ was the next seemed reductive. Also, it ran the risk of asking the audience to spend their time searching for the pieces they’ve missed, rather than reading what they’ve got (anecdotal, but my experience of making hypertext works).

So. That’s a brief version of why no hyperlinks. Doesn’t stop anyone making a version with them though.


One comment for “Why nothing connects anymore”

  1. “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.” EM Forster (1910) Howards End.

    I’ve just finished Howards End and that passage stuck with me as an interesting and weird plea to reflect upon in the contemporary milieu…

    Posted by Sam | May 25, 2011, 5:04 pm

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