Literary theorist Roland Barthes within his book S/Z describes a type of writing weirdly similar to much of the content found on the internet today. The text he describes is one where “the networks are many and interact,” where “it has no beginning,” and where “we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main.” To any beginning reader, it’s nearly obvious that he is describing a text that functions identically to the world wide web. However, there’s one small problem: S/Z came out over ten years before the first personal computer was even invented.
Barthes wasn’t the only one to imagine this kind of writing. Around the 70s and 80s, a new movement called poststructuralism began to gain prominence across various forms of culture, including art, philosophy, and yes, literature. It emphasized skepticism and irony, and in general it sought to push back against the idea that culture can be encapsulated by overarching narratives. Instead, poststructuralist thinkers tried to break apart these narratives, examining their influences and assumptions to learn more about the world as a whole.
Some more of these poststructuralist thinkers included Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari. Each one contributed to the conversation around reimagining the text from a poststructuralist perspective, while inadvertently imagining the computer that was yet to come. In his work Glas, Derrida reaches toward the concept of the webpage with his idea of a discrete unit of text, the morceau. The morceau, which can be translated as bit, piece, morsel, or mouthful, “is always detached, as its name indicates and so you do not forget it, with the teeth.” Deleuze and Guattari added to this conversation by beginning to imagine something like the decentralized internet where anything connects to everything. They describe the rhizome, their word for this special text, which is “acentered” and “nonhierarchical,” and “connects any point to any other point” which “are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature.”
Of course, the web is too wide to fit into any succinct definition, and most web pages have little need to be theorized upon anyway. However, as it continued to expand and evolve from its inception in the early 80’s, one corner of the internet grew to fit perfectly with these theorists’ ideas.
Hypertext fiction is a subset of electronic literature — “work with an important literary aspect that takes advantage of the capabilities and contexts provided by the stand-alone or networked computer” — that takes advantage of these capabilities by connecting web pages through hyperlinked text to create nonlinear, exploratory narratives. Think if Wikipedia was a novel, or a Choose Your Own Adventure book existed online. You end up with a fragmented story where the narrative is connected more by associated ideas or themes than any sort of linear plot.
Writing similar in concept to hypertext fiction has existed for decades, including James Joyce’s Ulysses, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Each utilized the sort of unconventional narrative rife with footnotes and unique page layouts. The interesting thing about hypertext fiction on the computer is that it makes all these oddities and inconveniences natural. Unlike in a print book, where footnotes force the reader to flip back and forth, and single lines of text on a page are confusing and add to the bulk of the book and paper usage, the computer flips the script; footnotes are a single click away, and web pages can have any amount of text, a single node in the infinite expanse of the internet.
My own introduction to hypertext fiction is quite roundabout. I had just finished a different piece of electronic literature, The Northern Caves, and was hungering for anything in a similar vein to read. Someone online recommended the serial web story 17776, which I also ended up really enjoying. While it’s not technically hypertext fiction — the pages are only connected through “next” buttons as opposed to various hyperlinked words — the two often come up in conversation together; from then on, I was hooked. While I’ve still never read some of the classics of hypertext fiction, which include afternoon, a story by Michael Joyce and Patchwork Girl by Shelley Jackson, because these are only available through USB drives, the Electronic Literature Organization collections introduced me to more works both by them and others. I was able to explore fascinating works such as Twelve Blue by Joyce, my body by Jackson, and Letters to Linus by William Gillespie.
One of my favorite pieces of hypertext fiction is The Unknown, a sprawling and drug-fueled adventure written at the turn of the millenium. It follows fictionalized versions of its three co-authors, William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg, and Dirk Stratton, giving a fictional book tour of their fictional-at-the-time literary anthology, accordingly entitled The Unknown: An Anthology (they did end up publishing the anthology ten years later). The most fascinating thing about the story, in my opinion, is that as it began to receive more attention, the authors went on an actual book tour for the hypertext story, often giving readings at the same locations of fictional book readings in the text. The nonlinear movement within the story mirrors the mixed-up timeframe of the authors’ own recognition, where a single click will take you from the authors giving a rockstar-level performance at the height of their fame with Cher and Thomas Pynchon to the very first night they began to write the story. This meta resonance that is produced is completely dependent upon the hypertext form, which both made the story interesting enough to gain recognition and allowed for a network of connections between the different web pages.
As some of these hypertext writings like The Unknown began to be popularized, literary theorists seized onto the writings of Barthes, Derrida, Deleuze, Guattari, and others as points of comparison and analysis. Many were excited to see texts that were generally thought of as confusing and too speculative in a new and relevant light. George Landow and Paul Delaney proclaimed that “hypertext creates an almost embarrassingly literal reification or embodiment” of poststructural theory, and in Landow’s genre-defining book Hypertext, he names the web page unit of a hypertext work a lexia after Barthes’s term for small discrete chunks of texts. And in the prominent electronic literature journal Electronic Book Review, searching the keywords “Barthes,” “Derrida,” and “poststructuralism” turns up dozens if not hundreds of results.
There were, however, those who tried to be cautious to not overextend any claims of similarity. Landow himself explains that while Deleuze and Guattari’s writing about their nonhierarchical rhizome describes “something that has much in common with the kind of quasi-anarchic networked hypertext one encounters on the World Wide Web … the parallel seems harder to complete” when they say things like how the rhizome “is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion.” More recent theorist Alice Bell rejects the promises of poststructuralism even further, stating that “beyond very superficial similarities the comparisons are unfeasible and consequently unsuccessful.”
The main issue with all the excitement of hypertext and poststructuralism is that hypertext, well … never got very popular. There were always practical issues, like the requirement of technical knowledge and the pitfalls of making money off of digital media, but beyond that, hypertext fiction was simply never able to draw enough of the public’s attention. As early as 1998, people were rejecting the genre and pointing out its faults. Laura Miller via the New York Times states that “I’ve yet to encounter anyone who reads hypertext fiction.” The issue, she explains, is that reading hypertext never allows you to fully fall into the story. Rather, it “is a listless task, a matter of incessantly having to choose among alternatives, each of which, I’m assured, is no more important than any other. This process, according to Landow, makes me ‘a truly active reader,’ but the experience feels profoundly meaningless and dull.”
In my personal opinion, reading hypertext fiction is only dull if you expect it to act like a regular book. By the nature of its structure, this is simply impossible—it is a collection of web pages all interlinked together, not an ordered set of pages where each one can build off the next. Of course you can’t fully fall into the story; you aren’t meant to. To me, “reading” hypertext is more like a game or conversation; I’ll absorb the contents of a single page, and “respond” by choosing the link that will take me to the next one. It’s enjoyable because I get to construct my own interpretation of the text as I go, not because of any single gripping narrative.
However, the possible problems with hypertext fiction don’t exist solely on my or other readers’ ends. In a WIRED retrospective from 2013, Steven Johnson points to another issue: “It turned out that nonlinear reading spaces had a problem: They were incredibly difficult to write. When you tried to make an argument or tell a journalistic story in which any individual section could be a starting or ending point, it wound up creating a whole host of technical problems, the main one being that you had to reintroduce characters or concepts in every section.” It seems that while hypertext fiction was natural to the infrastructure of the World Wide Web, the text wasn’t natural to its denizens.
In a way, this can be seen as disappointing about the promises of poststructuralism and the networked text. Hypertext provided a practical application of the movement’s ideas, and it seems to have been a resounding failure. But as noted above, the internet itself is built around the same networked structure of hypertext, and it is not only surviving but thriving. Sure, the contents of most web pages are quite different from the narratives of hypertext fiction, but the similarities are still there.
And who knows what the future holds? While technology is constantly changing and adapting at a rapid pace, and thus it seems like new “digital fads” are constantly popping up and dying out, society as a whole moves at a much slower scale. While the Gutenberg press was invented in 1440, handwritten manuscripts continued well into the 16th century. And it took centuries after that for widespread literacy and literature for the public to develop. Personal computer use has only become global in the past decade or so, and coding in school is still the exception rather than the norm. It is only fair to give hypertext literature time as society stretches and grows to adapt to it.
In the spirit of imagining what kind of fate hypertext fiction might have, I want to end with a discussion about Ada Lovelace, a mathematician and daughter of Lord Byron the poet. In Sadie Plant’s book Zeroes and Ones, she describes Lovelace and her work on the Analytical Engine, a precursor to the modern computer. While the engine was never able to be built in her time, Lovelace still believed that her ideas on the technology would mean that “the relations and the nature of many subjects in that science are necessarily thrown into new lights, and more profoundly investigated.” Plant agrees, saying that “technical developments are rarely simple matters of cause and effect, and Ada was right to assume that the Engine would have more than an immediate influence.” Just like a piece of code, “the programs began to run as soon as she assembled them”—even though Ada never got to see the Engine in her own time, the exacting measurements that she realized were required to build the engine helped inspire a new wave of standardization in technology, which was crucial to the development of the computer. As Plant says, “The Engine was assembling the processes and components from which it would eventually be built.”
We have no way of knowing if or how hypertext fiction will continue to be relevant, or what kind of impact it will have on the rest of society. But it seems to me that the idea of narrative on a computer network is an important one, and something we should keep in mind as our lives turn more and more online. Hypertext fiction may be lying low for now, but its code is still running; who knows what will be built with it?