Can you get there
Morphs the Media 99
The question that has
underlain my work is, quite simply, "Why Hypertext?" The
first thing I hear from family, friends, other writers, and
even hypertext readers is: "When will it come out in print?"
My best writing friend and confidante has insisted for over
a decade that I am dead wrong about this hypertext
obsession, and laments my choice of writing as deeply as if
I had chosen not to write at all. So I have a very personal
stake in defending my decision. 1
But there is much more at
stake. If we are going to throw literature classes,
citations, and even reviews into mass confusion (no more
turning to page 21), we'd better have a good reason why. If
we are going to ask readers to take an active role in
searching for text, making connections, understanding links,
and finding structure, we'd better make the trip pay off. If
we could get what we were looking for in a simple,
straight-forward text, we'd be crazy to spend about ten
times the effort to plan, write, link, and program a
I'd like to limit this
discussion to the simplest form of hypertext
:2 nodes with text in them and links
between these nodes. Hypertext has two things linear text
does not: nonlinear structures and links.3 Are these features enough to
compensate for the extra trouble they cause? This question
is misleading. It assumes that the features themselves are
the rationale for writing hypertext. Yet writers have
managed to get multiple voices, multiple perspectives into a
book with page numbers (As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
comes rushing to mind.) Writers have managed to show
connections within the same constraints (Spoon River
Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters is my favorite example of
Rather the question
should be: What does it take to use these features to add
extra dimensions of meaning that cannot be gleaned from
linear text? It is easier to experiment than to speculate.
My works look at links AS meaning-from links as connections
between characters (Marble Springs, Eastgate 1993), shadow
stories forming an under-dimension (Samplers, Eastgate
1997), and running commentary on a text (Stone Moons,
Eastgate, forthcoming). I have also worked on structure AS
meaning. I want to show that not only is structure an
additional element of meaning, it can be the major element.
Ferris Wheel is an unpublished work. (Parts of the draft
will be available at http://www.chisp.net/~textra until Feb 26,
1999.)4 Ferris Wheel has two main parts to
it: a circular poem that can be read from the center out and
a story using each of the poem's words as the title for a
node. The relationship between the poem and the story is
strengthened by the story's circular, ferris-wheel-like
structure. This shows up as the navigation bar on each page,
and permeates the work. Ferris Wheel is a slice-of-life
story at the moment a man proposes and a woman decides to
accept the proposal. But the circle structure provides a
look at the cycle of their lives and shows that this moment
is not isolated but is merely one turn of the wheel. None of
this shows up in the text--but is abundantly clear in the
structure. These ineffable elements could not be obtained in
a linear, page-by-page view.
At the Hypertext Writers'
Workshop, "Messenger Morphs the Media," I'd like to explore
these issues with other readers and writers. Indeed, this
question has too many facets to cover in one day. However, a
start would be:
- Is it important to
try to convey meaning in elements other than text? What
does this add to a hypertext that we can't get elsewhere?
- Will readers want
this and be willing to spend the effort to uncover these
meanings? What is the pay off for readers?
- How can we convey
meaning in hypertext elements such as links and
- What interfaces
between the reader and text are needed to convey these
- What techniques can
we use to make these meanings consistent and clear? How
clear can we make these meanings?
1 As I write this, I have toyed with the idea of
putting my paper into hypertext. Why not? Because in this
case, I want to set up a rhetorical tautology to one
2 The discussion of
what sight and sound bring to words on the screen is
incredibly important, but I want to boil this down to what I
see as the fundamentals of hypertext.
3 This seems to be
self-evident from the definition. There are probably more
features, but let's keep it simple for now.
4 I would like to
keep this up for a while, but the publishing and copyright
notices are so flexible on the web that it is impossible.
Just another one of those issues we will have to
confront--but not here.