copyright (c) 1995 by Robert Kendall and Poets & Writers, Inc.
Literature has always been a remarkably adaptable art form. It's at home on the lips of
the storyteller or the actor. It happily dons the accoutrements of song. Even the printed
page may spawn extraverbal hybrids such as visual poetry, calligraphy, and illustrated
books. Now the range extends still further. The computer--that remarkable melting pot of
all communication--has become another medium for expressing the incomparable beauty and
power of the word.
A growing number of poets and fiction writers are using the personal computer to
stretch the boundaries of the written tradition. From the electronic pen come poems and
stories that couldn't be represented in print--work that can exist only on the infinitely
flexible "cyberpage" offered by the personal computer monitor.
The new electronic literature breaks the bonds of linearity and stasis imposed by
paper. In digital form, a story can draw readers into its world by giving them a role in
shaping it, letting them choose which narrative thread to follow, which new situation or
character to explore. Within a "page" of poetry on screen, words or lines can
change continually as the reader watches, making the text resonate with shifting shades of
meaning. Written work can "improvise," altering its own content every time it's
read. With its power to mix text, graphics, sound, and video, the PC can extend the
ancient interdisciplinary traditions of writing.
This emerging genre--often called interactive literature, because the reader can
interact with it--has gained an inexorable momentum in the past few years. Such prominent
writers as William Dickey, Thomas M. Disch, and Robert Pinsky have tried their hand at
interactivity, and the medium has attracted many other talented practitioners in this
country and abroad, as well as a number of publishers devoted almost exclusively to it. It
has garnered favorable critical attention from such conservative voices as The New York
Times Book Review and The Washington Post Book World and spawned an eloquent
body of critical theory. Interactive literature has found its way into the curricula of
English and writing departments at many colleges, including the New
School for Social Research in New York, where I teach interactive poetry and fiction. (See sidebar.)
Woe, by Michael Joyce
[click on thumbnail]
Fueling the new genre is a mushrooming interest in electronic publishing. Books of all
types are coming out on computer-readable disks, with the PC screen substituting for the
printed page. The new field is seeing activity from many of the nation's largest
publishing houses, including Bantam Doubleday Dell, Macmillan, Paramount, Penguin, Putnam,
Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Time Warner, as well as university presses such as
Oxford, Yale, and Columbia, numerous small presses, software companies large and small,
and even self-publishing authors. Publishing on disk not only allows new ways of creating
books, but also throws open the doors for entirely new distribution channels that may have
far-reaching implications for literature.
For example, one of my interactive digital poems is afloat
on a sea of computer networks, where it has been read by hundreds of people across the
country who have downloaded it--that is, transferred it via modem to their own computers.
At least 9,000 copies of this poem have been circulated worldwide by distributors of
shareware (software that users can try out before they pay for it). My interactive poetry
with music has also been exhibited at an assortment of venues, ranging from the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, New Jersey, and a
Barnes & Noble bookstore in New Jersey to the Franklin Institute Science Museum in
Philadelphia and art galleries in New Jersey and Philadelphia.
By means of a PC and audio equipment mounted in an exhibition space, the poetry becomes a
literary artwork/performance that attracts people of all stripes who watch, read, listen
to, and interact with it. Electronic authors John Cayley, Judy Malloy, and
have given similar exhibitions at such places as the Guggenheim Museum Soho in New York,
the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Royal
Festival Hall in London, and several university galleries.
I first ventured into electronic poetry in 1990, after publishing poetry in numerous
printed magazines and completing a book of poems (A Wandering
City, Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1992). I saw the computer as a
potentially valuable accomplice when I took my poems on the road for readings. Displaying
the work on the PC monitor seemed a solution to that age-old problem faced by the poet as
performer: the ear is not always as adept as the eye at taking in the nuances of the
poet's art. Subtle word-play and verbal interrelationships are often lost on the ear, not
to mention line layout and quirky spelling or punctuation. The computer screen can
preserve all that the printed page has to offer, while imbuing the poem with the dynamism
of a live performance.
I began fashioning kinetic visual poems for the PC, calling them SoftPoems
to reflect both their software genesis and the malleability of their text. In this work,
the words establish their rhythms by appearing and disappearing a few at a time, moving
around on the screen and undergoing other visual transformations. I drew on age-old
traditions of word as art object, language-painting with different fonts and colors. To
enhance the verbal choreography, I synchronized original music to it with the aid of
multimedia software--a natural outgrowth of a life-long interest in combining poetry and
music. The result was like a song with the words written rather than sung.
My PC began accompanying me to my poetry readings. It started out as an experiment that
I feared might elicit only confusion or worse, yet it quickly became one of my most
effective and accessible links with an audience. My computer display soon showed up at all
manner of places, penetrating well beyond the usual literary circles. I was surprised to
find my digital creations appealing to people who previously eyed poetry as if it were
some unpleasant-tasting vegetable. This led me to use them as tools when I taught poetry
in New Jersey high schools through the Dodge Foundation's Dodge Poets program.
I had begun working in the electronic medium assuming that I was the only writer
inspired (or deranged) enough to do so, but I gradually became aware of other kindred
spirits, some of whom--like William Dickey, Michael Joyce,
and Judy Malloy--had
answered the call of the silicon muse years before I did. I was part of a new literary
movement and didn't even realize it.
Most electronic pioneers are exploring the computer as a vehicle for malleable,
nonlinear writing unlike anything from the world of print on paper. They use a technique
called hypertext, which allows the reader to pursue various diverging and crisscrossing
paths through a story or poem. The writer can link any section within a text to many other
spots in the same work. A segment of writing can therefore lead to any of several
alternative continuations or digressions rather than just the next page.
Here's a typical example: In Stuart Moulthrop's
hypertext novel Victory Garden (Eastgate Systems,
1991), the reader encounters Harley and Veronica flirting in a bar. Hitting the
"Enter" key continues the story's current thread, resuming the conversation
between Harley and a friend as Veronica leaves. Alternatively, the reader can select among
words that appear highlighted within the text, each leading onto a different narrative
path. For instance, choose "another table" and the story follows Veronica as she
goes to wait on another customer. Choose "Veronica" and the narrative digresses
to a bedroom scene between her and Harley.
Victory Garden, by Stuart Moulthrop
[click on thumbnail]
By this process of choosing which links to follow, readers determine the
order--and therefore also the contexts--in which episodes of a story or poem appear. They
assemble their own versions of a fictional world in much the same way that they piece
together unique, personal versions of the real world from the fragments of their own
experience. The text becomes a real environment that the reader can interact with and
alter rather than just a description of one.
Writers like Michael Joyce
inspired me to embark on my own hypertext expedition. I departed from the usual approach,
however, using my background in computer programming to develop a dynamic hypertext
technique that allows a reader to change not only the ordering of text sections but also
the content of each in response to different situations.
For example, the first few lines of any section may vary to create an appropriate
transition from or response to whatever precedes it. Key phrases might be added or
removed, depending on whether or not the reader has already seen a related part of the
poem. Thus, if the reader encounters a passage that introduces a particular theme, the
program may alter passages the reader visits much later on, adding to them a few lines
alluding to this new theme. The way sections are linked together also changes in response
to the reader's progress.
I put the technique to work in my book-length poem A Life Set for
Two (Eastgate Systems, forthcoming), which uses as its structural model the human
mind itself, with its dynamic twistings and turnings. The reader roams through ruminations
and memories of failed love, as if following different trains of thought. Like thoughts,
these sections interact with one another, creating logical interconnections. The reader
can also change the mood of the poem at any time, which affects the content of each
section the way different frames of mind can color reminiscences.
A Life Set for Two, by Robert Kendall
[click on thumbnail]
The dynamic structure of A Life Set for Two is partly an effort to minimize the
discontinuity attendant upon complex hypertext literature that frequently lets the reader
jump between distantly related spots in the writing. Disjunction can certainly be an
effective device, but I wanted to moderate it with appropriate transitions provided by the
program. The dynamic approach also gives new meaning to the process of rereading, since a
text section is often different upon two successive perusals.
My approach to interactive literature is just one in a field with nearly as many
approaches as practitioners. During the last few years, dozens of writers have published
fiction or poetry of this variety, and the offerings are extremely diverse.
Two of the first notable writers to venture into interactive territory were Thomas M.
Disch and Robert Pinsky. Both created hybrids that straddle the line between computer game
and genre fiction, requiring the player/reader to unfold the text of the story by typing
in the actions of the protagonist. Disch's Amnesia (Electronic Arts, 1986, now
discontinued) weaves a mystery story with multiple possible outcomes. Pinsky's Mindwheel
(Synapse Software and Broderbund Software, 1984, now discontinued) is a surreal
fantasy holding many puzzles (some in the form of poems) that the reader must solve before
progressing further. This type of story/game has become a very popular form of
entertainment on the PC.
It was Michael
Joyce, however, who really opened up the electronic frontier to serious writing,
blazing the hypertrail in literature with Afternoon, a story. Completed in 1987,
this hypertext novel requires the reader to unravel interwoven strands of narrative to
make sense of the story. The reader's efforts parallel the struggle of the story's main
character to learn whether his son and estranged wife have been killed in a car accident.
The Washington Post Book World described this work as "an arresting,
intricate, delicately contoured prose sculpture, and a noteworthy piece of recent American
fiction, genre considerations aside."
Afternoon was published in 1990 by Eastgate Systems
(Watertown, Massachusetts), an innovative electronic publisher that has become the most
important force in fostering and promoting interactive literature. Eastgate currently
offers more than a dozen works of hypertext fiction and poetry. (See
Besides Afternoon, the most significant product of Eastgate Systems is Stuart Moulthrop's
Victory Garden. Notable for its linguistic virtuosity, this work is the most
ambitious and sophisticated embodiment yet of the hypertext novel. Hypertext gives an
unusual immediacy to this recounting of many events unfolding at once in different parts
of the world during the recent Gulf War. It also ideally accommodates the novel's
obsession with the blurring of the boundary between reality and TV brought about by the
news media's war coverage. Switching among the narrative threads becomes like
channel-surfing through people's lives.
Another ground-breaking Eastgate publication is Uncle Buddy's Phantom Funhouse (1992)
by John McDaid.
More a satirical literary potpourri of loosely connected writings than a novel, it invites
readers to explore its text in unconventional ways. For example, choosing among various
graphic images (such as Tarot cards or the rooms of a house) will take readers to
different points in the text. Or they can select alphabetized entries from a dictionary
inspired by Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars. Also from Eastgate is Judy Malloy's its
name was Penelope (1993), interesting for the way it strings passages together in a
different random order every time it's read, emulating the fragmentation that takes place
in human memory.
Marble Springs (Eastgate Systems, 1994) holds a special attraction for poetry
teachers. This collection of hypertext poetry about the inhabitants of a 19th-century
community encourages readers to create and add their own poems about some of the
Marble Springs, by Deena Larsen
[click on thumbnail]
To disseminate shorter hypertexts, such as stories and poems, Eastgate has launched a
magazine on disk called the Eastgate Quarterly. An early issue contains Jim Rosenberg's
Intergrams (1994), poetry that lets the reader uncover different layers of text
superimposed on different areas of the screen. Among offerings planned for future issues
are the interactive poems of the late William Dickey, well known for his many printed
books of poetry. Dickey began experimenting with electronic poetry ten years ago,
combining hypertext, graphics, and sound effects into evocative artistic expressions.
Eastgate isn't the only press dealing in interactive literature. Hyperion SoftWord published Rod Willmot's
long, often haunting hypertext poem Everglade, in 1989. William Gibson's
much-publicized Agrippa: A Book of the Dead (Kevin Begos Publishing, 1992, now
discontinued) is a poem on disk that permanently erases itself as it scrolls across the
computer screen, endowing writing with the fragility of memory.
The Wellsweep Press in England brought out John Cayley's
six-volume Indra's Net (1993-1995), which includes poems that generate their own
text in a different way every time they're read. It also offers Cayley's translations and
electronic renderings of Classical Chinese quatrains. "Traditional Chinese poetry
invites non-linear reading," says Cayley, who presents the text in a way that makes
this quality more apparent.
The phenomenal growth of the Internet (the much-talked-about global network of
computers) has spawned another type of publisher for hypertext literature. The
fastest-growing branch of the Internet, called the World Wide Web, is structured as a vast
repository of interlinked hypertext documents, which you can browse by connecting your
computer to the Web via a modem and an Internet service provider. Many locations on the
Web now contain works of hypertext fiction and poetry. If you want to explore some of
these, a good place to start is the Web site called "Hyperizons: The Search for Hypertext
Fiction," which contains links to most of the other sites devoted to hypertext
A number of publishers have ventured into multimedia literature, in which visual
elements, movement, and usually sound are as important as the text itself. Diskotech has launched Holly Franking's
Negative Space, the first in a line of "computer video novels" that meld
text, graphics, and video. Chatfield Software markets
multimedia poems by Hale Chatfield,
and GRIST On-Line publishes the kinetic visual poem Hiroshima,
Hiroshira, Hirosh'ma (1994) by John Fowler.
Interactive electronic literature is not part of today's mainstream, but this may
change as an increasing number of readers become accustomed to books on disk and more and
more publishing houses venture into electronic publishing. Reference and children's books
have been very popular in electronic versions for five or six years, and there are now
more encyclopedias sold on disk than in print. Literature on disk is slowly gaining
Hundreds of novels, stories, and poems that were conceived for the printed page are now
available in electronic format. The vast majority are reprints of works that have already
appeared in print, though some noted authors--including Kathy Acker, Robert Coover, Alice
Fulton, David Ignatow, Stephen King, and William T. Vollmann--have published work
electronically either instead of or before publishing it on paper.
Publications of this nature are distinct from interactive literature, but some of them
do use the resources of the PC to bring something new to the writing. For example, the
two-volume anthology Poetry in Motion (Voyager Company,
1992 and 1995) supplements printed poems with digital videos of the authors reading the
work, and In My Own Voice (Sunburst Communications,
forthcoming fall 1995) includes audio recordings of contemporary poets. Voyager has
released an electronic edition of Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park (1992),
which the author describes in the preface as a "more complete version" than any
other, since it contains sounds and images that helped inspire his writing. Another
digital adaptation is The Complete Peter Leroy (So Far) (Voyager Company, 1995), in
which Eric Kraft uses hypertext to link together a series of his novels, allowing the
reader to trace different themes and relationships that run through the works. ClariNet's Hugo and Nebula Anthology 1993 of
award-nominated science fiction augments one of its works with extensive hypertext
annotations by the author.
The ClariNet anthology is distributed on CD-ROM--a format similar to the audio CD but
accommodating computer-readable data--and exemplifies another advantage of publishing
literature electronically. Its vast storage capacity makes the CD-ROM a uniquely
inexpensive, compact repository for large collections of writing that can easily be
searched electronically for study purposes. ClariNet's publisher believes his sci-fi
collection to be the largest anthology of contemporary fiction ever produced (it even
includes five complete novels).
The World Library, the Bureau
of Electronic Publishing, and other companies offer CD-ROMs containing hundreds of
classics at prices ranging from $50 to $150 per disk--a fraction of what the works would
cost in print (the Bureau edition includes illustrations and recorded readings of some of
the works). The $595 Columbia Granger's World of Poetry (Columbia University Press, 1995) packs 10,000 poems onto a
CD-ROM. Chadwyck-Healey offers a CD-ROM edition of
the complete works of 1,350 British poets, though only libraries will be able to afford
its $51,000 price tag.
Electronic media are also having an impact on little magazines. They make possible such
ventures as BLAM!, an aggressively provocative product
of New York's East Village, which uses audio and animation to turn text into interactive
performance art. Anyone with a PC, a modem, and access to a computer network (such as
CompuServe or the Internet) can put together a magazine with negligible production costs
and make it available to thousands of network users who can download it to their own
computers for free. There are now dozens of such magazines with a literary focus, some
predictably bad, others (like Postmodern Culture and GRIST On-Line) of very high quality.
The World Wide Web is giving a boost to literature on many fronts. It's providing a
home to many new literary magazines and archives, letting authors publish their own work
at little or no expense, giving print and electronic publishers alike the opportunity to
disseminate free samples of their wares, and letting writing programs put the work of
their students before a broad reading public.
The biggest obstacle to the widespread acceptance of electronic books and magazines is
currently the primitive state of the technology for reading them. Staring at today's
computer screen just doesn't have the same attraction as curling up with a good book.
However, industry experts expect the eventual arrival of an inexpensive paperback-sized
computer with a screen that matches the readability of the printed page. Then the
electronic publishing boom will begin in earnest.
Although few among the proselytizers of digital publishing predict the disappearance of
printed books any time soon, it's hard to imagine that the technology won't have a
profound effect on the reading and writing of future generations. It certainly wouldn't be
the first time that technology has altered the course of literature. Would the flowering
of the novel have been possible without the printing press? Think about literature before
the invention of paper or of writing itself.
Interactive literature is likely to flourish because it satisfies some strong artistic
needs. It's been hailed as the logical culmination of postmodern tendencies such as making
the reader a partner in constructing the meaning of a work, but there are deeper
From the earliest times, writers have been drawn to alternatives to linear narrative
that make storytelling more flexible. Devices such as the story within a story, the
flashback, and the subplot are precursors to hypertext. The dynamic, interactive nature of
the new genre may also let us recapture something that was lost when oral literature gave
way to a written tradition. Poems and stories carried solely on the tongue are constantly
reshaped and revitalized by improvisation. Storytelling is partly a skill of spontaneous
interaction between teller and audience. In its purest form, as it arises in the bar after
work or at the family dinner table, it must respond to the perplexed question, the raised
eyebrow, the stifled yawn, and all the other cues that signal the narrator when to
elaborate and when to cut to the chase.
Eventually interactive fiction may engender characters that communicate as if they were
actual people. A step in that direction has been taken by Jeffrey Morrow and Janet Murray
of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), developers of a program called Character
Maker, which uses rudimentary artificial intelligence to unfold a work of fiction by
responding to questions and comments that the reader types in. This makes the act of
reading much like having a conversation with a character in a story.
Computer technology has other interesting implications for poetry. The malleability of
lines on screen opens up possibilities for many new formal alternatives to traditional
verse structures. The instructional program PoetryStar (Chatfield Software, 1991) demonstrates this with a strict
Petrarchan sonnet by Hale Chatfield
in which each line has four alternative versions. Every time the sonnet is displayed, the
program randomly chooses a version of each line, with very intriguing results. The 256
million possible combinations all maintain the strict metrical structure and rhyme scheme.
A similar feat had previously been accomplished in print by Raymond Queneau
in his Cent Mille Milliards de Poems (Gallimard, 1961), but only rather awkwardly
by means of lines printed on strips of paper that the reader must fold into different
Colloquy: The Interactive Poem Authoring System (forthcoming from Eastgate) offers
another new twist to old forms, letting poets create interactive work within formal
constraints that are conceptually similar to those governing the sestina. A Colloquy
poem appears on screen a few lines at a time, with the reader determining which lines are
next added to the poem by selecting any word from the lines already there. The selected
word then begins the next new line.
Electronically endowing poetry with graphical variety, movement, and sound gives it a
physicality that immediately engages readers on a sensual level. Like the sensuousness of
rhyme and meter, electronic multimedia entices readers in and invites them to discover the
poem's less accessible places. This, along with the new distribution avenues the medium
opens, may help poetry regain some lost popularity.
Even conventional books of poetry could benefit from hypertext. Rather than confining
the individual poems in a collection to a single, sometimes arbitrary order, an author
could link them together in different ways, letting the reader explore various alternative
orderings or groupings that emphasize different relationships among poems. This approach
could also extend to many long lyric poems, since these are often cast in loosely
connected sections that don't necessarily demand a single linear reading.
Interactive writing is no longer solely the domain of the technological savant, thanks
to rapidly improving software for creating electronic books. Authors can choose from a
variety of programs that simplify working in the interactive medium, including Eastgate's
Storyspace, which is intended largely for creating hypertext fiction and poetry.
Tackling this new breed of writing is now little more difficult or risky than trying
one's hand at any other unfamiliar genre--and it should be regarded as a new genre, not a
potential replacement for traditional forms of literature. Like any distinctive medium, it
requires first-time practitioners to rethink some elements of their craft to use it
effectively. It can also demand some artistic readjustment as the hypertext author learns
to relinquish to the reader some control over the final form of the work. This doesn't
mean giving up responsibility for the structure of the writing or somehow losing authorial
claim to it. If anything, the structural responsibility increases, for the work must
maintain coherence in the many possible permutations it can undergo. For a novelist or
poet, adapting to interactivity is a little like venturing into theater work, which also
requires entrusting part of the creative process to others--in this case, actors and a
With its aesthetic kinship to oral tradition and live performance, the new literary
technology points toward a deepening rather than (as some fear) a lessening of the human
element in writing. It also provides some comfort when one contemplates a coming century
that many expect to be dominated by interactive electronic media (we already have
interactive television, movies, and record albums in fledgling form). If the genre
flourishes, it will mean that no matter what else we encounter in the digital future,
there will always be something of spiritual and intellectual value--namely literature--to
put up on the screen.