A FICTION HYPERTEXT :

BIRTH OF A NEW GENRE ?

Jean Clément


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The concept of a hypertext, interpreted in a computer environment, pertains mainly to the field of documentation and reading. In fact, it consists of non-hierarchised documents related to each other by connections which the reader can activate and which allow rapid access to each of the elements constituting the whole. More flexible than a data base, more manageable than an encyclopaedia, the hypertext provides a new mode of documentary and learned reading. The organisation of a hypertext in any particular field pre-supposes not only the competence of a specialist in the field, but also "writing" competence, since it involves constituting possible procedures and imagining a complex network of connections which organise them and which are meant to be "read".

The characteristics of this hypertextual writing are found in the domain of fiction hypertexts, a genre which appeared 10 years ago, but developed gradually especially in the U.S., and even became the main feature in the book-review section of a recent issue of the New York Times [1] . A small number of writers have already published hypertexts on floppy discs and have begun to think seriously about the features of this new medium. In France, this movement has just about started. The time lag can be explained by a certain unwillingness on the part of writers in French to grasp new tools of computer writing. Recent conferences and various investigations [2]  have shown to what extent the simple usage of word processing provoked reactions of reticence and indignant rejection amongst most writers. Those who are better inclined towards informatics like Michel Butor who prophesies the arrival of electronics feel that the computer is nothing but a perfected tool by which works meant to be read on paper can be written in a manner more comfortable or closer to their mode of creation. Those who wish to understand the premises of this new literature should turn to writing workshops. Thus in the past few years, students of University of Paris 8 have been attempting interactive fiction writing and more recently, Elizabeth Bing's writing workshops have taken up this activity.

Paradoxically, however, it is the French writers and theoreticians of literature who are considered pioneers and serve as a reference in the eyes of American defenders of this new writing. Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, or Gerard Genette are some of the masters who inspire them. There is no doubt that in France we have a special liking for theoretical constructions which are the envy of those on the other side of the Atlantic. It is also time that in the domain of creation, groups such as OULIPO or individuals such as Marc Saporta paved a way for this hypertextual writing - (sometimes called hyperwriting) even if their works on paper are only proto-hypertexts.

These preliminary remarks indicate the limits of this article. We are undoubtedly witnessing the birth of a new genre, but no one can predict what its future will be as we lack the perspective that an already established corpus of sufficiently numerous and varied works would provide. Hence I will confine myself to presenting characteristics of already published works and to anticipating what the future is bound to produce.

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Reading-space and hyperspace

The traditional division of fiction into chapters, scenes, descriptions, paragraphs etc. imparts a rhythm to the reading, characterised by the recurrence of the same and the different following a temporal progression regulated by the author. It matters little that this linking closely follows that of the story narrated or that, on the other hand, the narration makes light of temporality by resorting to the classical procedures of analespsis and prolepsis. The essential point is that the author imposes on the reader a rhythm to which he has to submit like the listener who while listening to the rendering of a musical piece, has no option but to let himself be carried by the flow of notes towards the finale.

The hypertext functions differently for reasons related to the constraints of the material and also because of its new possibilities. In fact nothing would be more unbearable to the reader than to be condemned to read on a screen pages which would go past like those of a book or more precisely to have no contact with the text other than a window behind which the work would unwind like a scroll. Being used to handling a 3 dimensional object, we cannot accept that the screen reduces it to a simple surface. It is certainly legitimate to imagine that in the near future the computer will reinstate the missing dimension to our reading on the screen and that we will be able to travel in a virtually reconstituted book, but this simple restoration of our old habits might deny us the new opportunities which the hypertext already offers us.

A hypertext does indeed compensate the limits of the screen by offering the reader new possibilities which the book does not have. For, behind the rectangular screen which limits our field of reading, the computer offers a depth which is not only our familiar 3 dimensional space, but one which is much more vertiginous, what is now called hyperspace. A passage like the one I am now reading on my screen is no longer limited to the one which immediately follows it. It gets registered in a hypertextual structure which weaves a complex network of potential links between the different fragments. Hence my reading is not subjected to the unchangeable order of pages, it opens itself to a new space which I will cover according to my moods or my curiosity, reader - explorer of a new type of text with perspectives in continuous movement.

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Arborescent and combinative texts

The refusal to subject the text to the regulated succession of a definite order is not new, in fact it is very ancient. I will give just one example taken from Chinese literature. Yi King or the the Book of Mutations, a Confucian anthology of aphorisms and divinatory maxims. This is a collection of 64 brief texts associated to hexagrams linked to each other by virtue of their similitude, symmetry, opposition etc. These texts are not meant to be read in a linear fashion, but according to indications given by throwing sticks, counters or dice. Nearer home we have the poetic collection of Jacques Roubaud entitled Signe d'Appartenance ("Sign of Belonging") [Roubaud 1967] like a distant echo, inspired by the changing position of counters in a game of "go". In general, there exists quite a tradition of fragmentary, poetic or aphoristic literature, illustrated specially by Nietzche, which tries to restitute bursts of inspiration by opposing treatises, the notion of system, filling up and the dead periods of transitions. In the introduction to his Fragments d'un discours amoureux, Roland Barthes refers to his own texts as "figures which cannot arrange themselves, put themselves in order, follow a path, reach an ending." [3]

In the domain of narrative fiction, examples of texts which try to escape from what we call "narrative logic" are much rarer. For the story seems, by its very definition, to inscribe itself in time, imply an order, an unfolding of sequences. In chapter 7 of his "Poetics" [4] Aristotle described the plot as "something which has a beginning, a middle and an end" and he added : "well constructed stories should not begin at random nor end at random" [Aristotle 1990, 114]. The hypertext claims to break with this well established tradition and it is necessary from this point of view to distinguish it from arborescent or branching narration which under the apparent confusion of paths trace linear routes which classically narrate one or many stories.

Amongst the latter, there exist several examples on paper or on computer material. One can distinguish 2 categories according to their mode of conception and functioning. Firstly there are those which, obeying a single model of narration (the most classical being the quest), unfold interchangeable episodes according to a rigorous order. To each class of episodes a precise place is assigned in the narration by replacing the liberty of the reader's choice with chance. One thus obtains a machine which automatically produces stories [5]. This is the case for example, of the software Conte  [6] which produces brief, elementary narrations according to the 2 modes. aleatory or interactive. A derivative of this model is to be found in stories with loop-like itineraries which offer a basic route with possibilities to deviate at various points. The combination of episodes is thus reduced in proportion. Books where the reader is the hero are a well-known example. They are presented as routes marked according to a semi-regulated progression chosen by the author which always terminate with only two possible endings : the victory of the hero or his death. We see that whatever be the technique imagined by the author, arborescent narrations are conceived to be read in a linear fashion. Each particular route is a path which narrates a story and leads it to its term.

It is true that it may seem rather reckless for an author to relinquish the power of directing the story to the reader. To my knowledge, only one person has tried it to date : in Composition numéro 1 [7], Marc Saporta offers an example of total combination which is undoubtedly unique in the history of the novel. The 150 pages which he proposes to the reader are neither in the form of a bound book or a paper-back, but arranged at random in a jacket which serves as a cover and keeps them together. Each page constitutes an individualised isolatable fragment, it can occupy any place in the book. In his preface, the author mentions that the reader is invited to shuffle these pages like a pack of cards, or to cut the pack if he wishes with his left hand, like a fortune-teller, the order in which the pages are removed will determine the destiny of X". Since the mathematical formula giving the possible number of different readings is 150 !, this work is mind-boggling and our imagination grasps it with difficulty. However, the reader of this combinative fiction is quite sure that behind all the possible narrations, there certainly is a single story whose characters and places are indentifiable and it would be possible for him to relate it. At once, he is tempted to make choices and take preferred narrative lines which to his eyes make more sense that others. From this total combination he retains only one limited combination. From this set of texts, he wants to make a hypertext.

We can now propose a provisional definition of the fiction hypertext which makes it possible to distinguish it from arborescent narratives and pure combinations as well. The hypertext shares with the latter the notion of fragmented narrative units. But these fragments are neither totally structured, like arborescent narrations, nor totally unorganised like total combination texts. The hypertext is therefore a collection of semi-organised textual fragments.

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The reader's trail

This semi-organisation, made possible by the help of computer facilities corresponds to the fulfilment of a very old dream, that of making the reader participate in the elaboration of the work. Undoubtedly every reading contributes to create the text which is covered and each reader is, in his own way, co-author of the work animated by his reading but because of the limitations of paper, the author's desire to invite the reader to participate further in their creation cannot be fulfilled. At most since the works of Sterne and Diderot we have been observing an attempt to dissipate the romantic illusion by the appearance of a writer-narrator who while addressing the reader, reminds him that every story is a game and that the reader has to maintain his role. Modern literature has so driven the reader's anxiety as to make him go behind the scenes of creation. For example we have Gide including in Les Faux Monnayeurs the diary of the novel being written, Proust questioning himself about the work of creation in La Recherche Céline alternating in his books the time dimension of fiction and his writing. Joyce introducing his rough work while writing in Finnegans Wake. Amongst all these attempts, it is undoubtedly Jacques Roubaud's works which is the most openly hypertextual. In his latest novel, La Boucle, even in the typographical and spatial arrangement of the texts, he alternates passages of memories and reflections on the work which is being elaborated before the reader's eyes.

This collaboration between the reader and the work is present in another manner also. Every text is a route - every reader advances in the text and reads while making a path for himself. This progression can be cheerful or sad, direct or winding, it can take a short-cut or follow the main road formed by the succession of the book's pages. There are as many paths as there are readers, and there are a thousand ways of reading a book. I may begin by reading the contents, skip the preface, idly gloss over entire chapters, reread a certain passage ten times, resume my reading backward, in short proceed "by leaps and bounds" as Montaigne said. It is this wandering at different speeds which gradually builds the book such that it stays in my memory and gives it that individuality which is mine alone. The hypertext is singular in that it keeps track of the reader's wandering in the book - thus making, the reader aware of his role in the elaboration and emergence of the text he has read and including him in the materiality of his device. Almost all hypertext material offers in fact, functions which enable the reader to keep track of his route. Among these functions, the most widespread are undoubtedly :

  1. the possibility of printing the passages read, thus keeping track of the text itself
  2. the possibility of filing and printing the list of these passages, thus offering a sort of mapping of the reading
  3. finally, the possibility of retracing the route taken in order to allow the reader to bifurcate in other directions, as in a game where the player retraces his steps when he has taken a wrong turn.
There are readers who never read a book without a pen, pencil or hi-lighter in their hand, who keep bookmarks or "post-it" slips between the pages. It is their manner of keeping material track of their reading, of leaving their mark beside the author's. Certain hypertextual arrangements encourage this type of reading/writing. They may be in the form of a margin on which one can write or bookmarks materialised on the screen by an icon. To these arrangements which are on the whole classical and which only imitate reading activities already possible with the traditional book, can be added a real opportunity for the reader to intervene in the author's text itself by inserting his own writing. He either joins the thread of the narrative by rewriting it or by means of electronic connexions adds new fragments to the original hypertext.

When the track of the one who reads thus becomes the track of the one who writes, the division between the reader and writer is abolished. With this possibility to pass from a readable to a writable text. Roland Barthes formulated in S/Z the most dependable criterion, according to him, of evaluating texts :

[...] Literature as work/literary work claims to turn the reader no longer into a consumer but into a producer of a text. Our literature is marked by the pitiless separation maintained between the producer and user of the text, its proprietor and its client, its author and its reader. This reader is then submerged in a sort of laziness, intransitivity, in short, a state of seriousness : instead of playing himself, of completely giving in to the enchantment of the "signifiant", to the voluptuousness of the writing, his only share is the pathetic liberty of accepting or rejecting the text : reading is no more than a referendum. As opposed to the writable text is thus established its counter-value, its negative and reactive value : what can be read but not written i.e. the readable text We consider classic any readable text." [8]

The reader's track enters the hypertext in yet another manner by partially effacing the original text of the author. For, if every path of reading gives existence to the texts read, by establishing links between them, the reader at the same time relegates to the domain of the virtual the other possible paths. Still worse, a major part of the work is sent into nothingness. With its 993 screen-pages and its 2804 links, Victory Garden by Stuart Moulthrop discourages, from the beginning any attempt at exhaustive reading. For, if a good traditional novel holds its reader till the end, the hypertext on the other hand is meant to be abandoned at any moment. Not being constructed according to a single perspective which would culminate on the last page, it is arranged to be visited like a painting exhibition or a foreign city. His favoured reading plan is roaming around . At each instant, he invites us to leave him. From the very first pages of Afternoon, Michael Joyce warns us : when the story stops progressing, when it turns round in circles or when its wanderings tire you, it is the end of your reading experience, for, he adds, as in all fiction, closure is a suspect quality". [9]

The hypertext thus offers the reader a new rapport with the work and the author, which no longer have the means of imposing themselves. They offer themselves modestly to our ephemeral desire to follow them. Literature does not take itself seriously any more, it becomes a game.

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The story de-constructed

The first victim of the renouncing of traditional narration is the plot itself. After reading fiction hypertext, the reader certainly has an idea about what the subject is, but he is incapable of relating the story. First because he has only read pieces of it. Moreover, he has read them in an order which is sometimes illogical. Finally because there are several stories or perhaps there isn't any. In traditional narration, the narrative units do not always follow the thread of the story. But the arrangement desired by the author is supposed to contribute to the construction of the plot. Paper as writing material gives this arrangement an immovable, hence essential character. The author can contrive surprise-effects, create suspense, change the perspectives of his novel. In all these cases he alone is master of the tempo and the direction of his work. In the hypertext, the reader is like a space-ship launched into the Cosmos [10]. He may follow the trajectory that his inertia imposes on him (that is what he does when he follows the connexions of the hypertext for want of anything else), but he may also be attracted by the gravity pull of the planets along which he coasts and lets himself be drawn in to their orbit (he then chooses to bifurcate by abandoning the plot which he was following till that moment). He might then wander from galaxy to galaxy. Leaving the thread of a story during its course, as the reader is invited to do by the words of the hypertext which release the connexions ("the words that yield"), is like losing the reference marks made by the reader and starting off on a new story without knowing how it began.

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Time and Space

This weakening of the story is the result of a transition made by the hypertext : the passage of the temporal dimension of the story to the spatial dimension. In a well-known article, Stuart Moulthrop [Moulthrop 1991], using Borges' metaphor from Le Jardin aux sentiers qui bifurquent (The Garden with paths which bifurcate) shows how the reader of a hypertext proceeds differently from an ordinary reader. Whilst the latter "advances" [11] in his reading with the certainty of going towards a denouement which will retroactively throw light on the sequences read, the former elaborates his own plot within a geographic space. It is this space with its cardinal references which serves as his guide and which he tries to reconstruct in order to give it meaning. Certain hypertextual devices give the reader access to a cartographed view of the text, others do not. In Victory Garden, Stuart Mouthrop proposes from the very first pages a simplified plan of his hypertext, thus offering the reader the possibility of entering the fiction by choosing a particular place in his garden-text. One software most frequently used by American writers is called precisely Story space and the title of Jay Bolter's book on hypertext is The Writing Space.

Jacques Roubaud in La Boucle, referring to the ancient Ars memoriae regrets the disappearance of the tradition of arranging objects from memory in familiar places (the rooms of a building for example) to find them more easily by an imaginary path [12]. The hypertext, in a certain manner, renews this practice interrupted in the seventeenth century. Time is indeed arrested, reduced to indivisible and unmeasurable atoms attached to places. And, if sometimes time starts moving again from one fragment to another as in a classical story, it is never for a long period. Every bifurcation stops it and freezes it.

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Narrative voices

This disappearance of narrative time contributes in its own way to the disappearance of the character. Deprived of the time dimension he no longer has a stable and identifiable story, he is but one amongst other protagonists, an uncertain narrative voice. From this point of view, the hypertext is the heir to the revolution which unsettled the western novel at the beginning of this century. In The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner contributed to the de-constructing of his characters by purposely giving them identical names. In Lust, a short hypertext by Mary-Kim Arnold, the protagonists are identified only by third person, masculine and feminine pronouns. Their identity is further weakened when the reader notices that the words of one character are repeated verbatim later by another. The scenario which he had constructed for himself till then is suddenly upset and he is obliged to review the story. As in some works of the "nouveau roman" (e.g. Maison de rendez-vous by Alain Robbe-Grillet) it may happen that a certain character taken for dead in an earlier passage is found living in a later passage. This is the case of young Emily in Victory Garden.

Compared to the most de-constructed modern novels, the hypertext brings yet another supplementary dimension. Faulkner confused the identity of his characters in order to better grasp the essence. The essence of a pure narrative voice with the hypertext is this voice itself which is indistinct. For example, in Afternoon, there are fragments composed of simple interior monologues which can in no way be attributed to a character. The hypertextual arrangement, by placing these fragments at the crossroads of several potential paths, turns them into weather vanes which, depending on the direction of the wind, put you on a different road. The voice which the reader believed he identified with that of a certain character, is revealed as belonging to another if he reads the same text in a different order.

Thus the picture and the outlines of the characters of fiction are continuously reshaped, thus narrative voices are themselves de-constructed, achieving for the reader what Bakhtine formulated for the author :

"The prose-writer-artist evolves in a world filled with the words of others amidst which he looks for his way [...]. Every word in his context comes from another context already marked by another's interpretation. His mind only comes across words that already have a meaning" [13]
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An arrangement exhibited

In Le nouveau roman Jean Ricardou while examining the conflict present in every work of fiction between its referential and literal components, shows how the latter were preferred by novelists of the new school. Now, amongst all the forms that the literary component can take, there is one which in my opinion characterises the hypertext better than any other. This is the "mise en abyme". For the novelist it means producing parallel to the principal story a micro-story which very often based on a picture (drawing, engraving, photograph, playing card etc) figures in an emblematic manner in the principal story ; and Ricardau adds that it is often this picture that produces the text.

I suggest the hypothesis that in the hypertext it is the hypertextual arrangement itself which produces the form in which all fiction is mirrored. This happens at three levels :

  1. At the material level initially the computer material and its reading arrangement put the reader in a situation which restricts the meaning of the fiction. Placed before a work of which he has only a local vision, the reader conceives the text as a route to be taken in the avenues of what reminds him in many ways of a maze. In the beginning of his hypertext, Stuart Moulthrop writes : "Come in / IN THE LABYRINTH : BEGINNING."
  2. At the narrative level subsequently, the interactivity offered by the hypertext enables the reader to keep track of the reading path taken and to authorise or on the contrary prohibit access to certain fragments. Thus a certain sequence already covered will not appear in the same manner during a second passage. In Lust, we have a spiral structure : the reader passes the same places once again and finds his choice of possibilities getting more and more restricted till he finds that he is going in circles and looks for a means of escape by clicking the words of the text.
  3. At the story level finally, the characters themselves are like the reader : they have a partial view of the story, the world appears enigmatic, incomprehensible. Each one of them is shut in his own perception of the universe of fiction and in his own logic.
Hence there is a "mise en abyme" of the story by the narration and of the narration by the material device. The figure of this correspondence is the image of the labyrinth which functions as a metaphor throwing light on the fiction and drawing a vision of the world. Stuart Moulthrop writes in Victory Garden : "We are perhaps hyper-mediatised and post-modernised, living as we do in a world which has a disquieting resemblance to a Garden with paths which bifurcate" [14] .

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Conclusion

From the examination of the narration and the characters, the fragmentation of the vision of the world, the anxiety to give importance to the literal component of the work, we see that the fiction hypertext only re-examines and takes to their limits the problems present in the novel from James Joyce to Robbe-Grillet. What characterises the hypertext is its reading device. Offering new material, it opens the door of the virtual to fiction. The author is no longer certain of what he has written, the reader of what he has read. Configurations are made and unmade, paths bifurcate or stop short, secondary characters gain importance, others disappear. Each reading reflects figures and forms which appear and fade away in perpetual renewal. Fiction has turned to hyperfiction.

The future of this new genre is uncertain. It still comes under experimental literature. Its public is restricted, its authors most often academics. As a literary genre it is threatened by the very potentialities of its support material. Informatics allows the text, the sound and the image to be put in synergy. Certain hypertexts already use these possiblities, but with hesitation [15] . The perspectives are however immense and extend from the interactive picture-story to the most sophisticated multi-media productions. It is not certain that the literary hypertext, a barely emergent genre will not disappear in favour of the growing hyper-media fiction which could very well represent the new paradigm of the total work which remains the dream of a number of writers.

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Notes :


[1] COOVER (Robert) , "Hyperfiction : novels for the Computer", The New York Times, August 29, 1993.
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[2] ref. for example, ANIS (Jacques) and LEBRAVE (Jean-Louis) (under the direction of),"Textes et ordinateur, les mutations du Lire-Ecrire",Centre de Recherches linguistiques, Univerisity of Paris X Nanterre, 1991, 1993.
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[3] BARTHES (Roland), Fragments d'un récit amoureux, Paris, Seuil, 1977.
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[4] ARISTOTE, Poétique, Paris, Livre de poche, 1977, p.11.
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[5] ref. CLÉMENT (Jean) "La machine à raconter des histoires", in Le journal des instituteurs, Paris, Nathan, 1991, p. 8-9.
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[6] LAMBERT (Alain), Conte 2, FIL 1988.
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[7] SAPORTA (M) Composition numéro 1, Paris, Seuil, 1965.
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[8] BARTHES (R), S/Z, Paris, Seuil, 1970, p.10.
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[9] JOYCE (M), Afternoon, a story, Cambridge (MA), Eastgate Sustems, Inc, 1987.
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[10] BOLTER (J.), The Writing Space, The computer, Hypertext and the History of Writing, Hillsdale (N-J), Lawrence Erlbaune Associated Publishers, 1991, p 125.
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[11] MOULTHROP (S.): "Reading for the Map: Metonymy and Metaphor in the fiction of "Forking Paths", in DELANY (P.) and LANDOW (G.-P.) eds: Hypermedia and Literary Studies, New-York (NY), MIT Press, 1992.
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[12] ROUBAUD (J.): La Boucle, Paris, Seuil, 1993, p.30.
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[13] BAKHTINE (M): La poétique de Dostoïeswsky, Paris, Seuil, 1970.
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[14] MOULTHROP (S.): Victory Garden, Cambridge (MA), Eastgate Systems, Inc., 1992.
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[15] ref. Ambulance by Monica Moran ;Uncle Buddy's Phantom House by John McDaid, Eastgate Systems, Inc;, 1993.
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