Responding to Coover
Copyright 1992 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
August 2, 1992, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 7; Page 27; Column 1; Book Review Desk
LENGTH: 86 words
HEADLINE: The End of Books?
To the Editor:
As the author of a number of brilliant political manifestoes, as well as being the dedicated leader of several underpublicized people's movements, I feel it is my duty as a patriot and native son to raise my voice against this hypertext nonsense. In short, Robert Coover and all others who predict hypertext's eventual outdoing of linear forms of written communication should be loaded onto a rocket and shot to the moon with limited supplies of oxygen and Tang.
J. E. EDWARDS
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
March 15, 1998, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 7; Page 43; Column 1; Book Review Desk
LENGTH: 1565 words
BYLINE: By Laura Miller; Laura Miller is a senior editor at Salon, an Internet magazine.
Shortly after personal computers and word-processing programs became commonplace tools for writers, a brave new future for fiction was trumpeted. In 1992, Robert Coover informed the readers of the Book Review that the novel, "as we know it, has come to its end." Hypertext, "writing done in the nonlinear or nonsequential space made possible by the computer," would at last enable the reader to amble through a network of linked text blocks, or "lexias." Instead of following a linear story dictated by the author, the reader could now navigate at will through an "endless expansion" of words.
Proclamations about the death of the novel (or, as Coover's essay was titled, "The End of Books") can still get a rise out of a surprising number of people, even though, so far, they've all proved to be little more than empty, apocalyptic showboating. Six years after Coover's essay was published, and five years after a second article by him, this one recommending several "hyperfictions" for the curious reader, the market for hardcover books may be flat, but over a million people have nevertheless bought Charles Frazier's literary novel "Cold Mountain," and I've yet to encounter anyone who reads hypertext fiction. No one, that is, who isn't also a hypertext author or a journalist reporting on the trend.
Surely those readers, however few, must exist, but what's most remarkable about hyperfiction is that no one really wants to read it, not even out of idle curiosity. The most adventurous souls I know, people amenable to sampling cryptic performance art and even those most rare and exotic of creatures, readers of poetry who aren't poets themselves -- all shudder at the thought, for it's the very concept of hypertext fiction that strikes readers as dreary and pointless. Yet Coover's announcement wasn't the last of its kind; recently Janet H. Murray examined the future of reader-controlled narratives at length in her book, "Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace," and Mark Amerika started "Grammatron" (www.grammatron.com), a "novel-length hypertext work" on the World Wide Web. The promise that the fiction of the future will have no story, or a story of the reader's own devising, recalls a Lily Tomlin joke about the afterlife: it turns out that there is sex in heaven, you just can't feel it.
That Coover and hypertext authors and theorists like Michael Joyce, George P. Landow, Stuart Moulthrop and Mark Amerika apparently still believe in the eventual triumph of hyperfiction over the novel becomes less baffling when you understand that hypertext is a form of writing perfectly suited to contemporary literary theory. In his aptly titled book/Web site, "Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology" (www.stg.brown.edu/projects/hypertext/landow/ht/contents2.html), Landow observes that "using hypertext, critical theorists will have, or now already have, a laboratory with which to test their ideas." In fact, he says, hypertext is "an almost embarrassingly literal embodiment" of key post-structuralist notions. What the laboratory of hyperfiction demonstrates, though, is how alienated academic literary criticism is from actual readers and their desires.
The theory of hyperfiction insists that readers ought to be, and long to be, liberated from two mainstays of the traditional novel: linear narrative and the author. The reader, cruelly forced to read one word after another to reach the end of a sentence, one paragraph after another to reach the end of a scene, will rejoice to learn that, according to Coover, "true freedom from the tyranny of the line is perceived as only really possible now at last with the advent of hypertext." In reality, the common reader most likely will be surprised to be told that structured storytelling -- from the most basic beginning-middle-end scheme of fairy tales to more elaborately constructed, nonchronological literary narratives and frolics like murder mysteries -- is actually a form of oppression, rather than the source of delight it has always seemed in the past.
In Jostein Gaarder's novel "Sophie's World" (proof that a story can transform a seemingly uncommercial primer on philosophy into a popular book), a character describes a cat and a little girl in a room. If a ball rolls across the floor, the cat will chase it, but the little girl will look to see where the ball came from. Story -- the idea that events happen in a specific, causal order -- is both the way we see the world and what interests us most about it, and story is fiction's trump card. People who read for nothing else will read for plot, yet hyperfiction's advocates maintain that we find it "confining" and chafe against its "limitations."
A primary source for the peculiar notion that linear narratives "tyrannize" their readers and need to be broken is the French critic Roland Barthes, who in "S/Z," his book-length dissection of a Balzac story, champions an ideal that he calls "the writerly text": "It has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one." Barthes complains of "the pitiless divorce which the literary institution maintains between the producer of the text and its user, between its owner and its consumer, between its author and its reader," which prevents the reader from "gaining access to . . . the pleasure of writing."
That last point is true enough: reading doesn't offer the pleasure of writing. But it does offer the pleasure of reading, a practice much undervalued by literary critics and hyperfiction advocates. Meandering through the lexias of hypertext works like Michael Joyce's "Afternoon, a Story," Stuart Moulthrop's "Victory Garden" (both published on floppy disks by Eastgate Systems; www.eastgate.com) and even the floridly naughty "Grammatron" 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. If any decision is as good as any other, why bother?
Hypertext is sometimes said to mimic real life, with its myriad opportunities and surprising outcomes, but I already have a life, thank you very much, and it is hard enough putting that in order without the chore of organizing someone else's novel. Hyperfiction, Coover promises, will make me a "co-writer" by enabling me to rearrange its text blocks however I choose. Of course, I could just write my own book if writing is what I really want to do. Readers like me stubbornly resist hyperfiction's efforts to free them from what Coover calls "domination by the author." Instead, I persist, like Lynne Sharon Schwartz, the author of "Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books," in perceiving my readerly enslavement as "a delectable exercise for the mind."
Since Schwartz's anecdotal memoir could hardly be called plot-driven, why do I find following its aimless course so pleasant? The answer lies in the author herself, whom I experience as confiding, amusing and enlightening, not domineering. Like her, I consider a book to be "a solitary voice whispering in your ear," providing the possibility of an encounter with the author, whose theoretical "death" I neither long for nor believe in, however ingeniously Barthes and others may argue for it. Schwartz gracefully assumes the "authority" implicit in the profession of author. She knows what she thinks and she selects what she wishes to say, and in what order. She doesn't needlessly defer to me the option of rearranging her book. Yet at no point did I feel her boot on my throat.
I am not, however, an academic. The downtrodden reader depicted in hypertext manifestoes and post-structuralist literary theory is the creature of a world where books are assigned, not chosen. To the academic, a book is often a stony monument from which the relatively insignificant scholar must wring some drop of fresh commentary. As a result, the rhetoric of hyperfiction can be warlike, full of attacks launched against texts that can offer no "defense," prove "vulnerable" and ultimately "yield." Coover sees "readers who fall asleep on four or five books a year" and "surrender to novels as a way of going on holiday from themselves" as weaklings insufficiently girded for the glorious battle ahead.
That surrender, though, and the intimacy to be had in allowing a beloved author's voice into the sanctums of our minds, are what the common reader craves. We want to experience how someone as acerbic as Jane Austen, as morally passionate as Dostoyevsky, as psychologically astute as Henry James makes sense of the chaos of this world, and our passage through it, because making sense of it is humanity's great collective project. Is it merely a holiday or is it an expansion of ourselves when we issue this invitation to guests whose appeal lies precisely in their distinctive, unequivocal, undeniably authoritative voices?
Hyperfiction's champions aren't the first self-styled revolutionaries threatening to liberate other people from their pleasures, but they make one of the weakest cases. The end of books will come only when readers abandon novels for the deconstructed stories of hypertext, and that exodus is strictly a fiction.