A whole new genre

Students' winning hyper-novel takes fiction in multiple directions

by Marianne Kunnen-Jones


Curling up with a good book becomes a whole new experience with hyperfiction, a type of literature that barely existed 10 years ago, but is now proliferating with the rise of the web. A sure sign of the genre's maturing nature is that hypertext awards are cropping up.

Among the first honorees are two UC graduate students in English, Scott Rettberg and Dirk Stratton, and their co-authors, William Gillespie and Frank Marquardt, who have garnered first-place honors in the trAce/Alt-X International Hypertext Competition for their satirical hypertext novel, "The Unknown." The award, the authors say, is one of two prominent awards in the field, both given for the first time this year.

Hyperfiction is computer-based literature offering readers choices about what characters and plot lines they wish to follow. "The Unknown," for exam 13-press ple, follows four co-authors (named after the authors themselves) who travel to 40 cities in the United States, France and England on a book tour. Readers can access the novel from a web site and choose as much or as little as they would like to know about the raucous sojourners and their comic escapades. They may also jump ahead or back in time or click the navigation bar that will lead them to watercolors by Katie Gilligan, a College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning graduate, who did a painting every day for three months for the site.

This liberty afforded to both the reader and the writer is precisely what Stratton finds so appealing about hyperfiction.

"Freedom is, for me, a good one-word summation of my feelings about hypertext," he said. "In regular literature, readers have a great deal of freedom over what they want to read, but there is not any control over the actual flow of the story."

The attraction for Rettberg is hypertext's collaborative nature.

"In our hypertext novel, not only are we four authors collaborators, but the reader is an active collaborator as well. The reader actually chooses what novel they will read, and every reader actually forms a different novel from the material that we've given them."

Despite their separation in four different geographical locations - Rettberg works on dissertation research in Chicago, Stratton is in Cincinnati, Marquardt works as a copywriter in San Francisco and Gillespie is a webmaster at the University of Illinois - the authors were able to share their drafts and ideas over the Internet.

The origins of hyperfiction, Rettberg said, date back farther than you might expect. One scholar, Ted Nelson, came up with the idea of text with multiple links in the 1950s, and then, in the 1960s, what is considered the first hyperfiction was completed on keypunch cards.

Today, the genre still lacks mass popularity, but the Web is providing a wider arena for experimentation and exposure. Hyperfiction also is sold on some CD-ROMs.

"I sort of reluctantly find myself increasingly drawn to it. There are whole new poetic structures involved. The multi-vocality is very appealing too," Rettberg said.

The authors' $1,600 first place prize is shared with another work called "Rice," created by an Australian poet. "The Unknown" can be found at:



Reprinted with permission of UC Currents.




Judging 'The Unknown'


In his critique of the first-place winning hypertext novel "The Unknown," novelist Robert Coover of Brown University deemed the work "genuinely multisequential and massively rich in story material"


"The authors. . . are a bit overly conversant with the literary vanguard for my own comfort as the judge of this competition (I am myself for a brief window or two a character in the story, and there is even a visit to Brown University), but in the end I felt the piece was so much more substantial than most of the other entries (and funnier, too, one might add) that it did not deserve to be punished for that reason."


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