Amazing Stories
Authors explore the labyrinthine options of the Internet
by Rob Brookman

Illustration by Nana Rausch
Don't look for A Long Wild Smile to make the rounds of the book-club circuit any time soon. Although it is a published work of fiction, Jeff Parker's creation isn't a book, doesn't have a beginning, middle or end and eschews most of the conventions of traditional narrative—including anything you might call a plot.

A Long Wild Smile (www.hypertxt.com /parker/magnetic) is actually a quintessential example of what its practitioners term "hypermedia": work that feeds off Internet technologies and combines elements of literature, fine art, animation and even performance art in a single, interactive package. Instead of marching purposefully from introduction to conclusion, hypermedia mimics the Internet's hypertextuality, encouraging readers to click links at random and meander through a work—the same way they might surf the Web.

What results is a new and highly experimental approach to storytelling. Still, hypermedia is finding fans, adherents and even a little respect. One event likely to boost hypermedia's profile is this month's print publication of Coming Soon!!! by postmodern novelist John Barth, whose works include Lost in the Funhouse, The Sot-Weed Factor and the National Book Award-winning Chimera. Coming Soon!!! pits an aging writer against an ambitious young hypertext author in a race to complete a tale about a floating opera (revisiting both the fictional novelist's first novel and—wink, wink—Barth's own debut, The Floating Opera). Barth says what drew him to hypertext is the way it, in some ways, mirrors human experience.

"I see hypertext as a jim-dandy metaphor for what I would call the hypertextuality of everyday life," Barth says. "Metaphorically speaking, we can click on anything we see in life and there'll be some story lying behind it, and that story can be hot-linked to further stories behind that, and on and on, ad infinitum."

It may take time before writers learn to accurately replicate the hypertextuality of life in story form, but if they do, it will be thanks in part to Robert Coover. Coover, professor of electronic and experimental writing at Brown University and author of the recent novel Ghost Town, thinks it's inevitable that technology will exert an influence on the world of letters. "Changing technologies continually reshape the very nature of the artistic enterprise," he says.

Technology may shape art, but money doesn't hurt, either—that's where Scott Rettberg comes in. In May, Rettberg and his group, the Electronic Literature Organization (www.eliterature.org), presented the first annual Electronic Literature Awards at a ceremony in New York, handing out $10,000 apiece to winners in fiction and poetry. As Rettberg sees it, the awards—currently the richest given to works designed specifically for electronic media—represent an investment in the future as much as a payout to the present.

"I look at all of these [hypermedia works] as clues to what will happen fifteen, twenty, thirty years down the road,"he says. "Right now we're in this early moment in electronic literary history when these strange, new ideas are getting yoked together. Fifty years from now, we'll have a better idea of what this moment means."

Readers not content to wait fifty years might be forgiven if they find today's stabs at hypermedia more science project than serious literature. But Rettberg is comfortable with the fact that hypertext fiction has yet to produce a masterpiece. "Today is a kind of proving ground for the discoveries and techniques that may help produce something like a masterpiece in the future."

A Hypertext Sampler

The Iowa Review Web (uiowa.edu/~iareview/mainpages/tirweb.html) This respected literary journal has been posting hypermedia works since 1999.
BeeHive (beehive.temporalimage.com) Talan Memmott, whose trAce Award-winning Lexia to Perplexia is on the Iowa Review site, edits this hypermedia journal.
trAce (trace.ntu.ac.uk) Founded by British author Sue Thomas, trAce is an online writing community and school sponsoring hypermedia competitions, fellowships and conferences.
The Unknown (www.unknownhypertext.com) This hypertext novel about hypertext novels is authored in part by Scott Rettberg of the Electronic Literature Organization.
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