Coover has reached the same conclusion. In a February essay in the online magazine Feed, he published a follow-up to "The End of Books." In this piece he postulated that the "Golden Age" of hypertext fiction had already ended, before many of us realized it had even begun.

"In terms of new serious literature," he wrote, "the Web has not been very hospitable. It tends to be a noisy, restless, opportunistic, superficial, e-commerce-driven, chaotic realm, dominated by hacks, pitchmen, and pretenders, in which the quiet voice of literature cannot easily be heard."

It's a reality that Coover's young disciples in the world of hypertext seem to have already grasped. Says Joe Tabbi, the editor of Electronic Book Review, one of the more prominent sources of critical hypertext on the Web, "If you're just using the computer as a way for getting information, then you're just using it as a tool. You're not really ready. If you're just making links to get information, if there's not some aesthetic reason making you aware of the connection, that might not be involving the reader in the newness so much. I think it's a good thing that the electronic environments are a little bit resistant right now."

Tabbi argues that the genre, far from being at its end as Coover claims, has, in fact, barely begun to sprout. At the moment, he says, it's a "metadialogue" among people in a small community that will grow as the online population grows and technology improves. The best example of what he's talking about is The Unknown, the cowinner of a hypertext literary prize last year. In this work three Chicago hypertext writers travel the country on a fictional book tour to promote their novel. The novel includes paintings by one of the authors, e-mails among all three, actual letters they've written to actual reviewers asking them to review the novel, and actual photos of the writers drinking at a Chicago bar with actual characters from the story.

But does The Unknown, and hypertext in general, really push the boundaries of literary reality? The novel is very well-written and lively, but despite its lofty claims, it can't be of much interest to anyone apart from the writers, their immediate friends, their families, and other hypertext authors. Hence the dilemma of today's hypertext fiction: With so much material floating around in the cybersphere, who cares? Obviously, the point of experimental fiction isn't and never has been to reach a broad popular audience, but in the free-for-all that is the Web, a little popularity couldn't hurt.


Behold the Grammatron. Behold it at its very own website. As you will all learn if you click on the link, the Grammatron is a sprawling hypertext fiction project from the mind of conceptual artist Mark Amerika, developed at Brown University. This is what the Grammatron is all about:

"Cyberspace, Cabala mysticism, digicash paracurrencies and the evolution of virtual sex in a society afraid to go outside and get in touch with its own nature, [it] depicts a near-future world where stories are no longer conceived for book production but are instead created for a more immersive networked-narrative environment that, taking place on the Net, calls into question how a narrative is composed, published and distributed in the age of digital dissemination."

In other words, like most hypertext fiction, the Grammatron is about itself.

As the story opens, "Abe Golam, legendary info-shaman, cracker of the sorcerer-code and creator of Grammatron and Nanoscript, sat behind his computer, every speck of creative ore long since excavated from his burnt-out brain, wondering how he was going to survive in the electrosphere he had once called home."

We are obviously in cyberpunk territory here. It's hard to deny that surfing the Grammatron is cool, at least initially, but what else does the story give us? A few random clicks later, we get "a virtual babe," who, "with cosmic cleave and digital dew-drops dripping off her pseudo-collagen inflamed lips started deep tonguing the screen coming at all the viewers as if she were ready to lick the radiation right off their dour faces."

Sex with robots? Please. The Grammatron has some great visuals and nifty sound, but it also gives you the feeling of being trapped in the outtake reel for Blade Runner. So now it is time to leave the Grammatron—by now, you understand.