| Collective Conclusion or Prologue
By the Unknown
Were still hung up on the idea of the masses: we want literature to be popular. We three print-oriented bastards fear a future without literature.
A new literary paradigm is being created, but instead of the art coming first, followed by critical consideration, in the case of hypertext the art and the theory are being manufactured simultaneously. In fact, at times it seems as if there is more theory than literature. Nothing against theory, but as a reified form of self-consciousness, it can be inhibiting. Hypertext writers write with someone always looking over their shoulder. Often times, they themselves are practicing the critical voyeurism. Aside from the close proximity of hypertext theorists, another reason hypertext so often becomes self-referential is the newness of the tools involved. Though there must be some apprehension of any tool, whether pencil or computer, pencils and keyboards have been around long enough to achieve at least the illusion of transparency. Hypertext tools still intrude because we are not used to them: thus, we are in a constant state of being reminded that we are writing and that our writing is different. This self-consciousness automatically gloms onto the critic latched to our shoulder like a profane parrot.
This conference of technologists and writers made me wonder what a comparable symposium, say in the late 1700s, between writers and printers and quill pen manufacturers would have been like. How would such a meeting have changed the development of the novel, if at all? Writers wanting pens that didnt blot as often or held more ink; writers wanting more direct access to the type in order to cut down setting errors; and the printerswhat kind of questions would they ask?
We read Chaucer today because he wrote in the vernacular of his day. The World Wide Web is the vernacular of the information age, and HTML, in its elegant simplicity, is the lingua franca of our day. Mark Bernstein, founder of Eastgate Systems, has made an immeasurable contribution to the development of a serious hypertext literature, distributed on shrink-wrapped media like floppies and CD-ROM. Eastgate took a great risk, financial and otherwise, to carve a niche for hypertext that exists largely within the academy. Now, faculty at universities all over the world are aware that an electronic literature exists. Unfortunately, most of them have never read hypertext lit, and many cant even get it at their university libraries. Outside of the ivory tower, hypertext fiction and poetry are barely even concepts. The current distribution model needs to be rethought, for it does not suffice to make hypertext lit available on a wide scale.
A new mode of distribution is necessary. In order for hypertext to become a popular art form, readers need to experience readable and engaging hypertext, for free, on the World Wide Web. And yet writers need to eat. How, then, to proceed?
As we move into the next phase of electronic literature, were going to need to generate ways to pay writers for their work at the same time as we give it away to readers. One of the technologists at the conference wrap-up Friday morning mentioned the viral model of distribution, citing the case of the recent Melissa virus, which replicated itself across the network via a macro in Microsoft Outlook Express. His point was that hypertext, too, can work like a virus. The more replication of the work, the bigger the audience. This is the logic of the browser companies, and of the open source code movement. The new network economy makes almost no sense in traditional economic terms, yet it seems to be workingsomehow.
What is clear is that if hypertext hopes to become something more than an essentially obscure academic subspecialty, it will need to have some readers, ideally the kind of readers without advanced degrees. The kind of people who read books on trains and beaches. The kind of people who read for fun, not for a living. Thats how you build a literature. One of the grad students from Brown attending the conference connected the viral model to William S. Burroughs, who said that language is an alien virus from outer space. We hope to be among the first of many hypertext authors who somehow manage to make a living by giving their hypertext literature away for free on the Web. Were still working on a business model that will keep us fed, clothed, and writing, but we want keep the hypertext free for anyone who cant, or doesnt want to, pay us for our writing. Hypertext needs an audience. We think that free hypertexts will build an all-important user base.
As Robert Coover advised us via e-mail before TP21CL, the most important thing about working in this new medium is to remember the fun. Rob Wittig, the phenom behind Tank 20 literary studios said that at the time Voltaire wrote Candide, he thought hed be remembered for his plays. He was just writing that satire stuff for fun.
Playing around around on the Internet with your friends makes sense if your friends are decent writers, and you can keep the flow of things more or less coherent. Collaboration does engender a whole series of pratfalls, and it takes some interpersonal stamina to negotiate story structure and character issues, but the Net enables collaboration in a more accessible and instantaneous way than was ever before possible.
Scott was good, he made me proud the last day of the conference when he said, We dont want hypertext to just be the sort of thing where forty academics get together at Brown University once a year to talk about it. He was talking about a literature that served the people, not a literature that served professors.
We walked away from TP21CL with more questions than answers, an admixture of hope and doubt coursing through our exhausted brains. Dirk hopped into a taxi to get to the airport in time to catch his plane back to Cincinnati, and Scott and William into a car with Cy and Rebecca, old friends from New Hampshire, to begin the restorative, contemplative, New England hospitality wing of the tour . . . .