Why did they bother?Posted: October 5, 2011
I’m pretty certain that all of us have already come to our own conclusions about Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, a story, so I don’t want to get in a debate about that topic. Besides, I would probably agree with many of you. In any case, I’m more interested in why authors chose to write hypertext fiction. What was the historical context that led to this brief but energetic movement?
The genre came along at a time when personal computing was becoming much more ubiquitous. This is obviously no coincidence. So was it merely the case that Joyce and other hypertext authors wanted to experiment with a new medium? I think this is one part of the explanation, but it appears that the authors had grander ambitions. If it were merely about the medium, Joyce and his contemporaries could have focused on electronically publishing traditional narratives. Indeed, most of the authors after them who had any interest in technology took this path.
The hypertext authors and their supporters trumpeted promises that they would liberate readers from the tyranny of traditional fiction. One of the most prolific hypertext cheerleaders was Robert Coover, who in 1992 published an essay in the New York Times Review of Books titled “The End of Books.” It’s a title that wouldn’t seem out of place in the most recent edition of that publication, but for all together different reasons. Among the gems in Coover’s article is his assertion that hypertext “free[s] the reader from domination by the author.” He also claims that hypertext allows the reader to achieve “true freedom from the tyranny of the line.” He even compares the rise of hypertext and its ideals to the triumph of Einstein over Newton.
Did Coover and other hypertextualists have a point? Are readers really longing to be liberated from the “patriarchal, colonial, canonical, proprietary, hierarchical and authoritarian values” that are supposedly inseparable from traditional linear fiction? The passage of time seems to have settled those questions with a resounding “no.”