Is Hypertext Fiction Even Possible?
While George Landow does answer this question, he makes such leaps of logic early in his argument that I wanted to throw the book across the room. For example, he opens this passage saying that "no one doubts that digital literature, digital art, and fusions of the two flourish," and then claims that we are "at the threshold of a new Lucasian age of literature" (264). I would never argue that informational content and multimedia are not flourishing on the web, but how broad a definition of 'digital literature' must Landow be using here in asserting something like this? It's present, but narrative fiction on the web isn't flourishing.
He also claims that critics often see hypertext as an information technology unsuited to telling stories, just as McLuhan says orality makes logical argumentation unlikely b/c it can't be remembered or repeated. I guess unlikely gives him wiggle room to overlook the Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1858 where thousands listened to three hour long debates and followed with little trouble. But I digress.
More importantly, and getting to my analysis of Landow's arguments, he asks what the major narrative form of digital information technology will be. He is quick to suggest that it may not be hypertext fiction, but only after he spends fifty pages discussing it. He does make some good arguments for the ambiguity: too soon, writers are still experimenting with the new technology, and maybe as Joan Didion says, "we tell ourselves [linear] stories in order to live" (265).
But the question he asks is a good one. If the classical ages had the epic, the medieval era the chivalric romance, and print culture has the novel, what will be the next thing? I'm not sure either, for many of the same reasons Landow hesitates to blatantly crown hypertext fiction, but I do have an idea.
First, let me explain why I think hypertext fiction, to Jay David Bolter and Landow's chagrin I'm sure, has no real chance right now of ever being the next big thing. There's no market for it. Or to be more precise, there's not enough of a market to support it. I hate to return to an economic argument (I had no idea I thought so much about it), but it seems clear. While some hypertext fiction is relatively cheap, Shirley Jackson's Patchwork Girl is only $25, the same as a traditional hardcover, some of it is outrageously expensive. For one thing, the lauded afternoon by Michael Joyce is $225. It's unsurprising that readers won't be tempted to try an unorthodox new format with these prices. Perhaps someone should take a look at the economics of drug dealers, and give away a taste of this new fiction for free.
I'll admit that I'm being a little glib here. I'm not suggesting that art is made for money, but for a new successful format to dominate digital information technology, it is going to have to be economically viable. Publishers and producers do use art to make money, and their promotion is often what helps drive the format and popularity of a new technology. I don't know if hypertext fiction is suffering b/c of the lack of promotion to a large audience, high prices, or simply that it doesn't now and won't ever hold an interest for a large (enough) group of people. Regardless, if someone found that promoting it would make them money, we would see innovation in promotional tools and more authors might be persuaded to give the format a shot w/o resigning themselves to a very niche market.
Let me also say that I think predictions of the death of the novel are premature. Most people still dream of writing the mythical Great American Novel. Publishing companies are currently placing their novels on the internet and are now available as e-books. (You can try out an e-book for free.) While this is essentially just a reproduction of the printed page on the screen and itself has a fairly small audience, it could catch on as time passes. And if it does, it could edge out the interests of other, admittedly fresher, things. Anyway, back on topic.
As to my idea of the future of narrative in digital information technology, I think it will be akin to the memoir. In mainstream publishing, memoirs have exploded in popularity over the last few years. I've seen them from authors, presidents, porn stars, wrestlers, and regular guys with literary talent. And they even get on the news. There is a huge, mainstream interest here. But how does it tie into digital information technology?
Blogs. Short for weblogs, they have exploded in the last few years. Sure, they aren't all about memoirish type things, many are about politics or sports or something else, but just as many are essentially online diaries where bloggers post things about their lives that they think will entertain readers. The digital information technology has democratized publishing, and what are people writing about? Themselves.
If the main purpose of literature is to reveal truths about the human condition, to identify things that we all have in common, then readers are experiencing this in a much more immediate way with blogging. Not only can they write ther own truths now, but they can read and respond to others' on a daily, or even hourly basis. There is n audience here, people have found a way to attract more and more, and there is a way to make money off it as well (though through advertising). All things that writers of hypertext fiction have not been able to do.
I don't know that blogs will become the dominant genre of the digital age, but I do think that what emerges will be more along these lines than will be/spring from hypertext fiction. I think Landow is way off here, only protecting himself for refusing to come out and name the horse we know he has in the race.