From the Introduction:

On the History of Network Fiction

In the process of researching a body of work for a full-length study such as this one, it is somewhat unsettling when that body receives a “death notice.” It is even more unsettling when it receives two of them. The corpus in question is literature that is written on and for the computer screen, literature that takes the material form of a digital network rather than a printed book, literature that – at least in what media theorist Adrian Miles (1998) has called its first “rosy blushes” – was popularly known as literary hypertext and hypertext fiction. But although hypertext, the term, has indeed expired in its capacity to stand as metonym for the diverse field of digital literature, the project of writing literature for screen media has not. Rather, it persists in many forms, one of which is network fiction.

In 1997 Nick Montfort announced that “Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star” in an essay for the electronic book review (ebr) (Montfort 2000 ). Although the ensuing “Cybertext Debates” in ebr involved as much terminological jousting as substantive debate, Montfort’s suggestion was both significant and necessary in terms of broadening the field of digital literature to include much more than “literary hypertext.” His essay reviews Espen Aarseth’s landmark Cybertext: Perspectives of Ergodic Literature (1997), which situates literary hypertext in a continuum of “cybertext,” a categorical approach that consists of systematic, nonmedia-specific analyses of a text’s signifying properties. Despite the shortfalls of some narrow appropriations of cybertext theory early on in the debates – some of which betrayed an obvious bias toward a text’s algorithmic potential, or in N. Katherine Hayles’s (2001) formulation, mistook “numerosity for analytical power” – Aarseth’s model drew distinctions that previously did not exist in digital discourse, and hypertext fiction no longer needed to be seen as the epicenter of a seismic shift from print to digital literature. At the same time, it was by no means clear that the project of using the computer to write narrative fiction had (de)ceased. “Cybertext” did not kill anything; rather “cybertext theory” simply offered a better way to place literary hypertext in a diverse and emergent field of digital art.

In 1999 Robert Coover issued a second death notice of sorts with “Literary Hypertext: The Passing of the Golden Age.” Coover was lamenting the demise of a specific body of digital literature: those primarily text-based works that precede the ascendancy of the World Wide Web, “the early classics . . . Michael Joyce’s afternoon, Judy Malloy’s Its Name Was Penelope, Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden, and what is perhaps the true paradigmatic work of the era, Shelley Jackson’s elegantly designed, beautifully composed Patchwork Girl” (Coover 1999 ). The majority of these works were written in the Storyspace hypertext authoring software, designed by Michael Joyce, J. David Bolter, and John B. Smith. These hypertext fictions garnered a profile in the United States and internationally as a result of their marketing and distribution by Eastgate Systems, a Massachusetts-based electronic publisher. Also referred to as the works of the Storyspace School, they largely constitute a first wave of digital fiction and poetry, since the World Wide Web has brought about enough changes to the reading, writing, publishing, distribution, and accessibility of digital literature to warrant the distinction of a second wave.[1]

Not everyone was eager to catch the second wave, least of all some of the “traditional” practitioners and theorists of digital literature who popularized early literary experiments in the medium. Coover, for one, sees the Web as an inhospitable place for narrative fiction:

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 or, if heard by chance, attended to for more than a moment or two. Literature is meditative and the Net is riven by ceaseless hype and chatter. Literature has a shape, and the Net is shapeless. The discrete object is gone, there’s only this vast disorderly sprawl, about as appealing as a scatter of old magazines on a table in the dentist’s lounge. (Coover 1999)

It is difficult to make an argument for a “voice” of literature that is associated exclusively or predominantly with one medium or another (the work of many contemporary print writers would suggest a voice that clearly tends toward the “chaotic”). But Coover does make a more convincing claim based on a media-specific observation. He sees the fear of the visual usurping the verbal taking on increasing urgency, an observation advanced by the computer’s potential for the manipulation, reproduction, and distribution of images, both still and moving. “[F]or all the wondrous and provocative invasions of text by sound and image,” he writes, “still, the most radical and distinctive literary contribution of the computer has been the multilinear hypertextual webwork of text spaces, or, as one might say, the intimate layering and fusion of imagined spatiality and temporality” (1999). For Coover the allure of textual webs is lost in the graphical Web.

Coover’s “Golden Age” of electronic literature may have come and gone, but it is difficult to accept his view as a telling indication of the course of digital literature in a wider historical, cultural, and geographical context. Historically, it is true that the rate of technological change is dramatically outpacing the changes brought about by the last major innovation in writing technology more than five hundred years ago – the printing press. It is, however, problematic to measure literary experimentation – and the rise and fall of genres – on a strictly technological continuum, and it is even more problematic for an observer to glean a perspective on a historical period when the observer is quite conceivably still in it. In the broadest sense John Barth reminds us that “written literature is in fact about 4500 years old . . . but we have no way of knowing whether 4500 years constitutes senility, maturity, youth, or mere infancy” (1982, 38). Coover’s partitioning is further limited culturally and geographically. As Roberto Simanowski (2000) points out, “It is characteristic of the German digital literature scene that pure hypertext, as we know it from Eastgate Systems’ writers, never really developed. Instead there are mainly two types of digital writing in Germany: one favours interactivity, the other the multimedia power of the digital realm.” In the field of digital literature some did not experience the “Golden Age” at all.

Emerging media technologies are continually informing fiction and poetry, both in the sense of “influencing” (not determining) and “giving form or structure to.” The process reciprocates, evident in the modes of fiction and poetry that were both shaped by and gave shape to the medium of film over the course of the twentieth century. Thus there is little doubt that writers will continue to write fiction and poetry that is informed by the computer medium. With the rapid innovation in computer hardware and software, there is also little doubt that artists who treat the digital medium as a literary medium are bound to use different tools from those familiar to (and, in Joyce’s case, created by) the forerunners of first-wave digital literature. The question that remains unanswered – and, in the short term, unanswerable – is whether writers invested in narrative fiction will continue to compose for the computer screen or, as Stuart Moulthrop has done, simply decide to “let books be books and cybertexts be whatever they turn out to be” (2003b). The movement in the arts away from representation and toward simulation, away from the dynamics of reading and interpretation and toward the dynamics of interaction and play, would indeed suggest that literature as we know it has other worries beyond the power of the image. In a recent essay concerning the state of the art, written five years after Coover’s essay and nearly twelve years after his own classic Storyspace fiction Victory Garden, Moulthrop writes of a fork in the road: “Beyond this point the traditional narrative interest leads one way, while a second track diverges. We do not yet have a very good name for this other path, though we can associate some concepts with it: play, simulation, and more generally, game” (2003a).

In terms of literary theory perhaps the matter of a few death notices is not such a bad thing. Such announcements tend to serve as checks for more elaborate prophecies, both utopian and apocalyptic, regarding the futures of literature. More important, problematic as they may be, such essays encourage a retrospective glance in a field so intensely preoccupied with what comes next. Montfort’s and Coover’s contributions to the discourse offer a convenient way to begin talking not about what the digital medium will mean for literature but rather what it already means, and what it has meant. This is not to say that digital fiction has reached its potential or that it has concretized into a stable empirical object; after all, much of its potential resides in its penchant for transformation. The point is simply that the writing, so to speak, is on the screen.

What Is Network Fiction?

By using the phrase network fiction to describe the primary works chosen for this study, my intention is not to add to an already bloated cybercultural vocabulary but rather to apply existing terminology with greater precision.[2] Network fiction makes use of hypertext technology in order to create emergent and recombinatory narratives. It is possible to define emergent and recombinatory by contrasting network fiction with other forms of digital literature that also use hypertext technology.



[1] Critics divide the first and second wave of digital literature at different points and in different ways. Hayles (2002, 37), for example, sees the “second generation” as marking the parity of and interplay between image and text in onscreen narratives. For Hayles, Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995) ushers in the transition to the second wave. There are other ways to distinguish or divide movements, and there have been several characterizations of the aesthetics of the Storyspace School: Aarseth (1997, 76-96) discusses its engagement with modernist poetics. More specifically, Michael Joyce, in Of Two Minds (1995, 105-17) and Othermindedness (2001, 150-78), and Mark Bernstein, in “Hypertext Gardens” (1998a), provide the theoretical underpinnings of the Storyspace School’s preoccupation with the “topography” of hypertext; and Stuart Moulthrop (2001) explores the obsession with the “crash” and other moments of “breakdown” in “Traveling in the Breakdown Lane.” Ultimately, however, a division based on media elements is too arbitrary (involving a relative degree of image incorporation pre-1995), and aesthetic discussions tend to reveal as much continuity as discontinuity and likewise do not offer a reliable way of defining a break.

[2] There are precedents: Noah Wardrip-Fruin refers to his Book of Endings as a “network fiction” (1994). In an introductory node to the work, he writes, “By this I mean that…[it] is organized as a network. It co-exists, and interacts, with other information that is part of a common network. It grows and changes. Over time, the network will continue to expand, connections will be re-routed in response to stimuli, particularly reactions from the Web community.”

The idea that the work changes not only for the reader in the course of reading(s) but also over the course of its existence in a broader discourse community is underscored in Wardrip-Fruin’s usage.



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© Copyright David Ciccoricco
Reading Network Fiction is published by the University of Alabama Press, 2007.
This site is maintained solely by the author. Excerpts re-published here with permission.

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