It Is Not a Problem of No Narrative, But Different Sorts

Erin wonders who is narrating where readers have so much choice? Good question. One answer is why should the author be in charge? If we don’t read, their work doesn’t happen, literally, so they are subject to us, much more than we are subject to them. And no writer is ‘in charge’ of their writing, or our reading. If I want to write a western then an awful lot is already decided for me, before I even begin to write. I need to fit the form, I can play with it, certainly, though the success of that is defined not by me, but my readers (again). Here an author is not the centre of anything, nor source. However, the hypertext idea is not the reader defining how something ends. It is (usually) more sophisticated. There might be an end, which sometimes you get to, other times not. There might not be a literal ending, so now what counts as a sufficient reading becomes interesting. The problem is not that you can’t tell stories like this, you can, the problem is what sorts of stories can you tell.

Lauren on the other hand is intrigued by the possibility of a book that might change each time you read it. Here the reader has a different sort of agency, beyond just interpretation, and in turn the story or text does too. It becomes even more so a machine for a certain sort of reading. The key point of Douglas (and Landow) though is that reading fiction has always has these qualities and properties, hypertext just makes them explicit.

Daniel has similar concerns about books and the classics are paperbacks. History lessons: the Illiad is a classic, begun in about 800BC, first paperback edition, well paperbacks started in the late nineteenth century, so that’d be over two thousand years later. We could run through classical Greek literature with the same outcome. Or even Don Quixote, one of the first ‘novels’, which also couldn’t appear in paperback for about two hundred years. The point is not that they weren’t paperbacks but that the novel is a recent form and a lot of work that is now in paperback form was never created for the book, a book, any book. So books do not equal literature. They equal a current technology for the literary (one amongst several). So as media scholars we need to think carefully about the relation of media, technology, and form, as this is not a simple relation. In relation to Daniel’s concern about bookmarks and so on. For multilinear fiction the solution is usually to remember where you are up to and offer to begin from where you go to. For ereaders the options are much more sophisticated. It will remember where you are up to, can store multiple bookmarks, lets you highlight passages, share your highlights if you wish with other readers, tell you how long you’ve been reading for, build a concordance of places and characters, visualise how long the work is, how long the current chapter is, where you are in the chapter, where you are in relation to the book, where the chapter is in relation to the book. And so on. I’m playfully intrigued by the roll call of why the physicality of the media matters here with out recognising that we’re humanities students, so we think this matters to us, but as I wrote yesterday, the same conversation happens with photographers and the digital, cinematographers and the digital, journalists and the blog, and so on. We need to recognise what we bring to this conversation as what we bring to it, and not the universalist claims we try to make them to defend them.

Alois expands around some of this, realising that sequence and order really isn’t this fixed ‘right’ thing. It really is very simple to cut up a story, rearrange it, and find yourself with a perfectly sensible new story. Again, with computers we can make this literally the case and so again the question is not ‘but it’s not a novel’ (no it isn’t, we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto), but what sorts of stories work here? Why? Cuong picks up Douglas’ point that each time you read the same book it’s meaning changes for you. This is true, just as different readers will pick up different things. With hypertext though it is stepped up an order. While we can all read the same book and then discuss what we think it is about, when we read a hypertext we can find ourselves having read different things, or similar things but in different orders. And order matters. Rebecca also worries about books that change, the only caution I’d suggest is that the ones that seem to work don’t generally completely change the story itself in fundamental ways, it is closer as I said the other day to music. Riffs, around a theme. More jazz than beginning as symphony then next time it is hip hop. Rebecca M meanwhile thinks about House of Leaves as a sort of print hypertext. Yep, though it is less hypertext than playing and asking questions about the novel, the old fashioned kind, in the face of digital making. The second book is even more complicated, but this work participates in a significant literary tradition that runs from Joyce through Beckett and the OULIPO up to recent work on constrained writing. No it isn’t a ‘normal’ novel, its ambitions are to wonder about the novel rather than take that as a given and pretend to be real.