Readers Reading

Jamie on the Douglas reading and the difference between us changing our interpretation of something each time we read it, versus the thing we are reading each time we read it. Meanwhile Niamh sees that hypertexts are more complex than choose your own adventure books, and that they are fluid rather than fixed. Excellent summary from Anna, picking up key points. Cassandra is, well, more shocked I think. The point is not take an existing book and turn that in hypertext (that is like treating cinema as filming plays) but to think about what a story that began from the condition of hypertext might be. This is the key difference. Books that work well as books won’t work well as hypertexts, just as we can argue whether the film version is any good or not. Rebecca remembers choose your own adventure books to, though of course these don’t change, just our pathway changes, which is an important difference. James on the Douglas reading and books and futures. Marina on the changed role (and authority) of the reader in hypertext – and by implication other multilinear narratives. Kiralee is interested in the idea of a story where the reader has some agency.

Reading 06

We are continuing for a bit on the hypertext, but shifting from the writing side to some introductory material on its implications for narrative, and readers. While this reading is about hypertext, the issues described here pretty much have relevance for all multilinear (nonlinear) media.

They are two extracts from:

Douglas, J. Yellowlees. The End of Books — Or Books Without End?: Reading Interactive Narratives. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

First reading, and the second reading)

Multi Hyper Stuff

Chantelle ponders the idea of a book that changed each time you read it. This was Michael Joyce’s incentive to help build Storyspace, a hypertext writing and publishing program (before the World Wide Web), and is still one of the most elegant ways to think about the role of digital or new media in relation to making stories. There is order, but it changes, here is story, it is different. And it can’t be a book because paper makes it harder to do this. Rebecca picks up what we call a branching tree structure. I think I will talk about this a bit in the next unsymposium as the difference between a branching tree and a hypertextual structure is, perhaps, from the hypertext part of networked media one of the most important things to pick up.

Dominic has a brilliant post that points out why hypertext was a revolution. Yes, we now take it for granted, but to ‘get’ why it matters you really do need to realise what it was like before. I have taught in the past from hypertexts, but to answer Dominic’s question about why not present material this way? We are, it is niki, and you are building it. Brittany thinks about how a character that dies might be alive again. Two comments, this is a common trope in soap opera and so we don’t need multilinear narrative for it (well, except soap opera is also a particular form of multi-sequential narrative), though more importantly, if a character dies, and doesn’t, then the import, impact and empathy that happens in the death disappears. Which might risk diluting the experience?

Isabella discusses Landow, and likes the way that hypertext (and its progeny) lets questions be asked of narrative causality, character, plot, and story. Allison worries that if a reader can contribute to a text then the literary or narrative contract is broken. Except reader response theory, and all literary theory from around 1970 onwards shows, very clearly that when we read we do not, cannot, get access to the ‘mind of the author’. Their mind is not available, writing is not a pure expression of someone’s intent, even if it were it cannot survive into something else (all meaning is context based, no context is fixed around something, ever), and when we write or make we are as subject to language, grammar, genre, and the reader, as we are in charge (and depending on how far you push it, it is easy to see us as more dependent on these things that free from them). Nadine I think makes a very relevant observation, usefully bringing Bordwell’s film theories into hypertext. Art films pay more attention to reaction than action, they therefore appear cerebral, slow, contemplative. Compared to popular cinema they expand the moments between. This has, largely, been what the best hypertext fiction has, and more recently what a lot of the better interactive documentary does to.

Dead Trees

Gabrielle has also picked up, like others, on the ‘death of the book’ versus literature conversation in the unsymposium 0.3. But note she collects books. This is the language of the collector, and collectors collect what they value. Old things, blue things, new things, round things. Peugeots, classic bicycles, football jumpers, beer coasters. You name it, people collect it. The mistake we make in this conversation is to confuse our passion for the thing itself. If I am passionate about reading and the ‘literary’ it does not follow that I am passionate about ‘books’. I can, for instance, certainly imagine book collectors who don’t necessarily read, use, what they collect. And I can imagine passionate readers who don’t feel obliged to hang on to their books. Nadine enjoyed the symposium, recognises that the essence of the literary is not paper (it is language), but also has an excellent outline of what we said about hypertext and cinema. To repeat, imagine a film where instead of Shot A always followed by Shot B it is sometimes followed by Shot C, or F, or H. This is hypertext, except hypertext does it usually only with words. Same idea, same principle. Personally I find the idea intriguing and a way of making potentially amazing things. That not so much has been made is, I think, because of how stuck we are, but we’re slowly getting unstuck.

Kimberely believes books will stay, and they will, but as scholars notice how in this post book already means literature. Books though don’t mean literature, and literature happens outside of books (drama, spoken poetry, electronic literature, literary games), and the novel is not all of literature. So, in many ways, when people argue that books are forever they actually mean the novel. And the problem with that is that a novel seems to work perfectly well not on paper. James makes a similar point. What is interesting is how we know that a novel is not about the paper, it is about what happens on it. That is why they can be translated into films, plays, retold verbally to someone else (“oh, that novel’s about….”) Yet in the late age of print with an anxiety of relevance (no one needed to defend the book in this way 50 years ago, it is similar to the way, say, film makers insisted on the special aesthetic qualities of film before they went and bought their first red camera and realised they were aestheticising the wrong thing), yet now we are going to think that the essence of why that book is valuable is not what is on the pages, but the phenomenal experience of the thing. That is rubbish. Push the argument. That book over there is now my most special book because its pages feel and smell the nicest? Novels matter because of the words, not the paper.

Endings Aren’t Really Real

Georgia has an elegant post about things that don’t end. Or where endings become something else, less formal, known, predicted, and well, just plain organised. Like life. (Yep, one of the defences of something like hypertext and other messy forms is that it is more ‘realistic’ than realism in fiction because, well, the real world is not just so cause and effect as a novel pretends it to be.) Tony is not convinced about hypertext and fiction but does make the very accurate observation that wikipedia is a never ending hypertextual non fiction work. Absobloodylutely. It has no beginning (unlike a traditional encyclopaedia), no end, no last page, and as hypertext theorists tells, it really isn’t that hard to use or get our heads around. So, imagine a wiki novel…. (now there’s a project worth thinking about in the future with some students). Sian likes the idea but feels it might be like too much work (reading a multilinear work). As said in the unsymposium, think of them as musical, so you return to them, and let them find you over time (like that song you listened to once, didn’t like much, by the 5th listening you realise it’s actually pretty good, notice already the difference to the novel or the Goosebump series – the 5th time, because if these works are musical we need to read them more than once to let them show us their rhythms). They are also very well suited to some sorts of stories, not others, much like the novel (which sucks if you want to write something that wants to perform change rather than just describe it).

Please End It Nicely

Prani is not sure about books without specific endings. Note though, we have lots of examples of stories with indeterminate endings, even in traditional books and films, and also from ‘being swept into an author’s world’ it does not follow that there has to be determined ending. Soap opera is the canonical example of stories that, by definition, don’t end. Dickens is the template. Both have perfectly viable ‘worlds’. But the idea that we’re swept into the author’s world, now that is concept that is going to need some work. If nothing else, one thing university needs to instill is that the relation there needs to be reversed.

Lucy likes that Douglas isn’t a believer that books will die. Though Douglas was writing before the rise of the tablet and ebook readers that actually worked, so I think this claim is a bit more at risk now. Also here as media scholars the material nature of our media becomes problematic. What is a ‘book’ now? And if wrote a novel, and it was only ever available in various ebook formats, is it still a book? Why? At what point would this novel like thing not be a book? And outside of literature, is the book relevant? Why?


Brittany, in what I take to be comments on the Douglas reading, gets the idea that if a work is multilinear then the idea of ‘the end’ becomes, well, problematic. (And I find this very hard to explain without a hypertext fiction that I might know you will have read.) So the end might be programmatically defined (the hypertext ends based on some procedural rules, which could be anything, since they’re procedural – think game play), it could be structural (after x things in a particular way, it ends, though if you start again and go different ways, you may find next time you can proceed through the earlier end, or not even see it, so now obviously there is more than one ending, which returns to the problem of what is ‘the end’ here), or it could be the reader, for whatever reason, has decided they’re read enough.


Samuel thinks the Douglas makes more sense than the Landow, and moves into the Barthes‘ famous essay on the Death of the Author. In a nutshell, it is the reader who makes a text, not the author, with the author subject to history, genre, language, the text (yes) and, the reader.