Electronic Books: Hypertext and Hyperfiction Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Electronic "Books": Hypertext and Hyperfiction

With the development of CD-Rom technology and the transfer of such reference works as encyclopedias and dictionaries to compact disc, much recent debate among publishers and software producers has centered on the future of books as bound volumes of text printed on paper and their possible eclipse by CD-Rom and other electronic formats. Contending that books are outdated and cumbersome, proponents of CD-Rom stress that the physical space to information ratio is much higher for CD-Roms and that CD-Roms offer sound, moving pictures, and instantaneous cross-referencing capabilities unmatched by books. Proponents of books, however, note that the traditional book is much more durable and easy to transport than CD-Roms, which require a computer; that many of the searching capabilities available with electronic texts are not very useful; and that sales of CD-Roms, despite their hype, have rarely met expectations. Defenders of the traditional book see few advantages to reading literature on a computer screen versus paper.

A small but growing number of writers are developing a new genre of fictional works—known as hyperfictions—that exploit the hypertextual capabilities of computers and can only be read in an electronic format. Hypertext, briefly defined, is a system of electronically linked blocks of text that are not designed to be read in any particular sequential order. For instance, Stuart Moulthrop's hyperfictive novel about the Gulf War, Victory Garden (1993), features nearly one thousand blocks of text with approximately two thousand eight hundred different links between them. The reader of hyperfiction decides in what order the text will be read by selecting from a set of options attached to each block of text. Critics of hyperfiction note that the new genre challenges the traditional view of reading as a linear process, promotes multiple readings of works, and encourages associative thinking. In addition to creating new works, some scholars have identified ways in which hypertext can be used in the reading and study of traditional works of literature. For instance, hypertext might aid a student reading John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) by providing quick and easily accessible explanations of allusions and references in the text. Commenting on the impact of hypertext capabilities on canonized works, Jay David Bolter has stated: "Rather than eliminating works of the past or making them irrelevant, the electronic writing space gives them a new 'typography.' For hypertext is the typography of the electronic medium."