Hypertext Criticism: Writing about Hypertext

Susana Tosca and Jill Walker*
DIAC, IT University, Copenhagen, Denmark
Email: tosca@it-c.dk Web site: http://www.it-c.dk/people/tosca
*Department of Humanistic Informatics, University of Bergen, Norway
Email: jill.walker@uib.no Web site: http://huminf.uib.no/~jill/

In the decade or so since the publication of the first hypertext fiction (Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story), hypertext fiction and electronic literature has developed immensely. Electronic literature today is hypertextual and more, finding inspiration in visual arts, animation, games and cinema. There is a solid and growing literature of hypertext theory and of new media theory. Writers use links confidently, and electronic literature has become widespread on the Web. Writing has met other modes of expression that, previously, were usually separated from literature: visual art, concept art, performance and games are as important as literature in many contemporary hypertexts.

In many academic disciplines, there seems to be a gap between practice and theory, so that practicioners rarely talk to theorists or theorists to practitioners. This can result in two totally isolated fields where exchange becomes nearly impossible. The study of hypertext also suffers from this problem, though there are exceptions. Although hypertext authors and theorists are on friendly terms and talk to one another at conferences, the production of actual hypertextual works and the theory surrounding them seem to have gone their separate ways.

Discussion and criticism of specific works of art is vital to the health of any art form. Criticism of hypertext literature and new media art is in many ways less well developed than the works themselves, though the more general theoretical discussions around hypertext and new media in general are often nuanced and sophisticated. In part this may be because there are few established channels for critical discussion of specific works of hypertext. Mainstream media largely ignores electronic literature, or is dismissive of it. Those who are familiar with hypertext rarely discuss specific works, and when they do, it is often cursorily and without any evaluation or discussion of specific points in the work. In this special issue of JoDI we wish to contribute to this area by publishing criticism of specific works and discussions about the state of hypertext criticism.

Rather than present a traditional collection of long papers, we decided to attempt to rethink what an issue of an academic journal might be. We invited submissions consisting of one or more brief nodes which we would then link together to create a hypertextual journal issue: an interconnected discussion of a topic rather than disconnected articles. We also invited contributions from both scholars and artists, to assist in bridging the gap that can appear between these groups. This diversity characterises the collection of essays presented here; they are linked among themselves, but also to other works on the Web.

The main question this issue is collectively dealing with can be summarized: why is hypertext criticism important? As the diversity of the essays shows, this is a question that has no single answer:

All this leads to the more basic question of what hypertext criticism is. Can we deal with it with our old literary tools, or do we need a totally new approach derived from a deep understanding of the nature of the object we are dealing with?

The individual contributions explore different related themes. Breeze describes the existing bias towards works that are not completed and self-contained, which causes many critics and artists to ignore networked art. After describing a project she was involved in herself, she offers a criticism of Talan Memmott's Translucidity in this perspective.

Chatelain presents alternative review cultures from which hypertext reviewers, readers and authors might learn: that of fan fiction and that of science fiction. Both these genres have strong communities and vocal readers who tell authors what they think about the stories they've read.

Higgason contributes an essay consisting of eight interlinked nodes discussing the nature of criticism, the role of the critic and the dangerous fallacies surrounding the critic's work. He illustrates the difficulties of hypertext criticism with examples of two hypothetical critics running into typical problems like the non-fixity of texts or the unread lexia, and has recommendations on how to get around them.

Larsen's essay consists of seven nodes that consider the main problems for hypertext to earn a 'normality' status in relation to other media, discussing the technological requirements that set it apart from mainstream literature, the lack of a business model, and the necessity for hypertext to come out of the academic ghetto. She also stresses the importance of community building, and explains the function of writing groups and conferences in the development of readers and writers.

Marsh explores how criticism of hypertext and new media might differ from criticism of print literature. He considers the question of 'newness' with regard to both current practice in new media and its related criticism and theory. He also proposes three 'axes' of analysis along which a formal study of new media might proceed, suggesting that hypertext/media is at once formative, performative and reformative in design and function.

In his three nodes, Miles discusses the question of authorial intent, arguing that hypertext criticism must not only consider a work's literary merits but also consider how what may seem technical imperfections can be intended, crucial aspects of a work. He also explains the differences between these two ways of writing about a literary work, arguing that the two are often confused, and that there are few examples of applied critical writing about hypertext. Finally, he uses object relations psychology to explore the question of why hypertext critics seem reluctant to ask hard questions of hypertext literature.

Weight's essay, in four sections, deals with the problems of defining an ontology and phenomenology of digital literature, as we need to define the nature of this medium before we can think of having meaningful criticism.

Editing such a diverse issue posed several organizational challenges: the dozens of submissions each had to be peer-reviewed by several referees, and each submission consisted of several nodes that had to be reviewed separately. We are very grateful to our colleagues who put an exceptional amount of work into this reviewing and gave excellent feedback to each of the authors. After we had selected the contributions to appear in the issue, we produced an initial version of the hypertext, that we then sent back to the authors for a second round. The authors read the whole issue and suggested possible connections and crossovers between the nodes they had written and the others. The final version presented here is our rebuilding of the interconnected contributions.

As editors, for us this has been a very exciting project. We think this issue is innovative not only in content, but also in form, and we believe it brings something interesting to the world of electronic publication. We clearly underestimated the time and effort that such a double phase process requires, and we have certainly learnt a lot about this for the next time should we decide to publish in such a format again.

We hope that this issue can serve as a landmark in the way hypertext criticism is perceived by authors, theorists and the general public alike. The essays included succeed in relating hypertext criticism to a multitude of humanities practices (print, visual and digital), so that hypertext criticism is shown to be embedded in a rich context. In the light of these contributions to the field, the picture becomes clearer than it has ever been before.