Like any approach to art, hypertext fiction has its advantages and disadvantages. As an unconventional form of writing, it provides ways to tell nonlinear stories in a much easier way than physical writing can. And for writers looking to write unconventionally regardless of their platform, hypertext fiction has provided a way to simply lay things out in a much more organized manner. Author Shelley Jackson, writer of hypertext fiction piece “Patchwork Girl”, stated in a 1998 interview with Mark Amerika that “hypertext permits me to write the way I ordinarily would, in related fragments with no overarching design, but then to allow a structure to arise out of the inclinations of the material itself, instead of imposing a linear order onto it…” Jackson’s typical style of writing blended perfectly with what hypertext fiction had to offer for her, allowing her to create an iconic piece of writing. However, she is nowhere near a household name.
Although hypertext fiction is a fascinating form of art that allows for millions of stories to be made from just hundreds or thousands of sources, it failed to take off in the nineties, and it will never be able to take off no matter what attempts are made in present day or will be made in the future. There’s a few reasons for this, but the main reason is that hypertext fiction is a novelty. It was a fad of the nineties that showed off the newest technology, but the evolution of technology soon skyrocketed and left hypertext fiction in the dust. Furthermore, it was a fad that, although was made easier with technology, wasn’t impossible in writing. Physical examples of nonlinear writing are abundant. Whether the goal of a hypertext piece was attempting to emulate the feeling of looking back at memories in a nonlinear way, similar to Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, or create a branching path of stories and endings, like Robert Coover’s short story “The Babysitter”, or randomize the events to tell a completely different narrative, like Mark Saporta’s Composition No. 1, it has been done in physical writing.
However, perhaps the failure of hypertext fictions comes not from the folly of machine, but rather the folly of man. As Steven Johnson bluntly points out in his article “Why No One Clicked on the Great Hypertext Story” for Wired, “it turned out that nonlinear reading spaces had a problem: they were incredibly difficult to write.” Although hypertext fiction sounds great on paper as a mainstream form of art, the upkeep, dedication, and sheer amount of material required could never be reached to keep it in the limelight.
Hypertext fiction is a genre of electronic literature that I find to be quite interesting, and it seems to be a growing although niche genre of writing that is gaining attention on the web. I visited the website itch.io, which is a website for indie game developers to share their works with others. Within that site, there is a “twine” tag which leads to games that follow the basic frameworks of hypertext fiction. I do think hypertext fiction is present and actually quite popular, but not in the way that many may think.
“It’s not that hypertext went on to become less interesting than its literary advocates imagined in those early days. Rather, a whole different set of new forms arose in its place: blogs, social networks, crowd-edited encyclopedias.” – (Steven Johnson 2013)
Going off of that quote from Steven Johnson, I think there is another, more evolved form of hypertext fiction that is quite popular these days, and those are indie video games which are focused mainly on telling a narrative through the player moving an avatar to different locations. Think about it – instead of simply clicking on a link to read a snippet of text which reveals more about a story, you are interacting with a virtual environment to read that snippet of text, or hear the dialogue from a character. This is hypertext fiction that has been evolved to better engage the reader with a more visual and audible style. Despite this, hypertext fiction in its base form has a following as well. I found many games on the itch.io site that were based in twine and only used text hyperlinks to advance the story. I think that hypertext fiction is much more popular than we know it, mainly because it has evolved into graphic adventure video games in which the user can use an avatar to explore their own narrative path. Hypertext fiction can definitely do things that print cannot. It may be possible for a print story to take a reader on multiple narrative paths, but it would not be a user-friendly experience. Hypertext fiction allows the author to build a world that the user explores at their own pace and order, giving the user a special feeling of their own control, like they are exploring the world in the way in which they want to. With the popularity of user choice in media, I feel that hypertext fiction has a strong future in our world of literature.
During the 1990s I was a teenager in high school when I first learned about this mysterious new thing called hypertext fiction, but it appeared to be around for a while and then seemed to vanish overnight unless you were someone writing it or explicitly seeking it out. So, what happened to hypertext fiction? I had myself forgotten about this type of literature until I started the DTC program at WSU. I remember teachers in high school raving about hypertext, how it was hyped up as the next big thing. Hypertext is a medium that could change storytelling in the post-Gutenberg era, a way in which the invention of movable text gave rise to the novel. Hypertexts were available, first on diskette, then on CD-ROM, and eventually on the Web. And then, poof, nothing happened. I think that it was put out to fast and people weren’t ready for this type of thing although people raved about the technology.
Numerous reasons might exist as to why hypertext fiction has not taken off in literary communities which might include strict design problems, complications with copyright laws, and problems with stocking e-books. For me, I am a bit old fashioned as I like to feel and turn each page of a book when I am engrossed in a novel, the aesthetics are what I enjoy about reading. With hypertext fiction, I have yet to embrace the new digital media in a way that has enough added value for me to enjoy it which is a reason I chose to take this class. I hope at the end of the semester I will have gained a new interest in hypertext fiction.
One of the many beauties behind hypertext and works of electronic literature is that sense of unending possibilities. The nodes and paths of a hypertext, or of the internet as a whole, somewhat mimic that of neurons and the human brain. Connections that may at times seem random, constantly changing and created different paths. There are potentially endless different possibilities to read a single work of hypertext and everything depends on the individual sitting in front of the computer at that given moment. It’s based on the choices they make at the time. Then, if they decided to go through the hypertext again, there is also no guarantee that they would read it the exact same way the second time around, or the third or fourth. As Robert Coover states,
And what of narrative flow? There is still movement, but in hyperspace’s dimensionless infinity, it is more like endless expansion.
Hypertext, though digital and somewhat erratic due to its multi-/non-linearity, is still literature or at the very least has the potential to be considered literature. It all has to do with the content included within the work rather than dependent on being in a print medium.
With the birth of hypertext came the chance to expand one’s thinking beyond the boundaries of linearity. Certainly storytelling did not and has not always been solely confined to a strict linear “beginning-middle-end,” but it provided more artistic opportunity to think even beyond the confinement of telling a story in a single way. It created the chance for the readers to choose where the story would go, and develop or discover their own ways through the work, individualizing the experience for each and every person in a way that a physical print book would be unable to achieve. It creates a new way to examine and think about works, literary or otherwise, and how various parts connect to one another. The opportunities are endless, only limited by the imagination of creator and reader.
Hypertext is currently rising in popularity. Twine is one of the contributors to its recent comeback, as its intuitiveness and free access has made it a convenient and useful tool for people to tell stories. As Rettberg pointed out,
“Twine has a user-friendly browser based authoring environment…The platform is also open source.” (Rettberg 2019).
It seems most popular among the younger generation. My sister is currently teaching high school English students, but when she asked them if they were familiar with hypertext all she received were blank stares. So she and I created a Twine tutorial introducing the concept, and it was met with great excitement. Since then, several students have approached her and enthusiastically shared their current projects.
While it’s evident that hypertext is a popular concept among this generation, I have my doubts that it will thrive as a literary form (Afternoon: A Story might still be known by this generation if it were.)Instead, I think it will become more prevalent in non-textual forms, placing a heavier focus on visuals and sound. This form of hyper(text) is emerging as a new way to present storytelling even now, with the introduction of multilinearity in games such as Life is Strange, or in shows like Black Mirror. Just as books were more-or-less replaced by cinematic films, I think hypertext will likely be overtaken by interactive, multilinear digital media.
However, hypertext is powerful in that it can express things about our world that print cannot, one of these being that the world is open for us to explore. (Most of us) are not locked in a single space, which print tends to enforce upon the reader. Rather, we are free (within reasonable constraints) to explore the world as we please, which hypertext demonstrates by linking to other lexias—or “spaces”—for us to roam. Another aspect that print cannot express is that our world is multilinear. We’re offered many pathways and shown different outcomes, as well as more than one person’s point of view or story. Print has a harder time portraying this sense of multilinearity (the closest that comes to mind is Coover’s The Babysitter), yet hypertext does this with ease by presenting various pathways leading to fragmented text, each containing a different aspect of the story. Lastly, our world requires us to participate in some way. Similarly to clicking links in a hypertext, we must make choices and follow through with our actions. Whereas print is a passive experience that only asks one to read (or simply listen to) the narrative being told. In hypertext, the reader is no longer in a familiar, comfortable environment, but is instead present and at the ready (Interview with Shelly Jackson par. 18). At no point in a print story will the reader have to make decisions that alter the course of the narrative (“Choose Your Own Adventure Books” are the exception) like a hypertext would because it does not offer the reader any freedom to do so.
The Babysitter was certainly an interesting read. Coover does, perhaps too well a job at taking the narrative for such a spin, writing events so fluidly between reality and what might have happened. I would say Coover’s work is absolutely a great example of hypertext fiction. I can’t say by the end that I had figured out EXACTLY what was going on, with who, but the way he set it up became clearer as I read on. I definitely had to take a break once in a while, resume with a clear mind and it helped sort out all the characters involved, and who was doing (or thinking, or watching) what.
For my third read through though, I decided to try and read each character’s parts as a whole, skipping other characters’ paragraphs in hopes of getting the whole picture. While that aided my understanding, my discomfort at reading some parts (ie, Jack and Mark’s “plan”) was abated by my confusion as to who it was happening to, exactly. There were a couple of parts (that, in retrospect, I think are flashbacks?) That made me think there was more than one babysitter and that really confused me. The format is something I am familiar with, writing different characters paragraph to paragraph. The narrative content itself, however, I struggled to grasp.
It IS a great model to use, however, because it sparks a level of creativity and thinking outside the box that I see even with contemporary authors today.
Robert Coover’s story, The Babysitter is a perfect model for post modern hypertext fiction, because it does not follow linear narrative. I can certainly see how Coover’s style influenced writers in this genre. I can see his use of branching path influencing writers such as, Mez Breeze. In her video game All the Delicate Duplicates, she uses objects to tell part of the narrative; by touching some of these objects, the players can travel to a different timeline. I most admit, I have not read many stories in this genre, the concept of none linear story telling where all possibilities are true is new to me.
As I read the Babysitter, it felt like I was jumping from one universe to another with each passage. The readers are the all-seeing eye looking at each possible time line/ multiverse. The first few paragraphs had a kind of Pulp Fiction vibe. I must admit the story was hard to follow, because of the multiple path. I was confused by the multiple path, especially the pin ball and girdle branching parts of the story. I could not figure out the point of the objects. If I wasn’t aware of hypertext fiction or electronic literature, I probably would have given up on reading the story; the story is not accessible to the average reader. I feel that this kind of story telling is excellent for role play games. It’s common for video games to have branching path where all the possibilities are true.
Robert Coover’s short story “The Babysitter” is a fragmented set of stories about the same set of characters that plays out in pieces where each story line and outcome, as there are several, are equally as likely to have happened. The story is meant to be read from page one to the end, and it follows a set timeline of a few hours over the course of one evening, but the text is broken up into chunks and separated with characters that signify a break in the story line. Perspectives shift, character focus shifts, but the timeline of 7:40 to 10:00 pm remains constant. The reader progresses through the evening, visiting each of the main characters in several different “alternate realities.” The reader does not know which narrative is the “actual” and which are “alternates,” or perhaps none are real and all are just possibilities.
“The Babysitter” was published in 1969, and while it wasn’t the first work intended to be read in a multi-linear manner, it had a heavy influence on writers who came later, especially those creating hypertext stories that explored the same story from multiple points of view. The structure of “The Babysitter” is like a branching tree, each possibility stemming from the same set of events. This type of branching text creates a very meta experience for the reader, who is aware of how the stories keep changing, and how this one piece of writing is really multiple pieces. Rettberg calls this type of text “reflexive” and ties it to works that came later that also explore fragmentation as a structure that helps to guide, or disrupt, the reader’s experience.
As explained in Scott Rettberg’s, “Electronic Literature”, hypertext literature, being the predecessor to electronic literature, developed in turn from interest in both literary experimentation and cultural shifts toward computing. Hypertext fiction are stories written in fragments of text that interconnect, and can be navigated by the reader through a series of links and or, “choices” that guide the story.
Robert Coover’s, ‘The Babysitter”, is a puzzling and dissociated work of fiction detailing the events of a few hours. A young girl is hired to babysit Bitsy and Jimmy Tucker, while Mr. and Mrs. Tucker go to a party. The seemingly mundane tale of a night of babysitting, is wrought with twists and turns brought upon by varying character viewpoints, and even “imagined” events. Each paragraph of the work, is broken up in time, character perspective, and actual and imagined events, to weave a fragmented tale. This piece not only contains haunting details such as rape and murder, but discusses them in a seemingly simple and matter of fact matter. One paragraph will explain a rape scene in gory detail, while the next explains a mundane task such as answering the phone. I believe that the writing style of, “The Babysitter”, pairs well with the haunting and mysterious nature of the story. The change in perspective perfectly highlights lust and fear, while the changing, and sometimes even imagined plot points, leave the reader stumbling through the story, much like the characters did. This work is certainly a model for later works of Hypertext, and perfectly models the pairing of plot and writing style.
Hypertext fiction is a genre which celebrates non-linear story telling, and narratives that embrace being told in randomized orders each time a user clicks on them. Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter” is an excellent example of this form based upon the criteria of segmented, and distorted, storytelling.
“The Babysitter” is a collection of over 100 fragments that focus on the male fantasy looping, and seemingly folding upon itself, as the babysitter interacts with young children while their parents attend a party nearby. Between 7:40 and 10:00pm the narrative cleverly avoids labeling one section of events as exactly what happened or which interpretation of the fragments is “correct”. Each segment adds to the complexity of the story and tangles the overarching narrative further by layering fantasy on fantasy giving shockingly detailed glimpses of the character’s thoughts.
Despite the victories within the genre this work achieves, the content of the story is hard to get through without feeling disgusted at the characters, and the blatantly sexual plot which verges into pornographic.
The extreme closeness of which the male fantasies are presented along side the more reality based segments makes it hard to distinguish not only order, but coherence on the whole. This story does not spread its branches far- or in a manner which makes one version of events more distinctively accurate. It is hard to even grasp the basic underlying narrative through alienating sexualization of the babysitter constantly repeating itself or the repetition of the television entering the space.
While one should appreciate the structure and genre refining tenants this work created, the content within can be hard to talk about because of the cultural differences between original publication and current views on exercising sexuality or sexual fantasy.
While Robert Coover’s work titled “The Babysitter” is by no means a work of hypertext fiction in a literal sense, it certainly holds many of the same characteristics that a hypertext work contains. The story begins at 7:40 in the evening and gradually progresses through the evening until 10 and in this sense, it follows a linear path. Additionally, the setting and characters of the story are all described early on.
Yet, as the story progresses, there are a plethora of different scenarios that are described throughout the course of the story. The story appears to shift from the perspectives of many of the characters. One paragraph will describe the thoughts and perspectives of the babysitter, while the next may describe the perspective of Jack, her boyfriend or even Harry (Mr. Tucker). While the constant shift in perspective may create a sense of confusion for the reader, it also provides more freedom for the reader. The reader isn’t bound to the parameters that the author of a linear story provides, rather they have more freedom to experience the story in a way in which they see fit.
Hypertext fiction works in a strikingly similar fashion. Readers can click on a selection of links that will take the story in a particular direction based on their selection. This empowers the reader to take the story in a direction that they see fit and can provide a cause for discussion surrounding the different story’s that readers can create.
Rettburg briefly mentions Twine’s influence on multi-linearity and hypertext. Twine is an excellent example of how a reader can choose the path of the story. In Twine, a reader is encouraged to click on a link to progress them through the story, and they are often presented with multiple links in order to choose the direction of the story. Twine is a platform that has allowed for a vast amount of storytellers to explore multi-linearity and hypertext in a user-friendly fashion. As Rettburg states:
“More prevalent uses of multi-linearity in hypertext include the representation of cognitive associations between nodes and shifts in point of view on the same events.” (Rettburg 59).
While the content of The Babysitter was pretty dark and was somewhat confusing at first due to its fragmented nature, I found myself enjoying the process of reading it. Personally, fragmented and non-linear pieces of literature are my favorite to experience. What I like most about stories like The Babysitter and other fragmented stories is that they almost force you to be more imaginative because your brain has to really work at sorting out what is happening in the narrative. Another thing that I like about fragmented and hypertext stories is that each time you read the story or segments of the story, you are experiencing it in a new way and gain more of an understanding of the narrative.
As Will suggested, I took my time while reading The Babysitter. I think that the structure of the story almost forces the reader to read it slowly and methodically in order to interpret what is happening. While the events are presented in a chronological way, the narrative is still convoluted in a sense given that there is no clear differentiation between what is fantasy and what is reality.
“The relation between the external world and the interior world of imagination has been abolished on the page.” (Ruttberg 58)
This makes it hard for the reader to know what is really going on, but I think that this was Coover’s point. He was trying to push the boundaries and reconsider the way that stories can be told. Coover was definitely a pioneer when it comes to hypertext fiction and
other forms of fragmented electronic literature. I am excited by this type of literature and look forward to experiencing more works like this.